Questions, Matthew 2:1-12
First United Methodist Church, January 6, 2018
Pastor Toni Carmer
They had traveled a great distance, seeking, searching. They were star-gazers; not men of faith, but men of science. Those two things are not mutually exclusive, mind you, but these men had come because they had seen something in the sky that had captured their attention so completely that they left everything behind to come and see.
Along with others in the ancient world, in recent years they had witnessed some unusual events in the heavens. About 11 BCE, Halley's Comet was very visible in the sky. Around 7 BCE, there was a brilliant conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. Between 5 and 2 BCE, on the first day of the Egyptian month Mesori, the dog star "Sirius" rose at sunrise and shone with unusual brilliance. (The word "Mesori" means, by the way, "the birth of a prince.")
Strange and unusual things were happening in the sky, and maybe the movements of the planets and stars caused these wise men to start asking questions. People were beginning to think that something was about to happen that would change everything. They were beginning to think that a very special kind of king was coming.
And so these wise men come from the east. We tend to think there were 3 wise men, but scripture doesn't tell us that. That may have been inferred because there are 3 gifts brought to the Christ child: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. Three gifts, three men.
We tend to call the wise men kings, but there's no biblical evidence of that, either, even though a couple of my nativity sets at home have crowns placed on top of their heads and we'll sing "We Three Kings" before we go home this morning. If there's a song proclaiming their royalty, it must be so, right? Legend has even named these 3 wise men: they are Melchior, thought to be king of Persia, who brought the gift of Gold and is described as an old man with white hair and a long beard. There's Gaspar, considered to be the King of India, who is young, beardless and ruddy complexioned. He brought the Christ Child the gift of Frankincense. And then there is Balthasar, thought to be the King of Arabia. He brought the gift of Myrrh and is described as black-skinned and heavily bearded.
We continue to elaborate on the story by adding camels—who may or may not have been a part of the entourage—and because they're included in our nativity sets, and usually huddled close by the stable or kneeling in the midst of the sheep and goats in the stable, we think of the wise men arriving soon after the birth of Jesus. But, it's more likely they didn't arrive until he was closer to the age of 2. By then, Jesus would have been old enough to peek at them from behind his mother's skirts when they arrive at the door of their home. The family most likely would have left the stable some time ago to return home and begin the task of raising God's Son.
What we do know, is the wise men begin their journey when they see the star at its rising. (I like the way that reads!) This—yet another unexpected occurrence—is so compelling they can no longer sit back and wait for whatever might happen next. This, they have to believe, is the culmination of everything that has come before: the thing that all the other stellar events has served as prelude. Whatever it meant, wherever it led, they would go; they would find the place of its beginning. This would be their destiny, whatever that might be.
They come asking questions. They may have started out from different locations, not planning the journey together, but by happenstance, meet on the road along the way. Did you see the star? We did! Are you following it? We are! What have you learned? What do you know? Would you like to travel together?
For two years they ask questions as they journey. They greet other travelers: Do you know? Have you seen anything? When they stop in the villages to replenish their supplies and to give their backs a rest from the hard ground where they usually lay their heads, they ask again: what do you know? What have you heard?
Their hunch is confirmed at every turn: a child was born. One destined to be king: King of the Jews.
The wise men aren't Jewish, but they are compelled. They have to see. They have to know.
Finally they arrive in Jerusalem. Who else to ask the whereabouts of a king but a king? They go to Herod, who can’t answer their questions. He doesn't know! Though his roots are Jewish, his interests are less in matters of the faith and more in matters of his authority and other's loyalty. Herod calls together his chief priests and scribes who share with him the word of the prophet Micah: In Bethlehem will come the one who is to shepherd my people Israel.
Herod shares what he learns with the wise men, and—uncharacteristically—does not immediately muster the troops to seek out and destroy the one who he perceives was born to take his place. That will come later, when he has a better idea upon whom to focus his jealousy. For now, he sends the wise men off, asking them to stop by the palace on their way back home to let him know where he might find this little one, so he can worship him, too.
Upon leaving Herod and journeying toward Bethlehem, the wise men see the star again and are overjoyed. The purpose of their journey is about to be fulfilled. They find Jesus with his mother Mary; they kneel down and worship him. They give him gifts, then return to their homes by another route, as God warns them in a dream to not return to Herod.
It seems amazing to me how the wise men from far away, who have no understanding of Jewish faith or prophesy, come—with much personal sacrifice of time and effort—to worship Jesus, while the center of Jewish authority has no knowledge or understanding, and then when he does come to learn what is happening, seeks to destroy him.
His own people knew him not, while others sought him out… and surely were changed in the journey (John 1:11).
Wise ones still seek him. Wise ones ask questions, and aren't ashamed when they don't have all the answers. Sometimes wise ones are in the church, and sometimes wise ones are outside of the church. It's important to note that these biblical wise men weren't men of faith, and yet somewhere along the way something happens that brings them to their knees before the Savior.
They follow the light of a star, they ask questions, and along the way their world changes.
This is Epiphany Sunday, and the light of the star is they symbol of the season. That light was offered by God, and it led the shepherds and the magi to the Christ child. It illuminated their way. And the light of God's star continues to shine—here in this place—within us—so that those who seek—those who have questions—can find God's light, and come to learn of the good news we've all been given.
On Christmas eve we lit our candles and sang together. As the room was filled with the light of our candles, electricity wasn't needed. Together, we illuminated the room with the light of Christ.
A few years ago, a visiting bishop shared an experience in a small village where he visited, somewhere in Africa, where the people came together to worship in the evening, so they brought candles to light their way. He spoke of how important it was for each person to be there, because when the light of their candle was missing, there remained a dark and empty place. Each person was an important part of the community, and they knew that in a much bigger way, because of the reminder that was given in the light from the flame of the candles they carried.
A similar story is told in India about a very poor district where there are no lights in the streets and few in the houses because oil is so expensive. But, as in all areas of India, there is a temple there, frequented by the poor. The structure is primitive, with a huge brass chandelier that hangs from the ceiling and has places for one hundred small lamps. These spaces are empty until those who come to pray and worship arrive.
Each worshiper comes from home carrying a lamp through the darkened streets and then places their lamp in the chandelier. Slowly the darkened temple begins to glow with the light that builds and grows stronger. The empty places are noted, and those who are missing are sought out after the service: they're questioned, given care, words of comfort, or words of challenge. They're reminded that their light is necessary for all to worship.
We each are lights through which the love of Christ shines.
This morning, as you come forward to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion, I invite you to take a candle from the basket. Take it home with you and put it in a place where you'll see it every day. Light it if you'd like, or simply look at it and remember. The light of Christ shines upon each of us and is reflected from each of us, as we journey.