JR Forasteros | Teaching Pastor, Catalyst Community Church
This is the account of the Magi who visit Jesus after he is born. Though the larger story in Matthew incorporates Jesus' virgin birth, Joseph's initial reluctance and eventual faithfulness, and Herod's slaughter of the children of Bethlehem, this particular pericope is the story of the Magi. It begins with their arrival in Jerusalem and ends with their journey toward home.
Who are the magi? Doubtless the pastor will have the chance to debunk several myths, if appropriate. The text never speaks of "three" travelers – the number comes from their gifts. These gifts can be read as symbols – gold for Christ's kingship, frankincense for his priestly role and myrrh to anticipate his death. They can also be understood as the raw material that financed the Holy Family's flight to Egypt (as Anne Rice does in her excellent novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt).
The Magi aren't kings. The Greek word magoi refers to magicians. Magicians in the ancient world were men who controlled powerful spirits. They were also well-versed in astrology, which accounts for how the Magi arrived in Jerusalem.
Matthew tells us the Magi are "from the East", which in those days meant the Parthian Empire. As usual throughout Israel's history, in the first century, God's people were sandwiched between two global powers. To the West, and ruling through Herod the Great, stood the newly-minted Rome, under the power of Caesar Augustus, the first Roman Emperor. To the West stood Parthia, a smaller but unconquerable empire in modern-day Iran. Parthia proved to be a thorn in Rome's side for centuries, and a Parthian-back assassin had killed Herod's father and brother before Herod was able (with Rome's help) to secure the throne of Israel.
Herod's relationship with Rome was likewise complicated. Herod had befriended Mark Antony early in life, and it was in the person of Antony that Rome helped Herod secure his throne. After Julius Caesar was assassinated and Rome fell to civil war between Caesar's nephew Octavian and his best general, Antony, Antony ended up in Egypt (where he fell in love with one Cleopatra). Given their long friendship and Egypt's proximity to the Holy Land, Herod threw his support behind Antony.
Which was a problem when Octavian defeated Antony and declared himself Caesar Augustus. Herod sailed to Rhodes, where Augustus had just won his victory, and declared himself for Augustus, promising the same unswerving loyalty to the new Caesar he had shown to Antony.
Fast-forward through more than two decades of peace – something Israel had not known in half a century. An envoy arrives from Rome's chief rival in the East. They claim to be a diplomatic envoy. As astrologers, they have seen in the stars that a new King of the Jews has been born. They arrive at Herod's palace – where else would one look for a newborn king?
Herod knows nothing of this new king. His scribes and priests tell him that if this is the Messiah, he may have been born in Bethlehem. Herod consults with the magi, who tell him that, according to the stars, the child was born two years ago. Craftily, Herod insists they report to him, though he has no intention of worshiping any children, kings or not. The Magi seem oblivious to Herod's scheming, but are warned in a dream, so take a different route home, leaving Herod to figure out a plan B.
What to preach on this text? In a time of political turmoil, the preacher can speak to the anxieties of the congregation. It matters that neither Herod nor the Magi thought to look for Jesus in Bethlehem, so far removed from Jerusalem. (Not geographically – Bethlehem is less than five miles from Jerusalem by foot. Rather, Bethlehem was politically nearly as far from Jerusalem as one could get. It was not a center of power. It was the sleepy small town you drive through that has a faded billboard littered with buckshot that boasts proudly, "Home to the 1964 State Champion Football Team!") The newborn King of the Jews, a toddler by the advent of the magi, was born in humility, far from the center of political action. So too, the Church is most effective on the margins, working among the forgotten, taking care of all those who feel (mostly rightly) forgotten by the centers of power of our day.
It's also worth reflecting on the fact that the Magi themselves were not Jewish. They clearly did not know the Jewish scriptures (as the priests and scribes had to discern the birthplace of the Messiah). They were astrologers, magicians. The Jewish scriptures have strong words for the types of religion these men practiced, and they're not positive words. Yet the truth of Jesus' birth was announced at the cosmic level – even the stars realigned to mark his advent.
Perhaps our churches are too often concerned with drawing lines between us and them, worrying about what is good and bad religion to see when God is calling even the pagan astrologers to worship the Word made flesh. The preacher might challenge her congregation to give up playing religious watchdog and instead watch where God is working among the outcasts, outsiders and pagans. The preacher could challenge his congregation to affirm where God is working and invite them, like the Magi, to come adore Jesus.