“On the Lookout”
Matthew 2:1-12 (2:2) – January 7, 2018
Christmas Day has been over for two weeks. To modern-day Americans, this was a long time ago! But the full holiday isn’t really over on December 25th. There are the twelve days of Christmas (remember the song about the twelve days?), during which many would have parties and feasting and especially Twelfth Night celebrations.
As we think of Nativity scenes or paintings, how often do we see them with shepherds and sheep, as well as the three wise men? All of them at the same time visiting the baby Jesus in the manger? That is not quite the way it was, as presented in the Gospels. We are all familiar with the Nativity narrative from Luke chapter 2, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered.”
For the visit of the wise men, we need to turn to Matthew’s gospel, chapter 2: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi [or, wise men] from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the One who has been born king of the Jews? We saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.”
Here we have some wise men—probably noblemen who know a great deal about stars and constellations. They have been studying the heavens for years and years, as well as studying religious books and writings. Just as it says in the gospel record, a great sign (or star) rose in the sky, so these wise astrologers knew that something momentous was going to happen.
These wise men, or Magi, were not Jewish wise men, but instead were Gentiles. Non-Jews. “Could an unusual phenomenon in the night skies have caught the attention of some of them—interest in the stars was legendary in the region—and led them to set out to Jerusalem? That people of other lands and religions are drawn to Jesus, even as a child, is also significant: in Christ, God is speaking to the hearts and minds of all people.”  It is important to point out that they were on the lookout and knew which way to go—towards Jerusalem. And, eventually, they turned up at the palace, on King Herod’s doorstep.
What was King Herod’s response to the question of these noble Gentile wise men? “When Herod heard this, he was frightened and all Jerusalem with him.” “Why was Herod so frightened? Of a baby? What did he have to lose and how did he see this baby as a threat?” 
For the how and the what, we need to look at Herod’s psychological profile, which is not nice at all. He was bloodthirsty, cruel, narcissistic, and always on the lookout for trouble brewing that might affect him. Herod was installed as a puppet king of Israel by the Roman overlords. I suspect he did not feel very secure to begin with. When he heard about a newborn King of Israel, you can imagine how his anxiety level rose. Herod did not want any rival claim to the throne.
Herod is sneaky, and sly, and ruthless. Listen to his response to these wise men: “Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
That leads me to ask some uncomfortable questions. We know Herod was threatened by the thought of a newborn King. Are we threatened by the thought of Jesus? Does the newborn King make us anxious? We know that cruel King Herod had horrible plans ahead for the boy babies and toddlers in the area of Bethlehem. But, are our motives clear when we think of our fear and anxiety concerning strangers and visitors coming into our hometown?
A telling observation comes from Dr. David Lose: “Perhaps it is because the one thing the powerful seek more than anything else is to remain in power. Gone from Herod and his court is any notion of the kind of servant leadership prescribed and required by Israel’s prophets. Gone is the memory that God placed them in their positions to serve rather than be served. Herod seeks his own ends and so is immediately threatened by even the mere mention of another – and therefore rival – king.” 
What about any self-interest we might have? We know King Herod was a prime hypocrite. But, is there any hypocrisy in our words and actions, when we think of how we treat strangers, visitors from far away? Serious questions, requiring serious thought.
We follow the wise men as they leave Jerusalem and go to Bethlehem. Remember what brought them on this journey in the first place? They had seen a star in the heavens, and by consulting their books of ancient wisdom, they knew that a King had been born. They followed that star, that Light.
We don’t know, and we cannot tell for sure, but perhaps one of the books the wise men consulted was the book of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah. Chapter 60 begins: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. 2 See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you, and His glory appears over you.” Maybe this was one of the ancient writings they poured over.
On Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, we sing about the wise men from the East. “We three kings, of Orient, are.” What is the chorus of that Christmas—actually, Epiphany—carol? “Star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright.” Although they were Gentiles, they still recognized that the one who was born the king of the Jews was worthy of worship. And, they came to the house where the Holy Family was staying, and offered Him gifts fit for a King.
Here in the United States in many Protestant denominations, Epiphany is not that big of a deal. Yes, the coming of the wise men is incorporated into many Christmas pageants, and is found in nativity scenes and Christmas cards. Except—I want to let everyone here know that this is a totally separate event. The coming of Light into the world—so beautifully mentioned at the beginning of the gospel of John—is the whole meaning behind our celebration of Epiphany.
One of the grand symbols of God is that of Light. Mentioned repeated throughout the Bible, when we picture Light we can think of a star, the sun, a candle, a lamp. We have the Advent wreath lit today, with the Christ candle in the middle letting us know that Jesus is with us right now. We lit those candles on the Advent wreath one by one, and on Christmas Eve lit the Christ candle to remind ourselves that God our Light is always with us. And, at the end of our service today the light from the candles behind the communion table will travel down the central aisle and out the back door to call worshipers to follow the Light of God out into the world. 
As the wise men followed the star—the Light—to worship the Child in Bethlehem, so we can follow Him, the True Light. The shining Star of our hearts is the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Do you know He is with us today? He opens His arms wide to all who would come. Come worship the True Light, the Child born in Bethlehem, today. Amen.
“Jesus, Herod, the Magi and Us,” Commented Bible Passages from Taize, 2012.
“Gold, Frankincense and Myrhh,” Alyce McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 2013.
 http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1509 “An ‘Adults Only’ Nativity Story,” David Lose, WorkingPreacher, 2013.
Worshiping with Children, Epiphany, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014.
(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog, A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)