When we look at the different people who came to see baby Jesus, in the birth stories, we can figure out, to some extent, why the particular people who were invited to be there were there.
Joseph, for example, was descended from the line of King David, and the prophets had always said that the Messiah would come from the line of King David; Joseph provides that connection.
We looked at the character of Mary in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and we could see what in her character led God to call her to serve as Jesus’ mother; we could see why she was picked.
The shepherds, a little research reveals, may have been invited because: shepherds at that time were poor; they were not respected—their occupation was considered dirty and inferior—they were considered to be among the “sinners”; in general they were a kind of outcast in their society—they were those who most needed the “good news” the angels brought. And of course a good part of Jesus’ ministry will be spent including the poor, the not-respected, the outcast. The shepherd are symbols, from the start, that this Messiah is for the downtrodden in society. That may be why they are there.
Today, January 7th, is the day we have designated as “Epiphany Sunday,” as it is the closest Sunday to January 6th, the day of Epiphany. This is the day we tell the story of the wise men coming to see Jesus.
And as we look at that story today we can ask, why were they invited? Whey were the wise men, the magi, included among the first to see the new Messiah? They were not poor, not looked down upon; they aren’t there for the reason the shepherds were. And as we read about them in Matthew, we don’t find any statement that they were particularly holy or virtuous or deserving. There must be some other reason: why were the wise men invited to the birthplace?
Selected glimpses from Israel’s history, and from the Old Testament in particular, may provide a clue. Glimpse number one: Some of the most difficult passages of the entire Bible to read, and to understand, are in the book of Joshua, where the Hebrew people, as they move in to the Promised Land, wipe out, with their armies, large numbers of people already living there. Violent passages; slaughter of women and children—all in the name of “following God’s will.”
The leaders of the Hebrew people then, and the writers of the Old Testament, later, believed this was necessary. It was necessary, they said, because foreigners posed a threat to the people of God. If foreigners were left alive and nearby, the people of God would mingle with them, and be contaminated by them. Those Gentiles would pollute God’s people, defile God’s people, corrupt God’s people, as God’s people adopted their ways and their pagan gods. Foreigners could have nothing to do with God’s children.
Glimpse number two, six hundred years after Joshua: when the people of Israel returned to Israel, after nearly fifty years of exile in Babylon, they did so in multiple stages or groups, over a period of a few years. One of the men who would become a leader in Israel, Ezra, came in one of the later groups. And he was “appalled,” the book of Ezra, chapters 9 and 10, tell us, to find that some of the earlier returning exiles had married some non-Israelites, some outsiders, some Gentiles, who had moved into the territory, or who lived nearby. These foreigners would have to be sent away, he said, and he was following the same reasoning of Joshua’s time: foreigners were a threat; the people of God weren’t strong enough in their faith to associate with them; Gentiles must be kept away. Foreigners could have nothing to do with God’s children.
And glimpse number three, from the time of Jesus’ birth, five hundred years after Ezra: there were several territories in Israel at this time, including Judea, in the South, and Galilee, in the North. And in between these two territories there was an area called “Samaria,” where people called “Samaritans” lived.
Now the Jewish people hated the Samaritans, hated them so much that many of them would walk many miles out of their way in going from Judea to Galilee, just so they would not have to touch Samaritan soil. They hated them as outsiders, as the worst of the Gentiles, as the most “polluted,” the most contaminating.
Jesus, as an adult, would end up visiting with a Samaritan woman, healing a Samaritan leper, describing a Samaritan in a parable as the example of neighborly love and goodness. But that’s not how people felt as he was born; they were the worst of the foreigners, who could have nothing to do with God’s children.
“In the time of King Herod,” we read today, “after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 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.’”
We don’t know exactly where the wise men came from; sometimes the area that is now Iran is suggested, sometimes Arabia. All we know is that they were “from the East,” and from a distance.
So why are they a part of Jesus’ birth story? Why do they join Mary and Joseph, and shepherds, and angels? What do we need the wise men for?
Mary and Joseph were Jews. The shepherds were Jews. The angels appeared in Judea. Jesus was born “king of the Jews.”
The wise men, many believe, are here to represent the non-Jews, the Gentiles, the outsiders—the people like all of us! They come from afar to testify to Jesus’ lordship, and to claim him as their lord too, in spite of their being “from the East,” from far away
He would be their Messiah too, “king of the Gentiles” too. He would overcome all the religious traditions like the story of Ezra, all the politics like the hatred of Samaritans, all the historical biases dating back to Joshua. The wise men are important as symbols of Jesus’ appeal, and availability, to disciples of all nations and races. From the very beginning of his life, we are shown, he is for all people, Jew and Gentile. The wise men open the door that first crack, and eventually all of us can come in. Foreigners can have something to do with God’s children, and in particular, with God’s Son.
Jesus will go on, in his ministry, to approach a variety of Gentiles himself—Greeks at a festival, a Syrophoenician woman with a sick daughter, a Roman centurion, and others. And his church will go on, the book of Acts relates, to open the door to Gentiles, to let them in—though not without some controversy and difficulty first. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, in his church, will include in its opening words “They will come from East and West, and North and South, and sit at table in the kingdom of God.”
Isaiah 60 and 66 had predicted it, centuries ago, with words like these: “Lift up your eyes and look around; all are assembling and coming towards you. The nations will come to your light . . . I am coming to gather every nation and every language. All humanity will come bow down in my presence, the Lord says.”
And Paul will go on to summarize it, in his letter to the Ephesians: “A mystery has been revealed to me, a mystery unknown to humanity in previous generations—that the Gentiles have the same inheritance, and form the same Body, and enjoy the same promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
But it began, in Jesus’ life, with visitors from the East: Gentile visitors, outsiders, people previously excluded from God’s people, symbols that the exclusionary practices based on religious tradition, and politics, and history, are over. God brought them, the Gentiles, by a star, to Christ. “We have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.”
Let us pray: God we thank you that now your covenant has expanded, to include all of us, Jew and Gentile alike. Thank you for Jesus’ work, demonstrating your openness to all, and thank you for the example of the wise men. Help us to always show your openness as well. Amen.