Matthew 2:1-12 TITLE: Moving the Wall
Matthew tells a very different story than Luke:
-- Instead of shepherds, Matthew gives us Magi from the East.
-- Instead of a stable, Matthew takes us to Herod's palace.
-- Instead of a manger, Matthew shows us gifts fit for a king.
-- Instead of angels, Matthew tells us of dreams.
Matthew includes a number of dark elements in his story:
-- Joseph resolves to put Mary away quietly (1:19).
-- Herod kills babies in an attempt to do away with the newborn king (2:16-18).
-- Joseph and his family flee to Egypt to escape the murderous king (2:13-15).
-- When Joseph and family return from Egypt, they go to Nazareth rather than Bethlehem because another violent king was ruling Judea (2:19-23).
-- Most significantly, the wise men are Gentiles
-- We are struck by the contrast between these Gentiles, who follow the star to Jesus, and the chief priests and scribes, who know the scriptures but who do nothing to seek out the Messiah, whom they have determined to be only five miles away in Bethlehem (v. 5). God's people ignore the Messiah, while pagans eagerly seek him out.
When we set up a nativity scene at Christmas, we put everyone in -- Mary, Joseph, and the baby, of course -- and the shepherds -- and three ornately robed wise men -- and a few donkeys, camels, and sheep for atmosphere. But that isn't how it was. The shepherds came from nearby, and were there right away. The wise men came from afar, and almost surely came later.
That is how the church came to celebrate Epiphany on January 6 each year. Epiphany closes the Christmas season with a celebration of the visit by the wise men to Jesus -- the Twelfth Day of Christmas. You might find it interesting to know that the church celebrated Epiphany long before it celebrated Christmas. Today, the big church celebrations are Christmas and Easter. In the early church, they were Easter, Pentecost, and Epiphany.
There is a lot of mythology regarding the wise men. In the original Greek New Testament, they are called magoi -- which is where we get the word Magi -- and it is difficult to know just how to translate magoi. The word is also found in the book of Acts, where it is translated sorcerer or magician. Many of our English Bibles translate magoi as "wise men," but they didn't seem so wise when they went to Herod asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?" It shouldn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that Herod, king of the Jews, might be less than happy to learn of a child born to take his place.
We think of the wise men as three in number, and even have names for them -- Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar -- but these names are not found in scripture. We think that there were three wise men because of the three gifts that they give Jesus -- gold, frankincense, and myrrh -- but it could have been two wise men -- or a dozen.
We call them kings, but Matthew does not.
But, among all the things that were probably not true about these men, there is one thing that was true. It is what makes these men special. It is not that they were wise -- or kings -- or rich -- or generous. It is that they were Gentiles.
The word, Epiphany, means manifestation or revelation, and it celebrates the revelation of Jesus Christ to Gentiles. Jesus was born a Jew to Jewish parents in a Jewish nation. He was born a Jewish Messiah or Savior. He was born in the city of the greatest of all Jewish kings -- King David. Everything about Jesus was Jewish, from his circumcision to his diet. God had chosen the Jewish people beginning with Abraham, many centuries earlier, and had worked with them through all sorts of ups and downs. Matthew's Gospel is a very Jewish Gospel -- for instance, Matthew is more interested in the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy than any of the other Gospel writers.
BUT!!! Right at the beginning of this Gospel, Matthew establishes that Jesus will not be a Messiah only to the Jews, but will also open his arms to Gentiles. These Gentile Magi followed the star -- which means they followed God's guidance -- and when they came to the place where Jesus lay, they knelt down before him to pay him homage.
Let me ask you this question: How many Jews knelt to pay homage to the baby Jesus? These Gentile wise men knelt before Jesus, but where were the Jewish wise men? The Jews had plenty of wise men -- men who spent their lives studying the scriptures -- men who spent their lives praying for the coming of the Messiah -- men who should have welcomed Jesus. Where were they? In many ways, Matthew's is the most Jewish of the four Gospels, but it also reveals to us how the Jewish religious leadership failed to recognize Jesus -- and how, from the beginning, Jesus was embracing Gentiles.
So Matthew opens his Gospel with this great tribute to Gentiles -- the wise men kneeling before the baby. He will conclude his Gospel with these words from Jesus. "Go therefore and make disciples of ALL NATIONS, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (28:19). ALL NATIONS -- any good Jew would know that he was talking about Gentiles. Matthew includes Gentiles at the beginning of his Gospel -- and at the end -- and in the middle. He tells us about the great faith of a Roman centurion about whom Jesus says, "Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith" (8:10). At the cross, another centurion says of Jesus, "Truly, this man was God's son" (27:54). In this Jewish Gospel, Jesus will often be at odds with Jewish leaders, but will get along quite well with common people and Gentiles.
And that is Good News! It is Good News, because most of us are common people and Gentiles. It means that the Good News of Jesus is for us.
But it is also Good News because it means that Jesus opens wide the heavenly doors to people whom we would not expect -- that we might not even welcome. It means that Jesus' arms are wide enough to embrace people who don't fit the mold.
It is interesting to me that, during the days of slavery in America, many slaves became Christians. Some slave owners thought that their slaves didn't belong in church, because they thought of slaves as sub-human. Other slave owners felt an obligation to tell their slaves about Jesus, but wouldn't allow them inside their church building. Still other slave owners allowed their slaves into their church building, but required that they sit in the balcony -- or in the back. Those were all ways of declaring that the slaves were not equal, even in God's eyes.
But a strange thing happened. Those slaves heard the Biblical story, and realized that it had special meaning for them. They heard the stories about the Israelites in Egypt, and rejoiced when God led the slaves out of Pharaoh's land. They sang songs about that story -- "When Israel was in Egypt land -- Let my people go." The slave owners couldn't really stop them from singing those songs, because they were from the Bible. But the slaves knew that the old Biblical stories were their story too.
And then the slaves heard the stories about Jesus healing people on the fringes -- people who were weak and vulnerable -- who had nothing going for them -- people who spent their days begging along the roadside. He gave sight to the blind, and told a lame man to take up his pallet and walk. You might say that he freed those people from their bondage -- and the slaves found hope in those stories too.
Christ gave these slaves hope. Christ gave them faith. Christ gave them songs to ease the burden of long hours in the fields. And, finally, Christ gave them freedom.
You see, God raised up a president who was unwilling to let sleeping dogs lie -- who signed a proclamation freeing the slaves -- and thereby precipitated a terrible war -- the war that killed more Americans than any war in history -- a war from which, you might say, we are still recovering.
And the irony is that the church -- a church that some slave owners would have denied their slaves -- that church has become the most positive and powerful voice in the African-American community. It is no accident that Martin Luther King was a Christian minister -- and the son of a Christian minister.
It is no accident that the church has sent its people to spread the Good News of Christ in the darkest jungles -- and on the most remote islands -- and behind the Iron Curtain -- and in jails and prisons. It is no accident that the church has reached out to drug addicts and alcoholics -- that it built hospitals when there was no health insurance and no money to be made running hospitals. It is no accident that the church has run soup kitchens -- and shipped bundles of clothing -- and paid for livestock to lift impoverished people out of poverty -- and collected money for earthquake relief -- and flood relief -- and for people whose houses have burned down.
It would be so much easier to walk by on the other side -- to separate ourselves from those whom we might consider to be undeserving or unattractive -- to separate ourselves from people from other nations or races or religions. But this story of the wise men coming to Jesus tells us that, even in his infancy, Jesus was breaking down such barriers. Even as a baby, he was reaching out -- inviting outsiders in -- and saving people who didn't deserve saving. If we are to call ourselves Christ's disciples, we must do the same.
There will be times in your life when you will believe that a certain person or a certain people is not worth our effort -- that we should just abandon them and walk by on the other side. I will tell you that the world is full of such people -- people who don't deserve our help -- people who don't deserve Christ -- people who don't deserve saving -- people who have no business even thinking about going to heaven. I am one of them. And so are you. The Good News is that Christ, from beginning to end, came to save such people -- people like us -- people even worse than us. If we deserved Jesus, we wouldn't need him -- but we do need him -- and he is ours.
I read somewhere about a Protestant chaplain serving with the American troops in Italy who became friends with a local Catholic priest. However, the chaplain was killed in action, and the priest offered to bury him in the cemetery behind the church. But then the priest ran into problems with church authorities, who told him that he could not bury a Protestant in a Catholic cemetery. The best that he could do was to bury his friend just outside the cemetery wall, and so that is what he did.
After the war, one of the American soldiers returned to visit Italy. Having known the chaplain, he stopped at the church to visit his grave -- and was surprised to find it inside the cemetery wall. He said to the priest, "I see you got permission to move the body." The priest responded, "No. They told me I couldn't bury the body inside the wall. But nobody ever told me I couldn't move the wall."
That is what we have with the story of the wise men -- a story where God moved the wall. These wise men were outsiders -- not a part of the people of God. They had no connection with Jewish history. The covenant that God had made with the Jews didn't apply to them. But this story is the promise that God has moved the wall -- that all sorts of unlikely people come under the shelter of God's love.
And that is Good News!