University Congregational Church
Dec. 30, 2012
“The Light Within”
Matt. 2: 1-14
We begin this morning with the benediction on Christmas Eve:
When the song of angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
… to find the lost,
… to heal the broken,
… to feed the hungry,
… to release the prisoner,
… to rebuild the nations,
… to bring peace among the brothers,
… to make music in the heart.
– Rev. Howard Thurman
Now that the hustle and bustle of Christmas is behind us, now that the ritual of exchanging gifts is past, we are free to receive the true gift of this season. And that is the same gift the magi received so long. Today we remember the final chapter of the traditional Christmas story – the visit of the magi.
Now, let’s start with a brief reminder of who these wise guys were. First, when reading the Bible, one might notice that those strange and mysterious visitors to the manger are nowhere referred to as kings. And nowhere is it specified that there were 3 royal visitors to the Christ child. Though some versions translate the Greek as “wise men”, the word is more accurately “magi”. It’s in the plural tense, but we don’t know how many of them there were; one ancient source puts their number at twelve. And their group might easily have included women. Only much after the fact did tradition assert that there were three kings – likely because there were three gifts mentioned. But anyone who has been to a baby shower knows that duplicate gifts are common… meaning more than one magi could have brought gold, frankincense or myrrh.
Here is their story as told in Matt. 2:1-14.
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet:
‘AND YOU, BETHLEHEM, LAND OF JUDAH,
ARE BY NO MEANS LEAST AMONG THE LEADERS OF JUDAH;
FOR OUT OF YOU SHALL COME FORTH A RULER
WHO WILL SHEPHERD MY PEOPLE ISRAEL.’”
Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.” After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way.
Now when they had gone, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up! Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.”
So Joseph got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way… do scholars believe this story actually happened? Well, no. This is not a story written to record history – it’s a story to tell truth of a different kind. The magi are in the story for a reason.
These magi characters were common in the Middle East of that time. They traveled constantly through the Mediterranean world, sometimes playing the part of sorcerers and magicians, sometimes practicing the burgeoning science of astronomy. They sold their services as interpreters of dreams, purveyors of wisdom and enchantment in the court of many a monarch.
The magi were probably descendants of the Medes, a people who once constituted a great empire. But the Medes were conquered by the Persians and they lived as a subject people. Once, they planned a rebellion against their Persian oppressors, but they were hopelessly overpowered and defeated. From that time on, the Medes were relegated to the sidelines of history; their kings and queens became the gypsies of the ancient world. They were kings without a country, queens without a crown. They turned to the stars for guidance because they had no subjects and no land to call their own. They would turn up in all the palaces of the empire ingratiating themselves to the real potentates of the world, but they had no place of their own.
But then, one day, as the story goes, the magi saw a star shining in the east. They saw a strange light on the horizon, and for one last time, the dream of glory called to their imaginations. Once again they gathered their belongings, they packed their camels, and carefully wrapped those trinkets of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and they headed out, following yonder star.
Traditionally in their culture, the magi believed that the favors of God belonged to the rich, the powerful, and the mighty. But our story tells a surprise ending to the ancient audience. At the feet of Jesus, they realized a new truth. They laid down the trappings of wealth and power and they did not return to Herod.
The magi gave gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, tools and instruments of their magical arts. These were the props they used in spinning their illusions of power. But what they found in the Christ child made their paraphernalia of ancient superstition obsolete. No longer would they search for the glory of a forgotten empire or make return visits to the palace.
When we read the story of the magi carefully, it is turned around 180 degrees. Christ is not glorified because kings came to do him honor. Rather, these would be kings without kingdoms were liberated from their dreams of power and glory. They were truly freer when they worshipped the Christ child than they had ever been when they had imperial majesty. This is the beginning of the Jesus stories in which there is what theologians call “The Great Reversal”. What is seen as “normal” is turned on its head where Jesus is concerned.
Now some people say that the wise guys don’t even belong in the nativity sets we use during Christmas. After all, the magi showed up months after Jesus was born. The gospel says that they went to the house where the child was. No baby in a manger. But, I would assert that because of their long journey from the East to find the child, the magi represent all of the outsiders who have come to believe in Jesus. Although they weren’t physically present in the original nativity with the baby Jesus and Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, they belong in the nativity. They speak for all of us who have journeyed through our lives searching for meaning, truth, and holiness. All of us – all people – are simply lost souls looking for a star that will not fail and we find that God is already within us, a light in our own souls.
The true gift of this season, we can learn from the magi, is that in Christ, we are freed from the necessity to shore up our lives with the trappings of wealth, power, fame or other forms of stardom. The deepest satisfactions in life are not those objects of fine gold, frankincense or myrrh, not those DVD’s, fancy cars, Superbowl championships or any other honors that the world has to give.
The secret lies not in our possessions, but in taking possession of ourselves. It’s the light that burns from within that truly matters. It is appropriate that we celebrate this season, not with relics of gold, frankincense or myrrh, the trinkets of astrologers. Instead we turn to the simplest of things, a word of truth, a song, a prayer, a warm welcome to ones we love, the struggle to do the work of justice and to fulfill God’s promise of peace. Jesus is our bright morning star, a light that shines within our hearts even when all else fails.
I like the idea that Christmas is not simply one day but rather a whole season that stretches out from December 25 all the way through to January 6th in the New Year. That allows us to separate the secular and commercial Christmas from the more reflective period during which we can contemplate the coming of Christ in our own lives. A period of twelve days allows an appropriate amount of time in which to probe to a deeper level of understanding. Thus, these twelve days may actually redeem Christmas, and this time of the year can be an occasion for illumination and discovery, a breakthrough moment in which those things that are most real come shining through. We give up trying to impress and please the powerful Herods and begin to look for value and meaning in life beyond power and privilege.
We know about the magi’s travel to the Christ child. The Bible gives us the opportunity to write the rest of the story. What did they do after they saw Jesus?
Were they still traipsing around gazing in the sky or were they on a new journey to discover the light within?
And what will we do with these remaining 6 days of Christmas… will we take time to discover the light within?
- Matthew 2:1 - 14