This Sunday our church will read scriptures of Epiphany, celebrating the visitation of the magi to Jesus. Although no manger scene would be complete without these exotic strangers from afar, Matthew says that they showed up some time after the birth of Jesus, and found Joseph’s little family in a house at Bethlehem.
Matthew wasn’t the first to write about wealthy wise men coming from the East to worship the goodness of God. Nearly 600 years before Jesus’ birth, Isaiah described their coming. The Jews of Jerusalem had just returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon, and faced the daunting task of rebuilding their shattered city and nation. The prophet saw good days ahead: Rise, shine, for your light has come. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Isaiah saw caravans of camels loaded with goods from the East pouring into a rebuilt, secure, prosperous city. One day, even kings of the nations would bow and offer tribute to the rightful king. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
Hundreds of years later, when a new star appeared in Israel’s corner of the sky, astrologers from the East took it as a sign that a new king had arrived. A search of their data banks uncovered this ancient text from Isaiah. Believing they had found the key to unlock the mystery, they saddled their camels and headed West to Jerusalem, carrying gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. There they expected to find a new prince who had been born to the Jews, whose rule would usher in a period of amazing peace and prosperity.
What they found, of course, was the wily, power-crazed, megalomaniac, Herod…then in the last years of his life. The arrival of the strangers from the East set the entire city abuzz when they asked, “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.” Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann imagines the conversation between the religious scholars convened to locate the promised king. One group focused on the Isaiah passage with its vision of Jerusalem as the new locus of God’s goodness on earth. Other scholars weren’t so sure. Another prophet’s writings, Micah, offered a “minority report,” indicating that searching for the newborn king in Jerusalem might lead followers astray by a few miles. The real action was in Bethlehem.
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. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. And 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. Micah (5:2-4)
Micah cast a different vision for the future, foreseeing a coming king who didn’t need towers of ivory or armies of power. This king would rise from a tiny family, from a powerless clan. This king would not care for the trappings of excess and politics, but would bring wholeness to his people by paying attention to their deepest needs for peace and wellness. This king will not luxuriate in Jerusalem’s ease but would be born in nowhere Bethlehem. Could it be that the best-guess route of the Magi was “off by nine miles?” (Walter Brueggemann, “Off by Nine Miles,” The Christian Century, December 19-26, 2001.) Herod was incredulous, certain that nothing of any importance could arise in Bethlehem. Still, an unpopular king couldn’t be too careful. He deputized the magi and sent them on their way, and the rest is history.
Bethlehem is just nine miles from Jerusalem. The wise men saw a great many things from afar, but they were pulled slightly off course by the trappings of political success and the dazzle of earthly riches. If they hadn’t met up with Herod’s scholars, they might have missed their goal by a few critical miles.
Those nine miles still lead to very different discoveries. Christians are still arguing about where biblical narratives should lead us. Last year, in a Washington Post interview, Jerry Falwell Jr. scoffed at the notion that the politics of Jesus could have anything to do with the way public policy should be shaped, saying:
It’s such a distortion of the teachings of Jesus to say that what he taught us to do personally — to love our neighbors as ourselves, help the poor — can somehow be imputed on a nation. Jesus never told Caesar how to run Rome. He went out of his way to say that’s the earthly kingdom, I’m about the heavenly kingdom and I’m here to teach you how to treat others, how to help others, but when it comes to serving your country, you render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. (Washington Post Magazine, December 2018)
Will we be a part of the Jerusalem narrative–where we expect to find a king who will rule the nations, control the wealth of the world and smite our enemies? Or will we find our king a few miles away…in Bethlehem, present with the least, united with the suffering, on the run with refugees? The Spirit of Jesus invites us to travel those demanding miles that will pull us away from the lure of success and power and fling us upon the mercies of an adventurous God. Let’s travel those miles together, and offer costly gifts fit for a king.