Scripture Readings: Isaiah 60:1–6 | Psalm 72 | Ephesians 3:1–12 | Matthew 2:1–12
What is the longest road trip that you have ever taken?
In my mid-twenties and my second year of University, my Dad and I took a trip over March Break from my school in Southern Manitoba all the way down to the Southern tip of Texas to visit my Grandparents at their trailer, where they would spend their winters.
It was my first time travelling in the states, aside from a few short trips just across the border, so I was in for all sorts of surprises, as the two of us crossed the continent. We ran into a few challenges along the way, like a flash-flood and tornado warning in Kansas, and getting turned around after dark in some unfamiliar cities, but after three days we made it. Then after a three-day visit, we had to turn around and head back North again. Six days on the road for a short three-day stay. The math might not seem to add up, but it was a great adventure with my Dad I’ll always remember, and look back on with gratitude.
Some journeys are about far more than just the destination… or the stay… they’re about drawing us together. About bridging the distances between us, so to speak.
In our reading today from St. Matthew’s Gospel, we heard about another long road trip: the journey of the wise men, searching for the newborn King. We don’t know for sure where they came from, or how long they travelled, although some later traditions try to fill in these gaps for us. St. Matthew just tells us they came from “the East”, which at the time meant ‘outside the Roman Empire’, and more than likely they came from within the Parthian Empire, in what is now Iraq, Iran, and beyond, and which had once belonged to the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian peoples… pretty big players in the story of Israel’s struggles, Exile, and return as told in the Old Testament.
Again, we don’t know exactly where they set out from, but to give us a rough idea of the kind of distances we’re talking about, Google Maps tells me that to drive from Tehran in Iran, to Bethlehem, it is almost 2,000 KM. Back in the first century, of course, there were no cars or highways. Travel was a much more costly and dangerous adventure, to be sure. But knowing the challenges, these wise men still thought it worth it to make the long journey West, following the star that had caught their eye.
This detail about the star, and the word “wise men” or magi, tells us a bit more about these mysterious visitors from the East: they were students of the stars, well learned experts of ancient astrology, a practice strictly forbidden by God for His covenant people Israel, but widely practiced and respected as trustworthy wisdom by many other cultures.
NT Wright offers some helpful insights about the ways astrology was understood in those days, which sheds some light into why the magi in Matthew’s Gospel were watching the skies so closely, and why they were willing to set out on their long road trip together: “Many people, particularly in the countries to the east of Palestine, had developed the study of the stars and the planets to a fine art, giving each one very particular meanings. They believed, after all, that the whole world was of a piece; everything was interconnected, and when something important was happening on earth you could expect to see it reflected in the heavens. Alternatively, a remarkable event among the stars and planets must mean, they thought, a remarkable event on earth.”
And so, seeing signs in the heavens, they somehow came to believe that a new king had been born to the Jewish peoples far to the West, and not just any king, but one that warranted a truly cosmic announcement, and who was worth putting their own lives on hold to see face to face, and honour as best they could. These Gentile sages from far away were seeking to honour and pay homage to the newborn Jewish King.
But there was a problem: the Jewish people already had a King, Herod the Great, who ruled the region with the backing of Caesar Augustus in Rome. So news of a newborn King was not taken well by the folks in Jerusalem: the experts and scribes were taken by surprise by the arrival of the magi, having had no warning or clue that something so important was happening in their midst. St. Matthew tells us that Herod “was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:3). Not simply surprised, but afraid.
Why? We don’t know for sure. The Scriptures don’t say.
But we could easily imagine why: A newborn King would be a big threat to Herod’s own power, and Herod was not one to take challenges to his position lightly.
As far as the people of Jerusalem were concerned, it’s a bit less clear. Perhaps they were worried about a disturbance to their own fragile peace? The ancient world was very familiar with bloody power-struggles, and any chance there could be a civil war could bring Rome’s wrath to the region as well. Or perhaps they were just happy with things as they were, and didn’t want another king challenging the status quo? What if they just were afraid of the unknown… even if it might be very good in the long run? Or afraid that if it was really God’s Messiah that had been born, then their less-than-faithful lives might soon be put under God’s righteous spotlight? Who knows? There were likely all sorts of reasons this news of a newborn king made them afraid. St. Matthew only tells us what fear led Herod to do.
He sends the magi off secretly 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.’” (Matthew 2:8), so they head to Bethlehem. And as they go they see the same star they had followed before leading the way again. The folks in Jerusalem who had said Bethlehem would be the birthplace of the coming King had gotten it right!
…but none of them had joined the Magi on their journey to see the Messiah for themselves, even though it was only about 9 km down the road.
What a contrast St. Matthew wants us to see!
On the one hand we have non-Israelite astrologers, not exactly the picture of faithfulness we might expect, who had travelled from far in the East, facing unknown trouble and great expense… searching for something they hardly understood, but believed was of great significance.
While on the other hand we have God’s own people, who it turns out knew exactly where to look but were too troubled and frightened or otherwise unmoved to be bothered to go just down the road to meet their long-awaited Messiah for themselves.
Of course, this also begs the question: where do we fit in this story? How far are we willing to go to come face to face with our Messiah King? How important is it to us to draw near to Him in worship and devotion? And what are the things that keep us from seeking to draw nearer to Him? What obstacles keep us at a distance?
We know there’s lots of things in our lives that can get in the way of our life with God, but one common obstacle that St. Matthew highlights for us today is fear: Like Herod, and all God’s people in Jerusalem when the wise men showed up, we too can find ourselves unsettled by the Good News that our King has been born.
Maybe we’re afraid of what we’ll lose, or what we will have to give up? Maybe we’re afraid of what will have to change if the Messiah has really come to reign? Maybe we don’t feel worthy to enter His presence… worried that He’ll turn us away? There’s all sorts of ways fear can grip our hearts and keep us standing at a distance, but the invitation to draw near always remains.
Will we join with the magi and draw near to Jesus Christ?
This is really our invitation, our journey… but it’s not really the most important journey St. Matthew wants us to contemplate today. Along with the journey of the magi, our journey to draw near to Christ in faith is just our response to the journey Christ Jesus has taken to draw near to us!
In being born of Mary, Jesus made the biggest trip of all: from sharing the exalted, eternal throne of heaven, to joining the humble human family… bridging the infinite distance between our broken sinful, and scared condition and Almighty God, with His tiny newborn body… re-uniting us to our loving Creator, once and for all, through the precious gift of His life, offered each day that He drew breath, but most completely through His saving death on the cross… all to draw all people… Jew and Gentile, you and I… all those covered in darkness, drawing us together into His gracious light… which is what St. Paul claims in Ephesians Chapter 3, God has been planning since the very beginning.
Ephesians 3:5-6, “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
We tend to forget how big of a deal this is, but for St. Paul and many others this changed everything, and shaped how Christians not only understood God’s love, but how they practiced it too! No longer seeing some folks as outsiders from the start… as cut off from God’s concern because they were born into the wrong family, or community, or country. In Christ, God has revealed His saving love for the entire world at work, drawing everyone together as reconciled brothers and sisters at His side.
The feast of Epiphany which we celebrate today reminds us of this Divine surprise: that in Jesus Christ God has come to us to rescue not just one people… but all peoples… not just Israel, but everyone.
So when we are tempted to see those around us, or around our world… or even ourselves, as outside of God’s compassion or concern… as those who are too far off from His holy life and light to share in His Kingdom… let us remember the Good News that in Christ God has made the greatest journey of all to be with us… even when we were far off, and frightened, and fumbling in the dark, He came to find us… and through His death and resurrection He draws us all to Himself, and in Him, to each other, to live in God’s light together forever.
I’ll end now with these powerful words from the Prophet Isaiah 60:1-3
“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.”
May the light of Christ shine upon us, and shine through us to draw those around us to Him. Amen.
 Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 10.
Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School