Ephesians 3: 1-12, Psalm 72, Mt 2: 1-12
We think that we know this birth narrative story very well, along with the story from Luke where shepherds and angels lead the way to the Christ child. But like any good story, it endures, not because the details are historically accurate, but because it spins a story out of the anxiety of a particular age while tapping into the yearning for a different and better future, a yearning which is universal across cultures and across the ages, even in our time.
A new children’s book (but I contend it is more for adult reading than for a child’s) called “Home by another Way”, written by the prolific writer, professor and Episcopalian priest, Barbara Brown Tayler, maintains the general details of the journey of the Magi but lifts it from its troubling technical details that don’t match actual recorded history, to place it more into realm of our imaginations. Although the biblical narrative does not mention that there were three wise men at all, a much later addition by the church, Brown Taylor does write these men into her version of the story, having them come together from various interesting backgrounds. Here is how she describes them:
Each in his own country had tried books, tried magic, tried astrology. One had lived on nothing but dried herbs boiled in water.
Another had spent this entire fortune learning how to read and write in an ancient language.
The third had learned to walk on hot coals, though it did nothing for him beyond the great sense of relief he felt at the end.
Despite their best efforts, all three of them still felt that something was missing.
What they all had in common though that brought them together in the first place was “a bright star lodged in the right eye of each one of them. The star was so bright that none of them could tell whether it was burning in the sky or in their own imaginations, but they were wise enough to know it did not matter all that much. The point was, something beyond them was calling them, and it was a tug they had been waiting for all their lives.” It was that sense of yearning and hope that brought them together in the first place to take that journey. And that bright star, that yearning for something new and wonderful, led by a new kind of king, lead them onward to their agreed destination- Jerusalem.
It wasn’t just a spiritual journey they were on, divorced from the real issues of their day, for their journey plunged them face to face with a brutal and corrupt political leader – Herod. Anyone who thinks that being a follower of Jesus Christ is isolated from political issues does not know the stories of the gospels very well.
Herod was wealthy and powerful, was considered an enemy of the Jews, and paranoid about any potential threat to him presiding on the throne. Extremely distrustful of anyone who might try to assume his position, he had already killed several of his family members – one of his wives, his brother-in-law, his mother, and three of his fourteen children. When Herod learns of the birth of the Messiah, he is particularly paranoid; this child could eventually jeopardize his rule and power. According to biblical commentator Niveen Sarras, “He knew from the chief priests and teachers of the law that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem in Judea, and he must come from the Davidic line. King Herod does not meet the biblical messianic criteria.”
So Herod sent these wise men to explore the region looking for this young King that might threaten his rule. Brown Taylor has some fun describing just what this scene may have looked, describing Herod as a man who grew round eyes like the eyes of a snake. “Herod gargled, combed his hair, and went back to tell the wise men they should go to Bethlehem at once-with his blessing- on one condition: that they come back and tell him who his successor was so that he could, um, send flowers to the new king.
His breath smelled like Pine-Sol when he said it, which made the wise men feel queasy. They knew something was not right, but once they were back out in the night air, they could see the star in the sky again, and it set their minds at rest.”
I think we would all agree that we live in a time that is also gripped with fear and anxiety, wondering which political leaders we should trust, what accusations of corruption and incompetence are true. Although there are many stories that we can refer too south of the border as we await the Senate hearings regarding the possible impeachment of Trump, we know that as we have reviewed this past year in politics here in Canada, that there have been key stories where some of our political and business leaders have been accused of corruption, and we remember how much the tone of the fall election campaign made use of aggressive, angry and almost paranoid rhetoric to put their opponents in a negative light and to incite a sense of fear and doubt in citizens.
Of course there will always be those who continue to speak out of that place of hatred and fear, but I am pleased to hear that many Canadians have been able to communicate their displeasure with that kind of negative interaction and that each of the federal government parties are at least willing to try to set a more collaborative atmosphere to ensure that some positive changes can be implemented to help improve people’s lives, especially those who are in the greatest need in our country. Of course, agreeing on the priorities and most important needs is always the biggest challenge.
But back to our Epiphany story (epiphany meaning “to show up”, “to reveal”), the wise men finally reach their destination, led by the star that guided them. It is in this place in Bethlehem, a journey that may have taken them several years, that they find the house where Mary, Joseph and the child Jesus is, and they are ‘overwhelmed with joy.” They have found the one, that will bring the deepest fulfillment and hope for their lives. They knew that they had found the one sent by God to help each of them know the true values to build a life on, to find real fulfillment in life. Although they had to interact with Herod, the cruel despot, they were not taken in by his lies or deceived by his narcissistic ambitions to build his own personal empire.
In weaving this amazing birth narrative to frame the beginning of Jesus’ life, the man known as the trusted rabbi, and eventually as the Messiah sent by God, Matthew wants us to observe that it is not only the Jews that believe Jesus to be the true prophet, the true teacher of wisdom, but that wise people from other corners of the world would also come to this belief and understanding. This is why Matthew includes this story of the magi coming from the East, from Persia, possibly Zoroastrian priests and astrologers who followed a religion that was as ancient as Judaism, who also were searching for God’s new prophet who would lead people to know the truth in a new way. Jesus would reveal to the world what true power would be like, a leader that would lead from the heart showing how the power of compassion and love build up people and their communities. His ministry and his death would reveal to the world what a servant style of leadership would look like and how this kind of power, serving others, could inspire hope, heal the broken and change lives.
Although the wise men lead us to the child Jesus and his parents, with Mary continuing to accompany her son throughout his life, it is only the beginning of the journey, the beginning of a revelation that will continue to radiate beyond that first encounter, touching many more lives. St Paul, who was the first to write about the life and ministry created by Jesus, also shares this vision with the people of Ephesus, understanding that the wisdom Jesus’ brings is not only for the people of Israel, but will inform and transform the lives of the gentiles, people from many more nations.
The wise men knew that the birth of Jesus as Emmanuel, God-with-us, would not magically eradicate corruption in politics or society, but they were smart enough to avoid going back to communicating with Herod, knowing his displeasure could cost them their lives, and so they wisely listen to the dream they all shared and headed home by another route, a dream also heeded by Joseph who took Mary and Jesus to Egypt until the death of Herod made it safe to return home.
If you read on in the rest of chapter two, Matthew also does not gloss over the reality that corruption will continue, for what follows is the massacre of the children under the age of two in Bethlehem, and the sound of the mothers and grandmothers weeping for the loss of their children. Although there is no historical record that this occurred, the inclusion of this story not only points back in time to the narrative of the early life of Moses, but points forward to all of the ways and times that innocent children have been killed by the violence, corruption and disregard of the adults who are responsible for leading their communities. We know that these are realities even today as we see the images of refugee children falling into the sea as they escape poverty and war, are detained and sometimes die in border detention centres in America without their parents, or as in Canada, when we hear about the Inuit and indigenous children and young people who are still taking their own lives for lack of hope and a dream to keep them looking forward to new possibilities.
It was after a long journey of seeking and trust in the starlight gleaming in their eye, that the wise men found the child that would inspire them. What has inspired and motivated you in your life as you look back? What role has your faith made in helping you to stay focused on seeking wisdom and the truths that will guide your own life? What is the story that you would weave about your own life, the family, friends and community that may have supported you and what would you say about the gleam of hope that shines in the corner of you eye that keeps you moving forward? When are those times that you remember being overwhelmed with joy? Can you accept those as moments of awareness that God was with you and is still present in your life? How might you tell that story to another person to give them encouragement?
But most importantly, how will your sense of hope and possibility lead you forward into this coming year 2020, the beginning of a whole new decade? How will you keep from being distracted or led off course by the ongoing corruption and violence that still pervades our world? How can we help each other in our faith community to continue the journey forward, always looking for opportunities and ways to bring some positivity and joy into the world? How will we continue to nurture the dreams of Jesus that are planted within our hearts and souls?
May our imaginations be stirred by hope as we continue to reflect on our own journey of life and faith and may we help each other grow as wise people, finding the gleam of that mysterious starlight that will guide us to find again in our time the Christ child that will grow God’s powerful and life changing love in our lives and into our world. We are not alone. God is with us still. Amen
Sing Hymn: From a Distant Home