I am not clear on what these wise men were expecting.
We know practically nothing about them. Artists and others in our tradition have imagined a bit of background, even added the number of them, 3, to coincide with the gifts they brought. But Matthew doesn’t tell us much. After Jesus was born wise men, he writes, magi, which can mean anything from astrologers to sorcerers, came 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?" I am not entirely sure why they went to Herod – maybe they were kings who were doing their duty in someone else’s land, maybe they genuinely thought he would know something, maybe they naively imagined that one king would welcome another among those Jews he ruled by force.
But Herod’s response is predictable: A king?! There is already a king here. As my friend MaryAnn writes, the town ain’t big enough for the two of them.2 Herod is frightened, Matthew tells us, so frightened that he throws the whole city into turmoil, frightened with him and of him, and the king pulls together all of his counsel, the chief 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 will we do about this inconvenience?
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 skillfully plays people off each other, getting advice from the priest and scribes, calling in the magi on the side. He first plays dumb, asking for the exact time of the star’s appearance, then leans back with a smile, in a line that crackles with sinister energy3: "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."
The scene shifts, leaving Herod behind as the magi tromp out of town. They pass by all of Herod’s architectural and cultural achievements, magnificent as they were, only one of which was the entire rebuilt Temple complex. Think Washington Monument, Kennedy Center and National Cathedral.4 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 Bethlehem.
Before the star stopped over the house where they were, I have to wonder what the wise men thought of this whole thing. Matthew makes clear they are outsiders, gentiles, so they don’t necessarily have the same Messianic expectations, they don’t have the language of Isaiah, or Micah in the back of their heads. We don’t know what kind of king they were expecting. Luke’s gospel, the story we 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 this 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?
Over the holidays I have been reading civil rights leader Andrew Young’s autobiography of the movement. A Congregationalist pastor, he trained community organizers in the early 1960’s, and was the Executive Director of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference from 1964-1970, served in Congress, as Atlanta’s mayor, and as our Ambassador to the United Nations. While he grew up in New Orleans in an ugly, segregated time, he also knew that, as the son of a professional and small business owner – his dad was a dentist, and his mom ran the business side – he had privileges many neighbors in the black community didn’t have. Young tells a story of working as a lifeguard one summer when he was home from college. "One day when I was on duty, a young man came to the pool, put on his swimsuit, and then, as I watched, he staggered rather than dove in and went straight to the bottom as if he didn’t know how to swim at all. I dove in and pulled him from the pool and laid him on his stomach to recover. He hadn’t been down long, so he coughed up a little water. As he began to get his wits about him I realized that his face was familiar. It was Lincoln."
Lincoln was one of his best friends in elementary school. In third grade they were goofing off in the corner and the teacher sent them to the principal’s office. "Bring your mother back to talk to me," Miss Williams [the principal] said sternly, "or you can’t remain at Jones School." Embarrassed, Young took his time, but finally got home, brought his mother back, was sent back to class after a lecture. But he never saw Lincoln again. Young asked him about that day. Lincoln’s mother, he said, "worked uptown for white folks and she only made a dollar a day with nine children, and she couldn’t afford to miss work to see about me messin’ up in school." So he simply didn’t go back. The road was predictable from that point on – he began stealing and was caught, sent to a boys’ home for juvenile delinquents. He ended up in Angola, the state prison, and had just been released. This encounter was formative for Young. "I didn’t realize it when I was a child, of course, but the reason I stayed in school and was now in college was because my mother was able to come to see Miss Williams, and, in a deeper sense, because my parents knew Miss Williams – they were in church together. It wasn’t really because they cared more about me than Lincoln’s mother cared about him, but because my parents’ circumstances allowed them to do something about their caring. I realized all the more there was something wrong with a society and an educational system that cared more about the Andrews than the Lincolns." He looked him in the eye on the pool deck that afternoon: "There are plenty out there like me," Lincoln said to Young. "You have to tell my story, because I don’t know how to tell it."
As we start this New Year together, I want to make sure we know whose story we are telling. It is tempting to look to those in charge, those cameras follow. In the next few weeks we’ll have an inauguration of a Governor and a President, addresses from leaders aplenty. Everyone will be telling us what signs are approaching, where we might discern the truth about the way forward. Matthew’s gospel reminds us the star doesn’t end up hovering over the Capital. God was born among us in the mess of a cold and wet stable, to remind us that hope comes even to the darkest places, in the corners of shelters, in tent cities in Port-au-Prince, with our families and those who were alone over the holidays, as we stumble back into routines, as students at the Sandy Hook Elementary School resume classes, scared and shaken, together. And, as we at Westminster begin this spring the celebrations of a 50th anniversary year, we must be clear where we will listen for God’s Word, and whose stories we will listen to, and whose stories we will tell. The pastor on Monday at Haywood’s brother’s funeral in Wilmington told a story about his brother Jim. When one of Jim’s churches built a beautiful new educational building, Jim didn’t want to name it after the biggest giver, and he certainly didn’t want it named for himself. And so he convinced the church to name it the Will Young Building, after a faithful and long serving janitor there at the church.
Many voices compete for your attention in these days of pressure and pace and anxiety. Who will you listen to for guidance? Let us not look to ourselves, our knowledge, our connections. Let us listen, so carefully, to story of those the world leaves behind – the victim of domestic violence, the cashier behind the counter without health insurance, the wisdom of the child among us, who point us to what truly matters, and who tell us about the broken yet beautiful world into which God was born. So that, like the magi, we may be overwhelmed 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. From the Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s paper on this text from the 2012 meeting of The Well in Montreat, NC.
3. MaryAnn’s great language.
4. This insight is also to her credit.