January 3, 2021
Isaiah, Micah, and the Magi – J. Barry Vaughn – Second Sunday of Christmas – Jan. 3, 2021
Matthew’s story of the magi who visited the infant Jesus bringing beautiful and costly gifts is illuminated by two stories from the Hebrew scriptures.
The first is from Isaiah 60:
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
… the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord. (Isa. 60:1-3, 5-6)
Isaiah 60 partly accounts for the fact that Christians have typically assumed that the visitors were kings. It also accounts for the popularity of camels in many of our creches. We know that the magi did not book tickets on Emirates Air, but we cannot know for sure that they rode camels!
The second Old Testament story that illuminates Matthew’s nativity story is Micah 5.2:
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
As I pointed out in my Christmas sermon, the magi were scholars. They not only studied the stars; they also studied ancient texts. Apparently, they knew the story from Isaiah but not the one from Micah. That is why they went not to Bethlehem, but to Jerusalem.
It was an easy mistake to make. The new phenomenon they saw in the sky, whether it was a star or a comet or a conjunction of two planets such as the Jupiter/Saturn conjunction that we have just witnessed, indicated, in their opinion, the birth of a new king, a king of the Jews. So, they went to the place where kings of the Jews were to be found: Jerusalem, the capital city, the center of power.
And that was a fatal mistake.
“’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…” (Matthew 2)
Imagine someone showing up at the White House and saying, “Where is the one who has been elected President of the United States? We have seen signs in the heavens foretelling their election and have come to negotiate an advantageous trade deal with him or her.” That would make any incumbent president nervous, some more than others!
But Herod was not just any king. The Herod to whom Matthew refers is known to us as Herod the Great, but his greatness was not moral, not by any means. Herod was a monster. He was so afraid of being overthrown that he had a bodyguard of 2000 soldiers. He had several members of his own family executed, including his wife Mariamne.
And then came the magi seeking a new king. So, Herod called together his brain trust, the heads of Harvard and Yale, the director of the National Institutes of Health and the Librarian of Congress and asked them if the magi could be right about the birth of a new king and where this new king might be found so that he, like the magi, could go and … ahem… “worship him.” Yeah, right…
We know what happened next. Herod had his stormtroopers execute all the infants in the region of Bethlehem who were below a certain age.
The magi were not just brilliant scholars; they also knew a thing or two about kings, so they left Jerusalem ASAP and as Matthew says, “went home by a different way.”
The problem with both the magi and Herod is that they did not know what kind of king had been born. The problem was they only read Isaiah and not Micah.
After predicting that the new king would be born in Bethlehem, Micah goes on to say:
He shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace.
The king predicted in Micah will be a shepherd, not a warrior; he shall be “the one of peace.”
The great Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says:
Bethlehem is nine miles south of Jerusalem. The wise men had a long intellectual history of erudition…. But they had missed their goal by nine miles. It is mind-boggling to think how the story might have gone had Herod’s interpreters not remembered Micah 2. Our task is to let the vulnerability of Micah 2 disrupt the self-congratulation of Isaiah 60. Most of us are looking in the wrong place. We are off by nine miles. We are now invited to travel those hard, demanding miles away from self-sufficiency. … The way ahead is not about security and prosperity but about vulnerability, neighborliness, generosity, a modest future with spears turned into pruning hooks and swords into plowshares. (Christian Century, Dec. 19-26, 2001, p. 15.)
Today we baptize Charlotte Cortinas. Every birth reminds us of the birth at Bethlehem. Jesus came into the world not only to show us what God is like but also to show us what we can be like. Jesus is not only the perfect image of God, he is also the perfect human being. All of us are made in the image of God, but we allow God’s image in us to be obscured by sin, greed, prejudice, anger, and selfishness. But in Charlotte and other young children the divine image seems fresher and cleaner than in those of us who have lived longer in this old world. Just as the magi brought gifts to Jesus, so today we bring gifts to Charlotte: the gift of baptism, the gift of belonging to this community, the gift of our commitment to raise her in the Christian faith, to teach her the stories and songs of Zion.
We have just re-affirmed our baptismal promises. As we help Charlotte live into her baptismal promises, let us remember and re-commit ourselves to practice those promises, too.