Sermon: Christmas Unplugged: Kings or Magi or Wisemen?
Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12
Date: July 22, 2018
Of all of the characters of the Christmas story, I think I love the story of the Kings, or the Magi, or the Wisemen, whatever we want to call them, the best. Which I understand that many will find to be a bit odd. Because for most, these visitors are little more than an after thought when telling the Christmas story. Just figures in our Nativity scenes and in the rush of our Christmas celebrations they tend to be overlooked. In fact most of us have already put them away until next year by the time we celebrate Epiphany and their arrival nearly two weeks after Christmas. We only have Matthew’s word for it that they came at all. We don’t know where they came from. Some scholars say they were from the area that is now Iraq and Iran, but in Jesus day would have been the remnants of the great Assyrian and Babylonian Empires which for many centuries had been the deadly enemies of Israel. Other scholars say they might have been from as far away as the Orient, which was a land of mystery to the Jews – beyond the reach of even the powerful Roman armies. So who was this Baby that those from so far away had heard of Him and had come to pay Him tribute. They wouldn’t even give the mighty emperor in Rome that courtesy. So we don’t know where they came from. And we don’t really know who they were. By tradition, in our more secular understandings of Christmas, we seem to have settled on the idea that they were Kings. But I suspect that may be because it helps to ease our dis-ease with the humble circumstances of Jesus birth. After all, a King needs to be born in royal circumstances. Whoever heard of a King born in a stable, and placed in a manger, and tended to by shepherds. How can that be for a King that is born in the line of the great King David? But wait – Matthew says, there were these travelers from the East, who gave every appearance of royalty, who came to see Jesus and brought Him tribute. Kings from neighboring Kingdoms. Surely these kings coming proves that Jesus was indeed born to be the King of the Jews. At least in Matthew’s telling, Kings coming elevates the circumstances around Jesus’ birth.
But then other traditions identify these mysterious travelers as Magi though there is not agreement as to even what a Magi was. Of course, Magi is the root of the word magician which implies a mystic, fortune teller, spiritualist, interpreter of signs all rolled into one. The Magi are closely linked to the Star which seemed to travel in the sky and then stop over Bethlehem. The traditions say that when the Magi saw the Star, they knew that it meant that the Messiah had been born and so they came to see for themselves. But here’s the thing – the belief, really more superstition than belief, was that when a great battle was won between nations, or when some great political or worldly event took place a star would suddenly appear in the sky – sort of like fireworks on the 4th of July. If they were Magi, it was more likely that they came in response to the superstition rather than prophecy. To check out the star more than the King.
And then, of course, some traditions identified them as wise men. Now it isn’t really clear what was meant by wise. Does it mean they were learned men, maybe theologians or scientists or the like, or does it mean that they were down to earth, practical, in touch with all of humanity. Now in the Jewish mindset, wisdom was equated with the King. In fact, most Jews who knew anything about such things, were taught that King Solomon, David’s son was the wisest man who ever lived. Even today we talk about the “wisdom of Solomon.” And so perhaps as the story was told throughout the generations, that’s the reason that Kings and Wise Men have been used interchangeably.
And so in our 21st century telling of the Christmas story, we almost always identify them as Kings. Perhaps Matthew, who was the most Jewish of the Apostles, wasn’t completely comfortable with stables and mangers and shepherds, and so writing the story of Jesus birth he added this little known tradition of Kings or magicians or wise men coming to that stable palace and paying homage to the baby King. And it doesn’t really matter who they were because they add a touch of elegance and nobility to our plugged in celebration of Christmas. And so in our Christmas pageants we dress them up in fine robes and place Crowns on their head and they become part of our grandiose celebration of such a humble event. But when we unplug Christmas and really take the time to think about these mysterious visitors, I think instead of focusing on who they were, we need to really be asking why they came. Because ultimately whether they were Kings or Magi or Wisemen doesn’t really matter as far as our 21st Century faith is concerned. So if they were Kings, why would they have come? Of course, it was not uncommon for heads of state to acknowledge and even pay tribute to a new King in a neighboring Kingdom, especially if they feared what that new King might ultimately mean in terms of world politics. And so foreign kings would be thinking if I appease this new King now, it might keep the peace in the future. The fact that the visitors brought gold to the manger would tend to support the idea that the visitors were Kings. Until we consider that Jesus was born a King without any real Kingdom. Israel was a captive people – essentially exiles in their own land. If a King would have wanted to pay tribute to the ruler of Israel, in order to promote peace, he should have set his sights for Rome and an audience with Caesar. Caesar was the true “King” of Israel, in spite of Herods pretensions to the throne. Jesus was a King without a Kingdom. There would be no reason the King of Babylon or Assyria would need to appease Him. And so anything these Kings would bring, if they would even come at all, would be more of a down payment on the future, in case the centuries old prophecy of a King in the line of the great King David, would someday come to pass in this baby King. If they were Kings then they would have brought Gold as a down payment on the future.
On the other hand, if they were Magi, they would have been more likely to bring something like Frankincense. Now in telling this story, we assume that Frankincense was an expensive commodity. Something of great worth. Monetarily even on a par with gold. But I think that’s only true when we plug in Christmas, and compare it to the extravagance of our celebrations. We need Frankincense to be of great worth. That’s the only way we can say that these visitors brought gifts worthy of a King. But the truth is that Frankincense was a fairly common commodity. It was an extract from a tree that grew throughout the Middle East. Monetarily it was not worth a lot, but rather it was desired for it’s healing powers. It’s value was mystical more than material. It is what we call an essential oil today. It was used by faith healers and mystics to rub on wounds and painful muscles because it was believed to have healing and pain relieving power, just like the Magi themselves. Now centuries of reflection on these visitors have connected the Frankincense to the wounds that Jesus experienced on the cross, but I think that when we unplug Christmas we will discover that Frankincense was a pretty common gift to bring for a new born because of it’s power to heal. And that because of the mystical nature of it’s healing powers, it would have been a common possession of a Magi – a mystic, a healer. A gift that a Magi would have brought to a baby King.
And then if they were Wisemen that came, they might have brought Myrrh to give to the new born King. Again tradition has ascribed a great material value to Myrrh. But when we unplug Christmas, we discover that Myrrh also was a pretty common substance, also extracted from a tree, that was sweet smelling and so used as an element in perfume and incense to mask the unpleasant odor which was so prevalent in what some historians describe as the age of the great unwashed humanity. It was perhaps added to the ritual baths. And so myrrh was essential for both poor and rich alike. Mary may have wished she would have had some Myrrh when the Shepherds came to visit. One historian said that the Shepherd’s stench was important in his or her acceptance by the sheep. They smelled like one of them. And by the time that Jesus was born, myrrh had also come into use as one of the spices that a dead body was prepared with before sealing it in a tomb, in order to mask the stench of human decay. On Easter morning when the women came to the garden to prepare the body of Jesus for burial, they no doubt brought Myrrh with them. And then incense made with myrrh would have been essential for the priests in the Temple in order to mask the odor of the blood and decaying animals that had been brought for sacrifice. So Myrrh was associated with both life and death, and the reality was that no matter who you might be, King or one of the daughters of Jerusalem, the poor and the outcast, there would come that time when Myrrh would be essential for you in both life and death. Normally it would have been a gift given to loved ones of the deceased at death, a gift of grief, but wise Men would have known the importance of Myrrh at every stage of life. So Myrrh might have been the gift that Wisemen brought understanding the prophecies concerning the life and death of this King.
As I have taken time away from the rush of Christmas, I have been wondering why it is that our traditions concerning these visitors who came to the manger always seem to assume that they were all the same. Three Kings or Three Magi or Three Wisemen. You see I think that Matthew fueled the centuries old speculation about who they are by adding elements to the story that are specific to each. For instance, the fact that they were first welcomed into King Herod’s palace would imply a more royal identity. Herod’s arrogance (and paranoia) would not have allowed for anything less. On the other hand, the fact that they were there in response to the appearance of a star implies a more mystical element to the story, thus the tradition that they were Magi or mystics or star gazers. And then the implication that they were familiar with the Jewish prophecies suggests a more spiritual, even intellectual element, more in line with Wise or learned men, particularly in the Jewish prophecies. So let me suggest to you that perhaps Matthew is telling us that worldly visitors came to Bethlehem in response to Jesus’s birth and rather than just being Kings, or Magi, or Wisemen, there were all three in the entourage, or perhaps they even came at different times. That what Matthew was trying to say was that in addition to the Shepherds that Luke talks about, many others, some with a more worldly perspective came to Jesus – that the Savior that was born in Bethlehem was not just for the Jews but was for all people. And that those who come to Jesus both then and now are identified by what they give to Him, rather than what they expect to receive. And there’s the rub when we plug in Christmas it becomes more about what we expect to receive, then what we give when we come to Jesus. You see, I think that ultimately Matthew – the accountant and tax collector – is concerned with the cost of coming to Jesus rather than the rewards. Because the focus of the story is not who they were, or even why they came but what they were willing to give to come to Jesus. Think about it. The only thing we really know about these visitors is what gifts they brought.
When I was a teenager contemplating making my own trip to the Manger, I was given a copy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book The Cost of Discipleship and reading it changed my perception of what coming to Christ was about. It was about what I am willing to give, rather than what I will receive. Bonhoeffer writes that the “deadly enemy of faith is cheap grace. What we are fighting for is costly grace.” The visitors that came whether they were Kings, or Magi, or Wisemen or even Shepherds, began their journey to Jesus by asking not what they would receive but what can they give. And so they came ready to give to Jesus rather than receive. Bonhoeffer goes on to say that “when Christ call us, He calls us to come and die.” Because the cost of grace, the cost of discipleship, of coming to the manger is our lives. Not necessarily a physical death, but rather a death to the things of this world. Who we are and all that we have. For many, Christmas plugged in is all about receiving. Christmas is “good” if we received what we wanted under the tree. But that’s cheap grace. Belief without cost. But Christmas unplugged is all about giving. Costly grace. Belief that comes with great cost. Matthew’s story is a story about transformation. About what we, whether we are Kings, or Magi, or Wisemen, or Shepherds are willing to give to be a follower of Jesus. Before Bonhoeffer I was looking at the journey to the manger in terms of what I would receive, but Bonhoeffer helped me understand that the journey does not start until I decide what cost I am willing to pay to kneel at the manger of the King.
Christmas unplugged is all about the miracle of giving. Giving ourselves no matter who we are. Giving ourselves no matter where we come from. It’s not about giving extravagant expensive gifts to one another, but rather about giving all that we are and have to Jesus first. That’s why these visitors, whoever they were, came to the manger. And the miracle of giving is that no matter what we give, we receive so much more. Jesus turns it into so much more. We give Him our sin and receive forgiveness. We give Him our humility and we are exalted. We give him our earthly life and receive eternity. We give him our unworthy selves and are made worthy through Grace. We give Him our love, and He transforms that into love that is universal and unconditional for all people. Love that becomes the witness of our life. And church those aren’t things we can find in any store on Black Friday, or that we can wrap and put under the tree on Christmas morning. They only come to those who come and kneel at the manger in a spirit of humility and sacrifice. In Bethlehem there is a church built on top of what tradition has identified as the place where Jesus was born. And inside the walls of the church there is small cave that is believed to be the stable cave in which Jesus was born. On the floor inside the cave there is a star design that marks the exact place where the manger was, though I’m not sure how they know that. Visitors are allowed to enter the cave and approach the star, presumably the same way that the Kings did, but there is a catch and that is that the threshold is so low that most cannot enter standing up. Instead, to approach the place where the baby Jesus lay, you need to get on your knees and bow your head to enter. How appropriate that is that whether you are a King or a Magi or a Wiseman or a Shepherd, you must approach the manger on your knees. We’re all the same when we come to Jesus. Max Lucado in his book The Applause of Heaven writes: While theologians were sleeping and the elite were dreaming and the successful were snoring, the meek and the penitent were kneeling. They were kneeling before the One only the meek and penitent will ever see. They were kneeling in front of Jesus.”
(In 1872 Christina Rosetti, after living most of her life in illness and poverty, wrote a poem which was later put to music and became a favorite Advent Hymn in which she put to words the miracle of giving. She wrote: 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 give him: give Him my heart. That’s the miracle of giving that came to us with the birth of a baby in a humble manger. And those that came, came asking Rosetti’s question, “what can I give Him?”)