“We Three Kings of Orient Are…” It’s a great hymn, isn’t it? So much Christian tradition and folklore and art has been inspired by today’s story but none as enduring as this hymn which is funny because, there probably weren’t three of them. The number 3 comes from the number of gifts they present, but it never says there were three kings. And it doesn’t say they were kings either, by the way. The word used is Magi which means something more like astrologers or sorcerers even. They weren’t necessarily from the Orient either. Matthew just says they were “from the East.” But none of that really matters. Their three-ness, their kingli-ness, or their Orient-ation isn’t the point. The point is… they’re not Jews. These visitors are strangers. Aliens. Gentiles.
These Magi are Gentiles streaming toward the light of this dawning morning star to pay homage to a newborn king of the Jews. Do you get it? It’s another one of those Nativity scene movie references I talked about a few weeks back. It’s a living reference to Old Testament Bible stories, the kind of stories Joseph and Mary had just started telling their baby boy at bedtime when suddenly one of the stories knocks on the door and visits them in person, bearing gifts no less!
As the story goes, back in Genesis, after the Flood, after the Tower of Babel, it was clear that God needed to save humanity from ourselves. God elected to do this in a marvelously strange and small way, identifying one family, the family of Abraham and Sarah. God called them saying “Go. Leave your kindred and your homeland, and go to a place I will show you, and I will make of you a great nation. I will be your God and you will be my people. I will bless you, and through you I will bless all the nations of the world.”
“What?” thought Abraham and Sarah, “How will we make a great nation? We’re very old and have no children.”
So God gave them a sign. God gave them a number of signs, but this one is particularly relevant today. God said to Abraham and Sarah, “Look at the stars,”
“Look to the stars… Go ahead, try and count them… You can’t. I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and will give to your offspring all these lands; and all the nations of the earth shall gain blessing for themselves through your offspring.”
“Look to the stars,” God said to Abraham and Sarah, and then God promised, “All the nations of the earth shall gain blessing through those stars, your offspring.” And today we remember when one of those stars guided members of other nations to the little town of Bethlehem, to a newborn descendent of Abraham and Sarah.
Do you get it yet?
This biblical reference only shines brighter the more of the Bible we read. Abraham and Sarah’s descendants do grow into a nation. But as a nation, generation after generation, these Jews as they’re known, are constantly tossed and torn in clash after clash with other kingdoms, other nations. You can read the whole Bible as a saga of war-making, and national violence, even nationalism, nation against nation, with God’s little nation right in the middle of it all.
But the whole time, when God speaks, or reaffirms this covenant with Abraham, it’s always clear that this nation of the elect has a higher purpose. It exists for the sake of other nations.
Hear these words from Isaiah 60 about this covenant promise, and see if it illuminates the Magi any more.
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
A multitude of camels shall cover you, (The camels even get a shout out!)
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
Your gates shall always be open;
so that nations shall bring you their wealth,
with their kings led in procession.
The sun shall no longer be
your light by day,
nor for brightness shall the moon
give light to you by night
but the Lord will be your everlasting light,
and your God will be your glory.
That last part, that may sound familiar. That last part about open gates, about the Lord being the light of all nations who will one day stream to that light? That part is quoted again much later, in the book of Revelation, in which the Source of that light is not the infant Christ but the Risen Christ to whom all nations are streaming through wide open gates.
See? From Genesis to Revelation, the work of God can be summed up as the story of God uniting, reconciling all nations to God and to one another. This is what God is up to from Genesis to Revelation.
The story of the Magi’s visit to Bethlehem is a living breathing reference to this Biblical promise: that through Abraham’s descendants, God is blessing, uniting, and reconciling all the nations of the world. That’s how we get peace on earth as it is in heaven.
This is where I’d love to say “and they all lived happily ever after.” I can’t. You may remember that before they reached Bethlehem, the Magi went first to Jerusalem, the nation’s capital. There they met King Herod. Herod along with all the leaders in the capital were frightened by their visit. Not overjoyed, frightened by the news of a newborn king. Threatened…
When the Magi thwart Herod’s efforts at finding and neutralizing the newborn King, Herod calls for the murder of all children under 2 in and around Bethlehem.
This is another clash of kingdoms, a clash of nations with profound casualities. And Christ is born in the middle of it. Here’s how the Gospel of John describes it:
“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”
The reconciliation of all nations, of all things, was happening before their eyes, but he was viewed as a national threat, so they attempted to assassinate him.
Our family had a great Christmas this year. It was pretty magical, in fact. Santa brought a massive inflatable snowman that filled most of the parsonage living room. We got to visit family out of town, and there was even one moment over the holiday during which not one of us was sick. I think it lasted about 30 seconds.
But one feeling that accompanied this Christmas as it has the last 10 or so is just how un-magical and un-joyful life is for so many. We celebrate Christmas every year, and we experience joy as we should, but it is always a celebration of joy in spite of a world that tries to kill joy.
This Christmas my joy was messed with when I read an article about the ways children’s lives are being profoundly effected along our southern border. Then there was this shooting locally at a Denny’s late Christmas night, the Denny’s our men’s group meets at regularly. Then just this week there are these rumors of war with Iran and a story that our denomination will likely split over apparently irreconcilable differences.
Christmas was magical, yes, but there’s still a lot that threatens our Joy. The Magi have come and been overwhelmed by Joy, but Herod has not gone out without a fight. The Light has come into the world; but the world still doesn’t know him, not fully.
At his crucifixion it seems that the Joy of Christ has in fact been killed. Interestingly, it is the title the Magi use for him, “the King of the Jews,” which is posted above his cross. But what happens next, well, it helps shine a light on all of this.
What happened next is that, at the moment of his death. the earth shook, and the curtain of the temple was torn in two, and rocks were split, and tombs opened up, and dead people were raised! And Matthew says that watching all of this, was this one centurion, another non-Jew Roman soldier, a Gentile from a warring nation. And when he saw this, what did he say? He said “Truly this man was the Son of God.”
Do you see? There it is again, at the end of Matthew’s Gospel just like it was at the beginning: a Gentile, coming to see Jesus for who he truly is… coming to the Light, as it were. The covenant promise is coming to pass. And he’s not the last, by no means! It is in Matthew’s gospel that the Risen Christ commissions his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations and they do! From Pentecost onward it is people of all nations who are being baptized in his name, becoming what St. Paul calls “Citizens of a different nation… Citizens of Heaven.” And you and I are among them by virtue of our baptism.
So, hear the Good News. Even though you and I are Gentiles like the Magi, strangers to God’s covenant, and even though we are sinners like Herod, and even though our nation, our denomination, our borders, our own town, and our own hearts don’t fully resemble or accept this Good News, Christ has reconciled us nonetheless.
Christ has made us one, even while we are enemies. We are one with God, and one with each other, even while we are still enemies. We’re not perfect. We’re still sinners. But now, in the Light of Christ shining from Bethlehem, we see that we are sinners without borders, united and freed to walk in the Light that unites us and redeems us, the Light of God’s boundless grace. Ask the Magi, once you see it, once you see this True Light, you can’t un-see it. It changes everything.
So look to the stars. Look to the light of the stars that God used as a sign to unite Abraham and Sarah with Mary Joseph, and the Magi and Herod with Jesus. One of those stars is yours, and mine, and our neighbors, and our enemies. When we follow their light it will lead us closer together than we realize we are. And, beyond ourselves, their light will lead us to Bethlehem and beyond: to Jesus, the Light of the World. Thanks be to God.