By the Rev. Dr. John Fairless
(Note: I preach with an outline that I distribute to the congregation; hence, the blanks indicated here by underline)
I’ve always heard the expression – which seems to apply a lot in my family – “better late than never!” Of course, there are also those folks we shudder to meet sometimes, and wish we could turn it around: “Better never than late!”
Our text for this morning is about some folks who often get included in the original celebration at the manger in Bethlehem, but who were, in fact, most likely not there at the same time as the shepherds or even the “we-assume-he-was-around-but-he’s-never-really-named” innkeeper.
Of course, I’m speaking of the “wise men” or the “three kings” – or, as the Greek text actually names them – “the magi.”
- The magi were latecomers to the first Christmas celebration.
- “Magi” is an old Persian (Iranian word,) members of an ancient religion that studied the stars and folk legends
- They most likely were not “kings” and we don’t know if there were three (despite the song)
- They may not even have been “men” for that matter – after all, they did stop and ask directions from Herod!
- This story could have occurred as long as two years after the “manger scene” in Bethlehem; they note that they saw the “star” at its rising – which was some time in the past
- There has been lots of interest and conjecture over what exactly the “star” was that was seen – some say a supernova, others a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, others think maybe a comet
- Fascinating to me is the explanation that what they actually saw was an “angel” – a bright messenger from heaven who was calling them to come. We know that in Revelation, the angels – or messengers – of the seven churches are depicted as stars in the hands of Jesus. Hmmm…
- Regardless of the answer, we know that these magi saw something unusual that had to do with a light in the sky, and according to the legends they had studied, they deduced that an important child had been born in Judea, the land of the Jews
- Persians would have known quite a bit about Jewish belief systems, as their ancestors (the Babylonians) had captured Jerusalem and held the Jews in exile approximately 500 years earlier…
- So, their curiosity led them on this “late” Christmas journey…and there is room for them in the story! (which interests me as much as anything)
- Truth from God can be found everywhere (and, evidently, anywhere.)
- The magi are not Jewish, they are not Christian…though their history led them to a form of belief in “one god,” they did not necessarily fit the normal criteria for someone who would be likely to come to Christ
- Who would expect these guys (or gals) from a “pagan” society to come such a great distance, at great cost, with expensive gifts…to worship a child?
- Of course, the whole Christmas story has been about God doing the unexpected, hasn’t it?
- Teenage virgin mother, unwitting and reluctant “step”-father, baby born in a barn on the backside of nowhere, first witnesses a bunch of smelly shepherds… you get the idea
- So, now…add to the cast these mystical, magical philosopher/astronomers as among the first to see what God was up to
- Makes you wonder just where God might be trying to send us messages of truth in our time, doesn’t it?
The real question is – if we were to hear the “truth” from God – what would we do with it? This story illustrates that…
- What you do next when you hear from God indicates what kind of faith you actually have.
- Three sets of characters heard the “truth” about the baby born in Bethlehem; each of them had a different reaction.
- The Jewish priests and scribes had all the right knowledge and information; they quoted Micah 5:2 to Herod as soon as he asked, “Where is this kid they’re talking about?” They knew that a Messiah was coming, and that there were rumors of some kind of birth “out there”
- Herod had the message from the magi, and now confirmation from his own court experts…that was a pretty strong signal that something big was happening in the kingdom
- And, of course, the magi themselves had the “star” and a story…and now got what they needed from their stopover in Jerusalem. (Interestingly, as soon as they decided to take the next step of their journey, the light of the “star” reappeared to them!)
So, what were the reactions of each of these characters?
- The priests and scribes went right back to “business as usual” – nothing changed for them. Kind of an “oh, that’s interesting” response
- Herod got worried; he was afraid that if there really was a new king coming, it was going to upset his personal apple cart pretty badly and could ultimately cost him his power, prestige, and his kingship. Better find a way to take care of that kid!
- The magi – well, they followed the light that they had been given, and at the end of the trail – they worshiped.
Which of the three got it right?
We want to be pretty careful, I think, about coming to God’s house week after week, hearing the good news, and continually leaving with “business as usual” on our minds. God is constantly speaking to us – here and in the “unexpected” places of our lives – and is continually forming us, shaping and reshaping us, possibly even redirecting us in the choices we are making. We don’t want to ignore God!
Worrying about what following God’s will will cost us is not a good option, either; Herod did a pretty good job of placing himself on the throne of his life. He was willing to murder in order to keep things under his own control (he killed not only his own family members, but the terrible “Slaughter of the Innocents” depicted just a few verses later in Matthew’s story.) But, in the end…what happened? History tells us that Herod went insane and died after being exiled by the Roman emperor, Caligula.
It is the “outsiders,” the unlikely candidates in the story that give us the example of faith; they put feet to their prayers. They got up and went in the direction that God revealed to them. And they expressed their faith in real, practical terms.
Of course, that didn’t mean their way was easy…
- Following Christ may lead you on the “road less traveled.”
- The magi got a warning about going back the same way they came
- Just in case these “wise men” weren’t wise enough to figure out that Herod was “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs” – they dreamed about taking a different way to get back home
- It might have been a harder journey; it may have taken them longer; it was probably more costly in time, effort, and expense
- But, it was the right way to go
- We may need to take some different paths in our own lives, once we have seen and heard the message of God for us
- It may not always be the smooth, or popular way that we are called to walk
- The path may get steep, the cost might be high; but God has promised to walk with us and guide us
Robert Frost didn’t write his famous poem for a spiritual purpose, as far as I know; but I like his words in “The Road Not Taken.”
The Road Not Taken
BY ROBERT FROST
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
* * *
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
* * *
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
* * *
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
I took the one less traveled by…and that has made all the difference. A pretty good metaphor for our call to walk the way with Christ on this day, and every day that lies ahead of us in 2015 and beyond.