The 2nd Sunday of Christmas
As we heard in our gospel reading: “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” (Mt. 2:1-2)
Who were these “wise men”? Popular imagination has portrayed them to be “kings” – as in the “We Three Kings of Orient Are” song we will be singing immediately after this sermon. But actually, that is almost surely not the case. The literal word used to describe these persons is “Magi”, from which the word “magician” is derived.
The Magi originally were a tribe of the Medes in Persia, and in general served the same role as the tribe of the Levites did in Israel. The Magi were known for their holiness and wisdom, and they served as teachers and priests to the kings of Persia. The Magi were skilled in philosophy, medicine, and natural science – and they were also known for being interpreters of dreams.
But perhaps most importantly of all – at least so far as today’s gospel text is concerned – the Magi were also known for their proficiency in astrology – of being able to interpret the future from the stars. The Magi watched the heavens, and looked for signs indicating great and portentous events. And obviously, some “star” (we do not know exactly what it was) caught their attention – and from the appearance of that star they deduced that a great king had been born in the land of Judea.
But what I find fascinating about this text is what this group of Magi did next. For some reason, they decided to set out on a quest to find this newborn king and pay him homage. They were willing to spend a tremendous amount of wealth and devote more than a year of their lives for a pilgrimage that had no assurance of success.
And we wonder, why? What was their motivation? As far as we know, they were not Jewish in their religious beliefs. It would sort of be like us as Christians deciding to make a pilgrimage to see the next Dalai Lama.
I personally believe that these Magi were searching for something that even they did not fully understand. They were not just searching for a child, but they were also searching for God. They had been seeking to grow in their understanding of God through interpreting dreams and practicing astrology, but somehow they knew that this was not enough. Somehow they knew – or at least hoped – that when they found the child they would also encounter the presence of the divine.
A lot of people today are just like those Magi. They may not be “religious” in the traditional sense and very likely do not have any relationship with the church, but they still consider “spirituality” to be important. Somehow, deep down, they are yearning to know God and to have a relationship with him.
And one of the messages of today’s gospel is that God reaches out to them! God reached out to the Magi in a way that they could understand – by placing a star in the heavens and by coming to them in dreams. God met them where they were and stirred a yearning for himself within their hearts.
And I believe that God continues to do this today. God continues to meet people where they are – even if they are not “religious” – and invites them to come and search for Jesus. Perhaps it might be through strange “signs”, or (more likely), it might be through people like us showing them respect, acceptance, and love. Even when we are not being actively “religious” in the community, we can be still all be “signs” through whom God works to show people what Jesus is about.
Contrasted with the Magi in today’s gospel are King Herod, and also the chief priests and scribes of the Jews. Herod’s reaction was one of fear and paranoia – and those of you who were here last week heard my monologue about him. Herod was always fearful of plots against his throne – he had executed many potential rivals, including even members of his own family. Needless to say, “all of Jerusalem” was frightened with Herod because they knew what would happen next.
Since I focused upon Herod in last week’s monologue, I won’t go into further details about his reaction to the Magi’s quest except to note that people still often react to Jesus with fear and hostility and hatred even today. Yesterday, at least 21 Christians were killed by a suicide bomber at a New Year’s Eve Mass in Alexandria, Egypt – and Iraq’s Christian minority has also been targeted in the past several weeks. Jesus may have been born to bring peace into the world, but as we know, this world is not a peaceful place. And yet, even in the midst of hatred and persecution, Christians are stilled upon called to be people of peace. May it be so with us.
The other group mentioned in our gospel are the chief priests and scribes of the Jews. Their reaction about the birth of Jesus seems to be one of complete indifference! When Herod summoned them and asked them where the Christ was to be born, they quickly found the prophecy in the book of Micah that he would be born in Bethlehem. But despite finding the prophecy, they did not seem to really care. You would think that discovering the news that the Messiah has finally come would cause them to fall head over heels in excitement! But they didn’t. To them, their Bible searching was just an academic exercise – a game of “Trivial Pursuit” if you will. They may have found “answers” in the Bible, but these answers did not seem to have any real meaning for them in their lives.
Sometimes a lot of “religious” people today are like that. They may have a lot of “knowledge” and are quick to give opinions and answers on various things and issues based upon what the scriptures say, and yet their attitudes and actions show that they do not really know and trust God’s love.
But getting back to the Magi, when they heard about the prophecy of the king being born in Bethlehem – and when that prophecy was also confirmed by the star which they had been following finally stopping over the place where the child was, they were overwhelmed with joy! Then they went into the house and paid Jesus homage, and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Gold - a gift fit for a king. Frankincense - a gift for a priest. And myrrh - a precious spice used for embalming. All three gifts were not only precious, but were symbols of who and what Jesus was and was to be.)
Yes, when the Magi finally found Jesus – to worship him and offer him the best treasures that they could give – that is when they experienced God’s love and joy and peace. And from then on their lives would never again be the same.
So may it be with us today. As we follow the “stars” in our lives – our hopes and dreams – may we never give up and may they always lead us to Jesus. As we read the scriptures, may they always enkindle within us a desire to know Jesus better. And as we come here to church, may God help us to truly experience the presence of Jesus – and his forgiveness and love.
And so – as we seek, find, know, and experience Jesus Christ our Lord – may we then, like the Magi, offer him the very best that we have – not only our treasures but also our very lives.
Then, as today’s first reading from Isaiah puts it, “we shall see and be radiant and our hearts shall thrill and rejoice.” – and we shall proclaim the praise of the Lord! May this be so for us during this Christmas and Epiphany Season and always. Thanks be to God! Amen!
Pastor George Karres
418 W. Main St.
Sidney, MT 59270