That’s the thing about scripture tales that we turn into pageants like this one – it can seem like a fairytale – like something Disney might adapt for the big screen complete with musical numbers to accompany the journey of plucky heroes as they outwit and escape a monster like Herod.
August 6, 2023
Dr. Todd R. Wright
We come to the end of this sermon series, this six week summer focus on the Advent story, by telling the tale of Magi from the East who come looking for the child born king of the Jews.
Technically this is no longer an Advent story – God coming into the world. It is an Epiphany story – the revelation of God to the world.
Presbyterian pastor Mihee Kim-Kort muses, “Epiphanies come to us in all shapes and sizes: angels, stars, babies, water. They come in all sorts of moments: ordinary, simple, humble … sometimes, unexpected and bright. They come to us to show us how we might be changed deeply; they come to show us another road. Don’t be afraid of being waylaid. Take that other road with courage and hope as God shapes a bright new reality in us, one that is rich with God’s grace.”
Yet I fear that we have so domesticated this story – with memories of our children dressed up in paper crowns and carrying gift-wrapped boxes – that we have forgotten that this is a tale driven by stunning courage. So bought in to the cuteness of it, we’ve missed the unexpected advent of hope! So divorced it from its setting that we’ve ignored it as an account of political resistance. I’m going to try and change that today.
Let’s begin with this: scholars say that the Magi were likely astrologers from Persia, followers of Zoroastrianism, an ancient religion, still active in Iran, a precursor to Islam.
They are a shocking addition to the story! Not just because they were non-Jews, outsiders, but because Matthew’s audience would have known that the scriptures had a clear bias against
astrologers and magicians.
The prophet Isaiah thundered against the role of astrologers in Babylon:
“Stand fast in your enchantments and your many sorceries …
You are wearied with your many consultations;
let those who study the heavens stand up and save you,
those who gaze at the stars and at each new moon predict what shall befall you.
See, they are like stubble; the fire consumes them;
they cannot deliver themselves from the power of the flame.”
And in the exodus story, magicians initially match Moses trick for trick and so Pharoah’s heart remained hardened against the will of God to free Israel. And even when their secret arts fail, Pharoah will not bend, such is the power of magic’s deception.
But Matthew gives these Magi respect.
Had you ever thought of the Magi as deserving our respect?
Kelley Nikondeha, author of The First Advent in Palestine, helps us understand why we should. She humanizes them by telling a bit of their history:
“When Alexander the Great defeated the Persians in 330 BCE, he brought the influences of the West to their world. Even as subsequent generations longed for a return to indigenous culture and Persian leadership, the discontent did not materialize into a peasant movement against Greek economic exploitation, as it did in Palestine. Still, many elites, like the magi, carried within themselves a spirit of resistance to the Hellenization of their land … [So,] a rising star in the sky gave them reason to believe that regime change was possible. They were even willing to go westward, like Abraham of Ur, to a place they did not know.”
Perhaps, Nikondeha speculates, they saw the birth of a new king in Palestine as reason to hope that someday a new Persian king would take the throne to rule their land.
So Matthew recognizes in them both courage and hope – admirable qualities, necessary qualities for anyone living in difficult times.
Had you ever thought of the Magi as courageous and hopeful?
No? Perhaps that’s because you’ve miscast them as innocents abroad.
Preacher Alyce McKenzie plays up this image: “They stride into Jerusalem like a person wandering bare-footed into a snake pit, asking, ‘Where's the baby king?’ seemingly oblivious to the dangers in every alley and around every corner."
But then McKenzie changes course (and invites us to do so too). She writes, “The wise men are observant. They are scientists, astronomers. They use their powers of observation applied to their surroundings and they make deductions. With this training in close observation, maybe they saw through [Herod].”
So maybe their question – “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews” – is less gullible folly and more a clever act of mockery and resistance.
Had you ever thought of the Magi as resisters?
No? Perhaps that’s because you assumed that they were just swept along following a star.
But when Nikondeha tells their story, she first tells of a wall that separates Jerusalem from Bethlehem, a wall that gives the impression that the Holy City needs to be protected from dangerous people. And yet, the other side of the wall brings not danger but marketplaces with women shopping and men sitting, just like at home. And she tells of a Banksy painting on the side of a petrol station in Bethlehem of a man throwing not the Molotov cocktail you might expect, but a bouquet of flowers.
Nikondeha explains: “In his advent narrative, Matthew describes [the] bright star appearing, pointing to a promise for all occupied lands from west to east, ancient and contemporary. And those in this account who come from the east, from another land and religious tradition – the magi – are the ones who crack open our understanding about hope in hard places, about resistance, and about the necessity of stars.”
Their hope and spirited resistance becomes clear when they kneel and pay the child homage.
Had you ever given a second thought to that act?
No? Perhaps because kneeling is not something Presbyterians have much practice doing.
For seven decades we watched people bow or curtsy to Queen Elizabeth. We’ve noticed our catholic friends genuflect before the cross. I’ve lined up with Muslim brothers as they bowed at regular intervals during their prayers. Maybe you have too. But our pews do not have kneelers. So maybe we missed the significance that the Magi knelt when the star led them to an ordinary house, to the child they sought. Maybe we missed that they bowed to the newborn king of the Jews … and not to King Herod. Maybe we missed that their posture indicated both their hope that they had finally found the real thing and faithful resistance to bowing to anyone less worthy.
That’s the thing about scripture tales that we turn into pageants like this one – it can seem like a fairytale – like something Disney might adapt for the big screen complete with musical numbers to accompany the journey of plucky heroes as they outwit and escape a monster like Herod. But let’s not sell fairytales short. C K Chesterton once wrote that fairytales don’t exist to teach children that monsters exist. Every child knows about monsters because they are loose in the world, even a child’s world. Instead, Chesterton says, fairytales teach children that monsters can be defeated. I think that’s the purpose of this tale too.
If I’m right, then Matthew tells this tale to provide good news to those trying to cling to faith in a broken world that seems to be ruled by powerful empires not a God of love. It’s good news for the occupied and the oppressed because, as Ann Weems wrote,
“Into this silent night, as we make our weary way we know not where,
just when the night becomes its darkest and we cannot see our path,
just then is when the angels rush in, their hands full of stars.”
And this story tells us that the stars will lead us to the place where, against all odds, God is entering the world to bring peace and hope and love!
So take courage! The monsters will be defeated. Amen.
 From her reflection on the text, “Gifts we bring” in the Christian Century, 1/3/20
 See Isaiah 47:12-14
 See Exodus chapters 7-9
 From The First Advent in Palestine, pages 132-33
 From “Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh” her reflections on the text at www.patheos.com, 1/2/13
 From The First Advent in Palestine, pages 131-32
 From her poem “Into This Silent Night” in Kneeling in Bethlehem, page 52