Christmas 2 based on Matthew 2:1-12
O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; Amen.
I’d like to start this morning with a bit of biblical background. For those at my adult forum talk a couple weeks ago about Mary this will be old news, but given the reaction there by some I want to be sure we’re all on equal footing when it comes to the Christmas story. In Matthew’s gospel the focus of the birth narrative is on Joseph. Primarily this is because Matthew wrote to a largely Jewish community and they would have wanted to know about the patriarchal line and the connection of the Messiah to David. God had promised to David that one of his heirs would reign forever. So Matthew begins by telling us that Jesus was the Messiah, a son of both David and Abraham and then spelling out the entire genealogy.
And then Matthew describes how Joseph learns that his fiancee Mary is pregnant, and he’s told by an angel in a dream to take her as his wife because it isn’t how it looks: Mary’s child was conceived through the work of God’s Spirit. And then Matthew writes this, “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus” and then the bit we just heard about Jesus being born in Bethlehem and the wise men following that star. We don’t hear about the registration that drove Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem or the shepherds and angels or the manger and swaddling clothes on that first silent night. Mary and Joseph seem to be living in Bethlehem already. She gives birth and there is no fanfare at all so they begin their life together as a family.
Matthew wants us to notice this key detail in the narrative: Herod asks about the timing of the star’s appearance in the night sky. We didn’t read it, but we find out a few verses later that it had been about two years since that star had risen in the east, and, presumably, Jesus’ birth. So Jesus is a toddler by the time the Magi arrive, and they come to the house in Bethlehem where Mary, Joseph and Jesus are living, not the stable (again there’s no mention of this at all in Matthew’s gospel). So that’s where we begin today, nearly two years after Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem where the Holy Family has been living for some time (and presumably longer than from the time of Jesus’ birth—Mary and Joseph are from Bethlehem in this gospel and they’ll eventually get to Galilee by the end of this chapter but it’s a new location for them). While we like to squeeze the birth narratives from Luke and Matthew together in our imagination and for our Christmas pageant, they are clearly distinct and very different from one another agreeing on only a few details: Jesus was born to a virgin named Mary and her fiancee Joseph in Bethlehem.
I say all of this not to crush the idealistic image of Christmas in your mind, but to say it’s important to pay attention to scripture. This, of course, is exactly what the wise men did. They read plenty of scrolls and paid attention enough to know that when the sign came—a star rising in the east—that they needed to follow it to pay homage to this new king born among the Jews. They were not Jews themselves, but wise men from the East. We too should faithfully and diligently read scripture to notice the ways God moves in our world.
So they came, these wise men (and notice we don’t get a number, so it may have been three and it may have been ten, we just don’t know for certain). They inquire at the likeliest of places for the birth of a king, the royal palace of Jerusalem. This new king isn’t to be found here, so the scholars are called in to determine the exact local. They come up with Bethlehem and pass that information on. Notice that even though they also knew the scriptures, they didn’t act on it. These scribes had all sorts of knowledge, but it did not cause them to act.
The wise men then notice the star moves and soon they arrive at the house of Mary and Joseph, common folk and not royalty, in this small town of Bethlehem. Joy rains down on them. The exchange at the door must have been a bit awkward—like when anyone comes to your door and you presume they must peddling something—but these wise men soon get invited in and are made to feel at home. Certainly they explained about the star and their pilgrimage these past many months and about Jesus being a king. They then pulled out these gifts from their chests—gold and frankincense and myrrh—and presented them to him. We aren’t told much else, if Mary and Joseph shared tea—a Middle Eastern staple—or possibly a simple meal together. We only learn that the wise men are warned in a dream not to travel back the same way nor are they to give any more information to Herod. So, Matthew writes, they head home by another way.
The tradition of gift giving during the Christmas season—we are on Day 11, by the way, and have another two days of Christmas—this gift giving comes from these wise men. We open up our treasure chests and give gifts to those we love. Of course, the birth of Jesus is a part of God’s gift to us: the love of God incarnate given to the world.
My seminary professor, Miroslav Volf, writes about how God is essentially a giver in his masterful book Free of Charge. He writes, “God doesn’t have to give to the world at all…. God is free to create or not. But once God has created the world, God will always be a giver who seeks the good of the recipient. Why? Because God isn’t a giver the way I am a biker. I bike when I need exercise, when I’m not torpid and the weather isn’t bad. God gives continually and unfailing, because God is essentially a giver just as God is love…. That’s the character of God’s being not just some of God’s actions. So God is a giver more the way ducks are quackers than in the way I am a biker.” He then explains how we as humans can experience the divine gift exchange of the Trinity—the character of God as giver playing out among the Godhead. He explains that “a good Christmas celebration” has the potential to point us to the divine nature. He writes, “Most of us can imagine Christmas gift giving at its best. Shopping is over, thoughtfully chosen its are strewn under the Christmas tree, and the long-awaited ritual begins. Each person gives, and each receives. No one gives first so that others feel obliged to reciprocate; all give and receive at the same time, or rather, each receives in turn so that all can rejoice with one another. Each is grateful, each generous, and all are rejoicing in each other’s joy. Gifts themselves are no longer just things that people need, like, or desire. They are sacraments of love, both divine and human. By giving gifts, givers offer their very selves. And by offering themselves, they sacrifice nothing, because in giving, they receive more than they grant. The whole ritual is a feast of delight—delight in things given, delight in acts of giving and receiving, delight in persons giving and receiving, and delight in the community constituted and enacted by the whole process. When we have engaged in such giving, we have tasted the advent of God’s new world in which love reigns.” (72)
That’s what those wise men showed for us as they gave gifts to God and received joy back. We caught a glimpse of God’s new world of love.
And that is why they head home by another way. Herod was deeply afraid of their news. Matthew describes in detail what Herod will do because of that fear in the verses that follow. Fear does that to us. Fear of the unknown, of what could happen. And, I would bet, for many of us that’s why we don’t truly experience God’s transforming gift of love, because we are afraid we don’t deserve it. That something about us, something we’ve done, or some untruth we believe about ourselves, makes us unlovable. For too many of us fear and insecurity rule inside so we cannot just accept that God’s nature is to shower us with love.
However, I firmly believe that God’s sacramental gift of love transformed those wise men, and that’s why the headed home by a different road. They had an experience—an epiphany—that changed them forever. Because that is truly the beauty of God’s gift of love. When it enters in to us we are changed, and we want to share that gift with others. God’s love is generative—it continues to grow as it is given away.
We see how fear plays out in our world today—ISIS and racial tensions and CIA reports—and we can also see how love works too. The stories like a police officer in Portland asking an African-American boy holding up a sign proclaiming “Free Hugs” if he can get one too, and their embrace goes viral. Or the story about a local family who suffered a break-in and how their Christmas was nearly ruined, only to see that they experienced an outpouring of goodwill from neighbors and friends.
As we begin this New Year and close this Christmas season, a choice lies before us. Will we allow God’s gift of love freely given to enter in and change us or will we allow fear’s grip to keep us on the more familiar, yet destructive, path? Will we open ourselves up to pure love or will we let it pass us by too afraid or hardened or unworthy to believe it could be given to us? The moment has come. The sacramental love offered to us by God has appeared again. The star has brought us to this place. Can we believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that God loves us just as we are? Will we head back to Herod or will we start our journey home by another way?