Jesus for the Magi
 — Rev. Phil Hobson

December 4, 2016
Second Sunday in Advent

Matthew 2:1-12

Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.

We three kings of orient are…

Matthew never calls the magi kings. The Greek is magi. The translation is often “wise men.” These were astrologers, foreign (and pagan) scientists of their day. And the Bible often mentions foreign wise men, like the magicians of Pharaoh’s court who could match God plague for plague up until the lice, and then they looked at Pharaoh and said, “Yeah, we got nothing.”

So how did the wise men come to be called kings? It is from Isaiah the prophet who said,

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. 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. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. 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. Then 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. 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 is not writing to a king sitting on the throne, but to a people who have been in exile in Babylon. And the very architecture of the capital of Babylon told everyone what to believe and whom to bow down to.

The grand steps that rose up to the capital had walls on each side. And on these walls were carved images of all the kingdoms of the world that they knew. And these images of each of the kingdoms were bowing down and offering gifts and tribute and taxes and loyalty to Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon.

And Isaiah is writing to one of the conquered peoples, Israel, whose nation had been forced to bow down and to give tribute and to serve this foreign king. And Isaiah says, “No, this is not the final word. Do not fall into the darkness of despair. Arise! Shine! Your light has come!”

Well, Israel never did get other nations to send kings to Jerusalem with tributes and taxes and gifts and loyalty. They remained conquered for many generations.

But there was a hope. There was a hope in Israel, in the midst of their subjugation, that God would fulfill what Isaiah wrote. There was a hope that a messiah would come and rescue and redeem the people.

This hope was shaped by their reading of scripture, their remembrance of God’s deeds to their ancestors, and it was shaped by the hardships they endured.

This hope that someday God would conquer those who conquered Israel had some people praying every day, and others taking up arms.

And Matthew, who shapes the telling of the Jesus story on the Exodus story, knows of Isaiah’s words. And instead of a palace where foreign kings come and bow in tribute and offer taxes and gifts, there is a house. Instead of a throne, a mother’s arms. Instead of a warrior king resplendent in arms and armor, an infant.

To paraphrase Paul, what foolishness is this? God’s foolishness is wiser than the wisdom of the world. God’s good news is stronger than our realpolitik. God’s weakness is stronger than our strength.

But there is more to the story. Foreign magi have read the stars and seen the birth of a new king of the Jews. Where do you go to pay tribute to this king of the Jews? You go to Jerusalem, of course!

They apparently do not know that “king of the Jews” is a loaded term. It means a king for Israel who is not Rome. It is a term of sedition and rebellion. And they do not know the hope of the covenant, that God would send such a one to rescue and redeem people. They do not know the scripture that would point to the small town of Bethlehem instead of the city of Jerusalem.

And when they get to Herod’s court, (Matthew is so good here!) Herod does not know any of this stuff either. The Jewish ruler over Israel is not studying Torah. He is busy making deals with Rome. He does not share in the hope of God’s redemption of the people, but knows rebellious speech when he hears it.

So what happens when people we don’t know, strangers, foreigners, confirm for us things we should have known and been doing all along? What happens when Muslims are out feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and sheltering the vulnerable? What happens when Jewish synagogues are protesting injustices against people of color and the poor? What happens when the Buddhist temple sends mentors into the schools to help make sure children are learning how to read?

If we have had a little too much of the yeast of Herod and Pilate and the Pharisees, we look down upon them because they are not like us.

But if we read Matthew’s Gospel, where faith, it turns out, is a verb, we have a different view. We see and give thanks for their witness to who we ought to be and what we ought to do as followers of Jesus.

I do not understand the systems of the wise men. I don’t get their science or their philosophy. But even they find the power of God to make all things new not in the halls of human power. They find it in the most fragile, most vulnerable, of vessels – a child.

Where will we look for our faithfulness this Christmas season? Let us look to Jesus.

Thanks be to God. Amen.