In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.Matthew 2:1-12
My sermon from Epiphany Sunday (January 7, 2024) on Matthew 2:1-12.
Now I know the season of Christmas technically ended yesterday but since I moved the celebration of Epiphany to today – you have permission to keep listening to Christmas music. In fact, I sometimes feel the urge to listen to Christmas carols throughout the year which is why my computer is full of way too many of them. I’ve found, over time, that the number of unique Christmas songs isn’t very large but the number of different versions of each song is almost endless. And one of those many imitated Christmas carols is based slightly on our reading today from the gospel according to Matthew. In that song, we’re invited to imagine ourselves as a little child who saw all these people going in and out of a cattle shed in the town of Bethlehem. Among those people included folks from out of town who brought rich gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Rumors swirled throughout the community that this newborn might be royalty even though kings don’t usually have an animal’s food bowl as their first crib. The child who was watching and listening, wondered if they could bring a gift to the baby too. But they, like the new family, were not particularly wealthy. The child felt as if they had nothing to offer. But since this is a Christmas carol, they did have a small drum. They wonder if maybe, just maybe, the gift of a song was something a newborn and their mom might want to hear. So the child, with all the courage they could muster, entered their home, looked at Mary, and asked if it was okay to “pa rum pum pum pum.” A drum solo isn’t usually what parents want to experience once they’ve put their newborn down for a nap. But the Christmas carol – the Little Drummer Boy – does reveal an overlooked aspect of the magi’s story. The story at the heart of the celebration of the Epiphany – when magi/wisemen/kings met a baby born in Bethlehem – wasn’t only about what these strangers did. It’s also a story about who welcomed them once they got there.
Now in our Bible, people are sometimes categorized as either Jewish or gentile with a gentile simply being someone who wasn’t Jewish. But another phrase often used in place of gentile was “the nations.” That phrase described more than people who were defined by the invisible lines that designate which territory belongs to which political entity. “The Nations” also included all the different ethnic, religious, and cultural groups that exist in our world. “The Nations” included those who were part of large, multicultural, and hard-to-define groups like the people who lived within the Roman Empire. And “the nations” also included those who were identified by the town, city, or even valley they called home. “The Nations” wasn’t used as a term to only distinguish between “them” and “us;” it also described just how diverse the world truly is. And while most people in the ancient world rarely left the area they grew up in, they loved hearing stories about those who live “out there.” Every war, trade route, and wandering preacher made the world a much smaller place. And it was expected that someone – maybe even a messenger from God – might soon visit with news, stories, and a point of view they hadn’t heard before. That expectation, along with living in a world that doesn’t always have much of a safety net, is why our Bible spends so much time talking about hospitality. And much of that hospitality is centered on welcoming the stranger who showed up at your door.
But what exactly that welcome looks like wasn’t always set in stone. And when the magi arrived in King Herod’s territory, he welcomed them in a very self-serving way. Now these magi were, most likely, Zoroastrian astrologers living in the Parthian Empire who spent their lives looking at the night sky. It was widely believed throughout most of the ancient world that the movement of the planets and stars, especially when a person was born, defined what their entire life was going to be about. When the magi noticed a strange star stirring in the sky, they assumed an important person had been born. And so they set out to find said person who was born to their west. This journey, though, was dangerous since the Parthians and the Romans fought all the time. Both assumed they had a divine right to rule their world. The magi, though, didn’t seem to think important people could only be like them so they crossed the border into a strange land. However, unlike the GPS on our phones, the magi didn’t know exactly where this important person was. So they did what any rational person would do and went to the place they expected important people to be. When they arrived at the palace of the king, they were welcomed by Herod who listened to – and believed – their story. He took care of them while figuring out how to violently respond to this threat to his rule. He gathered his advisors to figure out where this king might be. And while he could have kept this information to himself, he shared it with these strangers as a way to use them for his own violent purposes. Hospitality, for Herod, included giving food, resources, and information to these strangers from somewhere else. But everything he did was rooted in what he would get.
Herod, though, wasn’t the only person who offered the magi hospitality during their visit. They still had one more place to go. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the home they went to was so mundane they needed a star to bring them to its door. We could focus on what they did when they got there, celebrating with joy and walking straight in. But since hospitality mattered so much in their culture, I imagine they were primarily welcomed and embraced. This welcome didn’t come only from the Son of God but also from his mother, the adult in the room. In the words of Rev. Joann Post, “Mary does not hesitate to invite them into her home, to introduce them to her son, to receive their well-intentioned but wildly inappropriate gifts. Because…she knew they would come. Maybe not these particular strangers, but she knew the world would come to meet her son. And she knew that she would welcome them in his name.” Mary wasn’t simply letting random people like shepherds, angels, and kids who loved drum solos to do what they wanted at her expense. She, instead, offered hospitality by welcoming everything the magi represented. They were the nations, the world, and people who might never become the followers of God and Jesus we assume they would be. Instead, the magi were exactly who they were – and Mary showed them Jesus before he preached his first sermon, performed his first miracle, or even took his first step. Jesus had done nothing and Mary knew, through the grace of God, that Jesus wasn’t only for her, her family, or her corner of the world. Jesus was for all. The welcome she offered, unlike the welcome modeled by King Herod, wasn’t about her. She didn’t focus on what she would get or receive. The hospitality she showed was about helping the ones who showed up – to thrive. Sometimes that welcome looks like offering a person food, a place to rest, or even an invention for them to make this community their home. Yet this welcome can also be simply letting people – those who are here and those who are brand new – to simply be who they’re supposed to be. When we do that well, learning how to listen, care, and grow with people we do not know – something new comes into being. The magi came to see a newborn king and Mary, who opened the door, reaffirmed what the star had already revealed to them: that God’s love and God’s story even included folks who are never described as becoming followers of Christ. I wonder how we, who’ve been welcomed by Jesus through baptism and through faith not because of who we are but because of who Jesus is, may be a bit like Mary and reflect that same kind of welcome in this community and throughout our world.