Today’s scripture readings:
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
If you were listening carefully during the reading of the gospel, you no doubt recognized that this is the Bible story behind the popular Epiphany carol. We three kings of Orient are; bearing gifts we traverse a far, field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star. But we should clear up a few things. First of all, did you notice that nowhere in the text does it say that there were three kings? The Gospel writer simply uses a plural—“wise men”—in order to say that it was more than one person who followed a star to Bethlehem to see Jesus. Which brings us to a second point: Nowhere does it say that these “wise men” were “kings.” “Wise men” is a translation of the Greek word magoi—in English, we sometimes translate this, “magi”—which means something more like “astrologer” or “magician” or “sorcerer.” (You maybe remember that in the children’s Christmas program this year, the “wise men” were introduced to us sitting in an observatory, and they explain, “We’re really more like scientists, astronomers—we study the stars.”) The “wise men” weren’t “kings” at all. They were pagans from other lands who had mastered the stars.
I’m not just being nitpicky. The only reason I bring any of this up at all is that the true identity of these gift-bearing, star-following travelers is pretty important. They magi weren’t people of great power among the Jewish people. Quite the opposite: they were foreigners who engaged in religious practices that the Jewish people would have found offensive—practices that would have made them outsiders who did not have a place in their community. There was no reason to think that they belonged at the manger paying homage to Jesus, the newborn king of Israel. And yet, in today’s Gospel lesson, that’s right where we find them. The people we’d least expect to find anywhere in this story—for a few moments in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ nativity, they become the main characters.
When Matthew included this story in his account of the birth of Jesus, he was pretty clearly making an illusion back to a story written centuries earlier, from Isaiah 60—our first reading today. In that passage, the prophet describes how, one day, outsiders will come streaming into Jerusalem. Israel will be a beacon that radiates the glory of God, and the entire world will be drawn to it. Isaiah says, “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and they shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” Matthew, writing today’s Gospel lesson, take this image of foreigners bringing gold and frankincense and tweaks it just a bit, adding myrrh to the mix—myrrh being a burial spice used for anointing the dead. (How interesting that even in this story about Jesus’ birth, Matthew is foreshadowing his death.) In today’s Gospel lesson, Matthew is trying to say that the day Isaiah envisioned all those centuries ago has finally come. Jesus’ birth is a turning point for a people who have too long lived under another emperor’s thumb. In Jesus, a new light shines and God’s glory is revealed to the whole world. No longer will God’s people be the object of others’ scorn; from now on, others will look to them.
I want to talk a little more about that first lesson from Isaiah. Let’s set the context. For centuries the Jewish people had their own kingdom with its glorious capital in Jerusalem. But empires rise and fall, and eventually the neighboring kingdom of Babylon conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the city. The Jewish people were exiled from their homeland, the Promised Land that God had given them all those generations ago. They spent 70 years living under Babylonian rule. But eventually the Babylonian empire fell, and the Jewish people were allowed to return to their beloved Jerusalem.
You might think that this opportunity to rebuild their capital and restore their community brought about a collective sense of triumph, and it is true that, at first, the people were joyful and optimistic. But that was short-lived. It turned out that rebuilding after the exile was messy and hard. The city they had loved lay in ruins, and they quickly realized that their rebuilt city would never be as glorious as it had once been. Different factions emerged with divergent ideas about who should be in charge and how things should be. And you have to imagine that some of the younger people who had grown up in Babylon kind of missed that way life had been there and weren’t too excited to be about the hard work of rebuilding a city that had never been their home in the first place.
That is the context in which Isaiah 60 was written. The era of displacement and estrangement was behind them. The people stood at the brink of a new future. There was reason to be hopeful. The days ahead were so full of opportunity. But there was grief about all that had been lost. There were divisions among the people. The journey ahead of them would be long and rough. They had emerged from a crisis but it would not be smooth sailing.
Into this somber and uncertain situation, Isaiah speaks: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” The future is in God’s hands and it is bright.
Today we stand on the brink of a new year. 2020—the year that seemed to last a decade—is finally behind us. Two vaccines have been approved and more are on the way. I’ve seen photos of several of you who are front-line healthcare workers getting the first injections and I’ve felt a surge of hope and relief in my body as I’ve been able to imagine this pandemic finally behind us. There is reason to be joyful and optimistic.
And still, the path forward will not be easy. For one thing, many of us are still learning how to go on without people we’ve loved whose lives have been taken by COVID-19. Grief takes a heavy toll. Even for those of us whose lives haven’t been so directly impacted by the coronavirus, Dr. Fauci still warns of a dark winter ahead, saying that surge upon surge of the virus could make for a grim January. The economy is still in tatters, and economists say it will be years before we return to full employment. Even as life does return to normal, we all know it won’t be like the normal we were used to before the pandemic. Love it or hate it, Zoom is probably here to stay. I worry, will people ever come to worship here in person again or have we all gotten to really love Sunday mornings at home in our pajamas? Or worse, how many of us just don’t feel as connected to Gloria Dei anymore as we’ve gone months without the kinds of activities and interactions that bind us together as a community?
It’s not lost on me that even as Matthew hearkens back to the hopeful message of Isaiah 60, he introduces myrrh to the story. The magi come bearing not just the gold and frankincense that, in Isaiah, were harbingers of a triumphant future, but also myrrh. At the end of his life, as he hangs on the cross, Jesus will be offered wine mixed with myrrh, and after his death, Nicodemus will show up to with myrrh and aloe to prepare his body for burial. It’s as though Matthew is preparing us from the very beginning to understand that the new life Jesus offers us does not come without hardship and sacrifice. We don’t get to skip over the hard parts.
The promise is not that the road will be easy but that God is with us throughout, and the destination is resurrection. From the moment he is born, Jesus is destined for death. Even when his disciples try to persuade him to take a different path, Jesus understands he will need to confront the forces of death head-on. He embodies the paradox at the heart of our faith: that death is what makes new life possible.
As we enter a new year I feel optimistic. I’ve been writing on Christmas cards, “SEE YOU IN 2021!” And still, I know the path to the other side of this pandemic will not be all sunshine and roses. In the new normal that emerges post-COVID-19, I know there will be things we must regrettably leave behind. The future won’t be all we’d been hoping for or what we’d expected. And so we cling to the promise: Emmanuel, God with us, accompanies us on the path that leads to new life. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998).