Read the text here.
Read the Working Preacher commentary here.
The story of the magi, or wise ones, is so familiar that we hardly hear the details as it’s read again. Creche sets and paintings of the nativity scene show the three magi gathered around baby Jesus, dressed in elegant robes, often two Caucasian and one of color, holding their shiny, incongruous gifts. Our tradition of Christmas gifts grows from this story. The three kings play a large part in our mental picture of Christmas, but only Matthew’s gospel tells it. As is often noted, Matthew never spells out the number of visitors. Three gifts might mean three visitors, but the gospel never says exactly.
Some scholars understand this story to be purely symbolic, and others have gone to great lengths to ponder who these visitors may have been. They conclude that the magi, the wise ones, were probably from a priestly class of Zoroastrians, people of Persian descent who studied stars and dreams in search of wisdom. Part of their religion was paying particular attention to the stars, and so anything unusual would have caught their attention.
Their story is all about things that are hard to pin down. It begins with a star, and ends with a dream. The star gets them on the way to meet this unusual baby. Off the couch and onto their camels. Away from their telescopes and out into the cold. It spurs them on to ask foolish and dangerous questions of people in power, and it is inspiration enough to get them to visit an unknown baby in a mostly unknown village. The dream at the end warns them not to go back to Herod, who means no good for Jesus. A star is fleeting and flickering, visible some nights and not others, missing during the day. A dream is even more fleeting, hardly recallable when we awake. And yet these elusive messages are enough for them to hear some greater voice speaking, and to take action.
These visitors are clearly foreigners, and yet God communicates with them, and they have a noted place in the story of Jesus’ birth. From the beginning, Matthew writes a gospel that includes people outside the traditional boundaries of faith.
Robb McCoy notes on his blog that traditionally the gifts are understood to foreshadow the future of Jesus. Gold is the gift of kings, frankincense is the fragrance of the temple and myrrh is used to anoint a body for burial. McCoy observes that frankincense and myrrh also have healing properties, and that visitors from the east would have understood the importance of healing for a new mother and a baby in uncertain circumstances. (Read more here.) Edward Hays writes (in Pray All Ways) that it’s important that these visitors came from the East, bringing a different perspective to the story. “If they had come from the West, these men would not have been kings but rather professors, and no doubt they would have been department heads from different universities. Then again…we would have sent a committee, an adoration committee…Such a committee would have proposed practical gifts for this poor family that was living in such dire poverty. These modern magi of the West would have bearing boxes of gifts of groceries, warm clothing and perhaps even a propane stove.” Hays suggests that the magi call us back to the mystical side of faith, and that we need perfume and glitter as much as we need food and insulated underwear.
Peeking ahead to next week, The Narrative Lectionary places the story of the magi, or wise ones, a week earlier than the Revised Common Lectionary. People who miss church on the Sunday after Christmas may miss the story of the visitors from the east altogether, and find themselves jolted abruptly from Christmas into the fearful flight from Herod. This shift itself may inspire sermon possibilities next week. How quickly does Christmas vanish in our lives? The illusion of family perfection may be gone by dinner, as familiar arguments begin. Happiness competes for space with the realities of worry, grief and illness. Children move back and forth to other families, and the house is suddenly quiet. The placement of the story raises the question of how we hold onto the inner gifts of Christmas in the face of life’s realities.
The sermon might look at:
- As one year ends and another begins, what kind of journey do you find yourself on? Journeys of sobriety, or preparing to change careers, or education? Journeys out of abuse, or toward retirement? How does God get us started? What’s our version of the star? And how does God warn us about danger? Dreams? Or is it wise friends, the company of a support group, the safety of a church community?
- Is your faith community on a journey, from one thing toward another? How do you find God guiding you?
- Travel shows us different parts of ourselves. We take literal journeys, as well as spiritual ones. What changes in geography have revealed changes in the spirit? How do you find God watching over those trips?
- God gives us unusual gifts all the time. The gifts of emptiness. The gifts of waiting. The mentor or the tough teacher. These are gifts we want to return, exchange, put in the closet and forget about, but they have their own place in the journey of faith. What unlikely, improbable gifts have come into your life? What seemed unnecessary, but turned out to be valuable?
- After meeting with Herod, the wise ones go “home by another way.” The holiday season reveals that we all have to go home by another way. Travel home to be with family shows us how we’ve changed, and time with friends points out the twists and turns our lives have taken. Where do you find your life moving you toward “home by another way”?
- What about the need for mystery and beauty in our faith? Is there room in your faith community for the impractical? Do you have time and funds for things that are unnecessary?
- Where do your thoughts about this well-known story take you? Share your ideas in the comments below. We look forward to the conversation!