A Moth at the Manger
A sermon based on: Matthew 2:1-12 (THE MESSAGE)
Given at Mount Vernon, Ohio, January 8, 2023*
by Rev. Scott Elliott
If you just had a bit of a sense of Deja-vu, it may because last week we also heard the lesson that Robin just read. Only we heard the NRSV translation then, and today I asked her to read the lesson from Eugene Peterson’s The Message a paraphrase of the Bible. Last week we took a look at the story from a Christmas angle, since it was the Eighth Day of Christmas. Today we are going to look at it from more of an Epiphany angle this the first Sunday in Epiphany.
The story of the Magi crosses into our ideas of both Christmas and Epiphany. It doesn’t have to be confusing, but it can be. I read about a young boy who was asked what he learned in Sunday school about the Wise Men. His version of today’s lesson went something like this: “On the first Christmas, there was no Santa. So, three men had to deliver toys to baby Christ on camels. Since, they didn’t have Rudolph’s red nose to guide them, they used a spotlight in the sky to guide them around.”
Because the Magi could have been both men and women, last week I referred to them as “Wise Ones.” I’m going to mostly do that today too. Some think the story is a record of an historic happening. Others think of it as a story meant to be understood as metaphor. Either way is okay to believe. Whether we think of the verses about the Wise Ones as history recorded or a story of parable and metaphor, we can still all end up at the same point, by focusing on what the story means. If the verses have no meaning they have no point, so one way or another we have got to make sense of them. Or at least try, right?
The little child in the sermon illustration made meaning out of the story overlaying it with what he knew about Christmas. That’s what makes it cute and funny, he mixes Christmas stories up so they make sense to him in light of one another. Actually, I find it interesting that his version, while it was posted on an Internet Christmas humor page, actually comes close to how Epiphany is celebrated in other parts of the world. In other cultures, Three Wise Men are traditionally said to deliver toys to children on camels, much like Santa from his sleigh does in our culture. 1 That’s kinda cool. The meaning of the modern gift bearing Wise Men and St. Nick stories are both meant to bring what we tend to call the Spirit of Christmas – or Love– to little ones. Isn’t that what Santa does in our culture’s Christmas legend?
There are other ways to understand the meaning of the Story of the Wise Ones from today’s reading besides as a Santa-like tradition in another culture. Although it’s not in the Bible, as far back as the 8th century church leaders embellished the story of the Wise Ones adding details that are not there in text. While the Bible account only says there were gift bearing Magi from the east, the stories passed down in our culture have set the number at three and made the Magi kings, male royalty.
Some stories have even given them names and physical descriptions. For more than twelve hundred years the most prevalent embellishment has indicated that one of the Magi was called Melchior and was old with white hair and a beard. Another of the Magi was Gaspar and in the story he is young, beardless and ruddy. Another is Balthasar, a black man with a full beard. These are the legendary three kings of the Orient who bear gifts for Jesus over moor and mountain in our song about the Magi.
The story of the Magi, the Wise Ones, is about Gentiles honoring Jesus by trudging from afar bearing royal gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to give to God’s choice for King of the Jews, not Herod but baby Jesus. While these learned folk from the east “get” who is meant to be the real King of the Jews and honor him, Herod the pretender king of the Jews behaves badly and goes berserk doing evil things in an effort to kill God’s chosen One. Herod even hears from his learned men that the scriptures point to this babe as God’s chosen one, but such knowledge only prompts him to commit atrocious violence on innocent children and their families.
The Magi, you see, are able to find the Light of the world by taking the time to discern nature’s signs, while Herod ignores the scriptural signs that are right in his face. Rome’s chosen king wishes to destroy God’s chosen king while those outside of Rome’s grasp to whom homage is owed, and to whom the honor of King of Jews really belongs. Put another way, the story can be heard to mean that those who follow the way of darkness refuse to follow the Light, even try to snuff it out when they are told where it is. They choose to turn from light and create and follow darkness. But those who follow the way of the Light, end up at the Light. They have an epiphany of light, but also of the need to follow it and honor it and keep it shining for others.
In this way of hearing the story they are our role models. We are supposed to be like the Magi, the Wise Ones. We too are to be seekers of Christ, the Light of the world. Those are some pretty powerful messages and meanings and we can hear them and appreciate them whether we think the story is intended to be historically accurate or think it is parable and metaphor. One way or another the Truth of that way of hearing the story is that evil leads away from light which is God. Evil leads to darkness. Good, God leads to light. For Christians that Light naturally leads to Christ– God incarnate on earth. The Word made flesh in a Jewish person of color two thousand years ago.
The Magi of course were not Jewish like Jesus, or Christians like most of us. The Magi were probably Babylonian; and the word “Magi” comes from the Greek word “magos” which refers to priests of a Near East religion called Zoroastrianism. Magi were known to study the stars and have an expertise in astrology, which at the time was thought to be a highly regarded science.
Although we are not Magi, most of us do have this in common with them: we are Gentiles as they were. All non-Jewish people are Gentiles and by definition have a different religion than Jesus and Mary and Joseph and all of the disciples and even Paul. Gentiles came to Christ from afar way back in today’s lesson and we still do. Most of us in this room actually came to Jesus at some point in our lives thousands of miles and years from ancient Bethlehem, and most of us are from Gentile backgrounds. A lot of us even arrive at our initial viewing of Christ after a long travel through life, hills and valleys, deserts and oases, good times and bad times. So, we can also hear this story of the Wise Ones not just as a model for how folks should come before Jesus, but actually we can also hear it as giving meaning to our very own stories which led us to Christ.
What I am suggesting is a little different than how the story is usually held up. Instead of hearing it as just a lesson on how we to pay homage it can also be heard as representing how we all got here, at church with our own epiphanies of the Light. By the time we were born Christianity had been around a long time, and like today’s story Christ could be (and can be!) found in a house, a house of worship, what we call a church building.
And by Christ I mean simply, in admittedly all of its complexities, God incarnate in the world, and in particular humans– Christ understood and experienced as the immanence of the Divine in creation at any given moment of our life. That is what I mean by Christ. I know that a lot of us tend to hear the word “Christ” as being Jesus and that is okay, I just want to suggest for this metaphor that we can also hear it as meaning our experiences of God in our lives. Christ as God here and now, incarnate in us and around us.
God embodied in creation– Christ– for all of our lives has typically been found in our houses of worship. God actually soaks all of creation through-and-through and so God is (as Paul taught) what we live and move and have our being in. Many of us have found we can especially experience God in a house of worship amongst humans in loving community. Which is why most of us come here. Christ in church has, if you will, been tended to and looked over like Mary by the mother Church with a capital “C.” We all come following the Light and bearing gifts to Christ. In fact, there are a variety of gifts we bear. Which we discussed in detail last week. The gifts we each bring to Christ as followers of the Light can vary over time. Some of us can bring resources, some of us a talent and time to donate. Our gifts are as varied as we are. There are also different ways that we experience Christ. But initially we are conscious of Christ in an infant state we know only a little about Christ when we first begin to pay homage. So, we can imagine an infant Christ at the house of worship being watched over by Church as a careful parent awaiting our arrival— that time when we feel called to come to Christ’s house, a community like this; when we first wander in of our own accord and find Christ and gladly pay homage.
See, at some point or another all of us Christians have observed a Light that has beckoned us in the darkness of our life to move toward that light. And we have an epiphany to follow the Light and give homage to God incarnate in the world– and to come bearing our gifts. Some of us come to Christ as adolescents, some later in life, some even at the end of life. One way or another we are all of us drawn by the Light and we get there.
A while back someone on Facebook asked what animal in the manger do you see yourself as? Folks wrote things like sheep and cows and doves and such. My answer is a moth. The reason? Can you guess? I feel drawn toward the Light. Sounds hokey but actually that is what the story of the Wise Ones is about. Not a moth, but humans being drawn to the Light. I’m pretty sure that there won’t be a new Christmas TV special or Carol about the Christmas Moth at the manger, but the image is a nice summary of this way of hearing the story of the Wise Ones. When we first encounter Christ we emerge from our cocoons and find ourselves with wings ready to fly toward the Light bringing with us all the gifts we have to bear for Christ. We start with the infant Christ but keep following the Light– and following the light– and eventually most of us experience a more mature Christ who teaches and leads us all the way to the Cross and to Easter and to Love through all things.
The Bible story we heard today is our story. May we, all of us, continue to follow the light and experience Christ more and more; and continue to bring what gifts we have and lay them before God incarnate in the world: CHRIST! May we be Wise Ones who honor and celebrate Christ all our life long always moving toward the Light. AMEN
* based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2010
1. Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 1, p. 215 (2009), from the “Homiletical” note by Barbara Brown Taylor.