Flight by Night


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

January 6, 2019

Texts: Psalm 121; Matthew 2:1-15

       Some of you may remember the cartoon in The New Yorker of a woman on the phone in a fancy New York apartment building standing in the midst of an assortment of geese, swans, milkmaids, and little toy drummers, not to mention the partridge sitting on top of her kitchen counter, saying, “All I said was, ‘What’s a partridge?’” She certainly had received some unex-pected guests in response to her question. Christmas is like that, a time of unexpected gifts, some pleasant, and others merely useless, to be put away in drawers and sometimes discovered many years later by a family member cleaning out a house following a death.

        Today is the Feast of the Epiphany which marks the liturgical end of the Christmas season on the Western calendar. My Orthodox friends call today the Feast of the Theophany, the Incarnation of God’s love in the world because of the differ-ence in western and eastern liturgical calendars. It is cele-brated in Jerusalem with bands and the archbishop entering Manger Square. Last year I ended up with a group of children as they celebrated El Dia de los Reyes, Three Kings Day, the traditional day of exchanging gifts in Hispanic countries––that is until Christmas commercialism took over.

         Today’s feast marks the day that Matthew’s gospel story tells us that certain wise men came from the East to worship the babe in Bethlehem. Unlike the infancy narratives in Luke, the first several chapters of Matthew were written in the same style as the rest of the gospel. Scholars believe that Matthew was writing for a Jewish community and, consequently anxious to point out that Jesus was truly a man of Israel, included many prophecies from Hebrew Scripture to fit into the life of Jesus.

         The gospel writer of Matthew assumed the background narrative of the first two chapters of the Book of Exodus, casting Jesus as the new Moses and including stories that are somewhat similar to stories about Moses. As you will remem-ber Pharaoh, like Herod received a prophecy that a child will come among the Hebrews and deliver them. And, just as Pharaoh did in the Exodus story, Herod calls up all his chief priests and scribes asking the location of the child. Both rulers, fearing loss of their power, slaughter male babies. Moses is hidden in the bulrushes, and Joseph flees with Mary and the baby Jesus escaping Herod’s wrath.

        For the gospel writer, Jesus is the one who has come to fulfill the law, not change it. Thus Matthew’s gospel has a different focus than the other gospels. It’s important to re-member that the gospels were written to be persuasive texts, not historical treatises. Each gospel was written for a particular audience and each was written as an argument for and expla-nation of belief in Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God.

         The first time the word magi appears in the West is in the writings of Herodotus, who in the fifth century before the common era created the study of history so that, as he put it, “the achievements of human beings might not be forgotten.” The original word for history in Greek actually means inquiry, so that history is an inquiry, whether of a culture or a time or a people. The Magi were members of a sacerdotal caste respon-sible for religious and funerary practices; they later accepted Zoroastrianism, a particular kind of monotheism that believed in the creation of divine order out of chaos, fire and light as life giving forces for good, and the importance of free will.

       Daniel is called “rab-mag,” chief of the Magi, a title that certainly never would have belonged to an observant Jew as Daniel was supposed to have been. After the breakup of Alexander’s Empire into its various sections and conquest by Rome, Persia-Parthia––known today as Iran––had a class of rulers called Magistanes, from which we get the word magistrate. They had the power to name kings. So, imagine how nervous the historical Herod would have been to meet up with such a group of men entering his kingdom, especially since he was not on the best terms with Rome.

         The transformation of the Magi into the Three Kings begins with a line from that crafty old woman-hating lawyer Tertullian, who said they were “near kings,” that is, that they had such power. As to the number, Matthew’s account gives none. Some early church depictions number two, others four; St. Augustine, looking to the Twelve Tribes of Israel, said there were twelve. The three names Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar appear centuries later, but relics attributed to them appeared by the fourth century, discovered by St. Helena, who also dis-covered among other items, the True Cross. First brought to Milan, they were transferred to Constantinople (now Istanbul) until they made their way to Cologne where they now rest. There is an alternative set of relics that Marco Polo claims to have seen on his travels through Persia.

         Although Matthew’s Gospel is thought by scholars to be a Gospel for the Jews, no Jew in Matthew’s Gospel recognizes the child––except from fear and we’ll deal with that issue in a bit. There’s this group of three foreigners, astrologers from the East, wherever that was, and they tell Herod there’s a new King. The translation today says Herod was frightened and all Jerusalem with him; I like the older translation of Herod shaking and all Jerusalem with him because when Herod shook, people knew that there was trouble ahead, the kind that made troubles in River City look calm.

        So, what’s the importance of Matthew’s including this story, probably not an historical fact, in the nativity passage. In the ancient world, kings and deities were supposed to have portents of their entry into the world. This accomplished that purpose as well as another. Many of the ancient commentators also used this text from Matthew as a sign of God’s light to the Gentiles. As early as 186 CE, Ireneus, the Bishop of Lyon, wrote that the Magi were the first Gentiles to worship the Lord.

         This text was also used by Pope Leo the Great, who re-pelled Attila the Hun––only a distant relation––who threatened Rome in 476. Leo believed that if he preached the light of the East, the Magi, to the heathens that Rome would be saved. His general Anthemius showed that a good army was helpful as well.

       Luther, although he preferred Luke’s story of the nativity, saw this passage as proof that Jesus had a claim to legitimate authority calling him “a light to the Gentiles” as well. Calvin, a lawyer by training, preferred Matthew’s legalistic approach to arguments, called the Magi the first foreign and outside con-verts to be welcomed to God’s kingdom which he was trying to establish in Geneva.

       The gifts are symbolic of Matthew’s argument for Jesus. Gold is a gift fit for a king. Frankincense as the song says, draws a deity nigh, and then Matthew’s Gospel adds myrrh, the bitter perfume of mortality, looking to what the writer knows happened to the hoped for Messiah. Matthew’s Gospel here also has another, more powerful message in his choice of those who provide witness to the birth of salvation: No one owns Jesus. No one can claim to be the one true voice of Jesus––not Mike Huckabee or Pat Robertson on the right or Jim Wallis or William Barber on the left. Not you, not me. We do not own Jesus but are owned by him whether we like it or not. We have the same choices as those Biblical characters––the wise men, Herod. We can seek God or we can close our eyes. We can follow the Christ or see him as a threat or go on living as though nothing has happened. Our response determines how we live.

        The end of the story in this morning’s reading is one of flight by night. Warned in a dream of Herod’s true intention, the Magi leave by another route, making sure they do not betray the child’s location. Warned by an angel, Joseph packs up Mary and the child and flees at night escaping the terror that Herod is to inflict on the village of Bethlehem. Like many of today’s refugees, he did not wait around for the violence; he left knowing that Herod, a truly evil and destructive person, was capable and willing to do anything to maintain his power. Joseph and Mary and the child crossed an inhospitable desert for safety as have many of today’s refugees.

       Today as we celebrate Epiphany and its symbol of light, the story of the Magi brings a deeper message as well. The story tells us that not only was Jesus recognized by people the Hebrews called foreigners but that perhaps we should recog-nize what others who are unlike us have to say about the way we live. These refugees offer us the unexpected gift of a new way of sharing God’s love.

        Every year at Christmas, each of us receives an unexpected gift of love. The question is what we do with it. The most unexpected gift of love we have all received is that of God’s love for us, more valuable than gold and more fragrant than frankincense. Much like the old forgotten photo in the drawer that brings someone back to life for us, the Lord’s Supper enables us to experience the life of our Lord and the inestimable gift he gave us in a new vision of God.

        Let us pray: God of the morning star, brighten our lives with your love so we may follow not just the star, but the man Jesus who embodies your love by becoming the Christ. Amen.