What the Magi Reveal: From Instinct to Wisdom, and Wisdom to Worship

[This is the manuscript for a sermon that I preached on January 3, 2016 at Saint Peter’s Church. The audio can be found here.]

Today is the is the final Sunday of our Advent and Christmas sermon series. And if you’re new to the Anglican tradition, you may not know that we actually often continue to talk about Christmas even after Christmas, because it’s so central and foundational to our faith.

This year we’ve studied a number of different characters in the Christmas story: Zechariah, Elizabeth, Joseph, Mari… Simeon — and this morning we come to the Wise Men, or, the Magi as they’re also called, who are perhaps the most mysterious of all these characters. As we’ve studied each of these figures and their faith journeys, we’ve asked the question of what they can teach us about God and about ourselves, and what does this mean for our lives.
So with the Magi, I want to ask, what makes them wise? Why do we call them that? And how are they different than Herod? Which might seem obvious, but it’s a significant question for how Matthew tells the story. So we’ll look at Herod too. And then, finally, how does God through Jesus cause the Magi’s wisdom to become genuine worship?

Whitney and I were blessed to get to travel back to Austin, TX this past week where both of us are from, to see our families and stay with them. We had a great trip, and got to do pretty much everything that you hope you get to do with family on Christmas and for the holidays. We left just feeling very grateful for the special time we got to have with everyone. For the freedom that we have to travel safely and be with people we love. I share this because as I continued to reflect on this on the way home, it just struck me how radically different and how far removed our experience of Christmas usually is from the one that Mary and Joseph and Jesus had.

Because there are some seriously disrupting and disturbing aspects to this whole episode. The first couple years of Jesus’ life were pretty rough and dangerous! It’d be nice if we had a different story to talk about for the first Sunday of the 2016 – one that would provide a more light-hearted reflection – maybe some inspiration for New Year’s Resolutions. But there’s things about this story that are dark, and horrific!

Of course, this is not the first time that such a slaughter of infants occurs in the Bible, as many of you probably know. In the Exodus story, Pharaoh did the same thing! — by ordering that all male infants under the age of 2 be cast into the Nile, but Moses like Jesus is able to escape because of God’s warning and the help of others. So clearly Matthew is trying to connect the dots between Israel’s expectations for deliverance and Jesus’ fulfillment of that expectation.
The Tradition has called this story the Flight to Egypt, which also has connotations of the Exodus, but later on the church started calling it the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents. Sometimes the infant victims are even referred to as the first Christian martyrs. So maybe as much as any, this story highlights the harsh reality that the world is not a safe place, and God does not necessarily protect us from having to endure suffering, loss, and injustice and tragedy. It’s a difficult truth.

There’s some non-biblical historical credibility to these events as well, at least insofar as we know that Herod really was the kind of king that was capable of make such a cruel order. We’re told that he had three of his sons executed who he accused of conspiring against him; and before he died, he supposedly ordered that on the day of his burial, one member of every family in his kingdom was to be killed so that the nation might actually mourn.

We don’t know how many babies Herod had killed. It probably wasn’t as many as Pharaoh, because Bethlehem was very small. Some archaeologists have estimated that it might have been several dozen. But really, the number doesn’t matter. Regardless, it makes you want to ask, why couldn’t God have warned the families of all the other babies, if he was able to warn Joseph and the Magi about Herod’s intent to kill Jesus? Where is the hope and comfort in this story? Is there any hope or comfort in it? I think it’s fair to ask this.

Or, the other thing we might be tempted to do just to blame Herod — to call him crazy and evil and let that be the end of it. Which seems reasonable! But we may also want to be careful not to distance ourselves too much and too quickly from Herod — horrible as his acts were, terrible as he was. Even though we’re not in the same situation, and even though we’d never do the things that Herod did, it may still be the case that there’s a little bit of Herod in each of us.

Here’s what I mean by that: Herod is living according to his instincts. He’s in survival mode. He’s motivated by fear and the desire to be safe and in control. Herod is fixated, he’s stuck, in a self-centered, self-serving existence. He can’t see beyond his own interests and concerns. This is what allows him to devalue human life and make decisions without any regard for others. And while it may not show itself in the same extreme ways, we often get stuck in instinct mode ourselves. I know I do.

And secondly, if we just blame Herod, we risk putting ourselves in the place of the same people that Jesus later most directly challenges in his public ministry: the religious leaders of his day. Those who were always ready to demonize or make an enemy out of another group, and to do so while ignoring their own responsibility for the sin and suffering and injustice in the world. Jesus calls them out on this, because he has the authority to do so.

And the final thing about blaming Herod is that he’s also the product of a whole system and empire of sin and injustice — it’s not like he’s working alone, or like he doesn’t answer to someone. Herod is allowed to have power and be a king only because Caesar approves of him and views him as politically advantageous. There’s a structural nature to the violence and fear-based governance that rules the world in the First Century, and we see that same fear-based governance at work in the world today! It’s always on the defensive. It’s willing to harm others in order to protect itself. It’s anxious. It’s always just trying to compete and survive. But this is also natural, it’s normal, it’s conventional — It’s instinctual.

It’s the way of the world. It’s the way of Herod, of Pharaoh, of Caesar… And it’s the instinctual way of human nature that many of us find ourselves living in at times.

But then, there’s the Magi, and they weren’t like Herod. This is the contrast that Matthew is drawing. Because they were wise. They weren’t instinctual – they were wise. The wise men saw the world differently, and they were living for something different. They weren’t living according to their instincts. They were able to see beyond themselves. They were pursuing God, even though they do not know God yet. And somehow, they had the wisdom to see that the true king wasn’t Herod, who was the official king, but Jesus!

Now, we don’t actually know how many of them there were, and there’s no indication that they were kings. Rather, as the name “magi,” suggests, they were like astronomers, magicians, or interpreters or dreams. So maybe they marveled at the vastness of the cosmos, and maybe they looked to the stars, because they were seeking, they were searching for more truth, because they knew that their lives and their purpose depended on something bigger and much more important than themselves. They’re after truth for truth’s sake! Not just for their own benefit or the benefit of the group they were born into.

And this is really important, because many skeptics — they wonder how Christians can believe that something that happened at one time and in one place could have significance for all people and throughout all of history. Sometimes theologians call this the “scandal of particularly.” The idea that God acted most decisively at one moment, in one person, through one group, in all of history. This can be a hard pill to swallow, and understandably so.

Maybe you know people like this today, who aren’t Christians, and still have a lot of questions, but are drawn to God. It’s one of the largest and fastest growing groups of people in country, according to many sociologists — those who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. I think the Magi were kind of like this, and it’s important for us to listen to people like this today.

But the wise men in this story are meant to reveal something to us about precisely this issue — how God does indeed work through one person, one people, and one time and place in history, but in order to reveal something and to do something for the whole world — for everybody throughout all of history. The gospel is breaking down all the barriers of worldly kingdoms. As Paul says in Galatians, in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, which is probably why both Jews and Greeks weren’t sure how they felt about this.

For example, in Luke’s version of the story, it was shepherds, not wise men, who came to Bethlehem. They were basically the exact opposite of the wise men. They were poor, uneducated and probably Jewish, while Matthew tells us about these wealthy, educated, and non-Jewish Magi. Which just further testifies to the universal appeal and reach of the gospel to the whole spectrum of social classes.

So the way Matthew narrates what’s going on here not only sets up a contrast between Herod and the Wise Men, but also between the Kingdom of God, which is for all, and the Kingdoms of this world, which elevate one group above everyone else. Jesus’s birth itself begins a new drama and battle between the kingdom that Jesus inaugurates and the on-going kingdoms of this world. Herod is just one example of a worldly king. There are many other Herods today! And the conflict is intensified as the two realms draw closer to each other.

During this week in the new season after Advent which the church still calls Christmas, there is on January 6th, something that the tradition calls Epiphany — the feast of Epiphany. We hear this word (epiphany) and we probably think about having an epiphany, right? A moment of clarifying insight or vision, an ‘aha’ moment, where things that were blurry before, that puzzled us, come more sharply into focus. Well, the church throughout the ages has had something similar in mind with its inclusion of this story during this season of Epiphany. The story has been seen as symbolic of God’s revelation and coming to the Gentiles — the non-Jewish world, and, it’s telling us something about who God has been all along, but that we just didn’t fully know yet.

The magi, then, once more, are part of this same “unveiling”: they help to disclose the mystery of the nature of God’s kingdom ushered in by Jesus!

Ok, but here’s the final act of the story: there’s a limit to all of this wisdom. The wise men take their knowledge as far as it can go! We’ve seen this contrast between instinct with Herod, and the wisdom of the wise men, but what does the birth of Jesus teach the wise men, ultimately, that even they couldn’t have figured out in their own wisdom?

The clue, I think, is that Jesus comes in the most unsuspecting, unimpressive way. As an outside, essentially, and from the margins! There’s nothing safe or ideal about his circumstances. He comes as one who isn’t even welcomed by his own. Rather, he’s excluded and rejected. As Jesus himself would later say in Matthew 8:20, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

Like the nation of Israel itself had been for centuries, Jesus and his parents are forced into Exile because of Herod. And like many people then and now, the Son of God had to seek political asylum and become a refugee. They likely had to flee quickly with very few possessions, and it might have been difficult for Joseph to find work in Egypt as a carpenter and as a migrant. They would have been dependent on others to take care of them. They wouldn’t have any citizenship to rely on.

So Jesus is excluded, he’s marginalized. He has enemies who want to kill him, even though he hasn’t done anything wrong. His plight is like that of the murdered children in the story. And even though he’s initially spared, he ultimately shares in their fate, as the holy innocent one who is slaughtered, who does an unjust death.

Now, the Magi don’t understand all of this yet, but they recognize Jesus as king, and that’s what’s even more amazing about their journey. It says in v. 4 that when the star stopped over the place where the child was, they were overjoyed, and they paid him homage in the form of three gifts (which is probably why the tradition has said there were three kings), at least two of which were symbolic of Jesus’ priestly role, and the death he would later endure.

The familiar passage in Philippians 2 retells this whole story, essentially, in poetic form, about Jesus Christ’s descent, to this lowly place, and the ascent and worship that he receives as a result. It says:

Have the same mind in you as Christ Jesus,Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place, and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

I imagine that this gospel proclamation, though they maybe didn’t hear it, is what the Magi saw, it’s what they observed and experienced when they came to the place where Jesus lay, and it’s what moved them from a place of mere wisdom and searching and expectation, to actual worship and adoration, joyfully giving costly gifts.

So in closing my prayer is that it would be so with you and all of us, that we would be compelled and drawn by the light of Christ that has come into the world at Christmas and into this year, that it would give us an Epiphany, that we’d be compelled and drawn to have the same mind as the Magi, who were wise beyond what they knew, and searched and searched until they found the one who was calling them all along. Calling them beyond their instincts, and beyond their best wisdom to worship the true king and savior of the whole world.