This was my sermon on Epiphany Sunday 2016, a fictional story of the magi.
Centuries ago, many say after the return from exile in Babylon, Jewish teachers and rabbis developed a method of teaching and preaching Scripture called midrash. Midrash attempts to find the holes in the text, the little parts that don’t get as much attention, and see what we can learn from them. Midrash aggadah focused on the stories of the Scriptures and tried to see what we can glean from everything from a throw-away detail to an unnamed or underappreciated character.
Christians, too, centuries later developed traditions around the Bible to fill the gaps in the stories. These traditions gave us the names of the Gospels and their authors, they helped flesh out the fate of the apostles, and even name and number the magi we honor today. These stories don’t fall so neatly into the categories of fact and fiction – or fact and falsehood – that we typically rely on today. Instead, the stories of midrash aggadah and Christian tradition seek to find a truth in the story and then run with it. The stories, then, are not necessarily factual but they communicate core truths of the Scripture – they tell us what the Bible wants to tell us but in a new way. Plus, they make wonderful stories like many of the traditions we associate with Christmas and Easter.
So, instead of a traditional sermon, I thought we could just settle in together tonight and listen to a story – if only we had some hot chocolate and a warm fire. This is a story, a midrash, of the magi. We’ll call them Mel, Casper, and Bell. This is a story of how they met Jesus. It’s a tale of suspense and mystery, of struggle and temptation, and hopefully of a little bit of truth.
A long time ago, in a land far, far away, there was a small group of star-gazers who looked up at the night sky with all the wonder, fear, and curiosity that it deserves. Mel, Casper, and Bell were university students in Babylon who had all been drawn there by the stars.
Mel was from Babylon, a Persian, and he had never dreamed of traveling very far. He was too interested in the unreachable and unattainable heights of the stars to be bothered with earthly travel. Mel was enamored with the movements of the stars, how they seemed to predict changes in season or come before important events. Unsurprisingly, Mel dedicated his studies to the stars in astronomy.
Casper had come to study from much further away. He hailed from Pushkar, in distant India. Fascinated by all that he had seen under the stars, Casper had decided to study history. He hoped that by studying history, he would be able to help break the continual cycles of violence he had seen all over the world. Peace under the stars, he thought, was only possible if we learned our history.
Bell came from a closer, but still fairly distant, place called Sana’a in Arabia. Bell had lost her family and sought a new one in Babylon. She had known many people in her time and she had noticed that all seemed isolated from one another, a truth that bothered her deeply. She also longed for a family, a name, to call her own. When Bell looked at the stars, she noticed that everyone lived under the same points of light, so there must be something that connected them all. With such mystical questions, Bell chose to study the worlds’ religions.
Despite their different interests, Mel, Casper, and Bell became fast friends when they arrived at the university in Babylon. They ate their meals together, they went on weekend trips, and they studied together almost every night. They poured over the seemingly endless supply of books on the top floor of the university’s library, quite literally burning the midnight oil. Each night, they finished their day with the same ritual. As the oil for the lamps began to run out, they frantically shelved all their books and put away their work so that they didn’t leave behind a mess. Then, they shut the doors behind them and went out on the balcony of the top floor of the library. They had set out pillows and chairs, and every night they would sit together and look up at the stars.
They all looked at the stars for different reasons, of course. Mel studied the stars, and he loved watching them because he thought they contained the mysteries of the universe. If you knew enough about the stars, you could know everything. And if you knew everything, your life would be complete. “You see that one?” he said on more than one occasion. “Sailors use it to find north. The stars guide them home. If you know the stars, you know everything, and if you know everything, your life is complete.”
Casper sighed and shook his head fondly. When he looked at the same twinkling points of light, he thought of how the stars had always remained the same, just as everything always seemed to stay the same. “The stars are predictable,” he would say, “just as predictable as we are. We fight the same wars, we have the same arguments, and we have the same problems, over and over and over again. What’s to stop it?” Bell always laughed at this observation, probably to break the tension. You couldn’t let Casper despair too much, after all.
Bell loved the stars because in her studies she had come to see them as God’s handiwork; she believed that somehow the voice of God could be heard in the night sky. “We all sit under the same stars, right?” she said. “That means there’s some connection between us, some God, some name that connects us all. Maybe God talks to us in the stars.” Mel and Casper laughed at her for this, but she always persisted. “I don’t know how it works!” she objected. “I just think it does. I just know God has something to tell us in the stars.”
They always laughed at Bell’s ideas, but one night something incredible happened – something that might just prove Bell right. They were wrapping up their nightly ritual and had just taken their seats on the balcony when Casper and Bell noticed Mel stroking his beard. He was muttering under his breath the names of constellations, the shapes the stars were supposed to make.
“Mel, what’s wrong?” Casper asked.
“Mel, are you OK?” Bell asked as she tried to follow his gaze.
All their bewildered friend did was point out toward the horizon. They followed his finger to a star that burned a bit brighter, and a bit … differently, than all the rest. Finally, Mel gained the composure to speak. “That’s not supposed to be there!”
Mel ran off to find more oil for the lamps while Bell and Casper stood in stunned silence. Soon, they were pouring over books from every corner of the world trying to find some explanation. For days, this stubborn star appeared in the same position every night – and all through the night! – until it began to enrage Mel. Bell was the first to suggest that it may not be a star at all. This worried Casper because nothing like it had every happened before. Mel was determined to solve the mystery and he announced he was leaving to follow the star. Bell and Casper, of course, joined him on his journey and they took with them all the valuables they had to make their way West – gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
On the way, they talked about what they thought the star could be. It was burning so brightly now that they could see it during the day, further adding to the mystery. They had each brought some books to continue to explore the possibilities of the baffling star. Finally, Bell came across something that stood out to her, from an ancient Jewish religious book she had first read back home in Sana’a. “Arise, shine; for your light has come,” she read from the Prophet Isaiah, “and the glory of the Lord has risen among you.” Casper chimed in that the stars sometimes represented coming kings. Mel was quiet before he pulled out their maps and informed his friends that they were heading toward Jerusalem, the city that used to be home to the Jewish Kings. They were captivated by the possibilities. They had even heard stories of a fabled King David, the riches of Solomon, and the clever wit of Hezekiah.
They arrived in Jerusalem and began asking anyone who seemed important enough to know such things: “Where is the King of the Jews? Where is the child who will be the king? We saw his star and we have come to honor him.” Everyone tried to quiet them down. Bell was insistent enough that a local teacher shut the door in her face. Finally, a stable boy told them frankly, “We already have a king! Herod is the king of the Jews.”
After the travelers had asked enough troublesome questions, they king’s guards came and took them to Herod. They walked past scores of armed guards into a monumental fortress. Mel, Casper, and Bell gasped as they entered the throne room of Herod. The king sat on a massive throne high above the humble students. Columns ran along the walls, stretching up so high that they could not see where they ended. Flags bearing Herod’s emblem flapped in the wind coming from behind the travelers, but they fell abruptly still and silent when the massive doors slammed shut behind them.
All was quiet as Herod contemplated their fate. How dare they ask for another King of the Jews? He was the only King of the Jews! The Romans had made it so! He was King and there was no other. He was the heir of David and Solomon even if he was not their son. Herod the Great ruled over Judea now. … After contemplating their execution, Herod had a better idea. He descended from his throne, cascading robes flowing behind him like a mighty river. His sword purposefully clanged at his side with each step and torchlight gleamed off his impressive crown. He could see the fear written on their faces as he approached them. His advisors and guards filed in behind him, and they surrounded the three young travelers from the East.
“Tell me what you seek,” Herod said.
Mel quaked in fear and Casper tried to avoid the mighty king’s eyes. Bell frowned at them both and realizing she had nothing to lose now, she told Herod: “We’re looking for the King of the Jews. We observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.”
Herod was confused by her directness. How dare she speak to him, the King of the Jews, that way? He sighed. “I am the King of the Jews, you know. If you have come seeking me, you have found me.” He extended his ringed hand for her to kiss. “Pay me homage.”
When nothing happened, he was startled.
“Beg your pardon, King Herod,” the young woman said, “but we read this in your Scriptures.” She told him all about the Prophet Isaiah and the mysterious star Mel had seen. Herod was puzzled and greatly distressed by their findings. So, he immediately locked them in his highest tower.
While they were safely locked away, Herod consulted his chief priests and scribes. The King asked them, “Where is this Messiah she’s talking about? Where is he supposed to be born?” After much feigned ignorance from his advisors and a lot of shouting on Herod’s part, they gave him the information he sought. “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they said. “It … it has been written by the prophet:
And … and you, … you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
… you are by no means the least among the rulers of Judah,
… from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
Herod summoned the students, these so-called wise men, to his throne room again. He didn’t tell them what he had found, because he had a few questions first. He had learned a few things about these travelers and wanted to know more. He also needed to be sure where there loyalties were.
He stepped down from his impressive throne, robes flowing behind him, sword clanging at his side, and crown gleaming in the light. He strode up next to Mel. “You’re a curious man, aren’t you?” Herod said. “Wouldn’t you love to have all the knowledge in the world? Certainly, the King would have this knowledge, or you wouldn’t have come so far to seek him. What if I told you that I had the most extensive library in all the world right here in my fortress? Wouldn’t that make me the king you seek?”
When Mel gave no answer, he moved on to Casper. “You know all the stories of the past, don’t you?” Herod said. “You know that all of this repeats. You know that the mighty always win and the weapons of war always prevail. You know that history only goes around and around, cycles of violence and power. Certainly, only a King could survive all this repetition, don’t you think? Wouldn’t my might and power make me the King you seek?”
When Casper was as silent as Mel, Herod moved on to Bell. “Orphan girl, you need a family,” Herod said. “You need the prestige and honor of a family name, somewhere to belong, and someone who will never leave you, a name that will make you remembered for all time. Certainly, a King would have a name like that. If I had a name like that, wouldn’t that make me the King you seek?”
The three friends trembled in fear, knowing that Herod had all the power that they could imagine – and maybe more. Finally, they repeated their question. “Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews? We observed his star at its rising and we have come to pay him homage.”
Herod’s face flashed with anger and he gripped the hilt of his sword. But, he calmed. That was it, he thought, he needed to find this child, too. There was a rival for his throne, for his knowledge, for his might, for his name, and King Herod the Great would not have it. He devised his plan. He would use these travelers to find the child for himself, and then he would do what must be done. “My scribes say the child was born in Bethlehem,” he said. “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.”
The three friends left with all their possessions the next morning. They were overflowing with joy now that they knew where to go next. Finally, the mystery would be solved! One way or another, they were going to find the meaning of this puzzling star. Sure enough, as they made their way to Bethlehem, the star seemed to move ahead of them. The star even seemed to slow as they approached the City of David, Bethlehem, and they were overcome with emotion. The star stopped over a place on the outskirts of the city, a small hut of a dwelling. There was nothing spectacular or noteworthy about it, just a tiny little humble home.
They debated over their maps, their Scriptures, and all the information they had at hand. None of them believed this was the house of a King! Nevertheless, they tied up their camels and approached the door. Bell knocked softly and a man came and answered the door. He welcomed them into the home without hesitation. He introduced himself as Joseph and then to his wife Mary, who was sitting by the fire cradling a young child who was fast asleep. Mel and Casper looked around for a King, but they saw no evidence of one. All that was there was a humble little home with a mother, father, and infant son.
Mary regaled the travelers with the tales of her son’s birth. She described his conception by the Spirit, not Joseph. She told them of their trek to Bethlehem and how they had found no room in the inn. Mary laughed at the series of unfortunate events that led to a stable birth for her son, and the absurd company of the animals. She smiled fondly when she remembered the shepherds that told her angels had brought them to her. After recounting all the treasures of her heart, she said with great confidence, “His name is Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, and he is the King you seek.”
Mel gave her a quizzical look and Casper almost laughed. Bell took them both outside where they could talk.
“This child is no King!” Mel said while he looked around for the star, sure it had made a mistake. “He doesn’t have all the knowledge in the world! He’s still a baby! He knows nothing!”
“This child is no King!” Casper said as he plopped down on the ground in despair. “He has no army. He has no power. He’s poor! He’s destitute! He has no might to break the cycles of history. There will still be wars, there will still be arguments, and we’ll still have all the same problems after he’s grown and after he dies.”
Bell didn’t know what to say. She felt they were right. This child had no name worth sharing. He was born of peasants – and in suspicious circumstances! This child was no king. She was about to open her mouth and say so, when the mother stepped out of the house to join them.
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Mary told them, “Don’t you see? You’re looking for the wrong kind of King!” She turned to Mel. “You seek all the knowledge of the world, but all the knowledge of the world won’t save you. All the knowledge of the world won’t make your life complete.” Mary turned to Casper. “You seek the power to change history, to break the cycles of violence with only greater violence. That’s not how it works! Don’t you see? This child is our Lord, our Lord in a baby. God has broken history, come as one of us, to be with us.” She turned finally to Bell. “You seek a new family, and we are that new family. The whole world is sister and brother now, because God calls us all. Our God has called you, Gentiles, from a land far, far away to show us that God loves us all. That’s why God came as a baby, to show us that the Creator of All That Is loves us so much and calls us family.
“Jesus is exactly the king you seek. I know Herod has made you promises of knowledge, might, and a legacy, but all of those things mean nothing to our God. God is Love, Love Revealed in Flesh. This child is God come to us to show us the Love of God. This child is our hope and salvation, not Herod! Not knowledge, not power, not even a family name! All of these things lose their meaning in him. God will save us in the body of this little boy, Jesus. I may not know how just yet, but I know it’s true.”
The magi were overcome with the Spirit as God spoke through Mary, and they believed her. They worshiped the child and bowed down before his sleeping little body, but they were quiet in their praise so they didn’t wake him. They stayed with Mary, Joseph, and Jesus that night and broke bread with them in the morning. At breakfast, Bell explained how an angel had even come to the students in the night and warned them that Herod would come for the child. They gave Mary and Joseph gifts of their gold, frankincense, and myrrh so that they might have money to escape to Egypt when Herod came. Then, the magi went home by another road, singing praises to God for what they had seen and for all that was yet to come.