The characters of this narrative are always familiar to us—The Wise Men, the three Kings, the Magi.
Each year we all receive Christmas cards with their picture on the cover and every card depicts them exactly the same way: long flowing robes, beards, and crowns. They are always in one of two poses: either kneeling at Jesus’ manger or sojourning across the desert on camels.
In our carefully carved nativity sets, they rub elbows with the shepherds from Luke as they present their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
We know the wise men, yet do we?
Most of us have probably heard by now that what we think we know about them is not accurate. They weren’t kings; there weren’t necessarily three of them; and they didn’t come on the night of Jesus’ birth.
And because I’ve said these facts once again, inevitably someone will come to me after the service, and say, “We Three Kings is my favorite Christmas hymn and you just ruined it!” Sorry.
But truth be told, whether there were two, three, or twenty of them, and even if they didn’t quite make it in time to help boil water for the birth, they still can teach us about what it means to encounter Jesus.
And one of the main things they teach us, particularly at the beginning of a New Year when we often say, “In with the new and out with the old,” the Magi show us that when it comes to encountering Jesus it’s more like “In with the old, and out with the new.”
Early in his gospel, Matthew has Gentiles come to celebrate Jesus’ birth and to worship him.
The church has long understood this passage as a message about opening the Gospel to the entire world, which is represented by these “outsiders”, by these “foreigners” who come to Jesus.
Now, as I indicated, these Gentile visitors are not kings, but Magi. They’re astronomers and we often call them “wise men,” which is a title that requires some explanation.
In antiquity, especially in the Old Testament, “wisdom” meant many things, which meant a “wise” person meant different things.
A wise person could be someone who had a particular skill, such as an artisan.
A wise person could be someone who observed life, arriving at mature conclusions about how we should live life. This kind of wisdom is the basis for the book of Proverbs.
Proverbial wisdom warns us away from things such as pride, sloth, and foolishness.
And then there was mantic wisdom.
A person who had the gift of mantic wisdom could discern things at deeper levels than observation; they could interpret dreams and visions. Joseph, in the book of Genesis, had mantic wisdom, which would help him rise to be the second most powerful person in Egypt.
The Magi fall into this category, and it’s in this practice, and in their coming to worship Jesus, and in their going out from having encountered Jesus, that models to us what Jesus came to do, and who he came to do it for.
With the coming of the Magi to meet Jesus, Matthew is showing us that God comes for all people—not just Jews but Gentiles as well.
What this teaches us is that our initial steps toward Jesus can happen and be inspired in any number of ways—even the unlikely and unexpected.
For the shepherds it was the appearance of an angel—who spoke plainly and explicitly.
But for the Magi—they witnessed a strange appearance of a new star, which wasn’t explicit to them, but something implored them to follow it.
Matthew is showing us God can draw us to Jesus from wherever we are and by whatever path we follow.
One of the delights of our faith is to hear how God has brought people to faith.
Some people inch their way to Jesus, starting in early childhood. Others undergo a dramatic experience and are transformed.
But still, many people come to Jesus in ways that don’t match our expectations. Whoever these wise men were, they show us we can never predict how God will bring us to Jesus, we cannot ascribe a certain manner to God working in someone’s life.
That means no matter who a person is, what they have done, how they live or look, where they have been, what they may or may not have, is any less likely or less deserving of the grace and love found in Jesus Christ.
Therefore, a person can come into where Jesus is, in their old way, and when they go out, after having met Jesus, are a whole new person. They come “In with the old, and GO out with the new.”
The wise men teach us not only the diverse ways people come in to Jesus, they also teach us how we leave.
In this story King Herod lurks behind the Magi.
Herod cannot see the Good News within the birth of Jesus. Instead he rages with jealousy, seeing Jesus as a threat to his power. And because of such, he makes the foolish decision to try to hold back what God intends.
So with a fake smile on his face and treachery in his heart, Herod invites the Magi in, claims he wants to pay homage to Jesus, and asks the Magi to let him know where the child is so he may come and do so.
Herod’s presence in Matthew’s story goes deeper than just his role in this story.
Herod represents all those in power across time itself who claim a noble purpose, but who act out of self-interest and greed.
He stands in for all who clutch at power without regard for who might be hurt.
When Herod falsely claims a desire to pay homage to Jesus, he becomes the ancestor of politicians, leaders, and the like, who seek to use faith and religion to gain votes and favor so as to gain position where they then have power.
Herod’s plan would have worked, except for God’s intervention and the wisdom of the Magi to listen and act.
Speaking to the Magi in a way they could understand—through a dream— God points them to a different path, away from Herod—away from the corrupt. They leave their encounter with Jesus a different way, a new way—both in spirit and in path.
In doing all this, the wise men teach us by the way they arrived, and now they teach us by the way they leave.
“They left for their own country by another road”
In with the old, and out with the new.
God’s invitation to come in with our old ways and leave by new ways is always being offered to us.
Those who model the ways and the wisdom of the Magi will listen to God’s direction and then take the new ways and do new things and thus have a new and profound impact on the world.
But those who fail to model the ways and the wisdom of the Magi end up stuck in old ways, in ways that model the desires of King Herod.
Gregory Himes, a pastor in Grand Rapids, Michigan, during an election season was pressed by other area pastors and some key leaders in his church, to endorse particular candidates and to promote particular political rallies.
Initially he refused because he believed the church was meant to be broader in its message and focused on the will of God and not the will of politicians. But the pressure mounted, and eventually he gave in to the voices of power and control.
As a result, a third of his congregation left.
But contrary to Rev. Boyd’s experience, Matthew Herbst, a pastor in San Diego, and his church heard God’s call to take a new path and now together they fight against domestic violence—an issue that harms and kills children and families, leaving grief and agony behind. The problem is much more widespread than most people think and its influence is more pervasive.
As a result of this new way, Rev. Herbst and his church started the “Peaceful and Healthy Relationships Project” a program that teaches families about healthy relationships, giving families a place to go for help, compassion, and hope.*******
These are just two examples of results that happen when responding to, or not responding to, God’s invitation for, “In with the old, out with the new.”
At Epiphany—when we welcome the Magi and bring an end to the Christmas season—there are important take-aways for us.
The Magi teach us that God welcomes us from wherever we may have started out—welcoming us no matter how early or late we’ve arrived.
And the Magi teach us that when we do come and encounter Jesus in our old ways we ought to leave a different way—a new way.
So as we begin a New Year let us consider how we came to Jesus as our old selves—as those who have knelt at the manger in the midst of this Christmas season as our old selves—and how now—for having done so—how we will leave and move forward in this New Year.
Will we continue the same way—and follow the ways of this world—the ways that so often seek to gain our favor for the personal pursuits of those motivated by greed and power?
Or will we go out in a different way, like the Magi—a new way—knowing Jesus came for us in spite of who we have become?
Will we move forward in the New Year as new people who are determined to model the same wisdom of the Magi—who followed God’s call and came to meet God as their old selves, but left changed and renewed?
May we model the way of the Magi and come in with the old, but go out with new—the newness of life found in Christ Jesus. Happy New Year. Amen.