Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12
All during Advent and Christmas at Isaac’s bedtime, I read him a book called “Who Is Coming to our House?” It’s the story of all the animals in the stable preparing for guests. It’s the mouse who senses that someone special is coming. The animals keep asking, “Who is coming to our house?” The mouse answers again and again, “Someone, someone.” The pig says they must make room. The lamb says they must clean. They ram says they should dust the beams. The chick says they should sweep the earth. The goose says they should stack the hay and quick! After the animals get their home ready and are waiting on their guests, they ask again, “Who is coming to our house?” And the mouse finally tells them right as the guests arrive, “Mary and Joseph!” The book ends with the animals exclaiming, “Welcome, welcome to our house!” On that last page, Mary and Joseph are sitting in the hay, holding their newborn, surrounded by all the animals in the house. One night after we finished reading the story, I pointed to the characters, asking Isaac who each of them were. Who’s that? Mary. Yes! And who’s that? Joseph, which coming out of his mouth sounds a little more like Jo-fish! But I’ll take it. And who is that right there? Who is the baby? With all the excitement in the world, Isaac shouted, “Charlie Brown!” Adam and I could not contain ourselves; we burst into laughter. And now that Isaac knows we think this is funny, no matter how many times we try to tell him it’s baby Jesus, he, while erupting in giggles himself, insists on saying every time, “No, mommy. It’s baby Charlie!”
Even without Charlie Brown in the mix, the different stories about the nativity can get a little confusing. Sometimes we aren’t sure the exact details of the story, what’s actually in the scripture, and what we have inherited from tradition or memory. Our text for today is Matthew’s version of the birth story. Matthew’s version is very different from Luke’s version. In Matthew, there is no stable, no innkeeper, no animals, and no shepherds. Joseph is not even mentioned! And, as a matter of fact, it’s not much of a birth story at all. It’s the story of what happened after Jesus was born, once Mary and Joseph had settled into a house and were learning to navigate life with a toddler. It’s the story of outsiders who discover who this child born among us really is.
The first word uttered by a human in the gospel of Matthew is a question, and it’s a question that comes from the lips of a foreigner. “Where? Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” Some wise men from the East have been paying attention to the stars. The Greek word for wise men is “magos,” which can be translated astrologer. They were scholars who studied the stars, astrologers who used the night sky to interpret dreams and see into the future. They are not kings, but a priestly class of Persian or Babylonian experts in astrology. They are pagans, Gentiles, who do not know anything about the Hebrew scriptures or the long-awaited Messiah. They just come to Jerusalem following the light that they have seen. Surely, if there is a new king, he will be in Jerusalem, the center of power, the place where all important religious and political decisions are made. But the magi do not find the new king of the Jews in Jerusalem; instead, their words send the current king in power, King Herod, into a frenzy of fear. How could it be that there was a new king that he knew nothing about? It surely must be a big deal if these magi came all the way here following a star to find him! Herod calls together all the chief priests and scribes to ask them the place where the Messiah was to be born, and they tell him that the Messiah is to come, not to Jerusalem, but to Bethlehem of Judea.
It’s not the religious elite of Jerusalem who go to find the child; it’s these foreigners, these Gentiles, who seek him out. They continue to follow the star until it stops over the place where the child was. And the place where the star stopped is Bethlehem, a place filled with people who are on the margins of society, with peasants like Mary and Joseph. It’s a place where people bear the brunt of the empire on their backs. It’s a place where nothing important is supposed to happen. But when the magi see that the star has stopped over this simple house in Bethlehem, they are overwhelmed with joy because they know that this is the place where the world is being turned upside down. When they enter the house and see Jesus with his mother, they kneel down and honor him. It’s a strange scene to picture. These foreigners who are from a priestly class and are probably adorned by fancy clothes walk into a small Bethlehem house and bow down to toddler Jesus. Poor Mary probably didn’t have time to clean up after toddler Jesus before these strange guests enter her home! But she soon realizes that they know something she also knows: that there is something extremely special about this child. They offer him gifts that are in no way age appropriate! These gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh are fit for royalty. Before the magi left Jerusalem, Herod had called to them in secret to learn when the star had appeared, so he could get a sense of how old this new king was. He asked the magi to come back and to tell him where they found the child. But through a dream, God warned them to steer clear of Herod, and after honoring the child, they left for their own country by another road, a clever act of civil disobedience.
On this Epiphany Sunday, we learn that these twelve verses in Matthew are a microcosm of the whole gospel, revealing who this child really is. This child who was from a place no one cared about was the new King of the Jews. This child born to parents on the margins was actually the Messiah. This child who was the fulfillment of the Hebrew scriptures was actually going to save the Gentiles too! In just these twelve verses, we also see what this child and the kingdom he is bringing are really going to be about. We see that the powerless are favored and that God’s kingdom is in conflict with the kingdoms of the world. This is just the beginning of the conflict between the child from Bethlehem and the king of Jerusalem. It’s a clash of politics, as much as we don’t want to use that word. As Stanley Hauerwas says, “We do not see the birth of Jesus as a threat to thrones and empires because we think religion concerns the private. Matthew knows no distinction between the public or political and the private. The kingdom [of God] is not some inner sanctuary but an alternative world, an alternative people, an alternative politics.”[i] This kingdom of God that has just broken into the world is already turning earthly kingdoms upside down. Herod knows he has good reason to be afraid, which is why he is already plotting murder in his heart. The conflict between kingdoms will be a dangerous one. It will send Jesus, along with Mary and Joseph, into Egypt as refugees. It will end with Jesus being mocked and crucified because he claims to be the real King of the Jews.
In Matthew’s version of the birth story, we also see that this child is already breaking down dividing walls between Jew and Gentile, including the strangers and welcoming the foreigners. In fact, it is the outsiders in this story who are in tune with what God is doing in the world. They are seeking Jesus. They get directions from the religious insiders in Jerusalem, and they are the ones who continue on the journey towards the Christ child. The chief priests and scribes in Jerusalem knew that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, but they do not go looking for him with the magi; they continue to align themselves with the kingdom of Herod. These Gentile magi become the first ones to worship the Christ child. Their story in the gospel of Matthew makes clear that in the Christ child, God is doing a new thing. Foreigners find the Christ child; strangers recognize that he is worthy of worship; outsiders shower him with gifts fit for a king. Long before Jesus tells his disciples to go and make disciples of all the nations, magi from other nations bow down and worship him.
This child changes everything. T.S. Eliot’s poem, “Journey of the Magi,” ends by talking about what it was like after the magi returned home. The last stanza says:
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like
Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
T.S. Eliot describes the magi’s shift from joy to agony when they realize the implications of the birth of Christ child, when they realize the kingdom Jesus comes to bring turns not only the kingdom of Jerusalem upside down, but their kingdoms upside down, too. They are no longer comfortable giving their allegiance to other kings and kingdoms. They are unsettled because they witness their friends, their families, the ones they rule clutching gods who are not really gods at all. This birth leads to the death of the way things are. It leads to an end of finding comfort in earthly kingdoms, in politics as usual. It leads to an end of clear boundaries, of well-defined lines that keep some in and others out. Matthew’s version of the birth story won’t let us forget that this new thing that God is doing through Jesus includes foreigners and outsiders. It won’t let us forget that God breaks into unlikely places and works through people we wouldn’t expect God to be working through. It won’t let us forget that though we still try to construct boundaries, Jesus has already broken all the walls down. All people, particularly the powerless, are welcome in his kingdom.
Three twenty something year old guys named Doug, Andrew, and Johnny are roommates in Toledo, Ohio. They met a twenty three year old guy named Mohammed, who recently fled from Syria and resettled as a refugee in Toledo. They invited Mohammed, who they call “Mo,” to be their fourth roommate. They taught him English, along with the lyrics to some of the top 40 American hits. Mo has taught them some Arabic pop tunes as well, but he’s taught them much more than that. Through the sharing of his life story, Mo has taught Doug, Andrew, and Johnny what it’s like to live as a refugee, what it’s like to be the stranger, the outsider, the foreigner. Mo was the only one of his family allowed to come to the United States as a refugee; both his parents and his siblings have been in Jordan since 2011 waiting on approval to come to the US. Mo worries that the more time that passes by, the less likely his family will ever come to the US. He is trying to get a green card so that at least he may be able to go and visit them. His roommates worry that with the changing tide of politics and the increasing fear of refugees, Mo may never see his family again. The roommates thought that they were providing temporary refuge for Mo, but now they discuss what it might mean that they could be the only family Mo ever sees again. Doug recently said in an interview, “We don't know what's going to happen. So I don't know what's going to be asked of me as his brother, but I guess I'm just more aware that he may have more need for support than even he does now.”[ii] Doug, Andrew, and Johnny see Mo as their brother. They have loved and welcomed the foreigner. Their lives bear witness to the boundaries that were broken down long ago when the Christ child was born and the foreigners showed up to show the insiders who their God really was.
The Christmas season has ended. We’ve put away the sparkly decorations and eaten the last cookie. We’ve moved on from celebration, gotten back into our regular routines, and in many ways, returned to our kingdoms. Have we comfortably settled back into our old ways of living? Have we moved on as if the birth of the Christ child changed nothing? Are we back to clutching our other gods, our idols? Have we allowed our world to revert back to the status quo because we’re benefiting from the kingdom of Herod? The magi beckon us not to forget that this birth has truly changed everything. They remind us that we have been visited by the Messiah, and we cannot forget what we have seen at that place where the star stopped. In this season of Epiphany, they remind us that that child who was born king of the Jews was God walking in the flesh, and he continues to invite us to be an alternative people –people of God’s kingdom, who live in an alternative world and who have alternative politics. They remind us that Jesus has already broken all our walls down, and that if we befriend the stranger, the outsider, the foreigner; if we see them as our brother, our sister; if we see Jesus’s face when we look into their eyes; they might show us how to truly worship our God. Amen.
[i] Stanley Hauerwas, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible – Matthew, 38.