Three Kings?

Epiphany Sunday 2018; ICCM
Pastor Rebecca Ellenson; Three Kings?; Matthew 2: 1-12

Many of us have the story of the Three Wise Men all mixed up into the Christmas story, thanks to the inclusion of the three wise men in manger scenes and Christmas programs and children’s stories for the most part. Because of that synchronization of the gospels we often think of the them arriving right on the heels of the Shepherds that first Christmas Day.  

In fact, we don’t know much about the wise men. They are often the subject of humor though, like the one about the little boy who was helping a Sunday School teacher set up the Nativity Set and asked, “And where shall I put the three wise guys?”

Or perhaps you’ve heard about what would have happened if the three wise men had been three wise women instead. They would have asked for directions earlier instead of following a star, so they would have arrived on time. They would have been there to help with the birth. They would have cleaned the stable and prepared a meal. And they certainly would have brought more sensible gifts! Right?

All we know for sure about the wise men was that they came from the East, following the rising of a star and looking for a newborn King. Matthew doesn’t even tell us how many there were. They didn’t go directly to Bethlehem, though. They went to Jerusalem–the place of local power, where King Herod took them seriously, calling them into his presence so he could learn everything they knew. After their audience with Herod the wise men continued to seek the baby until they were overwhelmed with joy at finding Jesus and Mary at home, in a house. They gave their gifts–gold a gift for kings, frankincense an incense used by priests in Temple worship, and myrrh a healing and embalming salve. Each of those strongly symbolic gifts foreshadow somethings about the rest of the story of Jesus—that he would be a king sorts, a religious leader, a healer, and a man who would die.

Biblical scholars believe that the wise men were not Jews. They were probably from the Median tribe of ancient Persia–an area that is now part of central Iran. Our best guess is that they were priests of a religion that worshipped a god called Zoroaster. The religion started about 500 years or so before Christ. As priests, or magi as they would have been called, they would have been responsible for offering sacrifices, making prophecies, and reading the stars. They were astrologers. There are historical records of a star from the time of Jesus’ birth that rose in the daytime with the sun. It was called the Mesori star, which by the way, means the Birth of a Prince. That is about all we know about the wise men and their visit to Jesus.

So, we’re left with questions: Why did Matthew include them in his gospel? What does it mean that these strangers to Israel would recognize Jesus while no one else did? Why in the world is the glory and wonder of Christmas clouded over by the presence of these astrologers, these people who deal in magic?

Each of the gospels tells Jesus’ story differently. It’s only in Matthew’s gospel that the wise men appear. And only here do we have King Herod’s concern and suspicion, shown in his false words about wanting to worship the newborn king. The star of David shines over Bethlehem, leading the magi to Mary and the baby in a house. Then a dream warns the same magi, prompting their quick retreat by another road.

Matthew doesn’t mention shepherds or angels or Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem on a donkey nor inn and the manger. It’s only Luke’s gospel that those other parts of what we think of as the Christmas story. There is very little overlapping information in Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of the Christmas story. Mark and John don’t even mention Jesus birth. The four gospels are quite distinct from one other.

Matthew’s gospel not only shows us these magi characters moving about, we also have this business with Herod to deal with. The king said “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” Those words reek of falseness and his secret scheming to get his hands on the child. In the very next section of Matthew’s gospel, a section often called the massacre of the holy innocents, we read that when Herod found out he had been tricked by the magi he was furious and gave orders for all the children in and around Bethlehem under the years of age of two to be killed. Clearly, Matthew doesn’t give us the happy, glorious, wondrous Christmas gospel we are used to.

Unfortunately, there’s a ring of truth to Matthew’s version, isn’t there? No matter what we may wish, our world is full of deceit and untrustworthy leaders. Matthew pushes us right back into the real world, showing us that Jesus came not just into a peaceful stable in Bethlehem, complete with singing choirs of angels and adoring shepherds. No, Jesus also was born into a world of manipulations and darkness, a world filled with scheming political figures and distant travelers from other faiths.

It is good news that the baby we celebrate as the Messiah cannot be imprisoned in the sheltering confines of romanticized scenes or memories. For Christmas speaks to the harsh realities of life, too. We miss part of meaning of Jesus’ birth if we isolate it from the real and the ugly. Matthew’s gospel reminds us that the effects of Jesus’ birth reach beyond our happy celebrations. The wise men were astrologers from the East who reminded the Jews from that time that Jesus could not be possessed by the Jews alone. The plotting of Herod reminds us that the powers of the government cannot contain the love of God. Herod was not able to stop the message of God’s grace from getting through. Yes, eventually Jesus was put to death. But not even the governmental power to execute a person was enough to stop the love and power of God. That message rings true today, when world leaders argue like schoolboys about whose nuclear button is bigger. It is for all times that Jesus comes, for times like these too.

Today’s gospel is a strong reminder to us that God’s gift of grace is to all creation, that God is in control, that God’s grace enters the world of shady dealing hucksters and powerful political manipulation with an even stronger power. Today’s gospel brings Christmas out of the manger scene and into the real world where, like it or not, we live.

Jesus said, “My Kingdom is not of this world.” He was right about that for what he brought was a kingdom of love. Love is of God and God is love. Again, he said: “As the father has loved me, so I have loved you, abide in my love.” This probably is neither what every prophet expected nor what many first century people who were experiencing oppression hoped for. Herod feared a political rival, the people of Israel looked for a new King David—a warrior to avenge the Romans. Instead, they got the King of Love. And God in Christ turned out to be a game changer—initiating a whole new dynamic of forgiveness and renewal and justice and righteousness.

Here it is succinctly: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you: abide in my love.” And again, “love one another, even as I have loved you.” This is the love that is foretold again this season. This is the love of which William Craft wrote in a verse from his “Carol of the Word:”

In this cold and angry season/ This winter of our Sin,
From the rude, unlovely manger/ Love calls to us again
Speaking justice over empire/ Lifting hatred’s mortal curse.
Making whole our broken spirits /With news of peace on earth
So with stabled beasts and angels /With stars and moon and sun,
We declare Love’s new creation /God’s life in us begun.

And so may it be this Epiphany season.