East Meets West
Our scripture reading has brought us back to Bethlehem this morning. Last week, Jesus, Mary, and Jospeh, after stopping by the Temple in Jerusalem for some ritual purification and circumcision, were heading home. That was over in Luke’s Gospel. Luke’s account of the Nativity, cleverly referred to by Pastor Jeff as the “Linus version” is the account we more associate with Christmas. After all, Linus proclaimed it and the Charlie Brown tree became a star so why shouldn’t we?
When it comes to the wise men, while they are not mentioned in Luke’s Gospel we still place them gently in Christmas. It is not Christmas or Christmastide without the wise men. When it comes to the wise men we place them gently in our Nativity scenes. We ensure they are part of the Christmas pageant (just 2 weeks ago we had a pageant in this room with wise men) even if they are not part of the scripture reading. While being some of the first people on the scene, we do not see the wise men make an appearance in our Lectionary until the end of the last day of Christmastide. While Christmastide concluded yesterday (your neighbor should now be taking down the inflatable Darth Vader Santa in his front yard), the story of the wise men seems more appropriate for December 24 or 31 and not January 7.
The wise men are a centerpiece of the Nativity. As much as we need baby Jesus in the manger, we need the wise men traversing a far. The wise men are so much a centerpiece of the Nativity that for centuries artist have interpreted who these people were. In our scripture we have little detail on the wise men, but still, countless paintings have been created, crèche figurines have been crafted, and even a popular Christmas carol written. The Armenians went so far as to give names to our previously unnamed travelers from the East (and no, they are not Larry, Curly, and Moe).
All of these are an attempt to tell us who these wise men were and why they traveled from the East, first to Jerusalem, and next onto Bethlehem.
Who were these guys?
Why did they travel from the East?
Why do we, centuries later, still talk about them, dedicating an entire day in our Christian calendar to them?
Traveling from the East provides us little to on. Telling someone I meet in California that I am from the East provides little detail to where I am actually from. I could be from Atlanta, GA or Bangor, ME. Both are great places to be from but they completely different places geographically and culturally. The wise men could have been from Iraq, Iran, or Arabia. Perhaps they traveled further; perhaps India. Regardless of where they were from or if they were Zoroastrian priests, scholars, or astrologers, the wise men represented the best of the pagan world. They had studied enough to see that they star they were following was no ordinary star. They had studied enough to know that upon seeing this star it was time to pack up and head west.
The wise men were of high enough station to be received by King Herod. To say Herod had an ego problem is an understatement. He believed his reputation and prestige was without comparison. He was a regional ruler overseeing a portion of the Roman Empire. You could say he was a little fish in a big pond. He would not have received just anyone or any group of travelers. But when the wise men arrive at Herod’s court, Herod’s ego welcomes them in, acknowledging that these travelers from the East were of high enough station to at the least see the higher station of Herod. So here we have east meeting west, and the wise men have yet to make it to Bethlehem.
Many of us have had a moment like Herod in this story. While Herod is the villain in the story we can at least sympathize with him. We have all received a visitor or experienced someone contacting us only to find out we were not the person or thing being sought out? While this might be a blow to our ego or a minor let down (or a relief depending on who is contacting you) this causes Herod’s attitude to change. His ego was more than bruised.
As the pagan outsiders arrive in Jerusalem and inquire about the newly “born King of the Jews,” Herod’s ego takes over. We learn more of the wise men’s station when they are called to provide Herod with information about what they had seen in the sky. Herod needs to know “the exact time the star appeared.”The wise men knew their stuff. Herod had already consulted with his chief priests and scribes, his most trusted advisors, and still the wise men were called upon to fill in the gaps that Herod’s dream team was supposed to be able to figure out.
Matthew makes it clear that the wise men, while not being royalty, were to be trusted. The had the credentials necessary for an ego driven king like Herod to take them seriously. While not being kings, the wise men are still authoritative on the matter in Herod’s eyes. They are still authoritative figures in the Nativity story today. In a season where we hear “Jesus is the reason for the season” and see bumper stickers reading “Keep Christ in Christmas” why would Matthew place the wise men as a focal point in his account of the Nativity?
The wise men, magi coming from the East and traversing a far were the first Gentiles to acknowledge the birth of the Messiah. And how did these pagan-Gentile outsiders acknowledge Christ’s birth? By bowing down in worship and offering gifts: gold (acknowledging the majesty of Christ), frankincense (noting Christ’s divinity), and myrrh (foreshadowing Christ’s premature death). They were outside the covenant of Israel. They knew little to nothing of the prophets Samuel and Micah’s writing.
When the chief priests and scribes reported back to Herod with, “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means lease among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel,” the wise men would have had no clue where Bethlehem was or what Judah was. Remember, they were following a star and not a map. They were looking up to the heavens and not at a screen. But when Herod still needs to consult the wise men, we know then that they were on to something. When the Messiah was born it was the chief priest who was supposed to recognize what was happening, not astrologers from a distant land.
Early Christians saw the significance of the wise men, and further connected their visit with the writings of the prophet Isaiah:
“Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” - Isaiah 60:3
“A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” - Isaiah 60:6
This is how the wise men garner title of kings and camels made it into the Nativity. Early Christians also connected the birth of Christ to the Psalmist, which we just read together:
“May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts.11 May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.” - Psalm 72:10-11
Year after year we see the wise men as minor characters in children’s Christmas pageants and fail to see that for us, Gentiles, the wise men’s visit to Bethlehem signaled, just as Simeon declared in the Temple, that Christ had come for all people. Episcopal Priest and teacher of preachers, Fleming Rutledge, notes that this encounter also signals the age that is to come. Because of the wise men, we know that the Kingdom of God would include Jews, and now those previously considered to be on the outside.
In the wise men’s traveling, worship, and bearing of gifts we see the writing of John in the book of Revelation:
“The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” - Revelation 21:24
Why does this matter today? What does the book of Revelation have to do with wise men, camels, and baby Jesus?
We continue to seek out Christ, bringing as Rev. Rutledge puts it, all of our treasure to Christ. We will use our scholarship and culture arts to point to the One whose light shown bright enough to bring visitors from the East that we might point others to what happened in Bethlehem.
Leaving their homeland, the wise men recognized that Jesus Christ was the One they owed their ultimate allegiance to. Traveling over our own mountains and through our own deserts we too ensure that our gifts point to the One to whom we also owe our ultimate allegiance. Through the wise men we see that Christ was born to save good church people, but more so, we see that Christ was born to save those “not yet chosen,” those “not beloved,” those “not initiated,” and those “not deserving.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.