Where is the child? Where is he? It began, for these wise men, with a question.
We know very little about them. Faithful throughout the ages have imagined their story, even added the number, 3, to coincide with the gifts they brought. In one verse at the end of chapter 1 Mary and Joseph are exhausted and glowing, gazing at their newborn son. Joseph does as the angel says and names him Jesus. But in the very next verse we meet these men, wise men, Matthew calls them magi, which can mean anything from astrologers to sorcerers, coming from the East to Jerusalem. Unknown outsiders came from beyond with a question1: "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?" Do you know? Do you know? Have you seen him?
Part of me wonders why they were even interested. They probably weren’t Jews themselves – Matthew seems to want us to know they were from outside the community. Isaiah, and Psalm 72, both refer to these visitors as kings, but Matthew calls them ‘wise men,’ part of the priestly class, experts in stars and in dreams.2 They knew the constellations, the map of the sky, in extraordinary detail. But it is hard to tell what they knew of the scriptures. It is the scribes and priests that teach Herod of the One who is to come. But, God was nudging them somehow, stirring something in the hearts and minds of these men who had been watching, and could feel in their guts that things were changing.
The star led them to Jerusalem, to the city at the heart of the people, haunted by that same question: "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we have observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." They asked around enough – again, we have no idea who they asked – but they asked someone who knew someone who knew someone who reported it to the king. Herod and his family had been pushing people around in Palestine for over a century and a half. Herod the Great, the king in this passage, was known for mounting complicated building projects in order to keep the importance of this tiny Jewish kingdom in the vision of his Roman superiors. Moody, cruel, and renowned for his politics of murder, Herod did not relish threats to his shaky hold on power.3
The rumors made their way to the throne room, and had their impact. He was frightened, Matthew says, troubled, anxious, and when Herod was troubled, the rest of the city knew they should be, too. The king’s chief of staff quickly pulls all of his counsel – priests and scribes, think tank researchers and opinion page editors, people whose job it is to know things. Who is this One? Where is he to be born? What are we to do about this inconvenience?
I have always found this an astounding scene, many of the smartest people in this part of the empire called together because of a child. A baby, causing a crisis at the heart of the world’s power. They gather and negotiate, quoting from Micah 5 and 2 Samuel 5, which point to Bethlehem, the village of David, the great shepherd-king. The king plays people off each other, getting advice from the priest and scribes, calling in the magi secretly on the side. He plays dumb, asking for the time of the star’s appearance, then leans back with a smile, in a line that crackles with sinister energy : "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage."
Herod sits back and waits as the magi tromp out of town, knowing his trap has been laid. They pass by all of Herod’s massive building projects, only one of which was the entire rebuilt Temple complex. Think Washington Monument, Kennedy Center and the National Cathedral. Their caravan passes the stonework, the turrets up high, the crowds at the market, soldiers by the gate. And they leave it all behind, down the hill toward the backwater little town of Bethlehem.
Before the star stopped over the house where they were, I have to wonder what the wise men thought. They start with this question, wondering about this child, and they end up in front of the king in what is clearly a serious situation. Their heart rate increased as they got closer, as the star froze in the sky, knowing they would lay eyes, soon, on the one who will be the king of the Jews. What kind of king they were expecting is anyone’s guess. Luke’s version, which often gets read on Christmas Eve, is filled with shepherds and travelers, common folks. In Matthew all we have are the power players, those in charge. And they follow the star, and the expectations build, and they end up, with all these fancy gifts, walking in to meet the son of a carpenter. I wonder if anybody asked if they were sure they were in the right place? Can the One to rule over all come from these people?
When they came into the house – remember, some time has passed since the stable – their joy became worship. They saw the child with his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage. Everything melted away, as they laid their foreheads on the dirt. After the worship came the gifts, as they scrambled back to the camels and brought them in, bringing in chests, treasures, they offered him gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Their question had been answered: Where is this one, this child? He was right in front of them, maybe not quite clear on what was happening, but with wisdom in his eyes. For a few moments they just knelt there, staring. Then it was time to go, as they back out of the house, one reminding another of a dream he had a few days before, warning them against Herod the king. They plot their return by another road.
And, as far as scripture knows, their journey ends. They had done their job, fulfilled what scripture said would happen, that even kings would come and worship. But it gets worse before it gets better. Herod, in his anger and jealousy unleashes terror upon the country, the horrific text Betty read last week, all to try and destroy this baby. All of which makes me ask 2 questions. The first is what was it about this little baby that prompted such a crisis at the heart of the world’s power that led them to genocide? What was it about him? And the second one is, then, what could that same baby do with us? In this New Year, two thousand and fourteen, what would happen among us if we were willing to risk the journey of the magi, doing all we can to seek this child in our midst? What power does Jesus the Christ have to transform us – to grab ahold of our spirits and reshape us, in our own hearts and in the hearts of all people? What would it be like if we set to the side, just for a moment, all of the things that lay their claim on us – the job and the bills, our frenzied pace, our health and that of those we love, our beloved opinions or political leanings – and let this little one reign in our hearts? Maybe the feeling the magi had as they left the house, the awe that carried them home, could last for just a little bit longer. And we can share our own gifts with joy.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. "Although we cannot say for certain who these wise men were or where they were from, beyond the vague ‘from the East,’ it is more imortant for Matthew’s purposes to see them as startling symbols of the Gentile world suddenly arrived in the heartland of Judaism." Tom Long, WBC:Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), p 17.
2. Boring and Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster’John Knox Press, 2004), p 16.
3. This background comes from the Rev. Heather Shortlidge’s paper on this text at The Well, 2013, Baltimore.
4. This great language comes from the Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana, and her great paper on this text at The Well, 2012, Montreat.
5. This insight is also to MaryAnn’s credit.