Updated: Jul 31, 2021
Three Kings walk into a Barn (The Rev. Dr. Deborah O. White)
There is a sign in the Grace Church kitchen that reads, “Three Wise Women would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, brought practical gifts, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and there would be peace on Earth.” I had, of course, seen it before but had forgotten it was there until wandering into the kitchen the week before Christmas to restock the Deacon’s Pantry and wash some dishes. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
I have never been sure whether I actually like that sign or not. As a woman I enjoy the suggestion that some folks of the female persuasion might have reacted to the Revelation of Jesus’s birth in a helpful and sensible manner. I do not, however, like the implication that they would have been so consumed by doing that they missed their chance to recognize and cherish the theological significance of the event. This balance – between doing “church” and being a worship community- is a tricky one to which we must give careful attention, as evidenced by the fact that Jesus himself gave Martha quite a talking to for getting lost in serving casseroles instead of listening to the words of the living God.
It is always interesting to look at a famous story from a different perspective, but the truth is that we don’t need to rewrite the tale of the “wise men from the East” who appear in today’s gospel – because – as the Grace Church youth group members found out at our most recent Christmas Trivia night- it’s already been rewritten. Most of us who grew up attending a Christian church are acquainted with “Three Kings,” named Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar, who arrive from “the Orient” at the end of the Christmas pageant wearing crowns and bearing gifts. As you just heard, however, other than the gifts, none of these things are found in today’s gospel, which is the only place in scripture that these wise people are mentioned. That is not an accident.
Those of you who have been in Bible Study at Grace know that while three of the gospels are very similar (synoptic) in content, they have some significant differences too. That’s because each of the gospel writers frames the good news about Jesus with a specific lens. Matthew’s gospel was written for a Jewish audience and focuses on Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. That means that it’s likely that the story of the visit of the wise people is about the relationship between Jesus’s birth and the fulfillment of the prophecies found in the Hebrew scripture.
Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman suggests that, “Ancient readers would have recognized the Magi as astrologers from the East (perhaps Assyria) who could read the course of human events from the movements of the stars. These wise men are pagans, [non-Jews] … whose astral observations have led them to recognize that a spectacular event has transpired on earth, the birth of a child who will be king. The text never explains why Assyrian scholars would be interested in the birth of a foreign king. Perhaps their worship of him indicates that they understand him to be far greater than a mere mortal, king or otherwise.”
Matthew’s inclusion of the story tells us that the first people who took it upon themselves to answer the call of the Christ child were not the priests of the Jewish king or the scholars of Jewish prophecy, but outsiders. They recognize that Jesus’s coming has been orchestrated by nature itself and that he is worthy of worship, despite his humble circumstances. These foreigners – speaking another language, bringing gifts from another tradition, and believing in a different theology- were the first of the procession of non-Jews who would worship the Jewish Messiah – and they were the first people who put their lives in danger to do so.
They accepted him as he was. Every detail of the story of Jesus’s birth is consistent with our understanding of the man who was both God and human being. He was born as he lived – into the most unassuming of circumstances surrounded by people that his society accounted as practically worthless. Yet, despite the poverty and dangerous circumstances of his nativity, the joy and gratitude of everyone who hears the news demonstrates that God is present in this child. Matthew wants us to know that Jesus was born among the very people he would continue to bring joy to for his entire life – the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. He also wants us to know that, as the prophets predicted, Jesus is, from birth, rejected by those who might have known him best.
Anthropologists tell us that human beings began to sort themselves into groups incredibly early in our history – and almost as quickly developed rules for keeping people out of them. Exclusionary criteria have and continue to include age, gender, physical ability, language, and belief. This was certainly true in the sixth century before the common era, when Jeremiah told the exiled Jews that they would eventually return home from their long sojourn with a broader community than they had previously accepted. The procession home described by Jeremiah is “a remarkable scene of healing and inclusion. The blind and lame excluded [previously] are here welcomed back. This fits with a broader theme of inclusion in postexilic prophetic texts; elsewhere, foreigners are also said to be welcomed to serve God.” God’s desire, it is clear, is for everyone to be part of the homecoming.
The early Christians struggled with issues of inclusion too. Remember that the first Christ-followers were Jews – and they weren’t so sure that they should welcome non-Jews into their midst. Today’s passage from Paul’s letter to the Christ community in Ephesus is “a manifesto that proclaims full membership, equal status, and honorable place for Gentile Christians in the people of God.” Ehrman suggests that “It is the Gentiles, the non-Jews, who originally do not have the Scriptures but who learn the truth from those who do. [They, like the Magi, make the spiritual and physical journey to…] worship the King of the Jews.”
In the almost two thousand years since this communication was heard, church members and leaders have repeatedly participated in discriminatory practices that benefit certain people at the expense of others. We have often refused to share Jesus’s humility and universal acceptance, taking him from among the barn animals, removing his crown of thorns, and placing him in the heavens wearing the countenance of the prosperous and powerful.
This is not what is shown to us in the narrative of Jesus’s birth – and it is not what God wants. As today’s psalm makes clear, our God has the power to do anything, but what God does is to continue to try to bring all creation to Godself. The offer is clear. The signs are there– but we miss them when we forget that our earthly work and our love of God are inextricably linked. It is no accident that I was reminded of the Magi in a room where much labor has been performed for others on God’s behalf. As the Magi followed the star, so too we must follow the Magi – patient, diligent, and open-minded- growing in grace and gratitude until we too will be overwhelmed with joy. Ask for directions, arrive on time, help where you can, show your faith in practical ways, give thanks at all times and in all places – and there will be peace on Earth. AMEN.
Bart D. Ehrman (2002), The New Testament and Other Early Christian Writings: A Reader (2nd edition), [Oxford, England: Oxford University Press].
Christopher B. Hays, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press], 172.
Luis R. Rivera, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press], 184.