When I was in elementary school, I took the three Magi and two camels from the porcelain Bethlehem Nativity scene atop of our living room piano and standing on a chair placed them on top of the china cabinet in our dining room. I dreamed that maybe the Magi followed the star all the way from Beijing or Tibet. From atop our china cabinet perch the porcelain Seekers gazed towards the living room where a 6 watt night light bulb star shone down on Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, angels, sheep, and a ceramic golden retriever that encircled the Christ Child. I always loved the mystery and holy mischief surrounding the Magi: outsiders, seekers, asking questions, unafraid of kings, and exuberant participants in exceedingly great joyful worship. I loved how the Magi pushed past the indifference of gatekeepers to find their way to the Christ child. They persisted when the custodians of the sacred scrolls were not interested in the new things God was doing in the world. I love their spunk in defying King Herod and going home by another road.
Who were these Magi, these wise ones, who come seeking the newborn king? Scholars tell us the Magi were likely court magicians from Persia. You might remember how Pharoah’s close advisers were called magicians-a kind of nationalistic slur! We might think of the Magi as under-secretaries for transportation navigation (the stars guided ships and trade caravans), directors of the Persian National Science foundation, assistant secretary for commercial calendars and measurements, and special ambassadors to Judea. The title Magi invoked old religious rivalries, clearly identifying them as practitioners outside of the sacred traditions of Jews and Christians. I imagine Matthew selected the nationally polarizing and religiously pejorative word “Magi” to poke the church leaders who carefully guarded the Scriptures, but failed to see what God was revealing within the world.
The Magi with flowing silk saris, diplomatic skills, bountiful treasure chests, fine camels, Persian accents, erudite educations, and armed military attaches stood out in Herod’s tiny kingdom on the outer edge of the Roman empire. Unlike the poor shepherds, these influential Magi are quickly ushered into an audience with the evil king. No doubt the self-proclaimed and self-aggrandising ‘Herod the Great’ likely believed the Magi came to pay him homage. When they instead ask, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” Herod was frightened by the baby. How dare these foreign Magi ask the Great king, “Where is this new coming kin-dom?” Matthew tells us, “When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” Evil rules with fear. Herod cozied up to church leaders sharing an interest in upholding the status quo. “Herod called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, asking them where the Messiah was to be born”. Those entrusted with the sacred scrolls replied, “In Bethlehem in Judea, for this is what the prophet has written, ‘out of you Bethlehem, will come a ruler who will shepherd my people.’” Israel’s model shepherd kings humbly served the flock, gently leading the people through the scary valleys into green pastures and calm waters.
Matthew’s Magi weave a very political parable beginning “In the time of King Herod.” The tale grows scary when Herod the Great is asked, ‘Where is the child who’s been born king?” The Magi sow rebellion by funding a rival kin-dom. They will disobey the king refusing to identify the location of the new movement and by going home another way. If we read on, Matthew prosecutes Herod for crimes against humanity. Herod’s unbridled evil sends the Holy Family fleeing as refugees to Egypt. Unlike in the Moses story, forgien royal Magicians save the holy child! It is a political story: the kin-dom of God always challenges the world’s Caesars, Pharaohs and Herods. Our pulpits likely are not political enough.
In 1963 inside a Birmingham jail cell, a 33 year old preacher wrote to the church standing on the sidelines: “There was a time when the church was very powerful– when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society… Things are different now… If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.” (Letter from a Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King Jr.)
Does it bother you that none of the religious leaders or theological experts journey with the Magi to check out the Christ child? They knew the prophecies of old; but did they believe God was done speaking? Were they self-assured sure that if God did speak, God would not speak through outsiders or scientists asking questions? I wonder if a few of Herod’s Bible experts were curious and wanted to come along and see if the Messiah had come but lacked the courage to get involved in Herod’s messy politics. Either way, by cowardice or arrogance, none of the official keepers of orthodoxy make the journey with the Magi to the place where Christ was born! They go back to their comforting past prophecies and stories unaware that God is forever changing the world just seven miles down the road. They miss The Christ and the party which the KJV describes as worship with “exceedingly great joy!”
The church has never done well with present-day prophets or star-gazing scientists! We dismissed the Magi. We placed Galileo under house arrest, declaring that his telescopic insight that the Earth circled the Sun was “foolish and absurd (…and) heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.” In the ninth grade a Sunday school teacher gave me a book entitled something like “Evolution: The Fossils Say No!” I stopped reading it when it suggested that God might have made rocks appear older in order to “fool the wisdom” of the scientist’s dendrochronology (a perverse twisting of 1 Corinthians 1). I knew then such a tricky God could not be trusted! Lately, I have been wondering how much damage the popular church’s slow embrace of and at times open rejection of science has done? Has the church helped feed societal distrust of science or facts that contradict one’s personal beliefs and experiences? Do we who hold the sacred scrolls today lift up the insights of modern astronomers, biologists, and climate scientists, believing that God is not done teaching us new things? Will we listen for insights from the Magi?
Herod the Great called the Magi secretly (evil always wants to cover its tracks) and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. The king sent them to Bethlehem stamping on their visas “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find them, report to me, so that I too may go and worship.” Surely, the Magi saw right through Herod’s lies and began dreaming up ways to disobey the king. “For after the Magi heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed with exceedingly great joy. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped Christ. Then they opened their treasures and presented Christ with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” But their journey is not over, for “having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.”
Hear the good news: God is not done with this world! God is working out beyond the church’s halls, with Magi, wise ones, uncomforting prophetic sermons, (Matthew 23: esp 34)) laboratories, universities, street protests,and other unconventional prophetic places. God is working in spite of our best efforts to hold onto the way things once were! God is birthing a new kin-dom with each new insight and every time we pray, “Your kin-dom come on earth as in heaven.”
So in this very difficult year with Covid, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, a bomb on Christmas day, members of congress pledging to try to undo democracy on Wednesday, isolation, poverty, delayed general conference, missed birthday parties, and deferred grief, perhaps it is fitting we begin the new year with the story of the Magi’s long journey and their persistence in the face of a disinterested church and a frightened evil king. Dr. Martin Luther King advises that “no social advance rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of dedicated individuals.” (The Case against Tokenism NYT Magazine 1963).
And so if you need some renewed resolve consider these Magi. The excellent Feasting on the Word lectionary commentary started a list of characteristics of the Magi that may help us continue making this challenging journey. I adapted it alot!
- The Magi were scholars.
- They are outsiders- unexpected messagers outside the received tradition.
- They were not stuck in their faith but came: asking questions.
- They are collaborative: gleaning knowledge from an indifferent church.
- They stuck to it when the star disappeared for a season.
- They worshipped with full-throated exuberant and exceedingly joyous worship.
- They are deeply generous, responding with gratitude and generosity to simply the promise of God’s working in the world. Spiritual maturity inspires generosity rather than being fearful or stingy and trying to hold on to the status quo or what you have. Spiritual maturity triggers eagerness to share rather than protectiveness and hoarding.” (FOTW)
- They invest heavily in a dream-a baby- a coming future work of God, a start up: not a fully developed kin-dom movement!”
- They defy the law funding a rival kingdom and defying Herod’s immigration rules!
- Their joyous encounter with Christ is not the end of their journey. God speaks again as they travel back home, maybe even on a slower route!
- As adaptive leaders, they go home by a different route! Is that a parable for us?
In the midst of this hard wilderness journey, let us press on. Let us preserve knowing that God is still working in this new year to birth new kin-dom. Let us keep following the light:discerning, questioning, learning, and pressing until that day when we step into a moment of deep celebration.
In this season where all who are wise are taking new routes, let us press on, renewed by worship and believing God still speaks truth and prophecy into our world. Let us press on and persist in investing our lives in Christ’s prayer “Your kin-dom come, your will be done on earth, aligning us with the light of heaven.” Amen.