A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, January 8, 2017
Text: Matthew 2:1-12
Sometimes when I meet someone for the first time and they ask what I do, I will play the little game of giving them three guesses. Some are amused; some annoyed, but it’s not always easy to come out as pastor in certain circles. It isn’t that I’m in any way ashamed of what I do, but there are circumstances in which I hope people will get to know me before they pigeonhole me or judge me for what I do. Trust me, there are folk out there who have a negative, knee-jerk reaction to hearing you are a Baptist pastor. We have not always had the best publicity nor have we always been true to the gospel and it comes back to haunt us.
Anyway, three seems to be the number for the day – three gifts, three kings, three faces to the godhead, and now three questions. Of course, the text does not actually say there were three wise men or magi. It does speak of three gifts, so tradition has also come to claim that there were three astrologers, students of the stars, who followed one from Persia or Arabia to Jerusalem and on to the village of Bethlehem in search of the one whose coming the stars proclaimed. In that time and place it was not at all improbable that events of religious and political significance would be predicted in the heavens.
Tom Wright says, “The ancient world, innocent of streetlights, never forgot the night sky. Many people, especially in countries to the east of Palestine, had developed the study of the stars and the planets to a fine art, giving each one very particular meanings.“ He continues, “They believed, after all, that the whole world was of a piece, everything was interconnected, and when something important was happening on earth you could expect to see it reflected in the heavens. Alternatively, a remarkable event among the stars and planets must mean, they thought, a remarkable event on earth” (Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone: Part One, p. 10). Perhaps these ancients were wiser than we have ever imagined in their understanding of the interconnectedness of all creation. “God’s love made visible, incomprehensible” and, yes, indivisible. This “love shall reign.”
Now Matthew is not nearly the storyteller that Luke is. Just the facts is more his way of making his case. So we only get the bare bones of what could be a wonderful story. In fact, people have tried over the centuries to enlarge and embellish the tale, from O’ Henry’s, compassionate and generous, “Other Wise Man” to Menotti’s, “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” in which the star plays a major role in the miraculous healing of a poor crippled boy.
What the text tells us is that the magi showed up at the court of Herod the Great. Anyone in Matthew’s time would have known what a despot Herod had been and that his court was not the right place to come looking for a new king. Of course, it would have been very logical for the Magi themselves to begin there, especially assuming they had not heard of Herod’s horrible reputation. This brings us to our first question, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” You can imagine old Herod was not thrilled to hear from some foreigners that his replacement had been born without his even knowing it. He had no plans to give up the throne and was increasingly paranoid about anyone he suspected of seeking it. The greater his paranoia the greater his brutality in dealing with usurpers, including his own sons. Despite his cunning attempts to manipulate the magi, we see in the end his murderous intent.
Where is the child? His own nervous wise men, chief priests and scribes, prophets and advisors, scurry to find the evidence in Isaiah’s prophecy that Bethlehem is their best bet. “O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight!” So, in Matthew’s account, the answer to the first question, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” is, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
The Magi journey on until the star stops “over the place where the child was.” Notice there is no mention of a stable or manger or shepherds or barnyard animals. Just the place where Mary, Joseph, and the baby are staying. Immediately, “on entering the house,” they fell to their knees in tribute and adoration. At the climax of Healey Willan’s beautiful setting of Laurence Houseman’s poem, “The Three Kings,” the weary travelers receive this ecstatic invitation, “Come in, come in, ye kings, and kiss the feet of God.” This brings us to the second question, “What can we give this Holy One, this Child of God?”
The magi are prepared. From their great wealth they produce their treasures – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Tradition has made these gifts fit for the King of kings and Lord of lords. “Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain, gold I bring to crown him again…” “Frankincense to offer have I, incense owns a deity nigh…” “Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom…” King, Holy One, the Word made flesh who will die and rise again, symbols of the life of Jesus the Christ laid at his infant feet.
Their quest concluded, their homage paid, their gifts given, the magi are then warmed in a dream not to trust Herod, not to return to Jerusalem to give their report. This brings us quickly to the third question, “How do we get home from here?” They knew the route they had traveled. Surely it would bring them home more quickly to retrace their steps. Satisfying as their encounter with the Holy One had been, they had traveled a long way over many days. Thoughts of home and what they left behind must have stirred them to return as soon as they could. But faithful followers that they were, they heeded the angel’s warning and headed out on a new journey that would bring them back where they started.
Perhaps the magi are the inspiration for Eliot’s poetic proclamation, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time” (T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”), for undoubtedly they would never be the same after this sacred journey. They must return home by a different route for they are different beings than the wise ones who struck out so long ago to find the birthplace of a king. Little did they understand the majesty of this baby born to peasant parents in a Palestinian backwater. “God’s love made visible! Incomprehensible, Christ is invincible! His love shall reign!” Their homely surroundings might have seemed familiar, but they would never look at the world in the same way again.
Three questions: Where is the Child? What can we give? How do we get home from here? Questions to which the writer of Matthew crafted responses long ago. But what if we were to ask ourselves these same questions today? Where is this child born to be king in our own lives and times? Where has the Christ taken root? Where is God incarnate? This ancient account places the Holy One in the poorest of circumstances and says this is where you look for Emmanuel, God with us.
“O holy Child of Bethlehem descend to us, we pray; cast our sin and enter in; be born in us today.” Where do we find the child if not born and living in us, with compassion, justice, peace, love, and welcome for all? If the Christ is to be alive in the world today, it must be within you and me and all who fall on their knees and proclaim him the Holy Human One who shows us the way to right living in God’s Beloved Community.
What can we give? Gold, frankincense, myrrh. I doubt that most of us could bring treasure so rich and rare. In her beautiful poem, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” Christina Rossetti asks,
What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.
Or as Reginald Heber observed, “Vainly we offer each ample oblation, vainly Jesus’ favor secure. Richer by far is the heart’s adoration. Dearer to God are the gifts of the poor.” In this poetic sense, what would it mean for each of us to give our heart to the Holy One? How would we be different and what difference would it make in this world in which we live and in which we work together to build a house where all are truly welcome, where love and justice rule, and peace with well-being are the way of life?
How do we get home from here? Now my vehicle knows the way to 3626 Louis Road from here. It travels a set route to and from nearly every day. I’m pretty sure we have discovered the quickest way to cover the two and half miles. But there are other routes that would get me there in a safe and timely manner. And what of that other home we have in God’s Beloved Community, in the house where all are welcome? It’s more difficult to be certain we know the way there. We think we do and we give it our best shot most of the time, but are there other, better ways to get there? I think that’s always a nagging question for those who have encountered the living God in Bethlehem’s baby.
As with the magi, we, too, may be asked to try a different way, a new route to avoid the pitfalls of evil that threaten to undo us. Will we be open to such a challenging adventure? Is finding our home in God’s Beloved Community worth the risk? Perhaps Jan Richardson says it best in her “Blessing of the Magi”:
We cannot show you
the route that will
take you home;
that way is yours
and will be found
in the walking.
But we tell you
you will wonder
at how the light you thought
you had left behind
goes with you,
your empty hands,
your homeward feet,
illuminating the road
with every step
May it be so for us. Amen