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Finding Joy

Matthew 2:1-10

            Today we’re going to read one of those passages in the Bible that we all think we already know. It’s a passage that gets read pretty much every year at or around Christmas; and it’s a story we’ve seen depicted in movies, and children’s plays, and in nativity scenes. Today we’re going to read the part of the nativity story that we quaintly refer to as ‘that bit about the three wise men.’  You can already picture it, can’t you?  There are three men of varied skin tones, elaborately-dressed, wearing crowns and holding gifts. Theirs is the kind of fashion sense that inspired Elton John, particularly in the years when he did a lot of cocaine. And we tend to think of these three gentlemen as kings, or astronomers, or as Kristen likes to affectionately call them –‘wise-guys’ (she’s from New Jersey). And finally, we assume their mission was one of trying to find a very special king. 

            But what continually astonishes me about this story is that most of us seem to know it –or at least we know about it. But I bet if I were to ask all of you the very simple question of why we remember and re-tell this particular part of the story every year, and then stick a microphone in your face, most of you would have a hard time telling me. In fact, let’s go ahead and do that –let’s have a little pop quiz to see what you know about these Magi.

            Three quick (and hopefully easy) questions.

  • How many gospels in the Bible mention the Magi (in relation to Jesus’s birth)?
  • How many Magi does Matthew tell us there were?
  • What is a ‘Magus’? (by the way, that’s the singular form of ‘magi’ –‘magi’ is plural)

Now it’s this last question that I want to say just a thing or two about before we jump into our reading for today –because something about the identity of the Magi was significant. From the very opening lines of the gospel, the author of Matthew is giving us a picture of who Jesus is, and how he is the long-anticipated Jewish Messiah. That’s why the first thing we read about Jesus is his genealogy –if Jesus is going to be the king of the Jewish people, then he has to have the right pedigree. 

And what’s more: the very first people to recognize that Jesus is –and I quote- “the newborn king of the Jews” are these mysterious Magi.  But even though we tell this story over and over again, we almost never slow the story down to give space to stop and ask: “so who were these Magi anyway?” 

It turns out that the word “Magi” originally referred to members of the priestly class of Zoroastrianism, which was the state religion of pre-Islamic Iran.  In the time of Jesus, that territory was ruled by the Parthian Empire. And these Zoroastrian priests studied astrology and practiced a wide array of mystical arts throughout history, and it’s also the source of our modern-English word for “magic.”  So there’s a lot going on here –way more than we have time to explore today. But, what I hope you’ll notice as we journey through the story again is the response these pagan gentiles have to Jesus.  Our reading for today comes from Matthew 2:1-10:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”

When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
        by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
            because from you will come one who governs,
            who will shepherd my people Israel.[a]

Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. 

 

We already mentioned this last week, but I want to remind you again that this Christmas story is unmistakably political. Here we have some Magi –some Zoroastrian priests- who show up in Jerusalem from the East, and they have a question.  What they want to know is ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” Then they go on to explain: “We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.” And then the story tells us that when King Herod heard this, he was troubled. He was agitated.  And apparently “everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him.”

We have to pause right here, because this is an incredibly weird circumstance. Persian priests show up in Jerusalem looking for the King of the Jews.  And they want to see him and pay homage to him.  There was an ancient near-east custom of bowing down to kiss the ground in front of kings, as a sign of fidelity –and this is how the Magi explain the reason for their trip.  Now this is really odd for a few reasons: 1.) these guys are potentially priests of a totally different religion. They do not worship Yahweh –the God of Israel 2.) they have come a very long way to honor a king that is not their own! (the center of Iran is 1,300 miles away from Jerusalem) And 3.) by the time they get to Jerusalem, there is not one ‘king of the Jews’ but there are 4. Herod the Great has died, and the region of Judea was divided into different territories for each son. Oh, and let’s not forget that sitting high above those four local kings on the political food-chain is the Roman Emperor –because Judea belongs to Rome. And these Magi are crossing the boarders of empire.

So do we see what’s happening here?  Do we see why Herod might be a little uneasy –him and all of Jerusalem with him?  Because foreign leaders are coming to their city to find a new king.  And they fully intend on bowing down before this king –which, by the way, is how rebellions start. You’ve heard the old phrase ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend,’ right?  Well do you know who doesn’t like Rome?  The Jewish people!  You know who else doesn’t like Rome?  The current rulers of the Persian Empire (the Parthians)!  So when their foreign ambassadors come to town to bow down before some new king that no one else has heard of before –there are not a lot of ways to interpret what’s going on!  They’re forming a connection –and potentially an alliance! For the Jews and the Parthians both already had a shared political interest: they both wanted Rome out of the Middle East.

So of course Herod was riled up.  His job was to keep the peace between the Jews and the Romans, and that was already proving to be a near impossible task without the Parthians’ involvement! And of course the people of Jerusalem were stirred up along with Herod, because if there was going to be a rebellion, it was going to be fought in their streets! The Roman legions would swarm Jerusalem like a black cloud of locusts. And it would be the sons of Jerusalem who would have to take up the sword again –and it would be their sons who would have to pay for their attempted freedom with their lives. And for some of them, that was just exactly the chance they were waiting for –with the backing of the Parthians, they just might have a chance!

Probably most of us haven’t spent a whole lot of time pondering the journey of those un-numbered men who traveled hundreds of miles to visit the rural town of Bethlehem, some two thousand years ago.  But you should! Try and imagine what kinds of things would motivate upper-class people to embark on a two or more month pilgrimage across the borders of Empire to follow a star and seek out a foreign king. But this king isn’t a king yet; for the moment, he’s only a child. And the child is not one of your people. He doesn’t have anything to do with your faith. And yet you pick up and go.

But not only that –not only do they make that long and difficult, and dangerous journey, but when they follow Herod’s council to go to Bethlehem, and when they see the star rising –and when they see the star comes to stand over the child, it says these mysterious magi –they were overwhelmed with an excessive joy.   And the text is clear here: their joy doesn’t come from seeing the child; it comes from seeing the star. And it wasn’t just a little joy –but the original text tells us ‘they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy!’ 

This morning I want to invite you to wonder at the overflowing joy of these foreign Magi. They went through a whole lot of trouble just to kiss a little bit of dirt by the feet of a child who was to them both a foreigner and a pagan. And it’s true: they also had gifts to bring –but their joy came before all of that.  Their joy came before the rebellion was fought and won –their joy came before the alliance was made –their joy came even before their journey was complete. Somehow it was enough to witness a star standing still.  For them it was a sign that heaven was not silent, and that they were on the right path –a path that would one day lead to peace.

This strange little story tucked at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel makes me wonder about my own joy.  So often I catch myself chasing joy as if it’s a thing I can have and possess. I tend to imagine joy as being a kind of object I can order on amazon: where I peruse the great catalog of joy-options; and I click a transactional button, and then my joy is supposed to be there at some point within two business days. Joy is a thing I look forward to; and it feels the most powerful and alive to me when I check the online package tracker –it tells me my anticipated prize should be there sometime before 9 p.m. tomorrow. It’s on its way. But then when I go home that same day and find the package already waiting or me on my doorstep, I’ll be honest with you: I almost feel cheated. And I feel cheated because that’s one whole day less that I have to look forward to something. And always the moment when I get the thing is the moment the joy dies –because somehow when it becomes mine it doesn’t feel like grace anymore. It’s just what it is –one more thing lost in my already-too-large collection of things.

And that’s why I think this odd story about the Magi is such a wonderful story –because it shows us what real joy is, and how it works. Real joy doesn’t come with the fulfillment of our hopes. It doesn’t come when our mission is accomplished, or when everyone joins in to be on the ‘right team’ together. Joy comes in those fleeting moments where heaven lets us know that this is where we belong. Right here. On this path. With these strange people in a strange land –so far from home—this is where our Wise Lord wants us.

It’s odd, don’t you think –how on this most Christian of holidays, we always make a space in our story for a group of pagan priests. And we honor their journey and their joy –even though it was political. We remember them and include them even though by all of our metrics, they shouldn’t fit. Not in terms of national or political identity; not in terms of religious fidelity; not in terms of their purpose or their hope. But they belong in this cosmic story we share because they witnessed God at work on the other sides of the lines. And they found joy in the journey.

May we also be inspired to go and honor the powers of our neighbors, that we might find joy in the signs along the way.

Let’s pray.

 

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