To The Orient… And Beyond!
Sermon by Lin Bunce
February 8, 2007
When I was younger, my favorite vacation was an October trip to the Outer Banks. I was guaranteed to miss 2 days of school. We would get up Thursday morning when it was still dark and begin our 6 hr journey to Drum Inlet, by car, ferry boat and then by camper. Once we reached our destination it was non-stop fishing. Grandaddy would have 5 lines cast out into the ocean and I was amazed how he could keep his eye on all of them. On the last night of our trip, dad and granddaddy would fish through the night. I remember one particular night when I volunteered to stay out with them. I assumed I would be up all night with my dad and granddad, talking and fishing until sunrise the next morning. Instead, I became one more person on the night-watch rotation. I began my shift at 4am. Once I had been given my thermos of hot cocoa and some blankets to keep me warm, my dad and granddad both retreated to the camper to get some sleep. I suppose child abduction wasn’t really a concern at 4 am on a deserted inlet. Left to the company of 5 motionless fishing rods adorned with glo-sticks, my attention was drawn to the stars. Without the interference of street lamps or city lights, the coastal sky seemed to hold twice as many stars as the sky at home. Between 4am and sunrise I counted 13 shooting stars. By the end of the night I was maxed out on wishes.
Looking back, those are the only 13 stars I remember. None of the other stars made a lasting impression on me—only the ones that shot across the sky and quickly disappeared. This leaves me wondering what kind of star the wise men must have seen – what kind of star left such an impression on them that they left their hometown to follow it? Matthew doesn’t tell us. We can rule out a shooting star—those don’t last long enough to lead a person out of the front door. Traditionally the star is depicted as being rather large, but then we are left wondering why only the wise men noticed it. Some have even gone as far as to call the star a UFO that lead the wise men along their journey with its super cool spotlight, assuming UFOs even have spotlights. The mystery of the star is just one of the many questions inspired by Matthew’s narrative. Where did the manger go in Matthew’s story? Was Jesus born in a stable or not? What about the shepherds, the angel of the Lord and the heavenly host? It’s all missing! In fact, most of Luke’s narrative is absent in Matthew. In the place of Shepherds and angels, Matthew uses a star and a group of traveling wise men to narrate his story of Jesus’ birth.
So, who are these wise men? The text is pretty vague in its description of them, yet we are all familiar with the illustration of 3 kings, dressed in royal robes, adorned with golden crowns and baring expensive gifts. Three kings are featured on Christmas cards, in hymns, in Christmas pageants, and in nativity sets. The kings have even been assigned names and nationalities: Melchior is king of Persia, Gaspar is king of India, and Balthasar is king of Arabia. But is this an accurate depiction of the wise men?
I doubt it! The wise men were likely astrologers of some sort rather than kings. This would explain why they follow a star that no one else seems to notice. We also aren’t told how many wise men were present in Matthew’s story. The traditional number three is drawn from the number of gifts referenced in the text. Did this group of traveling astrologers also consist of women? The running joke is that it did not. Only men would have brought gifts as impractical as gold, frankincense and myrrh to the give to a child. And only men would have waited until Jerusalem to stop and ask for directions. But in truth Matthew does not make clear whether or not women were present. What Matthew does make clear is that the travelers are not Jewish. They rely on the religious leaders for a scriptural reference foretelling the birthplace of the one they are seeking. They are also from the east, alluding to their oriental origin. Matthew focuses on the wise men because they are gentiles.
Matthew’s core message is conveyed in the contrast between the response of the wise men and the response of the religious leaders. In this section of Matthew’s birth narrative, King Herod, the wise men and the religious leaders are the key players. Joseph is not even mentioned, and Mary and baby Jesus serve more as stage props. Upon seeing the star, the wise men leave their home in the East in order to find the King of the Jews and worship him. Along the way they stop in Jerusalem to ask where the baby might be found. The religious leaders flip through the scripture, provide them with their answer, and then make their exit stage right. The religious leaders, the ones who have been eagerly awaiting the coming of the messiah completely dismiss these travelers who have seen the messiah’s sign. We can’t help but wonder if they were even listening.
It reminds me of the movie “Dumb and Dumber.” In the last scene of the movie, Lloyd and Harry, having lost both the shaggy dog mobile and the two-person moped, are walking home when a bus full of Hawaiian Tropic bikini models pulls over in front of them. The women inform the two men that they are in desperate need of two oil boys. Recognizing a chance to be good Samaritans, Lloyd and Harry point the bus driver in the direction of the closest town where their oil boys might be found. After the bus pulls away Lloyd and Harry realize they have made a HUGE mistake. They quickly run down the bus and admit to the driver that they had given him the wrong directions; the closest town is actually in the opposite direction. Lloyd and Harry then continue on their journey without ever realizing the opportunity they have missed. We are left scratching our heads, wondering how anyone could be so completely oblivious. Surely it doesn’t get any easier.
And perhaps this is Matthew’s point. Could the wise men have made the search for the messiah any easier for the religious priests? You would think that at least one of them would have been curious enough to tag along on the wise men’s journey. But Matthew tells us that upon hearing the news, all of Jerusalem was afraid and only the wise men journeyed on to Bethlehem. What Matthew fails to reveal in the text, is a reason why the religious leaders dismissed the news given to them by the wise men. Maybe we are to assume that the religious leaders are simply oblivious. Like Lloyd and Harry they just missed the sign. The difference is that we expect it from Lloyd and Harry. The title of the movie is “Dumb and Dumber.” The out of character thing would have been for Lloyd and Harry to accept the position as Hawaiian Tropic oil boys and hop the bus. The religious leaders, on the other hand are well-studied in the scriptures, and have anticipated the coming of the messiah for centuries. We have no reason to expect them to dismiss news of the messiah’s birth, unless of course, the source of the information is not credible.
I suspect that gentiles bringing news of the Jewish messiah might have seemed somewhat suspicious to the religious leaders. It would be like a Carolina basketball player giving their entire playbook to Duke’s Head Coach… something’s up. The chief priests were under the impression that the King of the Jews, the anticipated messiah, was coming to shepherd the people of Israel, not wise men from a foreign land. So it made no sense that gentile astrologers would bring this kind of news to Jerusalem. As a result of their own prejudices the religious leaders miss the gift that God has offered them through these foreign travelers. They reject the news of the messiah’s birth simply because they have placed the gentiles outside of the scope of God’s grace and purpose.
Even though this text is familiar, it doesn’t make it easy to understand. Matthew writes about a social conflict in his own time that doesn’t directly affect you and me. We can discover new meaning in Matthew’s narrative when we make the story relevant to our own time. Try re-envisioning the wise men. Imagine the wisemen as those who are social outcasts in our society: Hispanics, African-Americans, Middle-Easterners, Asians, social and religious radicals, illegal immigrants, homosexuals, transsexuals, alcoholics, drug addicts, ex-convicts, veteran soldiers, and AIDS victims. What people in our society would you dismiss if they came claiming to have seen God’s sign? Who have you labeled a gentile?
Matthew’s message becomes a little more clear once we make the story personal. Matthew’s narrative is less about the conflict between the religious leaders and the Gentiles and more about the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion, those who are in and those who are out, the worthy and the unworthy, the righteous and the unrighteous, the lovable and the unloveable. The wisemen in Matthew’s gospel represent a group who has been pushed to the periphery of the religious society. The gentiles are a marginalized people perceived to be unworthy of God’s grace. Even so, the gentiles are the ones to whom the sign is shown. It is to those on the periphery of society, to those in the far away orient, that God’s grace comes. The gentiles become God’s vehicle of grace to the religious leaders, and the religious leaders reject them.
How many times have we, like the religious leaders, missed God’s gifts because of our own prejudices? This Sunday marks the end of our Christmas season. Christmas trees will line the roads, ornaments will be placed back in boxes, traffic will return to normal, and the excitement that has built around Christmas giving will be lost amidst the hustle and bustle of classes and busy work schedules. But what is it about Christmas that draws us in? Why is it that we are willing to rearrange our lives to accommodate this particular holiday? Every Christmas my dad is willing to put aside his manly dignity to dress up like a reindeer and dance across stage in the city Christmas program. People who wouldn’t dare sing on any other occasion bundle up on Christmas Eve to carol to the homebound. Young siblings spend hours picking out just the right gift for their brother or sister. All of this… in the spirit of giving!!!
In the story of the Christ child we recognize the love shown by God in the giving of God’s son, in the giving of the divine self. God’s self-giving is at the heart of the Christian community. God so loved, so we must also love. God so gave, therefore, we must also give. But when we live out this motto it becomes less universal and more personal. It looks more like “God so loved me, therefore I must also love (those like me).” For some reason, between the “God so loved” and the “I must love,” the scope narrows. We draw a circle around God’s love and place ourselves and our ideals inside it. I remember in 3 rd grade there was one particular girl in my class that I tried my hardest to avoid. Her name was April. Her wardrobe was limited, her hygiene was below average, her social interaction was awkward and she constantly drew attention to herself in the most embarrassing ways possible. I would have lost all cool-points for befriending this girl… so I didn’t. I completely dismissed April. I placed April on the outside of my circle simply because she was different.
Of course I didn’t think of it that way as a 3 rd grader, but this is not an experience limited to children. As adults we do the same thing. We all have those people that we place on the periphery of God’s love and often times our reasons seem justified. There are some people we just can’t seem to fit into our circles. But you don’t have to like people to hope that God will save them. There are many, many people that only God can love, and it may be a challenge for Her too. We can hate evil, and the evil that people do, some more than others, but we need to remember that we worship the God of the whole universe, the one for all people. All means all.
Each year churches hold Children’s Christmas pageants to honor the story of Jesus’ birth. Children are cast in the parts of Joseph, Mary, the wise men, the shepherds, the angels and even the stable animals, but how often do you see a child parading around in all yellow, leading the wise men around the sanctuary? Probably never! That is because in most Christmas plays the star isn’t a participating character… but why not??? In Matthew’s Christmas play the star has a lead role!!! Without the star there is no journey of wise men, and Jesus gets not gold. The star is the mediator between Jesus and the wise men. The star is the vehicle of God’s grace to the world. In this story Matthew presents us with a challenge… a challenge to be more like the star. Not like a shooting star that has a quick moment of brilliance and then fades away. Although the shooting stars are the ones I remember from the coastal sky, they aren’t the ones that continued to provide a source of light through out the rest of the night. Instead, be steady and bright like the star of the wise men. Be the light of God’s grace to all people. Like the star, radiate the all-encompassing love of God to the orient and beyond.