Following the Magi
When we look deeply, it is true that the poetry and the narrative in
the Bible offer as much drama, as much intrigue, as much wisdom,
pathos, stimulation, love, and power as anything any other medium ever
has -- from Hollywood to canvas or paperback. The stories in our
scriptures are amazing, probably because even when they are parables --
and Jesus made up a lot of parables -- even then, they are true. And
true stories, God's true stories, are life-giving to a world hungry for
But over the centuries we've turned stories like Epiphany into
liturgical footnotes or late scenes in a Christmas pageant. We don't
plumb their depth. Which is not fair, because at least three of the
dimensions of Epiphany can ignite our lives with horror, hope, and
So explore this story today. Ponder the story of Herod, the path of
the Magi, and the power of divine dreams. Examine them to seek your new
First, we need some context and even a theological palate cleanser
to move from Luke -- where we've been -- to Matthew. Here's a basic
Through Advent and Christmas we read Luke, which is glorious. But in
comparison to Luke, Matthew has no story of a journey to Bethlehem, no
story of Jesus' birth or swaddling cloths, no story of angels singing
nor any of a shepherd's visit. There is no story of Jesus'
circumcision, nor any about meeting the prophets Simeon and Anna for
their blessing. Bracket all of that. Here, instead of poor people
sleeping in a manger, Jesus' family has a house in Bethlehem, and
instead of Mary and the Holy Spirit getting most of the attention,
Joseph and Herod star in this account. Leave Luke's Christmas pageant
now to understand Matthew's premise.
For Matthew has a simple program to affirm two truths: Jesus is the
Son of David, and Jesus is the new Moses. His narrative follows five
dreams and five prophecies as a blunt, obvious comparison to Moses'
story in the five scrolls of the Pentateuch. As at Moses' birth, an
evil ruler is threatened, he seeks to kill all infants under a certain
age, and yet the vulnerable, chosen child survives.* As at Moses' birth,
something new is growing from something old.
That's the context.
Now, which character do you want to play? The three choices for
today are horrible, hopeful, and heavenly: Herod, the Magi, and Joseph.
Unlike Luke, there are no female leads. But when we peel open this
story, we expose the light of Epiphany.
First, where can you find a character more disturbing than Herod? He
killed members of his own family, wives and children, to maintain
power. The Gospel says he was willing to kill all the male babies under
the age of two all across town so there were no other threats to his
throne. Yet, and what a yet, he was able to entertain the most
brilliant intellectuals of his day and engage them in conversation,
expressing hospitality and wonder at the promised world. He could
employ the finest Biblical scholars and celebrate the role of his
city, Jerusalem, in the history of promise and joy. He voiced his
desire to worship God.
Fred Craddock writes that just after Christmas, Herod reveals the
fundamental hostility toward Jesus and the Gospel from the political
establishment. Herod shows the power of the sword of government against
the innocent in order to preserve entrenched power. He shows the
behavior of the city toward rural people. To whom can you compare him?
Who in the modern world? Who in fiction? There is only one comparison,
and that is Pharaoh. And that of Pharaoh yet alive.
When I read this story I don't compare myself to Herod or to Joseph.
But I am like the Magi. And let me tell you why that is not a proud
claim. I don't have the gold. I don't have the spices. There were not
royalty originally -- not until the sixth century -- and neither am I.
But I love to travel. I love cross-cultural travel, and I am pretty
catholic, with a small "c," pretty universal in my sense of
God's love. But the reason I identify with them is much more
The Magi, and a good translation is "sages," were
intellectuals. They believed in the power of their graduate education.
It is wrong to call them astrologers, although they did trust that
star. They were followers of the scriptures, to be sure. And
fundamentally they were folks who believed in the new creation,
believed in the hope of all nations, believed in God, and studied and
strived and followed and risked, and then they got it wrong. They got
it wrong, as Walter Brueggemann says, by nine miles. After all their
degrees, all their work, all their commitment and investment and
pursuit, they ended up looking for a king in Jerusalem instead of
Bethlehem. They missed by nine long miles. And why? For good reasons.
Isaiah says that the glorious city of Jerusalem will be rebuilt after
its ruin and will draw the wealth of nations and the respect of all.
So they went there. But God chose, instead of the seat of power,
history, religion, and praise, a small rural town to the south with
nothing much to commend it except the shepherd king, long ago. So the
Magi were wrong in their conclusions. It was as though they ended up
somewhere between Norwood and Canton instead of Newton Highlands. All
they had going for them didn't conclusively lead them to God. Very
So I speculate about their ride, camelback, from Jerusalem to
Bethlehem. For us it is a well known part of the pageant. For them it
was hours of entirely re-examining their fundamental assumptions and
conclusions. Nine miles was a long distance then, and the difference
between Jerusalem and Bethlehem was sublime versus ridiculous.
What was that ride like? Did they get how they hadn't previously
gotten it? Do I? Did they go home by another road because they were
afraid of Herod or themselves? Had they lost their sense of direction
or finally found it? Even when they were certain, did God have
something new to show them? Epiphany says so. And I identify with the
I'm going to have to save the third bit for next week. The third bit
of Epiphany is how it is influenced by dreams. How the whole story
keeps changing due to dreams. Five of them. Joseph's dream that it is
good to stay with Mary, the Magi's dream to travel a new way, then
Joseph is led to hide in Egypt, to return to Israel, and finally to
move to Nazareth, all in a series of dreams. Which is part of
Epiphany's light. I can't explain all that right now.
But I know this:
We live in a world where the powerful are often willing to do
anything to keep power. We live in a world where the practice of
government often represses the poor. Where the sword is close at hand.
Even though its handlers entertain and engage us with hospitable
conversation and study groups. And the best of us, the most well-versed
and educated and committed, often miss in our analysis. When we're
lucky, we get long rides to ponder and pray over what God might put in
front of us. And if we're fortunate, we get to change our direction and
even receive the depth of God's dream, instead of Pharaoh's. If we're
fortunate we get to renew our course and renew our life.
Which is what a New Year offers. It's what Communion offers. It's
what an epiphany offers: not magic, but strength for the journey,
insight for the direction, and commitment and courage to try something
new that is actually something old, given by God, and true enough to
deliver new life. Which is why I'll talk about God's dreams next week.
*These ideas are developed very helpfully in the book, The
First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus' Birth,
by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. (HarperOne).
Copyright © 2010 Kenneth F. Baily. Used by permission.