Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus who is our light and our life. Amen.
Forget two weeks ago. Forget the shepherds. The angels. The baby, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in the manger. Forget Linus and his blanket telling Charlie Brown the true meaning of Christmas. Forget what you know about the Christmas gospel, Luke’s Christmas gospel. This story is not that story.
This is the other Christmas story, the other birth story. This is a story of conflict and crisis. It’s a story about power and kings and how they choose to exercise authority.
This is the story about the astrologers, the stargazers, who come to visit this baby Jesus who is born in the little town backwater town of Bethlehem. It’s a story about an insecure leader who clings to power at all costs. This is a story about displaced people who are fleeing for their lives, too afraid to go home, so they seek asylum in a foreign land. We didn’t read that part of the story, but Jesus’ birth spawns horrific violence by Herod. All to protect what he believes is his.
The powerful will always fight tooth and nail to cling to what they perceive to be theirs.
And of course, it’s the innocent who suffers. It was true in Jesus’ day, and it is true in ours.
But that’s getting a little ahead of ourselves, and ahead of the story.
Back to these travelers.
What do we call these visitors? Tradition calls them both kings and wisemen, but neither word fully captures what the greek word magi evokes. Really these characters are most likely astrologers and scientists, part of a priestly caste of the Zoroastrian religion, which originated in modern-day Iran sometime in the sixth century B.C. These folks were diviners, students of the natural world, particularly the movements of the stars.
Needless to say, these astrologers, these magi were not Jewish. They are outsiders, people of a different religion, a different ethnicity. But whether there were three or 12, these magi see something in their reading of the stars, they notice a special star that brings them to Jesus.
And here’s where things get a little weird. Because these wisemen, seers, scientists, magi, whatever you’d like to call them, show up in Jerusalem and they ask a pretty silly question.
They arrive in front of the sitting king and they say, “So we were watching the stars and we saw that your replacement was born, any thoughts on where that was supposed to happen because we want to go worship him?”
Now maybe they were assuming that it was the king’s son who was the baby that they were coming to honor. But when the star kept moving, it should have been pretty clear that Herod Jr. was not the baby they were looking for.
And so these magi and their adventure and their clumsy question create a moment of crisis. It’s a moment of crisis for King Herod — the insecure leader that he is — freaks out. He calls together all of his sycophants, his yes-men, and says where is this messiah, this king supposed to be born. Where is this upstart, who threatens my power and my authority, supposed to come from?
It also creates a moment of crisis for these magi themselves. For upon hearing that this king baby was supposed to be born in Bethlehem, King Herod gives them an alternative mission. He tells them to find the baby and report back to him on this new king’s whereabouts so that he too can go and worship the baby. So the travelers must decide, whose side are they on?
Ultimately they are warned in a dream not to pass through Jerusalem and return home a different way.
As all good stories do, this one also creates a moment of crisis for us, the reader, the hearer, those of us who by fits and starts try to follow Jesus, we who are seeking to worship this God who is born in human flesh. We must consider, whom will we worship?
Will you join with the magi, these unexpected outsiders, in searching for this new king who is born?
Or will fear and uncertainty hold you in its grip? Will we, like Herod, cling too tightly to what we know, the familiar? Will our desire to remain in power and in control prevent us from seeking the baby king, born in a backwater town to simple parents?
Of course, intellectually we know what the “right” answer is. After all, here we are gathered on a Sunday morning when there are so many other places we could be. But the question still hangs in the air:
Whom will you worship?
Can we, will we, allow our hearts to be drawn to worship, to trust and believe, to cling to this strange little baby born on the edges of society. Can we, will we, look for all good and seek all the help we need in this little one, who is given royal gifts at his home in the tiny town of Bethlehem?
There’s a beautiful literary, and I suppose theological bookend that exists in Matthew’s gospel. Today Jesus is worshiped by magi from the East. On Good Friday, the soldiers will mock Jesus prior to his enthronement on the cross, saying, “Hail King of the Jews.”
Over the course of the coming weeks and months, we will live in between these to moments of worship. One in which the God-baby comes into the world and the world receives him, and the other wherein Jesus Christ, God pours out his life on the cross for the sake of the whole world, for you and me.
It’s a dark place to live sometimes. It’s uncertain, it’s anxiety-producing to be sure. But the good news, the good news of great joy (to borrow a line from Luke) is that it’s precisely into this darkness that the Lord of Light comes. It is into this ambivalent world, that is afraid of this kind of King, that Emmanuel, God with us enters. It’s for a world that mocks and ridicules the prince of peace, that Jesus gives himself so that you and I can share in his life now and forever, Amen.