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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

January 7, 2018

 Home by Another Way

Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12

            Some stories are so compelling that they raise at least as many questions as they answer.  Perhaps the story that Matthew tells of these mysterious travelers from the East is one of them.  Who were these visitors from the East?  Were they wise men or sages, as Matthew tells us?  Or were they kings, as that beloved Christmas carol, We Three Kings of Orient Are proclaims that they were?  And who decided that there were three of them?  Read the text carefully – Matthew never tells us how many of them there were.  And who came up with those names: Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, now a part of the folklore that has gathered around this enchanting and charming account that Matthew offers?

            Maybe most searching of all: Why did only Matthew among the four Gospel writers choose to tell us this wonderful story?  And why did the other three Gospel writers either not know of this tradition, or for some other reason, choose not to include it?  One thing is certain: We are much richer, and the Gospel more complete, because Matthew chose to tell of these visitors from the East.

            I like to think of this account as a small masterpiece that Matthew offered to Jesus.  Matthew, you will recall, was the erstwhile tax collector, who left everything except his pen, behind to follow Jesus.  Consider for a moment some of the immense truths that Matthew offers in this short, suggestive, generative vignette.  The truth that people would come from afar, literally from all over the world, in order to come and to kneel down and to worship Jesus.  The truth that there is no place too humble or too lowly to kneel and to worship the Lord.  The truth that to worship Jesus, truly to encounter Jesus, is to be changed by that encounter, and like the wise men of old, to “depart home by another way.”  The truth that as our knowledge grows, we must also grow in reverence, in humility, in love, lest our knowledge makes us arrogant or too impressed with ourselves.

            And what about that star?  Astronomers long have pondered this star and offered a number of suggestive scientific possibilities for exactly what the star was.  I like theologian Saint Augustine’s observation.  He wrote, “Christ was not born because the star shone forth, but the star shone forth because Christ was born; we should not say that the star was fate for Christ, but that Christ was fate for the stars.”  Doesn’t the star appeal to our deepest longings, which finally are for something more, something beyond this world, and all that it has to offer?  It reminds us that we long for God, we long for a Savior, we long for One who can tell us why we are here, for One who can give meaning and direction and purpose for all of our journeys.  Yet the star is still only a sign, and the choice remains ours whether we choose to journey in its light, or to stay stuck right in place where we are today, as if we have no options and nowhere else to go.

            This last truth comes through so powerfully in Matthew’s account!  Even though it is only six miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, Herod and “all Jerusalem,” according to Matthew, never made that short trip.  None of them even saw the star in the sky until it was pointed out to them by these travelers called Magi, who were kind of a cross between what we would think of as astrologers and astronomers.  And when I wonder why, I wonder if maybe, like us, they were too much in love with their own lights, their own torches and candles, to look heavenward for a light from heaven.  Note the reaction of the City of Jerusalem to this news: Herod the King was “troubled” or “frightened,” and “all Jerusalem as well.”  The last thing that an ego-maniacal, cruel king like Herod wanted was a savior that might save him from all his ill-gotten gain and power.  So Herod reacts to this news with an effort to slaughter every male child born in that region, at that time, according to Matthew.  Herod is afraid of what a savior might reveal.  And the wise men, to their credit, see right through Herod’s evil intentions.  So Herod reacts with hostility to the birth of God as a helpless baby into the world.  The article in the Wall Street Journal that I cited earlier about the Church of the Nativity in Cairo notes that one of the huge fears now among Egyptians is that this grand church will become a target for terrorists, bent on leaving their mark of fear and destruction upon the nation of Egypt.

            What Matthew also reports is the reaction of the scribes and the chief priests.  When Herod consulted with them, they read him the prophesy from Micah that says, “From you O Bethlehem shall come a child.”  But they, apparently, as well, do not bother to follow the travelers even the short six-mile journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.  I am thinking of both of those figures: Herod and the scribes and the chief priests.  I am thinking that today there are still those who are largely hostile to Christ, or if not overtly to Christ, then to the truth claims of Christian faith, which many regard as inconvenient truths that they wish would go away and they could simply dismiss.  But even more of us today are like the chief priest and the scribes of Herod, who may believe at some level something about Jesus, but live lives that reveal too often that we are largely indifferent to Jesus.  Too many of us react to Jesus, in effect, with a big “So what?”  But the sages, the travelers from the East, suggest to us a third possibility!  We too can choose to follow where Jesus’ star leads, and like children, bow down in front of the manger, and worship the Baby Jesus for the King that He will grow up to be.  We too can offer to Jesus our hearts’ deepest and most precious treasures.

            I love all the traditions that have grown up around this story.  Part of the power of this story is it has given birth to so many other stories.  For instance, I love the tradition that sees this event as a fulfillment of the prophesy of Isaiah 60:3, “And nations shall come to Thy light, and kings to the brightness of Thy rising.”  Caspar has been pictured by artists as a European, Melchior as an Asian, and Balthazar as an African.  Three kinds of different hues, filled with worldly wealth and power, and yet somehow, by God’s light, possessing the wisdom of heaven that enables them to see more beauty in the Babe of Bethlehem than in all the corrupt power and wealth of Rome.  I picture these wise kings, who are gathered around the Child, recognizing the shadow of death that falls across the cradle, but seeing as well the light of life that shines within Him, “the light that enlightens all people.”

            I have always loved the symbolism of the gifts that these travelers from the East bring to Baby Jesus.  Gold is not a difficult symbol to figure out.  It represents our worldly substance and wealth, which cries out as much today as it ever has for it to be dedicated, given to the trust of Jesus, who alone is the Christ, offered to God, “from whom [alone] all blessings flow.”  These wise men are wise because they see their wealth as gifts they have received, and in kind, they give and share them generously.  By such a measure, how wise are you?

            Frankincense symbolizes our innermost thoughts, which also need to be offered to Christ, as Lord of all.  John Calvin talked about “the life of the mind in the service of God.”  We sometimes in our culture talk about the pursuit of truth, as if it were somehow an evasive endeavor, tricky or deceptive or hard to find, when much of the time it is we who are evasive and dodging and hiding from unpleasant realities that simple truth often reveals.  Surely, the truth we find in Christ searches us, seeking most of all to deepen our awareness of God and this wonderful life in this God-given, God-created world.  Jesus is forever trying to get our attention, to capture our minds that wander in so many trivial directions, and to help us see how magnificent a gift the life that beats within each of our breasts is itself, and to get us somehow to redirect our lives away from small and selfish pursuits, towards God and neighbor.

            Finally, they gave myrrh, which was used in that day as the principle element in embalming.  It stood then, and stands now, for our sorrow and suffering.  No one gets a pass on this in life.  Life is beautiful, but it is heartbreakingly beautiful.  We all of us need to offer to Jesus our burdens, our woundedness, our brokenness, our sorrow and our sadness.  Isaiah put it this way: “Surely He has born our griefs, and carried our sorrows in His bosom.”  When we lose someone dear, or something dear, we often feel abandoned by God and find ourselves wanting to pull away from God, when that is the precise moment when we should be drawing closer to God, who wants more than anything else to share in our sorrows and our sufferings.  God weeps when we weep and wants to delight when we delight.  Handing over our broken hearts to God offers us the best hope we will ever have for healing and for health.

            Dante wrote years ago, “God is the love that moves the star.”  I am thinking this morning that the star of Christmas, the star of Bethlehem, ought to pull us into the future closer to Jesus, that having worshipped here today, we too might go home by another way.


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