Gospel Lesson: Matthew 2:1-12 (NRSV)
1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “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.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “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.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
As we approach the end of the Christmas season, our Gospel lesson invites us to come and pay homage to the child Jesus. But as we see in today’s passage from Matthew, not everyone receives the news of the birth of the Messiah with unbridled joy. King Herod (“the Great”) is stricken with fear at news that foreign dignitaries have come in search of this potential rival for his throne.
While we might think that the people would want to celebrate the coming of their long-awaited Savior, “all Jerusalem” is also frightened with the news. Given Herod’s reputation for brutality, the people are probably terrified by the inevitable moment that the king’s fear leads to rage. As it turns out, their trepidation is justified, given Herod’s eventual order for the slaughter of the innocents[i], once the wise men fail to return.
And while the king is enraged and the people are panicked, the chief priests and the scribes seem almost indifferent to the news. When Herod doesn’t know where to look for the child who threatens his reign, he calls upon this group of Jewish leaders to use their Scriptural expertise to determine where the child would have been born. And while these men do know what was written by the Prophet Micah[ii], they quickly disappear from the scene.
If they know what this means, why aren’t the priests and the scribes excited? Why don’t they ask to join the caravan to Bethlehem? After all, this child is the answer to their prayers. Or is he?
Perhaps the reason the Jewish leaders fade so quickly out of sight is because they now enjoy their place in the world. While their people are oppressed under the occupation of the Roman Empire, the priests and scribes enjoy numerous privileges, which they are none too eager to surrender. And so, they would rather turn a blind eye to the ungodly acts of Herod than to support the coming of God’s reign in which the source of their power, wealth, and prestige would be eradicated.
And so, with the king enraged, the people terrified, and the priests and scribes nowhere to be found, we are left with the wise men. These travelers have been brought by an astrological phenomenon, which they have interpreted to be a heavenly announcement of the birth of a new Jewish king. Unlike the people of Jerusalem, they do not come out of the expectation that they will find some long-awaited Messiah. They only wish to honor the child, who is the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy. And despite the turmoil that erupts among the Jewish people, they continue to follow the star, determined to discover the baby whom they seek.
Aside from the stop in Jerusalem, we know nothing more about the journey of the wise men. And yet, it is at moments such as these that storytellers have always imagined for the world the moments that history fails to record. One such storyteller was the Italian- American composer Gian Carlo Menotti. In 1951, he was commissioned by NBC to write the first operetta specifically composed for television. The English-language opera was to be performed live for a Christmas Eve broadcast.
The result was Amahl and the Night Visitors.[iii] This first-ever story in the “Hallmark Hall of Fame” was a Christmas viewing tradition in American households for decades after its original airing.[iv] It imagines a late night sojourn, during which the “three kings” stay in the home of an impoverished widow and her crippled son Amahl.
When we meet this young boy, we learn that he has not only lost his father, but that he his mother has also had to sell the sheep that he once tended to as a shepherd. But now, with his sheep sold and with the passing of the old goat who once gave them sweet milk, Amahl and his mother have no way to provide for themselves. Faced with the possibility of starvation, his mother prepares him for the likelihood that they will have to go about as beggars, relying on the compassion of others to stay alive.
But on that evening, Amahl experiences a series of bizarre occurrences. At the opening of the story, the boy sits and plays his flute, while staring up at the strange sight of a bright star moving through the heavens. Though his mother insists that this is just the latest concoction of Amahl’s wild imagination, the boy’s discovery is soon confirmed by the arrival of three kings from far away lands. They too have been following this star and now seek to take a brief rest before continuing on their way.
Despite the fact that they have no food or fire, Amahl and his mother welcome their guests. During their stay, the three explain that they are in search of a child who is born to be king. They are seeking to honor him with extravagant gifts.
Hearing of the three kings’ intentions, Amahl tells his mother that he wants to go and honor the child too. But with nothing else to offer, he says that he wishes to present the baby with his crutch. Amahl’s mother quickly protests, reminding her son that he needs his crutch to get around. But then, to the astonishment of all, Amahl reveals that he has been miraculously healed. And so, with his crutch tied over his shoulder, the once-crippled boy leaves with the three kings to accompany them, so that he too might pay homage to the child, offering the newborn king one more gift.
Perhaps like the three kings, Amahl doesn’t fully know who it is he goes to celebrate. And yet, he is rewarded because he recognizes what everyone else fails to see. While the world tells this crippled boy that he has nothing to offer the child, the baby born in Bethlehem is ready to receive the one thing nobody else could take from him.
He receives one more gift in the form of Amahl’s brokenness. The Christ child comes to offer healing to Amahl, just as he does for each of us. In the incarnation, Jesus brings healing into the world for all who come to see him.
So then, as we too come to experience the body and blood of Christ at this table today, we must ask ourselves, “How shall we react to this moment of Epiphany?” If we say that we come in faith, like those wise men from the East or like the once-crippled Amahl, we must consider what gift we shall bring.
Perhaps we offer the things that the world sees as our crutches. Might we give to Jesus our anxiety over not having enough money; our frustrations with friends and family with whom we have long been at odds; our fear of being alone, as we’ve witnessed others precede us in death; our pain from long suffered illnesses and injuries?
And as we present these gifts, might we like those magi, see a new path revealed for us? Having seen the light of God for ourselves, perhaps we as the church are being led to be the recipients of like gifts, receiving our Brothers and Sisters who lay their brokenness in all its many forms at the feet of the Christ child. When we see them coming with gifts in hand, how might we receive what they offer as the continuing presence of the incarnate God in the world.
Brothers and Sisters, I pray that this day, we all will be dedicated to joining the wise men on their Epiphany journey. As we go to pay homage to our King, let us see that we do not go empty-handed. Each of us has one more gift that we might present. May we lay our faith at the feet of our Savior, so that he might receive that which is disregarded by the rest of the world. And may each of us receive that one gift that only Jesus can offer: citizenship in his Everlasting Kingdom!
“Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth. Amen.” (Luke 2:12)
This sermon was delivered at Bowling Green Presbyterian Church on Sunday, January 04, 2015 (The Second Sunday of Christmas [Celebration of the Epiphany of the Lord]).
[i] Matthew 2:16-18
[ii] Micah 5:2
[iii] The description which follows is based on a recording of the original broadcast, which may be found on YouTube.
[iv] For further information on the history of this operetta, see Mitchell Hadley’s article, “Three Kings in 50 Minutes”, published at the website TVparty!.