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Where Do We Go?

A Homily from Matthew 2:1-12

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Virginia-Highland Church

January 3, 2004 (Epiphany of the Lord)

The early Church celebrated the incarnation of Jesus, and later his nativity, on January 6. Even a casual study of church history, however, tells us that practicality almost always trumps theology in religious practice. Consequently, when church leaders in the Western Roman Empire realized that they could not convince Christians to stop partying at the various pagan celebrations around December 25, they moved Christmas.

In the East, however, Christmas was still celebrated on January 6. Consequently, the Church compromised and established the Season of Christmas; which begins on December 25 – Christmas Day; and ends on January 6 – Epiphany. Hence the popular song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” It was only when shopping began to take precedence over religion that – for many people – the “Christmas Season” became associated with the shopping time before the actual Christmas Season.

As a sign that history does repeat itself, we at Virginia-Highland, along with clergy in many other churches, recognize that getting people into a church in the middle of the week is well-nigh impossible. Consequently, as a concession to reality, we are celebrating Epiphany today rather than on Tuesday. You’re still getting a Christmas service and an Epiphany service; we’re just holding this one on a day when we think you’ll actually be here.

To make liturgical and biblical sense of these two separate Christmas holidays, Christians celebrate the actual birth of Jesus on Christmas Day, and then commemorate the arrival of the magi on Epiphany. This is particularly sensible since the Lukan account of Jesus’ birth (the one with the angels and shepherds) is sufficiently different from the one in Matthew (which has the Magi), that combining them into one story requires a kind of blind, fanatical, illogic that is not spiritually healthy.

We manage to do it in some ways, though; including placing “wise men” in our manger scenes; even though the manger occurs in Luke only, and does not really fit with Matthew’s approach to the Christmas story. It is best, though, to let the two very different accounts of our Savior’s birth stand separately, and having two major holidays in Christmas allows us to do that.

A “united” Body of Christ that could not agree on when to celebrate his birth; two separate, conflicting birth accounts that are both in our holy Scriptures; two Christmases; it is all a testimony to how little we – even as faithful, studious, believers – actually know. I rather like it that way; since it preserves some of the mystery of our faith; and humbles us whenever we are inclined to speak with arrogant certainty about what we “know” about God.

Accepting the limits of our knowledge is a good starting place for our gospel text for today. It begins in the time of King Herod, when a group of magi come to Jerusalem asking where the new King of the Jews was to be found. Despite the popular carol, we do not know how many of them there were, and the text does not say that they were kings. Later tradition made them kings because of a passage in a psalm [Ps 10:11] about kings bowing down and giving gifts to God’s anointed one. Later tradition also said that there were three of them because they gave three types of gifts.

The text, however, merely says that they were a group of magi. The Greek word from which we get “magi” can mean “magicians” or “astrologers” or “wise men.” In a generic sense, it means the kind of learned, pagan mystics who would have been prominent throughout the various kingdoms in the Near East. They would have had little – if any – knowledge of the Jewish traditions and legends about a Messiah.

Instead, they had come to the conclusion that a new King had been born somewhere in Israel based solely upon their own secular or pagan beliefs. They had seen a supernatural star in the heavens, and it had pointed them in the general direction of conquered Israel.

Providing them with that star was the kind act of a generous God. For many of us, likewise, our first steps in the direction of Jesus had nothing to do with the Church, or the Bible, or anything Christian. We simply felt an emptiness, a need, or a question. There was something that we needed to find; and we used whatever means were familiar to seek it out.

That’s why the story of the magi is more than deserving of its own day in the sacred calendar. Their story is the story of many Christians; and it is a beautiful testimony to how far God casts the net in bringing us to a place where we can hear and appreciate the gospel.

God spoke to the magi in the only language they would accept: the mystical science – or superstition – of studying the skies. God placed a star in the right spot and at the right time to lead the magi to believe that a king had been born in Israel. Since the magi were probably in the employ of kings themselves, they set out to meet with the person who was most likely to know where the new king had been born and how they might pay their respects. That person was the reigning king in Israel: Herod the Great.

Calling Herod a “reigning” king might be a bit of a stretch, since he held onto his throne only upon the sufferance of the Roman Empire which had given it to him. Nevertheless, he is the natural first-choice for the astrologers when they have questions about the newborn king. So, they show up and ask King Herod, “Where has the king of the Jews been born? We’ve seen his star, and we wish to pay our respects.”

Herod is not amused. We do not know whether he is concerned that the actual Messiah has been born, or of he is simply worried that anyone whom the people might consider the Messiah would pose a threat to his power. Either way, Herod considers this potential king a potential threat; and he is afraid.

The magi have answered the call of God (although it’s doubtful that they believed that the God of the Jews was its source); and have gone to someone who should know more than they do about the hope of Israel. He is the supposedly pious king who rebuilt Solomon’s Temple and greatly accommodated the religious beliefs of his people. Yet instead of joining the magi in following God’s lead; Herod is concerned about how his own power might be jeopardized by this turn of events.

Sadly, this kind of selfish myopia is not limited to King Herod. It is as much the story of the Church as it is of our Savior. Many a saint has died at the hands of the Church because their faith and faithfulness threatened the Church’s power.

Martyrdom is generally a much more subtle matter these days . Nevertheless, those of us entrusted with the care and growth of the Church probably kill the work of God as often as we nurture it because of our selfishness, our laziness, or our ignorance.

It is no wonder that God had to call in pagan astrologers to proclaim the Messiah’s birth; since the pious, learned churchgoers of the day were only concerned with keeping their jobs and their bank accounts. I wonder in how many other ways God does the work of the Church outside of any Christian influence or context because God knows that – if Christians were to get a hold of it – we would mess it up.

That is certainly what Herod hopes to do when he calls the religious scholars of Jerusalem to his side. He asks them where the Messiah is to be born, hoping to find the infant in time to have him assassinated. The chief priests and scribes quote the prophet Micah [5:2] and inform the king that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem of Judea.

As one commentator [Boring – New Interp.] points out, the magi’s quest which began in their occult studies has led them to Scripture. Demonstrating the reliability of Scripture is a primary concern of Matthew’s, and its interjection here is a suitable reminder for us.

It would be easy to see the corruption and failings of organized religion, to likewise see the work that God clearly does outside Christianity; and consequently decide that Christianity is not worth our time. To do so would be to miss the point of this story, and the entire witness of Jesus.

It is, after all, the story of God’s work; not ours. God called the magi, and as their journey brings them closer to God – literally, since their quest will end in the presence of Jesus – they draw closer to the heart of authentic faith.

The superficial trapping of religion: in this case a king who wears his “faith” as a badge of political expedience to placate the masses, and religious leaders who should know better but who only use their wisdom to serve their corrupt master – they are not the Church. They will pass away, and their name will be forgotten.

The Word of God endures. By that I do not mean to imply that the Bible is literally the words of God, because it is not. It is, however, the best record we have of real faith, of genuine faithfulness, of what it means to be a child of God. Over the centuries, when tyrants have turned the Bible into a tool of oppression, the faithful have used the Bible itself to overthrow tyranny.

Do not confuse true faith with those who prostitute it for their own ends; and do not assume that because God works outside of our faith that God is leading us out of it. The magi could easily have assumed that any prophecies from a Bible that a slimy politician like Herod would read was not worth their time.
They did not. They had a keen eye for the truth, and realized that the prophecies were true, just as Herod’s claim to wish to pay “homage” to the new king most certainly was not. And so, taking Herod’s directions but not his orders, they set out for Bethlehem.

They know they have made the right decision, because their old friend the star continues to hang in front of them. Much more impressively, when they reach Bethlehem itself they realize that the star has stopped moving, and continues to hang over the city.

There is something almost comical about the image. Almighty God, who surely had bigger things on the divine calendar, had already gone to the trouble of providing the faithful with prophets and written prophecies about where the Messiah is to be born. These prophecies were sufficiently clear that, by this time, even Herod knows to look in Bethlehem.

Nevertheless, God goes to the additional lengths of bending the very laws of physics to place a star over the city of Christ’s birth; just to make absolutely certain that the supposedly “wise” seekers can follow it. They were so wise that, even with the prophesy made clear to them, they still needed a shining bolt from heaven to show them what to do.

The wise men are more like us than we might like to admit; and that is probably not a compliment. Fortunately God is not likely to run out of stars, or to stop trying to show us where they are.

When the magi reach the house where Mary is, they realize that the whole journey was worth it. Because they had been willing to answer the voice of a God about whom they probably had their doubts; and because they had recognized the truth of Scripture even when spoken through false lips; they had come to behold Jesus in the flesh.

However they started, that is where all of our paths are intended to take us. We were created to stand in the presence of God, to know the love and the mercy that allows God to come to us – wherever we are – in a way we can understand; even as a little baby.

The magi brought kingly gifts for the baby: gold and rare, exotic resins. More importantly, they brought their loyalty; following the advice of a dream to not let Herod know the identity of the Messiah. God asks no less of us, the fruits of our abundance and the faithfulness of our hearts.

But that is common sense. The wonder of the journey of the magi is not the treasures they offered, but the one that God gave them and gives to us: a persistent call that reaches us wherever we are; an authentic tradition that speaks to us even when its bearers fail us; and – ultimately – the very presence of the living God.

Each of us stands at a different place on the road to Bethlehem. Some of us, perhaps, are still far in the East; wondering what all the fuss is about. But the promise of Epiphany is that our star too hangs in the heavens; and our Creator waits to join us beneath it.