Courage Like Magi
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Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12; 16
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The story of Jesus’ birth is fascinating. Certainly, the birth of Christ is important, but I’ve always been interested in what everyone else is up to in the time before and after his birth. As the scene is set, we’re introduced to a cast of major and minor characters. Some of whom are clearly good, some of whom are clearly confused, and others whom we know are, or soon will be, bad. We’re taken to a variety of locations, with the central setting being that of a manger.
We do a pretty good job of illustrating the story every year in pageants, Advent small groups, and in sermons. But there is a part of the story that takes place after his birth. It’s serious. Alongside the journey of the magi is a plot by Herod, the King of Judea, to kill Jesus.
In the spirit of transparency, I do think that it’s important to note that this part of the story is only in Matthew’s gospel. But it is there nonetheless, so we need to engage with it.
As Matthew tells it, Herod is so distraught by the apparent birth of Christ that he orders a group of “wise men” or magi to find him, and then report back as to the whereabouts of Christ. The magi, a group of priests, set off from a distant land, crossing field and fountain, moor and mountain following a star that earlier prophecy had said would guide them to the Messiah.
It isn’t a surprise that the magi do find Jesus, and they immediately present him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. I think we can be honest in saying that you would not give any of those things to a newborn child. And that is precisely the point. Jesus is not any child. The presentation of those particular gifts are the signal that the magi had seen the literal face of Jesus Christ. What happens next is what I’ve found most fascinating as of late.
After worshiping Christ, the magi receive a warning, delivered to them in a collective dream, that warns them not to return to Herod. They heed that warning and take a different route home. Herod, upon realizing that the magi aren’t returning, orders the execution of every male child under the age of 2 “in and around Bethlehem.” There is a lot of debate as to whether this order was ever actually given, as it doesn’t appear in any biography of Herod. At the same time, from those biographies, we know that Herod did order the execution of three of his own children because of his fears about their power and influence. So it isn’t a stretch to see how Matthew’s description of what occurred could be understood as a real event, or as a way to further illustrate the cruelty of Herod to an audience that would have surely been aware of the nature of his reign. In either case, historians agree, that if it did take place, the population of newborn males in Bethlehem would have been so small that their deaths may not have been worth recording.
I’ll be honest with you. Whether the order is real or not makes no difference to me, because we know enough about Herod’s character to understand why the magi had been warned not to return to him. When I read all of this story a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but think about the times in which we presently live:
An authority figure has heard a rumor about a potential threat or challenge to their position, and so he calls upon those who happen to know more than he, in the hopes that they can figure out what the heck is going on. When he doesn’t get the information he is seeking; when he understands that the threat to his rule is still present, he reacts with rage and brutality. The oppressor becomes even more committed to oppressing.
Where have we seen this before? Where are we seeing this now? Figures who are used to deference and a form of respect that is rooted in fear, reacting with malice in the face of a challenge to their authority. As you chew on those questions, I want to circle back to the magi.
The reason for their choosing not to return to Herod lies in their having received a warning in a dream to not return. We only get one verse about this. They receive a collective warning, they go home a different way, and we never meet them again.
Despite the brevity of the retelling of those events, there is a lot to sit with. With Herod, where we see an oppressor doing oppressor things, the magi are an illustration of subversion. Not just any kind of subversion to be sure. They are an illustration of a relatively powerless people choosing to use what little power they do have to go against the orders and interests of empire.
Again, I ask: Where have we seen this before? Where are we seeing this now? Figures who are deeply aware of the threats and risks they face still doing what they can--still choosing to deny empire a victory.
They are at once an illustration of subversion, but also a tool of announcement. Indeed, they proclaim the manifestation of God on earth as man. They announce to the world the fulfilment of scripture. They point towards a future day when the world will be made anew.
They foreshadow the entire story.
They bring gold because it is a gift worthy of being given to a king. They bring Frankincense because it is a key component of blessing ritual spaces. And they bring myrrh, a key ingredient for embalming. Together they acknowledge the sovereignty, the divinity, and, the eventual earthly death of Christ.
They foreshadow the entire story.
I wish Matthew had told us more. I wish we knew how many magi there actually were. I wish we knew where they came from. I wish we knew their names. But alas they have the same fate as all minor characters-- though they are integral to the plot, we are left knowing very little about them. And that’s disappointing, because the magi are pulling a lot of weight in this story. Not just in the story of Christ’s birth, but in the story of our faith. The magi are connecting the dots. They are expanding our imagination and understanding of what is possible in this world.
Having said all this, I want to highlight the most important things the magi do: They tell us that God is physically present among us on earth, and they quietly tell us that empires can be challenged-- that empires will fall
Earlier, I was saying that a lot of this story runs parallel to events occurring today. There are Herod’s in our midst. They are running empires all around the world. These empires are nations. They are massive corporations who, in the name of shareholder value, dominate the economies of entire nations, pay poverty wages to their employees They are figures of great greed and opulence. They are figures who are deeply aware of that which they do, and yet they continue to do it anyways. In a particularly interesting development, Christianity is oft tied to these leaders and their empires. We should be careful to guard against efforts that align Christ with those empires; whether they are political, ideological, economic, racial, or a mixture of all of the above. In challenging empire, the magi make this part of the story clear: the world that we’ve got is not what it ought to be.
And so the Son of God comes into the world to show the way in which we might better live; to make the world anew; to deny empire a victory.
Might we all find the courage and the capacity of an unnamed character, with a handful of lines, who appears in but one part of a massive story-- might we find that courage; that capacity; that faith to discern those things which we must do to subvert empire and prepare the world for something new. Might we have the courage to follow through. Might we be magi in the modern era, fully convinced of who Christ is, and ready and willing to share that news with the world and challenge the empires in our midst.