Sunday’s sermon: A Light in the Darkness

Magi - Catacombs of Priscilla

Text used – Matthew 2:1-12 (embedded within text this week)

 

AUDIO VERSION

 

 

  • Every good story starts with “once upon a time …”, even stories we’ve heard a hundred times before. And in that vein: Once upon a time, there was a corrupt and evil king, a group of wise astronomers, a vulnerable new family, and God. It’s a quest story. It’s a story of discovery and revelation. It’s a story of intrigue and deceit. It’s a story of God breaking in.
    • Literal definition of Epiphany: an appearance or manifestation of a divine being → That is what we celebrating: God appearing, God manifesting in human flesh – in the form of that tiny child in the manger that we sang about just 11 short days ago. That is what the magi came seeking: an unexplained, unexplainable manifestation of the divine that started in the appearance of that bright and unanticipated star in the heavens but led them to so much more.
    • So I want to dig into this story a little bit more this morning – this cast of characters and what they bring to the story, how they can bring an element of unexpectedness.
      • Particular lens through which we’re going to read our story this morning → I’ve been listening to a podcast recently called “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text.”[1]
        • Started by a ministry fellow and a research assistant at Harvard Divinity School
        • General idea (from the website): “explore a central theme through which to explore the characters and context, always grounding ourselves in the text” → So every week, they read discuss a chapter of one of the Harry Potter novels (and, of course, they’ve gone in order), and each weekly discussion revolves around a particular theme. They read the chapter with that theme in mind. They search out ways that the characters and plot developments embody that theme. They unearth allegories and metaphors that speak to that theme.
          • Really interesting way to encounter a familiar text with fresh eyes
      • Theme/lens through which we’re going to examine today’s familiar Scripture story = theme of homage
        • Definition of homage: respect or reverence paid or rendered; special honor or respect shown publicly something done or given in acknowledgment or consideration of the worth of another → most important elements of those definitions:
          • Paid/rendered (requires something of us → not free)
          • Publicly (not a secret, not something to be hidden/concealed)
          • Phrase “acknowledgment or consideration of the worth of another” (forces us to see something outside ourselves as having value and significance)
          • So with those ideas in mind – the idea that homage is paid, that it is public, that it names and claims the worth of another … with that lens firmly in place, let us hear the story. [READ TEXT]
  • Okay, so let’s explore these characters a bit.
    • First = magi → Interestingly enough, the magi are defined more by what we don’t know about them than what we do.
      • What Scripture doesn’t say
        • Where they’re from – only vague references that they’re “from the east” → could be Babylon, Persia, or Arabia
          • WHAT WE’VE PROJECTED ONTO IT: “We three kings of Orient are bearing gifts; we traverse afar …”
          • That being said, what the magi very certainly are are Gentiles. They are definitely not part of the people of Israel. They are “the other,” and yet in Matthew’s gospel (a gospel that, if you remember, was written specifically to speak to Jews), these Gentiles are the first to recognize and pay homage to this newborn King of Kings, this infant Prince of Peace.
            • Scholar: [What is particularly crucial … is that] Matthew begins and ends this text with strangers, that is, with Gentiles. … It means that Matthew’s [emergent] Christology affirms that fact that the Messiah’s coming is an arrival that has meaning for all people! The entry of the wise men into the sacred texts, places, and actions of the Jewish faith are for Matthew the sign that the Messiah has indeed arrived in the person of the child. God, in the child, has breached the boundaries of traditional faith, and the nations are now entering to witness this Messiah, and doing so with joy![2]
        • How many there were → Matthew never actually says how many magi traveled. – text: “Magi came from the east to Jerusalem.”[3] Because of the three gifts given, it’s been assumed throughout the centuries that there were three magi, but there certainly could have been more.
        • That they were kings → This one likely isn’t actually true.
          • Gr. “magi” = wise men, astrologers, magicians, possibly a Shaman caste of ancient Medes or Zoroastrian priests from modern-day India[4] → These would have been court scholars and advisors to kings, not the actual kings themselves.
      • What Scripture does say = they brought gifts – text: They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.[5] → interesting thing is what these gifts say, especially when we read about them through the lens of homage
        • Gold = gift for royalty, something only the wealthiest nobles would have in their possession → recognizes the Christ child as a newborn king
        • Frankincense = dried sap of the olibanum tree (native to Arabian Peninsula – Oman, Yemen, and the Horn of Africa incl. Somalia and Ethiopia)[6] and most often used as an incense during worship → recognizes the Christ child as worthy of worship and homage (yup … there’s that word again)
        • Myrrh = another resin from a plant of the same name (grown in roughly the same regions as the olibanum tree) used both as a sacred anointing oil and an oil that was used to prepare bodies for burial → hints at the sacrifice that will be required of this Christ child
    • Other major player in today’s text = King Herod → again, not a whole lot that the Bible tells us about this Herod (Herod Antipas)
      • What we do know[7]
        • Son of Herod the Great
        • Appointed by Emperor Augustus to rule over ¼ of his father’s kingdom after his father’s death → ruled over Galilee
        • Challenging family dynamics involved in this → rivalry between brothers (Herod Antipas and Herod the Great’s other sons who were also appointed regional rulers by Emperor Augustus)
          • Rivalry for territory
          • Rivalry for living up to their father’s legacy → You don’t become known as Herod the Great for no reason, so the sons had some pretty big shoes to fill in terms of building – building structures, building the country (i.e. – acquiring territory), building culture, and most importantly, building up the nation’s coffers.
        • Reign: 4 B.C.E. to 39 C.E. (almost exactly Jesus’ own lifetime)
      • Ordered the death of John the Baptist at the behest of his 2nd wife and her daughter, Salome[8]
    • What we can infer from Herod’s reaction to the magi’s visit in the text = Herod is insecure in his role and in his rule
      • Part 1 – see this in his reaction to their arrival: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.” When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him.[9]
        • Scholar pinpoints Herod’s discomfort: Herod’s title was “king of the Jews.” The simple statement by the magi seems to bring another will into play: this child is “born” to be king of the Jews, and that means Herod was not.[10]
          • Gr. speaks to that discomfort, too – “troubled” = stirred up, disturbed, thrown into confusion → Remember, Herod didn’t call the magi to him. They just showed up on his doorstep. They knew the star that had appeared heralded the birth of a new king, so of course, their first destination is the home of the current king. But Herod knew nothing about this new baby king, and it turned his whole world topsy turvy.
      • Part 2 – see this in his plotting and scheming – text: He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. … Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.”[11] → There’s that word again – honor … homage. But the “homage” that Herod wants to pay is nowhere near the homage that the magi have in mind.
        • Magis’ homage = genuine, full-bodied, and wholehearted
        • Herod’s homage = false, menacing, manipulative
          • Get a hint of this at the end of today’s text: Because [the magi] were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.[12]
          • Full impact of just how dangerous and deceitful Herod’s “homage” is in the text following today’s passage – section heading: “Murder of the Bethlehem children” (NRSV: “The Massacre of the Infants”) → Basically, Herod takes a page out of Pharaoh’s book and, in an attempt to stamp out the existence and threat of this newborn king, he orders his soldiers to kill all the male children in Bethlehem under the age of two. Unbeknownst to Herod, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph have already escaped Bethlehem for Egypt by the time this happens … but the damage is still done.
            • Scholar speaks to the heart of this reality: Matthew prepares us for a narrative to come that helps us see this Jesus in all his paradox. He is the child of promise, yet bears this promise in the midst of threat. That is not just who he is or where he is from, but where is he going.[13]
  • And this is the truth, friends. This is both the challenge and the blessing exposed by the light of this star: that the baby born, the little king heralded by its bright and brilliant presence, is indeed ono who comes to save … to bring peace … to make all things new. But the journey that lies ahead of that Christ child will not be an easy one. The magi recognized it. Herod foreshadowed it. And being on this side of the story, we know it, too. And even before the angel Gabriel visited Mary to announce the coming of this Christ child, God knew it to. God knew about the promise. And God knew about the threat. God knew who this Christ child would be and where he was from, but God also knew where he would be going. [POINT TO THE CROSS] And God came anyway. And that, friends, is truly the good news. Alleluia. Amen.

 

 

CHARGE & BENEDICTION

Scholar: The wisdom of the wise men was a wondering, wandering kind of wisdom that ended up in worship, in their offering homage to the wider and more wonderful Wisdom of God.[14] → And that is my hope and my prayer for you all as you go from this place today: that you go with a wondering, wandering kind of wisdom that ends in worship. So go with the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the companionship of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] http://www.harrypottersacredtext.com.

[2] Susan Hedahl. “Epiphany of the Lord – Matthew 2:1-12, Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 216.

[3] Mt 2:1.

[4] “Magi” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 3. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1962), 221.

[5] Mt 2:11.

[6] Douglas Main. “What Is Frankincense?” from Life Science, livescience.com/25670-what-is-frankincense.html. Posted Dec. 24, 2012, accessed Jan. 5, 2020.

[7] “Herod Antipas in the Bible and Beyond: The rule of Galilee in Jesus’ time” from Biblical Archaeology Society, https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/people-in-the-bible/herod-antipas-in-the-bible-and-beyond/. Posted June 3, 2017, accessed Jan. 5, 2020.

[8] Mk 6:14-29.

[9] Mt 2:1-3.

[10] David Schnasa Jacobsen. “Matthew 2:1-12, Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospel: Matthew, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 17.

[11] Mt 2:4, 7-8.

[12] Mt 2:12.

[13] Jacobsen, 19.

[14] Andrews, 16.