a sermon by the Rev. J. Mark Worth
There is an old tradition that says the Christmas season begins on Christmas Day – not on Halloween or Thanksgiving – lasts 12 days and ends on when the Magi arrive on Epiphany (Friday, Jan 6). Whether or not we take the story of the Magi and the wandering star literally, it is a classic story. the wise men were following a star; and later, being warned in a dream, the went home by another way.
- From Matthew 2:1-2: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
- From Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way, Cowley Publications, Boston, Massachusetts, 1999: Once upon a time there were three – yes, three – very wise men who were sitting in their own countries minding their own business when a bright star lodged in the right eye of each one of them. It was so bright that none of them could tell whether it was burning in the sky or in their own imaginations, but they were so wise that they knew it did not matter that much. The point was, something beyond them was calling them, and it was a tug they had been waiting for all their lives.
This is a season for traveling. Some of our members are away, and others have company. And this is the Sunday before Epiphany, a time celebrated as the arrival of some other travelers, the Wise Men, or Magi, who – we are told – arrived at the home of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem. Their arrival in Bethlehem is recounted in a Gospel traditionally attributed to Matthew. Epiphany falls on the twelfth day of Christmas, which will be Friday, Jan. 6.
The story of the Magi has been retold in T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Journey of the Magi,” and by Menotti in his opera, “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” Monty Python’s Flying Circus told a version of the story in their movie, “The Life of Brian” – the Magi arrived at Brian’s home first, then took their gifts back when they realized their mistake! And singer-songwriter James Taylor has sung about them in a song, “Home By Another Way,” from which I’ve taken the title of this sermon.
Although the Bible does not say how many Magi there were, the story says they brought three gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. It has long been assumed there were three Magi because there were three gifts. By the 5th century of the Common Era they had been given the names Gaspar (or Caspar), Melchior, and Balthasar. Tradition says one of the men was black.
What do we know about the Magi? Not much. They’re mentioned in only one place in the Bible, the Gospel attributed to Matthew. Was the author an eyewitness to the events he describes? Not likely. The Four Gospels were written anonymously, and the traditional names, “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,” were added later. There’s nothing in the Gospel of Matthew itself that says the author was an eyewitness, nor that Matthew the Disciple was the author.
A second reason is that according to the New Testament, Matthew was one of the Twelve Disciples, but Mark was not. Yet the author of Matthew’s gospel often copies word-for-word from Mark’s gospel. If the author was Matthew, one of the Twelve Disciples, why would he have to copy from someone who was not a Disciple?
Third, Jesus and his Disciples spoke Aramaic, although they may have understood a little Greek. But the Gospel of Matthew was written in good Greek, not in Aramaic. And so it seems unlikely to me that the Aramaic-speaking Matthew, who probably didn’t know how to write at all even in his own language, wrote very well in a foreign language, Greek.
And finally, the Gospel of Matthew talks about Matthew the Disciple in the third person. The author never speaks of “I” or “we” but always refers to the Disciples as “them” or “they.” Even when he writes about Matthew the Disciple, he refers to Matthew as “he,” not “I” or “me.”
So, an unknown Greek-speaking person, who probably never met Jesus but nonetheless was a follower of Jesus, learned stories about him. And about 80-85 years after the birth of Jesus, this person decided to write the stories down.
Are they facts or stories?
Does that make the story false? Not necessarily. Is it a factual story? On one level, it really doesn’t matter. The story of the Magi is a classic story, like Oedipus or Hamlet or Moby Dick, and such stories can contain truths that speak to us, whether or not they are factual.
I understand the story of the Magi as a parable, a religious story that teaches a lesson. Episcopal priest and professor Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “It is not that the facts don’t matter. It is just that they don’t matter as much as the stories do, and stories can be true whether they happened or not. You do not have to do archaeology to find out if they are genuine, or spend years in the library combing ancient texts. There is another way home. You listen to the story. You let it come to life inside you, and then you decide on the basis of your own tears or laughter whether the story is true.”
Rev. Taylor says that one good test of a story is how it affects people. Does the story help people to be more human? Does it open them up or shut them down? Does it increase their capacity for joy? Her questions are good ones. Some biblical stories are more factual than others. But we can take the Bible seriously without taking all of it literally. If the stories help us to see our lives more clearly, if they help us to become better people, then the stories are worth telling and re-telling. And this, in fact, is what Matthew, whoever he was, was doing. He was writing down the stories he had learned, so that we might re-tell them and experience them in our own day.
The politics of the gospels ~
Two gospels, Matthew and Luke, tell stories of the birth of Jesus. Luke emphasizes that this all took place during the time of the Roman Emperor Augustus. In those days Augustus, in his official propaganda, proclaimed that he was the Son of the God Caesar, and the Savior of all people. And the gospel of Augustus, his good news, was that he had delivered Peace on Earth, the Pax Romana, because of his military victories.
Luke turned that Roman propaganda on its head. It’s not the Emperor who is a Savior. No, real peace on earth does not come from military might. Real peace comes through the birth of a child, in a stable, in a little one-horse town. And God’s peace is not one that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer, but God actually favors the poor and oppressed.
In Luke 1:51-53, when the angel tells Mary she will have a baby, Mary praises God and says, “He has scattered the proud and those with arrogant hearts; he has pulled down princes from their thrones and exalted the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away empty.” Imagine that! An angel tells you that you are miraculously pregnant, and the first words out of your mouth are, “God pulls down princes from their thrones and lifts up the lowly; he fills hungry people with good things and sends the rich away empty.” Maybe Jesus became a radical because his mother was one first!
Later in Luke, in the first public pronouncement of his ministry, Jesus says, “God has sent me to proclaim the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to the prisoners, to help the blind to see, to set the oppressed free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19) And so, like Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesus mixed religion with politics; his religion contained a message of political liberation.
Wise men ~
In the Nativity story, both Luke and Matthew agree that before Joseph and Mary were married, Mary was pregnant. Matthew says that Joseph was going to dismiss her quietly, but an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him that the baby was a miracle, and that he should marry her. She had the baby, and they named him Jesus.
In those days there were Wise Men – Magi – who journeyed from somewhere in the East. Were there three of them? We don’t know. Were they magicians, astronomers, or priests of the Persian prophet Zoroaster? Did they come from Arabia? Iraq? Iran? That depends on how you interpret the story. But they set out on a journey to find out more about their world, about religious faith, about compassion, about their own lives and their own hearts.
They came to Jerusalem, King Herod’s capitol city. Looking like important people, the Magi were able to get an audience with the king. And they asked Herod, “Where is the child who has been born the Messiah, the king of the Jews?”
King Herod was upset, even angry, with this question, since he was the king of Israel. Herod was a client of the Romans, but he had a lot of authority and wealth as long as he didn’t displease his Roman overlords. And Herod, who wanted to pass on his position within his own family, had not recently had a new child. How dare these men come here with such a question? Herod wanted to learn who this new rival might be, so he played along with the Magi.
Herod questioned his visitors. What made them think a new king had been born? The wise men claimed that they had seen a star that, they believed, heralded the birth of the Messiah, God’s Anointed One. Herod had not noticed this star. What were the Magi talking about?
The Magi asked him, “Do your prophets say where the Anointed One will be born?” Herod assembled his scholars. One said, “The prophet Micah wrote that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, the city of David.” And so King Herod said, “That’s the best we can do. Go to Bethlehem and search there. And if you find anything resembling a royal baby, come back and tell me. I would like to, um, I want to, ah … pay him my respects.”
And so the Magi set out again, following the star. Have you ever tried to follow a star? Literally, I mean? Can you tell where it is leading you? Do you know which house any given star might be shining over? I tried it as a teenager, literally trying to figure out if I could follow a star, or see a star shining over any particular place. Of course, it can’t be done.
But this isn’t a literal story. The Wise Men were following a star, a metaphorical star perhaps. We all follow our own guiding star, the best we can. And the Magi followed theirs to Bethlehem.
Somehow they found the baby Jesus, and his parents Joseph and Mary, living in Bethlehem. It wasn’t much of a house for a king to be born in. No stone towers. No soldiers outside the door. No signs of wealth. No robes of royal purple. Just an ordinary house, maybe some carpentry tools, and some simple tables, chairs, and beds. But we imagine that Joseph and Mary were gracious people, and they had a healthy and happy baby boy.
And so the Magi presented the baby with the gifts they had carried with them – gold, frankincense and myrrh, presents worthy of a king. Joseph and Mary thanked the foreigners for their generous gifts, and Mary passed the baby around, so everyone got a chance to hold him. Then she took him back, and nursed him until he fell asleep.
In the morning, the Magi decided not to go back to King Herod. One of the Magi had a disturbing dream about Herod, in which the old king seemed to menace all the children of Bethlehem. It was better to leave the king in the dark.
Joseph and Mary decided to take the baby and flee to Egypt, where they would be foreigners and refugees, and hope that they would find a welcome despite their different religion and different customs. And as Joseph and Mary prepared to make their escape, the Magi went home by another way.
James Taylor sings: “Yes they went home by another way Home by another way. Maybe me and you can be wise guys too And go home by another way.
We can make it another way Safe home as they used to say Keep a weather eye to the chart on high And go home another way.” The Magi pulled out their maps and charted a new route. There is more than one way to get home, they decided. Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that when the Magi picked up their packs, which were lighter than before, they turned to the baby to thank him for the gifts he had given to them. “What do you mean?” asked Mary. The first wise man thanked Joseph and Mary and their baby “for this home and the love here.” The second wise man thanked them for letting him hold the baby, an experience that was new and exhilarating for him. The third wise man said, “Thanks for a really great story.” And the wise men kissed the baby good-bye, and went home by another way.
James Taylor sings: “Well it pleasures me to be here And to sing this song tonight. They tell me that life is a miracle And I figure that they’re right. But Herod’s always out there, He’s got our cards on file. It’s a lead pipe cinch, if we give an inch, Old Herod likes to take a mile. It’s best to go home by another way, Home by another way; We got this far to a lucky star But tomorrow is another day. We can make it another way. Safe home as they used to say; Keep a weather eye to the chart on high And go home another way.”