Stop Opening Presents and Listen
A sermon based on Matthew 2:1-12 *
given at Mount Vernon, OH on January 5, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
I have early memories of the Magi. No, I did not see the original ones. I am talking about some other almost-as-sacred-to-me Magi. When I was growing up our nearest relative was our great aunt “Tante” who lived in my hometown of San Jose.
There are four children in my family and we took turns on adventures with Tante. On a few Christmases it was my turn to go with Tante to the big and mysterious city north of us formally called “San Francisco,” but known to us locals as “The City” (and never, ever, referred by us as “Frisco,” a name that for some reason is akin to swearing in the Bay Area).
Tante would take me to “The City” on the train and we would travel all over town from Fishermen’s Warf to Giradelli Square to the cable cars and wonderful shops. But the end point, the focal point, the primary point was to get to Macy’s.
The City’s downtown Macy’s, by the standards of the day, was the Taj Mahal of all stores. And at Christmas it was probably as close to heaven as a small boy could ever hope to get on earth. There was so much going on. Santa and lights and chocolates and toys and toys and toys and the granddaddy of all holiday treats a huge multi-storied Christmas tree gussied up like a glittering jewelry box with a huge glowing star on top. It was a tree that you could see from anywhere on their giant escalator.
These were grand sights and usually most everyone else’s quest at Macy’s (along with merchandise, I suppose). Tante and I, however, had two other no less important, objectives. One was for me to get to ride on that humongous escalator passing story after story of Christmas goodies and that tree while going up and then while going down and back up and down again and again. (It was better than a roller coaster. I loved that escalator).
San Jose is a big place now, but, back in the day it had no escalators that I know of, so it was a real treat to ride the one at Macy’s– especially with Tante who’s mere presence kept at bay any employees hoping to stop my joy riding those endlessly moving glimmering clickity-clacking hypnotic re-folding stairs.
The second unusual quest was less fun, but much more sacred and perhaps even more interesting and rewarding. Tante, you see, was an artist. Her art was Christmas crafts. From ornaments to elves to snowmen and gingerbread houses Tante was a blessed craftswoman the likes of which I have never seen since. Tante was good at every holiday craft she did, but she had a specialty niche. She excelled at making two foot-tall Christmas Magi. She was in fact the Michelangelo of such Magi.
Tante entered window display contests at Macy’s and naturally won. So when we arrived at Macy’s the first thing we did was go to all the display windows until we found her knee high Magi carefully displayed in a diorama depicting them on their journey to find Jesus – right there in Macy’s window for all of The City to see!
Once we found the Magi we’d stare and admire them and listen to passersby “Ooo” and “Aw” at her art. We’d talk about how great they looked in the window. I was so proud of Tante, I told more than one gawker who the artist was– my Tante, right here before them.
After we had our first visit with the Magi then we’d go into Macy’s and explore and ride (and ride!) the escalator; then on the way out we’d go and look at those beautiful wise men one more time to say good-bye.
My family was not much of a church going family. I doubt I ever made it to a Christmas Eve or Christmas Day service as a kid, yet, the Magi have long held a very special place in my heart because Tante and I had marvelous journies to see them.That fondness makes me fond of this day because tomorrow is Epiphany, a day Christians have long celebrated the revelation of the incarnation of God in humanity, and more specifically it is the day we celebrate the Magi’s successful quest to locate the child who had been born the “King of the Jews,” the child who would one day be known as Jesus the Christ, the very incarnation of God on earth.
Today is not only Epiphany Eve but also the Twelfth Day of Christmas and this story of the Magi has long been a part of our Christmas celebration. We sort of mix all our Christmas stories up in our head and Luke’s story melds with Matthew’s. Sometimes we even picture secular songs in the story too. There is, though, no known Bible story of a drummer boy or animals talking with Jesus at Christmas. And despite my wife’s annual singing of them there is no truth to the secular lyrics “We Three Kings of Orient Are, Tried to Smoke a Rubber Cigar.”But even from the words in the Bible it is hard to tell exactly what is going on in the story we heard today with the Magi.
For example, we cannot really tell when the Magi in today’s story arrive to see Jesus. They do not arrive at an inn or a stable, and there is no manger – the story indicates they arrived at a “house.” And Joseph is not there, only Mary and Jesus. Even though we do not know what day the Magi arrived, in modern tradition we celebrate their story as a part of Christmas.
Our tradition has three Magi, all of them kings and all of them men, wise men. There are traditionally three because of the three gifts and they are kings because of a prophetic verse in Isaiah (60:1-3). But the number and gender and rank of the Magi are not actually stated in the story. Indeed the Magi may have been a reference to been more than three and both men and women– and the Magi were not kings but rather wise non-Jewish religious and spiritual leaders. 1
The word Magi comes from the Greek word “magos” referring to the priests of a Near East religion called Zoroastrianism. (Zoro-asstree-in-ism)The Magi were known to study the stars and have an expertise in astrology, highly regarded science at the time. They were also considered wise in Spiritual matters so “Wise Ones,” is a good translation that connotes the meaning that the word “Magi” would probably have had to Matthew’s community. 2
These Wise Ones come from afar, so they can be understood to symbolize the discovery of Jesus by the world outside of Israel. And we can hear how God guides them first with that wonderful star, with enlightenment through exposure to scripture and then through a profound spiritual visit in their dreams.
We learn that the Magi are only able to get so far in their efforts through science and nature. They have to ask for directions in Jerusalem. And it is supposed to be funny and ironic that these Gentiles get the scripture and it’s meaning, as opposed to Herod’s religious elites who see the Word and understand it, but do not act on it. The Magi act on it. And they are led to where? Christ. God nudges them through nature, science, wisdom, and the law, but it is the willingness of the Magi to act on what God’s calling them to that makes all the difference in the end.
And let’s talk about that star. First of all, Matthew is brilliantly connecting the pagan Magi motif of star study and science with Jewish and Roman traditions relating to stars.In the book of Numbers another Magi, the sorcerer Balaam prophesied that “A star shall come forth out of Jacob. . .” and Jewish tradition at the time of Matthew had it that this was to be a sign of the Messiah. And the historian Josephus reported that a comet could be seen in the skies above Jerusalem for a year at the time of the temple’s fall around 70 A.D. Although this was long after Jesus walked the earth, Matthew was written not long after that fall and the comet.
Moreover, the legend of the city state of Rome involved a star that Aneas followed to the place where Rome was founded. So stories of stars heralding events or being a part of events or leading to special places were not strange to Matthew’s community and they helped connect the foreign Magi to their own cultural experiences of star stories. Matthew’s star story validated Jesus under known star legends. Jesus was heralded like great things of the day: by a star!
Every year at Christmas we hear or read some explanation of celestial happenings that could account for the star. It’s usually supposed to be this comet or that comet or a clustering of planets or other natural occurrences in the sky. But no star in the known universe has ever behaved like it. The star rises in the east like most things in the sky with the rotations of the earth, but that’s about the only natural thing about it. It leads the Magi to a particular geographic locale, Jerusalem; and then hovers waiting for them to pick up directions from scripture.
Have you ever tried to follow a star to a particular location? It cannot be done. Stars do not hover in the sky over things, pointing down to houses, or even towns. And this star does not just hover over locales it turns south and leads the Magi a few miles away from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and then right to a very particular spot– the house where Jesus is. Stars in nature can give a compass direction (like North) but they did not and do not lead and point down to places. So this is no ordinary star that can be explained by comets or other known celestial occurrences. It’s a Light, God’s Light that enlightens the Wise Ones in the world– and always has.
Jesus’ birth is about the coming of a Light that draws the wise to its radiance. 2. Matthew’s point is that “Jesus is the light of the nations.” 3 Matthew is making the same point that the Gospel of John does: “Jesus is the light of the world.”
In the Christmas stories as soon as Joseph and Mary have the Light of Christ in their lives, God speaks to them in dreams, and they both act as God calls them to in their dreams. The same thing happens to the Magi. Once they reach the Light of Christ, then God speaks to them in a dream, then they too do what God requests.
As we heard the past few weeks Joseph and Mary and the Magi are all called to acts for the Empire of God over and against the Empire of Rome and its minions, the religious elite. Mary and Joseph defy the earthly empire’s laws and the Magi do too by not following the order to disclose the location of the newborn King of the Jews.
See those who have the Light of Christ in their lives are not afraid to follow the edicts of God’s Empire. The en-Lightened actors in the story (Joseph; Mary and the Magi) set up role models of civil disobedience that places allegiance to Love of God and others far above obedience to the unloving and ungodly edicts of earthly empires. It’s a model we see Jesus play out more fully as his life unfolds in Matthew– everything Jesus does is in done in complete allegiance to Love, to God and the results are nothing sort of world altering!
And even today just the stories of his life full of Love still resonate, still vibrate with Love for us. I mean we can literally feel Love radiating off the pages of the Gospel. It’s quite remarkable.
The Magi are the first Gentiles to give homage to Jesus, to the Light of Christ. Once you’ve experienced that light you do not put Caesar’s Empire or the dictates of the religious elite first!
What you do is put Love first. Love of God, love of neighbor, love of self and love of creation, this is what God calls us to in this story, in the rest of Matthew and the New Testament– and wherever and whenever God talks to us, even in our dreams; even in our memories of Christmas past.
There’s love in the Christmas story of the Wise Ones and Jesus’ parents. When we get past the commercialism the whole story and season is soaked with love. There’s love in my little memories of Tante holding hands and sharing the joy of the season with each other and passerbys we did not even know. You probably have similar memories of love in the season.
On this last day of Christmas with the hustle and bustle over we can look at the holidays from a different perspective. One of my favorite Christmas saying is by a seven year old named Bobby. Bobby is reported to have said “Love is what’s in the room at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.” 4. I love that. We’ve opened our presents and can listen now on this last day of Christmas. We can hear love.
Love is what is in the air at Christmas if we just stop and listen; we can hear that love in Christmas memories. Memories of the Wise Ones acts, memories of Mary and Joseph’s acts, and in memories of other people’s Christmas acts, like loved one’s acts long ago, or maybe even just a fortnight ago.
And, of course, we can especially hear it and feel it in the memories of that Christmas baby that the Wise Ones sought and found. That baby grew up to lead a life of words and acts that were and are all about love.
And God, God, is love.
* This sermon is based on a sermon I first preached in 2009
1. Harper, Jennifer, The Washington Times, “A ‘Magi’ Makeover for Three Wise Men,” Nov. 2, 2004 article located on line at www.washtimes.com/national/20040211-121228-7836r.htm.
2. Borg, Marcus and Crossan, John Dominic, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth, (New York: HarperOne, 2007) p. 182.
3. Ibid., at 184
4 This from one of those e-mail “forwards” about what children are supposed to have said about love. The e-mail did not have a listed author and credited this particular quote to “Bobby.”
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