Were the Wise Men Really Wise?

Matt. 2:1-12

Your kids can be thankful they didn’t grow up in Bishop Eric’s family. If they did, they would have to wait until tomorrow to open presents. That’s because the Menees family follows the Spanish tradition of postponing the gift exchange until Epiphany. And, actually, that’s more in line with the practice of the ancient church. But it makes for a VERY long 12 days of Christmas.

In the early days of the Church, Epiphany was one of the three most important holy days on the church calendar. It outranked Christmas! And when we look closer at this Holy Day, we can see why Epiphany screams “God’s grace.”

The word “epiphany” comes from two Greek words: epi (upon) and phani (appear). We might hear someone say that they’ve had an epiphany. By that, they mean that they’ve suddenly gained new insight, they’ve had a revelation. But the bible uses “epiphany” in terms of Christ’s appearing at the end of history.

If you were part of the congregation that Matthew wrote his gospel for, and you heard this morning’s passage for the first time, you would experience a different kind of an epiphany. You would be stunned! Maybe even a little offended.

You see, Matthew’s audience were Jews. He wrote his Gospel for a Jewish congregation. We miss the scandalous nature of this passage that an orthodox Jew would see. We’re used to seeing the three wise men visiting among the shepherds and angels in the Holy Nativity scene. And we like it that way.

Those three kings add a dash of color to the scene – regal robes, elegant gifts. They bring in something of the exotic from their Persian country. But most of all, they add just the right note of royalty as they bow before the infant king in the manger.

That’s how we interpret the story. But that’s not what Matthew wrote. Matthew didn’t see things at all in that light. And neither did those Jewish Christians who heard the story.

You see, those three visitors weren’t kings. They were necessarily “wise men.” The bible says they were magi.

Now magi is not a word you hear in everyday conversation. But those early Christians would know about them. Magi were magicians, astrologers, stargazers– what the Old Testament calls necromancers. They were the Jeanne Dixons of Persia writing daily horoscopes for the Baghdad Gazette. The Old Testament condemns magi types as idolatrous deceivers. The rabbi’s wrote: “He who learns from a magi is worthy of death.” Matthew’s Jewish congregation would NOT be very welcoming to these magi.
For one thing, they were foolish bumblers. I say that because look what they did. They wander into Jerusalem and get an audience with the reigning king. Then they ask this king where they might find the newborn baby who is destined to replace him.

Any fool who had the slightest inkling of Herod’s paranoia would know that telling him news of another king would be like tossing a match into a gas can. That tip off to King Herod would lead the slaughter of the Holy Innocents.

But that mistake wouldn’t be the biggest concern of Matthew’s Jewish congregation.. Their biggest concern would be the scandal of foreign astrologers mingling with God’s Messiah. Imagine Madame Esmeralda walking into a no-nonsense Baptist church one morning with her crystal ball in one hand and her fortune telling cards in the other. Think of the reception she would get.

But the Epiphany story is not the only scandal Matthew offers. Look at Matthew’s genealogy. He breaks with convention and includes four women in the list of Jesus’ ancestors. And each one of these women had something scandalous attached to her.

There’s Tamar who played a prostitute so that she could be impregnated by her father-in-law, Judah. There’s Rahab who was, indeed, a prostitute in Jericho. There’s Ruth, the gentile woman from Moab. And, while Bathsheba is not listed by name, Matthew includes her in a way to twist the knife more painfully. He refers to her as Uriah’s wife. And every Jew would know that King David orchestrated Uriah’s death to hide his adultery with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba.

There’s a message here that jumped out at Matthew’s congregation. That message is that Christ is not just the Jews’ Messiah. He’s not just for God’s chosen people.

Christ is the world’s Messiah. He’s the Gentiles’ Messiah. He’s women’s Messiah. He’s the Messiah even for those oddball folks with lives that don’t conform to the standard shape of orthodoxy – like these peculiar magi.

Make no mistake. This magi visit doesn’t vindicate astrology. All of the bible’s warnings about diviners and astrologers still stand.

What the magi visit does tell us is the reach of God’s grace. It tells us of the generosity of God’s grace. Because, right from the manger, we get a sneak preview of the boundaries that Jesus will break.

The same Christ child who attracted these oddball magi will grow up to attract Samaritan adulterers, He will attract immoral prostitutes, He will attract sleazy tax collectors on the take, He will attract despised Roman soldiers He’ll welcome ostracized lepers.
Jesus was not just for the Jews. He was for everyone – especially those peculiar ones who don’t fit in.

There’s another message here. And I might illustrate it with a story of an Arab king. There was a certain king of present day Afghanistan named Ebrahim ibn Adam. Now this King Ebrahim was very wealthy. At the same time, however, he sincerely strove to be spiritually wealthy as well.

One night the king was roused from his sleep. He heard this stumping on the roof above his bed. So he sat straight up and shouted at the ceiling: “Who’s there?” A voice replied, “A friend. I’ve lost my camel.”

Ebrahim was perturbed by such stupidity and screamed back: ‘You fool! Why are you looking for a camel on the roof?’ The voice answered: ‘You fool! Why are you looking for God while dressed in silk clothing and lying on a golden bed?’

It raises a question that merits some thought. Where do people look for God? Where do you look for God? It’s the Epiphany question that is good to ask at the beginning of a new year. And your answer will tell you something about the God you seek.

A lot of people look for God in a Sunday ritual surrounded by beautiful Gothic architecture and stained glass windows. Perhaps in those surroundings they find a God of order, a God of refinement – a majestic God. It’s a God who can make them feel holy and at peace.

I’ve heard many more who say, “I don’t need to go to church. My church is the great outdoors!” They seek God in the vast expanse of his creation. And in the great outdoors, they might indeed find a limitless God, a lavish God. But a God who will never confront them.

Then there are those folks who look for God in the corridors of worldly power and wealth. What kind of a God do you suppose they’ll find there?

Jerusalem had a long and ancient history. It was the city conquered by King David. It served as the capital for Judah’s kings for centuries to follow. It was the city where Solomon built the Temple to house the Ark of the Covenant.

When the magi came to Jerusalem looking for God, they found knowledgeable scribes and they found a powerful king. What they didn’t find was God. They would have to press on until they found God right where God led them. In the little backwater village of Bethlehem – living in a common home among a common family.

What kind of a God dwells in backwater villages among common folk?It’s the same God who will one day wash his disciples’ dirty feet. That’s a God of grace.

Where do you find God? Some people find God not in a place, but in their activity. Some of you remember Colleen Wentworth. Her son in law, Fred, was just honored as Servant of the Year by his church yesterday. Fred was a deputy sheriff in Mariposa and has spent a lifetime serving in different ministries. But I was struck by what he said yesterday about what has drawn him and his wife, Sheila, closer to God.

About ten years ago, they were looking to adopt a little girl. Well, as circumstances would have it, the county had rescued a couple of brothers – maybe 5 and 7, from an abusive situation. Would Fred and Sheila take them in? It was more of a commitment than they had planned, but how could they say no?

Days later they learned that there was a two year old sister that was also rescued. Fred and Sheila would not allow the children to be separated. They adopted the little girl as well.

What those kids suffered in their formative years has left some emotional scars. But Fred and Sheila are loving them through it. And the kids are growing up now with a hope and a future.

But there’s more. A few years after adopting the three kids, Fred and Sheila fostered a teenage girl for a short period. That girl got pregnant and ended up leaving the daughter with them. And baby makes four. It’s not always easy for Fred and Sheila. But they love all four of their kids.

But here’s what I keyed in on. They say that the difficult times, the trying times, as well as the good times with their kids have drawn them into a closer relationship with God. God is revealing himself to them more and more through the daily struggles of raising kids even as these parents are approaching their senior years.

Fred and Sheila are active members in their church. But the place that they find God is in the daily ups and downs of raising four kids.

I ask the question again, not only of you but of myself as well Where do you find God? Do you find him in a place? In an activity? Because God doesn’t really hide from us.
We don’t have to find him, he finds us.

God leads us to him – just as he led the magi to Bethlehem. Where is God leading you? That’s where you’ll find him. Come next December you might look back on this year and ask yourself: “Where did I find God this past year?”

This morning we began the service singing about three kings – Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar – who visited the Christ Child on Epiphany. All the bible tells us is that three magi came bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The tradition that there were three visitors comes from the three gifts that were given. But it could have been any number of magi.

The notion that they were kings came from St. Bede in the 8th century. He gave us the names we use for them: Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar. It was the Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, that supposedly discovered the bones of these kings and brought them to Rome in the 4th century. Later, their skulls were removed to the Cathedral in Cologne where they remain today.

It’s all very fanciful and makes for a colorful story. But all the bible tells us is that magi came from the east bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Don’t let the fanciful embellishments cover over the point of the story. It’s a story of the world’s epiphany. The day when the Messiah was first revealed to the Gentile world.

And not just any Gentiles. They were peculiar, oddball, unorthodox gentiles – magi. They would be the first of many Gentiles to follow.

There is one more piece of information that the bible tells us about these peculiar Bethlehem visitors that you shouldn’t miss. It’s the reason that, in spite of their peculiar profession and their bumbling journey, we call them wise men.

The bible says: “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him.” These magi didn’t have the right lineage. They didn’t have much knowledge of scripture. And they really weren’t engaged in a profession that was pleasing to God.

Nevertheless, these bungling, unorthodox magi would be the first people recorded in history to worship Jesus. And why wouldn’t they? It’s the natural response for anyone who comes face to face with the King of kings and Lord of lords. It was their Epiphany