On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother;
and they knelt down and paid him homage.
Then, opening their treasure chests,
they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a band of wealthy scholars from the East arrived in Jerusalem, having observed a star that signaled his birth. They followed that star to Jerusalem and after a brief encounter with the jealous King Herod, they set out toward Bethlehem to find the child. The star appeared again, leading them along their journey until it hovered over the place where the child lay. They entered the house; saw the child in the arms of his mother, Mary; and were so overcome with joy that they knelt before him and worship him, offering to him their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The Greek word which is translated in our text as “wise men” is magoi. It’s the same root from which we get the word “magic.” These wise men were scholars of the stars, probably from Persia-Babylonia (which is present-day Iraq). They were astrologers; they may have been magicians; they may have been Zoroastrian priests. Whoever and whatever they were exactly, we’re not sure. But they were most definitely outsiders; non-Jews. They were folks who were not supposed to be alert to the coming of the Jewish Messiah. And yet there they are: the ones to show up with precious gifts in their hands, ready to worship he who has been born “King of the Jews.”
It has become so commonplace for us in the church to find these magi in the manger that we forget how odd it is for them to be there. We no longer see what they really are or what they represent. We’ve become so accustomed to their presence that we don’t even pay attention anymore to how scandalous it is for them to be there at all.
Herod, himself, is surrounded by “chief priests and scribes” – learned scholars who know the scriptures well. But the ones who show up to worship the Messiah are foreigners and Gentiles – they are not even what some would call ‘true believers.’
Matthew is good at that. He’s good at shaking things up in his gospel. You can almost see him chuckle with satisfaction as he records this story – making sure that he tells us earlier in the gospel about the surprising lineage of the Messiah. He wants to be sure that we know that Jesus’ lineage includes 5 women you just wouldn’t expect to be on the guest list of anyone’s party let alone in the genealogical chart of the Messiah. Matthew must have really enjoyed making it clear that God’s designs for humanity included unexpected guests that force us to deal with our prejudice and hypocrisy.
The gifts they brought the baby Jesus are famous now: gold, frankincense, myrrh. But their real gift was that they knew Him. They followed the signs and found Him and when they did they fell down and worshiped Him. It’s a lot more than some people did – or still do for that matter.
Whenever I study the Gospel according to Matthew I turn to a commentary written by a guy named Dale Bruner. He translates one part of this story in a way I’ve never seen before. He says, that “When they saw this star, they felt the deepest and most profound joy. And when they came into the house and saw the Child with Mary his mother, they fell down and worshiped him.”
“They felt the deepest and most profound joy.” It’s a small part of the story really, but what a wonderful notion. The star that led them to the Christ-Child caused them to feel “the deepest and most profound joy.” The search for the Manger was joyous. Led by the light of a star, they followed a path leading to the Christ – and that path gave them the deepest and most profound joy they had ever known in their lives.
It sounds to me like a wonderful description of the spiritual journey. It sounds like the kind of spiritual journey we all want to be on.
Christina Rossetti was a poet who crafted the words for the hymn, “In the Bleak Mid-Winter.” One of the lines most beautiful says this:
What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd,
I would bring a lamb:
If I were a wise man,
I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him —
Give my heart.”
Like the Magi in this story, we could offer Christ our gifts most rare and precious. We could follow Him, and recognize Him, and fall down and worship Him.
Or, maybe we could be like the Star instead – shining its bright light right over the place where the Christ-child lay. Maybe our gift could be just that: to live our lives in such a fashion that we lead others right to the place where Jesus is. Maybe our job is to live in a way that points to Him; to speak in a way that honors Him; to show others the way to Him.
That, it seems to me, is a treasure far beyond gold – and one we are called to share.
 Obery Hendricks, “The Politics of Jesus,” Kirkridge Retreat Center Epiphany e-mail, 1/1/10.