Sometimes familiarity can keep us from seeing what’s right in front of our noses. I confess that it’s been a while since I’ve paid a whole lot of attention to the story of the magi. Maybe I’ve never paid adequate attention to it. It’s always felt like sort of an add-on to Luke’s version of Jesus’ birth. It often seems to be shoehorned into the Christmas Eve story, which is much more exciting, with the angel army trumpeting the good news of great joy for all people across the Bethlehem countryside, and the shepherds breathlessly telling anyone who will listen about all they’ve seen and heard, dancing about as only unrefined shepherds would. Compared to that, I’ve always thought the wise men were kind of stuffy, arriving fashionably late with all their fancy gifts.
But this morning, I want to repent of that attitude. I have not been fair to the wise men, or to St. Matthew. I now think this is actually quite a marvellous story. It’s a fantastic witness to who and how God is. It’s a strange and wonderful way to get the Good News going. It’s unsettling, really, in the best sense of the word—full of that holy mischief that so often carves out the path of grace.
It helps to remember together that Scripture is less concerned with information, than formation and transformation. The gospel writers are never just giving us tidbits of historical detail that we can memorize and shelve. Of course, they are witnessing to historical events, stuff that happened in a time and place. But there’s more than that. What they are really doing is drawing us in to a whole new way of understanding who we are, what the world is about, who and how God is; they are inviting us to get mixed up with the God who has gotten so wondrously mixed up with us.
This story of the wise men sets up what’s to come. In this new season of Epiphany, this season of revealing, this story shows us just what kind of God we’re getting mixed up with. So it seems important that we don’t rush past it, just because we know it so well. We should linger in it a while. This morning, I want to look at three things that Matthew shows us, here at the very beginning of his gospel, that tell us something about what God is about, and what we’re being invited into. I want to notice God’s gathering, God’s challenge, and God’s invitation.
So first, God’s gathering. Perhaps the most startling thing about the way that Matthew starts his gospel is that he puts the most important news on the lips of outsiders. There’s a new king! Word of the birth of God’s king, the Messiah, the one who will shepherd God’s people—the One who will lead God’s people along streams of grace and into the lush pastures of God’s love—arrives on the lips of outsiders. Matthew doesn’t look to announcing angels, like Luke; or John the Baptist, like Mark. Instead, we have these strangers showing up in Jerusalem, to let everyone know the rather surprising fact that a new king has been born to them, while they were going about their business.
I think it’s hard to overstate how weird this is. It’s especially strange considering that scholars will tell us that Matthew’s is the most “Jewish” of the gospels. He’s deeply concerned with showing how who Jesus is fulfills the promises that have been echoing throughout the history of Israel from the very beginning; Jesus is presented as the new Moses. But oddly, the first word on it all is given to gentiles, people outside God’s covenant promises, outside the law given to Moses. It’s these seekers, who don’t seem to know the Scriptures who actually bring a depth and texture to the story of God with God’s people; it’s their questions that have the faithful unrolling scrolls to see again where the Messiah is going to be born, turning their gaze from the accepted seats of power in Jerusalem and Rome, to the backwoods village of Bethlehem, to remember how odd this God is.
Of course, this isn’t inconsistent with Scripture, or how God has been revealed all the way along. But it’s always surprising. God is regularly gathering in and expanding the scope of grace further than we thought it could go, brining truth on the lips of unlikely messengers, choosing to be revealed in ways that jostle us out of comfortable understanding and upend our casual expectations. These strangers from afar make real that the witness of Scripture is to the God who calls a people to bless the whole world; of a God whose dream is all the nations streaming to the holy mountain, reconciled and made new, erupting together in joy and praise.
As the wise men arrive in Jerusalem we’re reminded that this is God’s habit: always stretching the dream further, casting the dragnet of grace into unlikely waters, gathering from unexpected corners. At the beginning of the gospel, the wise men get us ready to really hear Jesus’ beautiful command at the end, to take this news of God’s new reign, the hope of God’s rule of love and justice and righteousness, to the ends of the earth. This is not news small enough to be kept with one group. This news is for all things; it encompasses all of creation. Stars and strangers compel us to look up and out to really see the expanding horizon of God’s goodness and grace. The New Testament ends with St. John’s vision of a city whose gates are never shut and through which all the kings of the earth stream—every nation gathered in hope, peace, joy, and love, at the foot of heaven’s throne. It’s a wild dream. In the company of these curious wise men—caught up curiously in this story—we catch another glimpse of it.
And that’s wonderful. In theory. But as their camels kick up Jerusalem dust and their questions about a new king lead them to the throne room of the current king, we see pretty clearly that this news has some practical consequences which are not universally understood to be good. In fact, it’s a big problem for the current order of things. When Herod heard this, he was terrified and all Jerusalem with him. I live in hope for the day when our politicians and the keepers of the way things are will pace their offices in a cold sweat because the Church is gathering under the kingship of Jesus, committed to his world order and nothing less. Wouldn’t that be something? As the wise men enter Herod’s palace, we see that the kingdom of God, the rule of the shepherd king, is a direct threat to the way things are. This is God’s challenge.
Herod’s response, which is only going to get worse, is the first sign that what has come into the world in Christ is going to cause some trouble. This is the first hint at the topsy-turvy sorts of things Jesus will say in the Sermon on the Mount, just a few chapters on: that God’s kingdom belongs to the meek, and the mourners, and the merciful; that the God who made the heavens and the earth is on the side of the poor and the pure, the peacemakers and the persecuted. This scene is a reminder that the way of Jesus, the One who empties himself for love’s sake, is quite a bit different than the power-grabbing ways of the world. The stable-born king is set to bring about a rather different state of affairs. The current state will not be cooperative.
As if to underline the point, I can’t help but think that Matthew is playing with a bit of symbolism, when he tells us that the wise men came from the east. In one sense, that’s not an important detail; certainly not a very specific one (we have no idea where they actually came from). But I think it matters. Because in Herod’s world, the world of first century Jerusalem—the world most everyone more or less accepted as the way things are and ever shall be—all the power came from Rome, in the west. But this royal announcement comes not from the heart of the empire, but from the opposite direction. It’s like Matthew is tell us that if we’re to be shaped and formed by this story, invited to explore and to know the truth about the kinds of things that Zechariah and Mary and John and Simeon and Anna all sang about—a world turned right-side up, a way of justice and love, a way of light in the darkness, of life nourished and deepest thirsts satisfied, a way that undermines the ways of greed and power for the sake of grace and mercy, a way of peace beyond understanding or even imagining—if we’ll get in on that we have to see and know that the true authority in this world, in our lives, comes from a different direction.
There’s a reason that when Jesus is spirit-launched out of the wilderness, and into his ministry, that his first call is to repentance: repent and believe; the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Repentance means to turn around, to go another direction. It’s to pay attention to a different source of authority, to walk a different path. The kingdom of heaven isn’t like the systems we’re used to. And getting in on what God’s about requires repentance; it requires holding up our values and priorities, our ways and means, to the light of Christ, so that we can see clearly who we’re giving authority to. To paraphrase the great theologian Bob Dylan, everyone’s serving someone. The wise men ride into town and invite us away from the usual places of power, and into the presence of another way altogether— these strangers from the east call us to give our lives to something more: a way that is Truth and Life.
That brings us to God’s invitation, because Jesus doesn’t come as the king who imposes his rule; he comes as the one who calls, the One who invites us to seek and find the deep desires of our hearts in the God who can truly satisfy them. There’s a promise embedded in this story that’s easy to gloss over. It’s this: these seekers find what they’re looking for. And frankly, I think they find more than they were looking for. Matthew tells us that they were overwhelmed with joy, that what they saw in this One born to us, this child given, dropped them to their knees in wonder, love, and praise. That doesn’t happen when we experience just what we were expecting. In Jesus’ presence, we’re always called beyond our expectations, we always get more than we planned for.
When St. John describes what happens in Jesus, at the beginning of his gospel, he says that what comes into the world when the Word of God takes on flesh and moves into the neighborhood is “grace upon grace.” Not “grace enough.” Grace upon grace. More than we’d ask for or imagine. Not just life, but life abundant. I think it’s worth meditating on this moment when the seekers find the One they are looking for. It’s not mild relief, not satisfaction at a job well-done; they’re not pleased that their star-gazing had finally paid off. They are overwhelmed with joy. Dropped to their knees in wonder. Compelled to give generously to the One who’s been so generously given. This the invitation we’ve received: to strive for the things of God, the soul-satisfying things and nothing less. The wise men invite us to seek first the kingdom of God, trusting that the end is overwhelming joy, grace upon grace.
If this is the stage-setting story, what Matthew wants us to know about what we’re getting into, it tells us some things about what it means to be faithful to what God is calling us to do in this time, and this place. It tells us that we need to be a people eager to gather. We get to take part in God’s work of moving the boundary lines, pushing them wider and wider. Knocking over walls of division and kicking down doors of separation, building longer tables of welcome. The good news that God is with us and for us, that in Christ all things are and will be made new, is news that can be stretched to the ends of the earth and beyond. It can’t be contained or controlled. And as we share in that news, we need to be people who recognize that we can learn from others, that outsiders can actually shed light on the God-stuff we’d otherwise have missed. That way we stand a chance of remembering that these strangers point us towards the One who is wondrously strange among us, Jesus, utterly and beautifully surprising. That’s the One we’re called to follow.
And when we do, our lives will pose the gospel challenge to the world. We’re called to be a people of repentance, a people eager to walk a different way, not in guilt but in hope. I often come back to St. Peter’s instruction that we’re always to be ready to give an account of the hope that we have, with gentleness and respect. I assume that implies that we might be living in a such a way that someone might be inclined to ask what on earth we’re up to. In our daily lives, in our life together, we’re called to hold up our assumptions and expectations, our desires and ambitions, to the light of Christ to see if our ways and means line up with his. And when they don’t, we’re perfectly, divinely free to switch directions. We’re called to follow Jesus—to be his disciples, learning to do what he does—to seek his kingdom first, trusting that his ultimate desire for us is nothing less than abundant life, overwhelming joy, grace upon grace.
And as we answer that invitation, we’re called to invite others in. We don’t have to have all the right theological answers. The wise men didn’t. They didn’t even know where the Messiah was supposed to be born. But in their seeking, they lead us to the child who is good news of great joy for all people. One of the most common evangelistic words the gospels isn’t a tract with all the answers, it’s not the Apostle’s Creed, or a lengthy catechism; it’s the invitation, Come and see. Come and see this One who ties kings in knots and fills shepherds with hope. Come and see this One who overwhelms our expectations about who and how God is. Come and see this One who tells us more about who we are than anyone or anything else. Come and see this One whose dream for this world, whose love for this world is wider and longer, higher and deeper than anything we can ask or imagine.
Come and see. Come and see this One who is leading us home by another road.