Sunday, January 5, 2014

"Journey of the Magi" byStefano de Giovanni Sassetta

January 5, 2014
Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2: 1-12
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Isaiah 60:1-6
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. 
2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. 
3 Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. 
4 Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses' arms. 
5Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. 
6 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.

Matthew 2:1-12
1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, "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." 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They 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.  8 Then 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." 9 When 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. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

For many people, Christmas is over. They’ve cleaned up the pine needles, put away the decorations, stowed the gifts, snuffed the candles, and returned the sweater that didn’t fit.
Maybe you have done the same. But as you probably know, Christmas is not a day, but 12 days, a season, and the season actually doesn’t end until tomorrow. Tomorrow, the 12th day of Christmas, is Epiphany, the day when we celebrate the visit of the magi.

You may have noticed that our Christmas program didn’t have three wise men, or three wise anybodies in it, and even though we sing the song, “We Three Kings” we don’t really know how many there were – just that they brought three gifts. Sometimes when we hear this story, we focus on the star, the astrological sign that brought the magi to Jesus.

This time, let’s think about the journeys in this story.

The first journey we know about was the journey that Mary and Joseph made, the journey to Bethlehem from Nazareth. Even though Bethlehem was really important in the Christmas story, we really don’t hear much more about it after that. We just know that it is the center of the house of David, and so the family lineage is validated. The second journey was probably not a long one – maybe to a relative’s home? because when the Magi arrived, the family was in a house. The third journey is this one we just heard – the Magi coming from far lands, to see this child who is born the king of the Jews. The fourth journey is the Magi’s journey home – home by another way.

Beyond this text, the next journey is, again, Joseph, Mary and Jesus, on the run as refugees, heading to Egypt, to escape King Herod. They stay there until it is safe to go home, and they then journey back to Nazareth, their hometown.

Since we are in Matthew’s gospel, and not Luke’s, the story of Jesus’ early days is different.
No shepherds here, only genealogy and signs and symbols, because Matthew is establishing Jesus’ connection to prophecies of  the Old Testament. And in Matthew’s stories of journeys, Jesus is a traveler, but he is mainly the destination. This story of the Magi leaves out a lot of details, but there is much to be learned from their journey.

First, it’s clear from their statements that they came to find Jesus through magic and astrology – not the sort of path we’d expect. Perhaps we can be mindful of this as we contemplate the various spiritual paths taken by those outside the church. As we reach out to them, let’s be respectful of their journeys. We believe that the journey is ultimately to Christ, but we cannot presume to limit God’s grace. Since we believe in the promise that Christ is redeeming all of creation, we can trust that God’s roadmap is more complex than we imagine.

Second, they were sidetracked by their assumptions. The magi went to Herod’s palace first, assuming they would find a king there. They thought they knew what a king would look like, and they were quite certain that there were certain places he would be found. Instead, they went to a humble home, to see an ordinary looking child with peasant parents. That child would grow up to b e a man who welcomed children, who ate with sinners and prostitutes, who welcomed the unwelcome and included the outcast. Maybe it’s worth examining our own assumptions about Jesus, about who he would be with and where he may be found.

Third, they brought gifts of enormous value – the gifts suitable for royalty. I wonder how our own offerings would compare to the gold, frankincense and myrrh they offered. The 17th century sermon of Lancelot Andrewes summed up that offering. He said  “We can worship God but three ways:  we have but three things to worship Him withal.
1. The soul He hath inspired; 2. the body He hath ordained us; 3. and the worldly goods He hath vouchsafed to bless us withal. We to worship Him with all, seeing there is but one reason for all.”[1]

Fourth, we do not know what they were feeling, or what made them make their journey to Jesus. We do not know what detours they took, or what fears they faced. This we do know:
When they arrived, they were overwhelmed by his presence. They were changed by him,
No matter where they went from then on, they were changed, the passports of their lives indelibly stamped with the experience of seeing God. And they went home by another road.

My favorite poet, T. S. Eliot, wrote the poem, “Journey of the Magi,” when he was thirty nine years old, shortly after he converted to Christianity. His poem reflects his own journey to Christ, and ends with these words:

“This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.”[2]

Each one of us makes this journey to Christ, beckoned by the vision God sends, called by a deep longing to see him, to know him, and to be known by him. Today we continue on our journeys, in a new year, but with the same assurance that those who seek him will find him.

We continue on our journeys, with all the same uncertainties, with all the detours and mistaken assumptions, to offer what we have and who we are: body, soul, and material wealth. We come to him, and we worship, and we are changed, forever and for good, so that when we go, we go by another road, a road that will lead us home, where our restless hearts will rest in him. Thanks be to God for each and every journey to Christ. 


[1] SERMONS OF THE NATIVITY. PREACHED UPON CHRISTMAS-DAY, 1622. Preached before King James, at Whitehall, on Wednesday, the Twenty-fifth of December, A.D. MDCXXII. Transcribed by Dr Marianne Dorman
AD 2001  Accessed January 1, 2014

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