January 6, 2019
Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley
Life Among the Lutherans is a collection of some of the monologues about Lake Wobegon, by Garrison Keillor, the former host of the radio show Prairie Home Companion. In one of them he speculates that the wise men were conceivably Lutheran. He reports that Pastor Inqvist said, “We think they may have been Lutherans because they brought gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Myrrh is a sort of casserole made from macaroni and hamburger, or as they say in the Mideast and Midwest, hammyrrh, thus the name. You bring it in a covered dish, thus the speculation that at least one of the wise men might have been one of our guys. Maybe he was going to stop at the department store and get something expensive like gold or frankincense, but his wife, a wise woman, said, “Here, take this myrrh. They’ll be hungry. And make sure you bring back the dish.”
Obviously Pastor Inqvist is trying to be funny. We often try to put ourselves into Bible stories. Sometimes we understand the stories better that way. But in this case, I think Matthew is making the point that his readers are not like the Wise Men. The Wise Men are neither Jewish nor Lutheran. They are foreign.
Matthew is considered the most Jewish of the gospels. He wrote for a Jewish audience and included more Old Testament quotes than any other gospel writer. And yet, he is the only gospel writer to mention the presence of these Gentile foreigners. He spends as much time talking about the magi and Herod as he does about Mary, Joseph and Jesus in these first two chapters.
These Wise Men came from the East. East of Jerusalem was Persia (now Iran), Babylon (now Iraq), and Arabia (now Saudi Arabia). Those places did not have a great relationship with the people of Israel. Their history was characterized by conquest, oppression and exile. It is not surprising that a visit from these historic enemy countries provokes uneasiness in Herod and all of Jerusalem. Imagine if the sentence said “Nuclear physicists from Iraq, Syria and Russia came to Washington looking for a baby”. Many Americans would suspect an underlying, not-so-good motive. Fear of strangers, especially foreign strangers, is not a new phenomenon. Matthew acknowledges the fear, but he doesn’t dwell on it. These foreigners are neither spies nor terrorists. They turn out to be the heroes of the story.
The reading ends “And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.”
Another way – this is what strangers, outsiders, newcomers, foreigners often offer. Another way. We sometimes hear the words “another way” and make them negative. “Another way” sometimes becomes a challenge to “our way”. We often want the comfortable way, the familiar way, the cheapest way, the safest way. Often we jump to the conclusion that another way is going to be difficult, risky and expensive. We don’t want another way. We want our way. Sometimes we just need to stop long enough to listen, to observe, to recognize that another way is just that—another way. It might be that we could gain something by attending to it.
The wise men come to Jerusalem asking for the child who has been born “King of the Jews.” They go to the palace, where they might reasonably expect a royal baby.
But what they find is the current King, Herod the Great, whose rule is characterized by fear and rage and even paranoia. He maintained a private security force and built fortresses in six places so that he would never be far from a defensible refuge. He executed his favorite wife and three of his sons because he thought they wanted his crown. Then he figured that when the time came that he himself died, the Israelite people would be so glad to get rid of him that they would throw a big party. The King was infuriated by that idea. So, he left an order that on the day of his death, political prisoners throughout the land should be killed so that there would be appropriate mourning.  One commentator describes Herod the Great as “history’s most hysterical megalomaniac.”
Herod was over the top, but this is mostly the way of king and rulers. Those with power hold onto it, generally without regard for the needs and wants of those over whom they rule. The way of Herod is deception and fear, the power of money, weapons, and domination. But there is another way. This other way is on display in Bethlehem where a peasant family welcomes learned scholars. Another way where a vulnerable mother, father and child receive strangers in peace, without weapons, and gifts are exchanged. A way of hospitality and trust.
There is the way of King Herod, a reign of terror. And there is another way, which is the reign of the God who is repeatedly described in Hebrew scripture as the parent of orphans and protector of widows, the defender of the desolate.
The wise men seek the “King of the Jews” and they don’t mean Herod. That title is never used for Jesus again until the time of his death. Roman-appointed Herod seeks to kill him as an infant, and Roman-appointed Pilate orders his execution as an adult. . . .The clash between Jesus the Messiah and Caesar Augustus the emperor started right from the birth of Jesus.
The wise men know something. When Jesus is on the cross, he will be mocked as a counterfeit King of the Jews by religious insiders. The first people to recognize Jesus for who he is, are these foreign strangers. The outsiders have something to teach the presumed insiders.
As the Rev. Kathryn Matthews writes, “It's deeply moving to hear of these foreigners traveling a long, hard way because they had an inkling – just an inkling – of something very important unfolding in a distant land. Something inside them must have been restless, or upset, or hungry for understanding; despite the reputation of "the East" as the place of wisdom and learning, there was something they still needed to find.”
There is a spiritual hunger, a yearning for purpose and meaning in our time. People may not be looking for it in churches or institutional religion as much these days, but they are still hungry for it. And I wonder, about those who do the hard work of showing up in a unfamiliar church. I wonder if they have an inkling that something very important could unfold here. And I wonder how often they find it. I wonder how often we find it.
Scott Peck was an American psychiatrist and best-selling author. His vocation was clearly influenced by his Christian faith. In one of his books, he wrote “The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.” There seems to be a lot of dissatisfaction and discomfort, swirling around us on many levels. Some respond by retrenching, digging the ruts even deeper. I wonder if we, as Americans, as Christians, mostly as members of Emmanuel, are ready seek another way.
I note that Herod’s people, the palace insiders, are able to figure out the answer to the magi’s question. They eventually say that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. This is the right answer, but it seems to make no difference to them. They are satisfied with the way of Herod. They do not want another way. But I find this hopeful.
It suggests that if we can listen to the right questions, we might discover that we already have the resources we need, in scripture, in prayer, in this community, to find truer answers and another way. The right questions might come from unexpected places or people. God tends to work, not at the center of power, but on the margins, not in Jerusalem, paralyzed with fear, but in a small village that might have thought its best days were long past. I want to remember that.
“And being warned of God in a dream, they departed into their own country another way.” This other way comes from God. It is not necessarily safer or cheaper or more comfortable. It is not necessarily riskier or more expensive or more difficult. The only important criterion about the other way in this story is God’s direction and the magi’s obedience.
What the wise men found was a poor child in modest surroundings, lying in a teen mother’s arms. To the intellectually perceptive, this is not the scholar’s formula for future success. Yet, by grace, they had the faith to experience unbridled, exceeding great joy. May we seek and find that way together in this new year.
 Garrison Keillor, Life Among the Lutherans, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 2010), p.56
 R. Alan Culpepper, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, general editors, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010) p. 167
 James Howell, in Feasting on the Word Year B, Volume 1, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, general editors, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008), p. 214.
 Marcus Borg and J. Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth (New York: Harper/Collins, 2009), p. 137-138
 Matthew L. Skinner in Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship, Year C, Volume 1 Joel Green, Thomas Long, Luke Powery, Cynthia Rigby, Editors, , (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2018), p. 158.
 M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Travelled and Beyond: Spiritual Growth in an Age of Anxiety, (New York: Touchstone, 1997), pp. 32-33
, Shelley D. B. Copeland in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 1, Advent Through Transfiguration, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. (Atlanta: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009), p. 169.