Here we are, on the last Sunday of the Christmas season and the first Sunday of the new year. On New Year’s Eve, we quietly celebrated the ending of 2020 and the beginning of 2021 with feelings of cautious hope tinged by the memories of all the challenges of the past year.
You may actually have had the sense of Christmas Day being the end of the year as much as New Year’s Eve. Stores put up their decorations and promote Christmas shopping sales even before Thanksgiving and, with the nice late-fall weather and everyone bored to tears, people strung lights and inflated their blow-ups earlier than usual. So, we had weeks of build-up to the big day. It’s no wonder that once the presents have been opened and put away, when the wrapping paper’s been thrown in the trash, with the tree losing its needles every time you walk past, and the cookies looking less appealing by the day, we can feel like Christmas Day is a kind of ending.
Just as we may think of Christmas as a winding down, we tend to treat the story of the magi as winding down—kind of like the last scene of the nativity story. The magi were the last to show up to worship Jesus—much later than the night of Jesus’ birth, however much we might like cramming them into the stable with the shepherds and the newborn in the manger. These wise men were not kings but astrologers and Zoroastrian priests from some unidentified land east of Galilee. During their observations of the night sky, they had witnessed the rising of a new star and correctly interpreted it to mean that a new king had been born.
Matthew tells us the story of how they arrived in Jerusalem, apparently doubting their heavenly GPS and assuming that they would find a newborn king in the city, not in the rural backwater town the star was pointing them to. Matthew describes how they threw Herod into a tizzy, and all of Jerusalem with him, by announcing the reason for their visit: that they were seeking the new King of the Jews. Herod was a jealous and paranoid man who had already murdered his wife and two of his sons because he suspected them of plotting against him, and so he tried to make the magi unwitting spies in order to locate and destroy his latest rival.
Sent on their way by Herod, the magi once again follow the star until they see that the star has done something no star ever does—it stopped its movement through the heavens and hovered over the house where Jesus and Mary were now living. Overwhelmed by joy at this supernatural event, they enter the house and kneel down to offer their gifts to the king they had sought for so long.
That’s where we tend to leave the magi—ending their quest in Bethlehem. But, their story doesn’t end there. They still have a beginning ahead of them—the beginning of their journey home by a route that’s different from the one they took to get there.
We never hear anything more about these visitors. There’s nothing to tell us that they were transformed by seeing the Messiah, or even that they thought of him as the Messiah. Some traditions say that they did become followers of Jesus, and even that they were martyred for their faith, although nothing in Scripture suggests that. But, we all know that, once we’ve seen something, we can’t unsee it. Once we’ve heard something, we can’t unhear it. If we believe Matthew’s account, the magi were filled with joy at what they had seen. So, I can’t believe that the magi left Bethlehem unchanged by what they had seen and heard. When they began their journey home, they were also beginning lives that would be shaped by the star they had followed and the king they had followed it to.
This is a story of a new beginning for the magi. It’s also the beginning of the story Matthew wants to tell about Jesus, and it’s not just part of the chronological beginning of Jesus’ biography. It introduces all the elements of what will eventually lead Jesus to the cross. We have Herod, who for Matthew wasn’t simply the villain we love to hate, but the symbol of the worldly kingdom that will be set in opposition to the divine kingdom of Jesus. All of Jerusalem is troubled along with Herod, but not just because they fear what this unpredictable and self-centered leader will do. Matthew is looking ahead to when the whole city will be implicated in Jesus’ death.
The scribes and the chief priests appear as collaborators with Herod for the first time, setting up the coming confrontation between Jesus and the religious authorities. In the magi’s question to Herod, we first hear Jesus called the “King of the Jews,” the very title that will appear on the sign above him as he hangs on the cross. And, of course, there are the magi themselves, emblems of all the people and nations outside the covenant of God who will be drawn to God by the light of Christ. For Matthew, the story of the magi is also the beginning of the story of the Passion.
Finally, the story of the magi is a story about us. It reminds us of the opportunities we have for new beginnings for ourselves. New Year’s is often a time when we set goals and make resolutions. We tell ourselves that this year we will definitely get our budget under control or lose that weight or clean out the attic. One article I read said that about 80% of resolutions go by the wayside by the beginning of February. Maybe we’d be better off seeing ourselves as more like the magi—as people who have seen Jesus and are now setting off on a new journey. This is much more in keeping with our vison of faith as a process that we have the chance to begin anew every time we gaze into the face of Jesus.
As the magi looked to astrology and other arts of the occult to get them to the newborn King, we are guided to the Christ Child by our own experiences, our own knowledge, our own hopes, our own fears. On Christmas Eve, we imagine ourselves next to the manger as we read the nativity story. We worshipped Jesus under the stars—the same stars that shone down on the stable, stars like the one that led the magi to Bethlehem.
We’ve seen things and experienced things on the way to Bethlehem this year that we haven’t seen or experienced before. We may have seen Jesus in ways we haven’t seen him before, and what we’ve seen will give us a new perspective on the year we’re beginning. Maybe, like the magi, we saw a King—a king whom even nature obeys and whom we can trust to rule the world, even a world as chaotic as ours. Or, maybe what we saw was the best kind of friend, who held our hands through all our most trying moments, or a kind Physician and healer, who was present in illness and grief. Maybe we saw a tower of strength to cling to when everything else in the world seemed uncertain. Maybe we saw a divine First-Responder, who came to our rescue when we were at the end of our rope.
Now, like the magi, we’re beginning a new journey, on a road we haven’t traveled before. The journey we begin in these post-Christmas days will be shaped by what and whom we see in Jesus. The journey will lead us away from Bethlehem and towards Jerusalem, away from the manger and towards the cross, away from the miraculous birth of Jesus to his just-as-miraculous invitation for us to be reborn into eternal life through him. Far from being an ending to a beautiful nativity story, the magi invite us to begin a new journey, shaped and guided by the One we saw in the manger and who will continue to guide us as we journey with him. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young