In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, ‘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.’ 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘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.’ 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Series: Advent Journeys #3: The Journey of the Magi
Rev. Julie Jensen
Dec. 15, 2013
Over the course of this advent season, we are thinking about those who traveled to Bethlehem, and how their journeys can change us in the midst of this season. Today we meet a group that arrived after the excitement – the group we know as the magi or wisemen. Their journey was one of obedience and hope that led them to an unexpected destination.
They have several names – this group of travelers. Some call them the Magi. Others know them as the Three Kings, and we commonly hear them referred to as the wisemen. When we set up our nativity scenes, it can often be hard to decide where to put them. If we are purists, they don’t arrive until January 6th – Epiphany. Perhaps they are moved from place to place in the house during the season. I know that growing up, there wasn’t always room for them in the stable itself, and so sometimes they stood next to it on the coffee table. I think sometimes we just aren’t sure what to do with these travelers.
There is little in this group to be sure about. Were there three or 12? We think of there being three because there were three gifts. In the Orthodox church, it is thought that there were 12 – that Biblical number representing the disciples. We do know that there are only two people in today’s reading named as King – Jesus and Herod, so they probably were not royalty. The term Old Testament Scholar Walter Brueggemann uses for them is “scholars.” These men were the ones who studied the stars looking for signs and what was to come. They used the heavens for navigation and for life direction. They studied dreams and were full of mystery and wonder. Today we may call them astrologers. However, they were educated. They knew how to navigate by the heavens, a skill that possibly was highly valued in this time before GPS, longitude and latitude, and roadmaps. Navigating by the stars ensured that you got to where you wanted to go, and it requires knowledge and skill. This band of travelers saw signs in the stars that a new king was to be born in the west, and so they followed the star to where they thought he might be – Jerusalem.
Unfortunately, they were about 9 miles off course. When they arrived in Jerusalem, they began to ask where the new king had been born. “Where can we find and honor the newborn king of the Jews? We saw the star that signaled his birth, and so we have come to worship him.” It would seem that this was news to most of the city, as well as King Herod. This news terrified them – the birth of the messiah was a threat to Herod’s rule, and he knew it. He called his scholars and advisors together, and they did a little bible study. The prophet Micah foretold that the leader who would rule God’s people would come from Bethlehem in Judah. Herod invited the scholars to a secret meeting. He pretended to be devout and pretended that this was joyful news for him and his people. Claiming that he wanted to worship the child, he was able to convince the scholars to tell him when the star appeared. Still pretending, he “asked” them to go find the child and send word back to him so that he could join them in worship. And so the scholars set off again, and the star appeared in the heavens and led them to the house where Mary and Jesus were. They presented their gifts worshipped the king. Then, they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, and so they journeyed home by another road.
When we think of the story, we think of the wise men arriving at the stable with Jesus in his swaddling clothes not making a sound in his manger. Yet, closer reading shows that they were a little late for that – a decent amount of time has passed between the appearance of the star and the arrival. Jesus and Mary are no longer in the stable, but in a house. When we read further we see that Herod orders the deaths of all infants under the age of 2 – which, as a friend of mine said, is a bit extreme if Jesus is still a newborn. All of which is to say that the scholars who traveled were committed to finding the object of their search. This is a journey that had to be planned for – supplies purchased, contingencies planned for. They were seeking someone, and did not know when or where they might find him. They navigated by a star and hoped for the best.
The journey of the scholars, of the wise men, can parallel our own faith journeys. There can be times in our lives when we know we are missing something, but are not sure what. We may feel dissatisfied, uneasy, at loose ends, empty, or as though there is something we have not found yet. Often we journey thinking we know where the end will be, and what it will look like. The expectation for many is school, college, family, good job, happy retirement… when we think about what we want our lives to look like, that’s often the imagined path. We plug it into our life GPS and head out the door hoping to arrive at the age of 103 having made all the right turns. Often, the stars we follow do not lead us down that exact path. There may be broken relationships, divorce, unplanned adventures, illness, moves due to jobs, unexpected children, no children. While we journey, the road may not take us exactly where we thought we might end up at the end. The little girl who thought she would be a doctor may find a career as an engineer. The boy who ran around with a fire helmet might wind up saving lives as a social worker. The magi thought they were going to find a messiah. Their road took them someplace else. The stars might not lead us to the right answer right away, even if we call that star Jesus. The journey of faith is one of as many questions and doubts as certainties. I imagine there were moments that the wisemen looked to the heavens and shook their heads wondering how they had gotten to where they were.
Sometimes we don’t chase the right stars. When we seek fulfillment, we may seek it in ways that damage us –through power, through addiction, through toppling others down so we can feel better about ourselves. Sometimes we follow the stars named “fame”, “fortune”, “opportunity”, “beauty”, and “lust” rather than the ones of hope, peace, joy, love, and Christ. We each seek a purpose for our lives. It is part of what makes us human, and that search is part of what makes each if us unique. Sometimes the stars can only carry us so far on our own. Part of our discipleship – following Jesus – is spending time in prayer and study. The wisemen only followed the star so far – into Jerusalem. Then it was the words of scripture that gave them their next turning point, their next step of the directions, their next heading. Knowing the words of scripture, the scholars could follow to the next place of their journey.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is one of my favorite non-child Christmas movies. If you haven’t seen it, Clark Griswald decides he wants a good old fashioned family Christmas, and strives to create what he sees as the perfect holiday. Clark’s vision did not include more relatives than will fit in the house, or 125,000 Christmas lights bright enough to blind the neighbors. The tree is so big it actually takes up half the house. The Christmas Turkey is beyond burnt. Uncle Eddie sets the sewer on fire. The family grace turns into the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s just a normal perfect holiday gone wrong. I think what Clark sought is what many of us seek in modern times. A chance for family to gather together and enjoy the company of one another without the distractions of the outside world. A simpler, slower time where the gifts were not about how big the credit card will be in January, but about the recipient. He is nostalgic for the past. How many of us long for the same thing? A meal without interruption from a smartphone? A snow day to be lazy and Sabbath rather than race? A time where the turkey and ham are perfect and everyone wears matching sweaters for the family photo. We can follow that star. But, it might not lead us where we think. Will we be fulfilled by achieving perfection, or will we find one more little thing that is not just right? How do your longings match up with reality? Perhaps this portion of the advent journey is one where we can identify what it is that we seek, and how we can move closer to the joy that the birth of Christ brings.
I had a friend in college who used to say that Orion was her favorite constellation. She could easily identify it, and she always knew where it was. “I can’t figure it out,” she would say. “No matter when I drive home from school and it is dark, Orion is always visible out of my driver’s side window. He is always there guiding me home. I know when I leave campus, no matter how good or bad the semester was that if I follow Orion, I’ll always get home.” It has been said that the tradition of candles in windows came from colonial days when public houses and inns would light a candle in their windows so travelers would know where they could stop for refreshment. The band Coldplay sings the lyric, “lights will guide you home.” When we seek safety, when we seek rest, when we seek home, we look to lights and the heavens. Our travels may take us dark places, and it is the light of the Christmas star that guides us back towards the road of Christ.
It is not an easy journey. We cannot plug the request into a GPS and expect to arrive without any work on our parts. Following the stars requires some skill, learning, and patience. Our journey is not one where we can simply rely on what we know, plugin what we want, and arrive there quickly. Beryl Markham was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west. In her account of that flight she wrote, “One day the stars will be as familiar to each man as the landmarks, the curves, and the hills on the road that leads to his door, and one day this will be an airborne life. But by then men will have forgotten how to fly; they will be passengers on machines whose conductors are carefully promoted to a familiarity with labeled buttons, and in whose minds the knowledge the sky and the wind and the way of the weather will be as extraneous as passing fiction.”
Have we forgotten how to fly? Have we forgotten how to navigate from one place to another using the heavens as opposed to machines of our own making? Do we seek fulfillment in the automatic, in the easy, in the ideas of what we should be fulfilled by? The journey we take in following the Christmas star is a familiar one. We hear the story, we move the figures in the nativity. Each advent we decorate trees, cook food, plan and attend parties and worship. It can sometimes feel as though we are on automatic pilot, moving towards the coordinates of “Christmas Eve and Christmas day” rather than navigating with thought. I encourage you to consider the stars you steer by this season. Where are you hoping they might lead you? Perhaps the journey will be longer and farther than you thought –you may meet Jesus not in the manger, but in the house with Mary. Perhaps the star will take you someplace you never imagined. Maybe when you reach what you thought was your destination, you will instead hear a voice encouraging you to dig deeper into scripture and learn where the next leg of the journey will take you. It may take preparation, it may be surprising. This advent, as we journey, may we travel to the places Christ leads us. May we follow the light of the Christmas star trusting the one who hung it in the sky to lead us towards fulfillment in following Christ.