January 6, 2012
Matthew 2: 1-12
If you’ve been on the internet lately, you’ve probably had someone e-mail you a Wise Man quiz. How many wise men were there? Where they really scholars or something else? Tradition tells us that there were three, likely because there were three gifts. And the explanation of who they were ranges from being Zoastrian priests from Persia to being astonomers and to being magicians and alchemists. In ancient days the theory was that when someone world-changing was born, a star appeared to announce their birth. They certainly understood that theory. There are lots of explanations but the fact is that no one really knows who these people were or for sure why they came.
The question that catches my attention is why. Why these people? Why does Matthew the evangelist go out of his way to tell us this story about the birth of Jesus? Remember that the writers of the Gospels were not just giving us a biography of Jesus when they told the story. They were very focused on what details they used to proclaim who Jesus was and what his ministry was about. Matthew and Luke are the only Gospel writers to give us any story about Jesus’ birth and childhood.
In Luke’s story of Jesus birth, Mary and Joseph sleep outside because there wasn’t a hotel room for them, and the baby is born there. Angels announce the birth to shepherds, not to the whole town of Bethlehem, and it is these people, who are just a step above homeless people who come to worship. In Matthew’s story, it is these weird foreigners. These Magi would have been thrown out of any respectable Jewish home. Jews were forbidden to use magic or sorcery and these foreigners were definitely engaged in forms of religion that would have involved invocations and incantations that would have freaked out good Jews.
What strikes me about these stories is that is lowlife shepherds and weirdo foreigners who are invited to come and worship this baby and they recognize the miracle of who Jesus is – God come to dwell with humanity. Maybe when the angels split the heavens open with singing, people in Bethlehem heard it, but were too busy feasting or drinking or arguing or sleeping to pay any attention. Maybe it was the shepherds who recognized that something remarkable was going on. Maybe the star that led the Magi to the Baby was there for everyone to see, but these people were looking for just this kind of thing, and couldn’t keep from going to see who the star was herading. Maybe the rest of the world was too busy, too organized, too self-sufficient to notice the miraculous event that was happening all around them.
My point is this: it isn’t the people you expect who show up to welcome God born to us in Jesus. They weren’t kings and princes, they weren’t the most faithful believers, they were people who were outsiders, low-lifes, weirdos. If you and I were planning this event, these are not the people we’d choose. But it’s a good thing that God doesn’t look at people the same way people do. God loves sinners, God invites outsiders, weirdos, people who’ve made big mistakes in their lives, people who’ve been petty and mean to people, people who’ve been unconventional and destructive.
God invites even you and me. God invites us when our lives are the messiest, the sorriest, and the most self-involved. Jesus didn’t just come for people who deserved a relationship with God. Jesus came because none of us deserves a relationship with God, but God wants that relationship even more than we do. Our God is not far away working the levers of the world to keep it perfect. Our God is here with us in the bad times as well as the good times.
Today is the feast of the Epiphany, the celebration of Jesus’ manifestation here on earth. We talk about the Light of the World coming to dwell with us, and in this Season of Epiphany we talk specifically about where we see that light. The Wise Men recognized the presence of the Savior in the world and came to honor him and to bring gifts. The Shepherds followed the invitation of the angels and came to worship. In this season, we too, are invited to come and worship, to offer gifts, to pay attention and to honor Jesus who is with us now. Jesus will show up in our worship, he will show up in the faces of people who require our patience and care, he will show up in the people sitting next to you in the pew. Pay attention during these weeks of Epiphany, look out for the presence of Jesus. Near the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells a story of separating people who will be with him forever in paradise and those who will not. Those who are chosen are those who treated people as if they were Jesus himself. You did it to me, he tells them.
The story of the Magi tells us that even the weirdest people get invited to come and worship. It’s a good thing, because we all bear our own weirdness when we come. It doesn’t stop God from loving us so much that Jesus was willing to live a full life here among us and even to bear the brunt of the rejection and hate of the world. He died at the hands of the authorities, but his resurrection put down death and evil forever. All our weirdness is welcomed because Jesus has made us right with God, forgiving us of everything that separates us from God’s love. We are free to live out of that love, and to love the rest of the world as Jesus loved it. I’m not sure where or when Jesus is going to show up in your life in the coming days, but I am sure that as you bear that Light of Christ in the world, you will see him. This is your invitation to come to the Light.
Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing that you may abound in hope through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.