Sermon: Seeing Beyond Bethlehem: Through The Eyes of the Wisemen
Scripture: Matthew 2: 1-12
Date: January 14, 2018
As many of you know, the Wise Men from our main nativity, travel throughout our house (and sometimes beyond the house) all throughout the Advent/Christmas season and don’t arrive at the manger until January 6, which is the twelfth day of Christmas or Epiphany. However we decided to wait a week to celebrate. We couldn’t let the season pass without reflecting for a few minutes about the role of these mysterious figures whose arrival in Bethlehem really brings the Christmas story to a conclusion, at least for Matthew. In fact Matthew is apparently the only one who knew about the Wisemen coming to the manger. None of the other Gospel writers talk about them. None of the historians of the day mention them. Apparently even Mary, from whom it is believed Luke got much of the historical material in His gospel ever talked about them. And really Matthew doesn’t give us much information about them. Who were they? Were they Wise Men, or Kings, or Magi, or Astrologers? Were they emissaries of a foreign Kingdom, come to pay homage to the new King of the Jews, as would have been the practice of the day. All Matthew tells us really is that they were men of an undesignated number, who apparently saw a great light in the Western Sky and believing that it was tied to some ancient prophecies of a new King rising, decided to try and find that light and King. And that their quest led them first to Jerusalem, and then to this obscure village of Bethlehem. That’s really all he gives us. The rest of their story. Who? What? When? Why? Where? He leaves to be filled in by the generations that would follow. You know the more I have studied and thought and prayed about these figures the more I have come to believe that Matthew intended for them to remain kind of shadowy figures, more the product of the generations that followed Bethlehem, then Bethlehem itself. Because without the Wisemen (or whatever we prefer to call them), what happened in Bethlehem might have just remained a local legend, confined to shepherds telling tales around the campfires at night. But these Wisemen took the story of Jesus’s birthday into the whole world. For Matthew, it was not the path that led them to Bethlehem that made them wise, but rather the choice to take another way, after Bethlehem. You see I think Matthew gave these mysterious men a prominent place in the Christmas story, to get all of us who would follow to not be blinded by Angels and Shepherds and virgin births, but rather to enable us to see beyond Bethlehem and place it in the context of what Bethlehem meant for the whole world. Let me suggest that with these characters Matthew is telling us it’s not really important who we are when we come to Bethlehem, or where we come from, or why we come. No what really concerns Matthew is where we go when we leave Bethlehem. Do we continue to travel the same road that we always have, or do we go by “another way”? It’s the question that confronts us every year in the days following Christmas. When will we leave Bethlehem and by what way will we go? Perhaps Matthew left the details surrounding these characters deliberately vague so that they could be Everyman. So that they could represent each one of us. I want to think a little about that this morning
As I have studied the role of the Wisemen in the whole Christmas story, I have realized again, that we really know very little about them and that most of what we think we know about them, has been filled in by tradition rather than history or even scripture. For instance, we don’t really know where they were from. Matthew says they were from the east by which he presumably meant east of Israel, which was a pretty broad expanse of territory. In fact, if they were Kings, then most Jews of the day would would have assumed that they came from the East because throughout the history of Israel when foreign kings came, they came from the great Empires of the East – the Assyrians and the Babylonians primarily. And so some traditions identified them as Kings or emissaries of the Eastern Kings, though Matthew doesn’t say that specifically. Then other traditions identified them as Magi. The Magi first appear in the Bible in association with Daniel and his captivity in Babylon around 600 B.C. Even though Daniel was a captive, he worked his way into a position of prominence in the court of Darius of Babylon and there he met the Magi, who were advisors to the King, mostly in the areas of Prophecy, Philosophy and Science. In fact, the fifth chapter of Daniel indicates that the King placed Daniel in charge of the Magi. So these Magi might have come to Bethlehem based on their interpretation of ancient prophecy that they had learned from Daniel concerning the Jewish Messiah. Or some traditions say that these Magi were scientists, astrologers who came to check out the great light that had suddenly appeared in the sky and were not really seeking Jesus at all. And then other traditions say that they were Wisemen, which could have meant akin to the Jewish Rabbis. Where as King and Magi were more secular in nature, Wisemen would have probably been understood as more spiritual or mystical. Some scholars say that the Wisemen could have actually been learned Jews, perhaps descendants of Jewish exiles in one of the empires of the east, who came in search of the Messiah whose prophesied coming had been a source of hope for their ancestors in their captivity. But here’s the bottom line – we don’t really know who they were, and because of that we don’t know what they were or why they came. And we don’t know how many there were. Again, most traditions have settled on three but that is based almost exclusively on Matthew’s mention of the three gifts and the tradition that each one brought their own unique gift for Jesus. And then we don’t really know when they came. While tradition says they came to the manger and most of our Nativities we display in our homes have them there along side the Shepherds and Angels, Matthew seems to imply that they didn’t come until after Mary and Joseph had left the stable and moved into a house. The fact that after their visit Herod ordered all the boys under the age of two in Bethlehem killed and Mary and Joseph were forced to go to Egypt to escape that, would seem to indicate that these visitors came within two years of Jesus birth. But what is not clear is when Jesus was born and which Herod ordered that slaughter of the innocents. Perhaps they are meant to represent Everyman and their role in Matthew’s story is to help Jesus and you and I to not get stuck just focusing on Bethlehem, but rather to be able to see beyond Bethlehem. And so at some point they all came to Bethlehem – Magi, and Kings, and Shepherds, and many left changed forever. And so for Matthew the most important thing is that they came, but that they left by another way. They came as men of the world, but they left as wise men. They came seeking Bethlehem, following a star, a great light, but they left as witnesses to the light, to be the light. Perhaps Matthew includes these mysterious visitors in the story of Jesus birth to help us look beyond Bethlehem. And if that’s the case, then what is it that Matthew wants us to see as we look beyond Bethlehem. Because you see, Bethlehem is such a wondrous story, that the temptation for us is to just remain there. To see our whole world in that tiny manger and those quiet streets, and that innocent baby. We talk about what a wonderful time of the year Christmas is. Many flock to the church to hear the story again in song and word – to see it in the beautiful decorations. But the rest of the year they are absent. If we’re not careful our faith can get stuck at the manger. And we talk about how wonderful it would be if we could stay in Bethlehem throughout the year. To celebrate Jesus’s birth every day. But there is so much more to see about faith, beyond the stable. Much more to faith then a baby in a manger in the little town of Bethlehem. And so Matthew’s Wisemen or Magi or Kings, help us to see so much more of God, then just a Baby in a manger. It’s interesting that Matthew tells of the Wise Men but not the Shepherds. The Wisemen help us to see God in the whole world. His presence in our day to day existence. The Wisemen come to open our eyes to the whole world, to let us know that Jesus was not just born to Bethlehem or the Jewish people and that it wasn’t just the Shepherds who came to see Him and left forever changed. But rather the whole world came, and many went home by another way, and because of Bethlehem the world was changed forever. This Christmas we have come to Bethlehem again, but Wisemen aren’t the ones who come searching. The truly wise are those who go home by another way – they are the ones who come to Jesus and their ways, their lives, are changed forever. Seeing beyond Bethlehem is seeing Jesus as a new way, and that we need to change our ways. That we need to go another way in this life. That Bethlehem is not the culmination of our journey, but just the beginning of our journey with God. That the birth of Jesus is not all that happened there. But rather Bethlehem is the place where Shepherds and Wise people go to be re-born. And to see that even Kings, and Magi and Wisemen need to be re-born.
Several years ago, a relief agency was collecting medical supplies to send to an area that had been devastated by a natural disaster. And those who were sorting through the donations opened up a rather large box which was filled with just plain white sheets. And inside the box was a note of explanation that read: “These sheets formerly belonged to members of the Klan but our lives have been changed by the love of Christ, and because of that, those who were our enemies, we now see as brothers and sisters in Christ. And so we want to help these who are suffering in any way that we can. Because we have been changed, we won’t ever need these sheets again. But perhaps you can use them in some way to help all those people in need.”
Perhaps Wisemen from the east represent those who were formerly enemies who now see beyond Bethlehem and so choose to go another way with their life, who recognize that Jesus was born as God’s loving answer to a world that was filled with hatred. Tomorrow we remember the wisdom of Martin Luther King who certainly spent much of his life looking beyond Bethlehem and once wrote this truth of faith, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” And so he chose another way. When wise people see beyond Bethlehem they see light rather than darkness and love instead of hate.
Because the Wisemen, in looking beyond Bethlehem, see beyond the chaos of life to the assurance of Jesus’ presence. They see that there is peace in the midst of the chaos of the world, there is love in the midst of hatred, because Christ was born in. Bethlehem but is present with us no matter wher in this world we go. You see, The Bethlehem that the Wisemen came to was a chaotic, sometimes harsh place. In a sense it was a microcosm of the world in which we live. We try to cover up that fact with all the beautiful Christmas decorations, and extravagant celebrations, and generous gift giving and peaceful traditions. But the truth is that Bethlehem was a town where the poor were turned away, and the refugees were not welcome, and the politics of revolution and violence permeated every discussion, and the inhumanity of humanity reduced people to little more than animals dwelling in stables, and violence lay just below the surface of our hearts. Literally death followed the Wisemen as they made their way to the manger. But what they saw in Bethlehem that night was the hope and assurance of God’s presence, and the promise that no matter what Chaos may come, there is peace if God dwells among us and in us. If we choose to live another way. That’s what wisemen see, when they see beyond the immediate chaos that life often brings us. Wise people are able to see beyond Bethlehem to a world of hope and peace and assurance. We say that only Matthew tells about the Wisemen but Luke tells about a wise man named Simeon who was waiting in the Temple when Joseph brought the baby Jesus to be dedicated. We don’t know where Simeon came from or who he was, but we do know that the moment he saw Jesus, Simeon proclaimed, “I can now go in Peace because I have seen beyond this Baby. I can see the peace and redemption of the world.” That’s what Wisemen see when they look beyond Bethlehem. God came to earth as a baby who would grow up and live among humanity, so that Wise people could see that faith is a growing, living entity. It’s a process that opens our eyes, and allows us to see beyond Bethlehem into a world where there is peace and assurance, no matter what may be happening around us now. Wise people see beyond Bethlehem to the the hope and peace and assurance of eternity in the presence of a loving God.