“Magi: Missed It By Miles or Bulls-Eye?”
January 2, 2022
Speak to us, O God, write your message in the stars if necessary. We want to hear your voice. We are eager for your guidance. Speak, we are listening.
In the time of King Herod, 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.”
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Well, if you’ve been following our Advent sermon series, you know that our family made a rather public display of our debate about whether to get a dog or not. There was me on the anti-dog side with what I felt to be a silent majority of the congregation behind me – a very silent majority. And then Meg and our daughters were lined up on the pro-dog side with what I now realize was about 9/10 of the church behind them. And boy were the pro-dog folks vocal.
Seriously, I had 9 year old children giving me dagger eyes during Sunday School. I had Elders of the Church – those tasked with the spiritual nurture of the people of God – Elders openly Boo-ing me in the middle of Session meetings. It was savage.
And don’t even get me started on the tea towel propaganda. We got one towel with a dog holding balloons on it. Another person gifted us with a tea towel that read “I wanted a puppy. My husband did not want a puppy, so we compromised, and I got a puppy.”
Well, I am here to inform you that on Christmas morning Santa brought a dog bed, a dog leash, a dog harness, dog toys, dog treats…dog shampoo, even. Then, on Tuesday this past week, we brought home Desmond and my girls are over the moon to have a dog.
In spite of my mixed feelings about furry family members, I must admit that it does feel good when a Christmas gift hits the bullseye like that.
Have you ever had that experience on Christmas day? Like you had the perfect gift to give – one that demonstrated just how much you know and appreciate the recipient. Those moments seem few and far between, but when you hit the bullseye it feels amazing.
I do take great consolation in the fact that we don’t have to find the perfect gift for Jesus. I will happily leave that to the Magi.
Those Magi did have their work cut out for them. And yet they managed to bring the perfect gifts for Jesus; the kind that show that they truly get who this child is and would become. That’s pretty amazing considering that they didn’t even know where to find him.
They missed him by five miles. That’s how far it is from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. They went looking for him in Jerusalem but he was born in Bethlehem.
But first, let’s pause for a moment and take stock of how astounding it is that these foreigners from the east were the first to even look for baby Jesus. They may have missed him by five miles, but they were the only ones in Jerusalem asking “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”
That’s what they wanted to know – Where? They didn’t want to know his birth weight or how long Mary had been in labor – did she get an epidural or go natural.
They didn’t want to know if they were using cloth diapers or disposable. They just wanted to know “Where.” Perhaps those perfect gifts were burning holes in their bathrobes because they simply could not wait to give them.
At first glance the gifts also seem like odd choices – gold, frankincense and myrrh. Those wouldn’t be the first things I would choose to bring to a baby shower.
Some say they brought gold because it’s a gift that is fit for a king. If you are going to meet a King, I suppose it is best to bring a gift that would make him feel royal. The Magi brought gold.
I do remember the Christmas of the GT Performer BMX bike. Now that was a gift fit for a king. This was the first Christmas after I moved to North Carolina. Earlier that summer, before the boxes were even off the moving truck, I had rolled out to explore my new neighborhood and meet new friends riding my brother’s hand-me-down banana-seat Schwinn with the handlebars that came up to here. I quickly realized that bike was not cool at all. So for Christmas I wanted a big kid bike – like my reputation depended on it.
Somehow my parents managed to smuggle an entire bike to my grandparent’s house in the trunk of our station wagon without me seeing it. That surprises Meg not at all, but there it was on Christmas morning, polished black chrome with aqua and hot-pink flaming graffiti font on the down tube – so beautiful (lay off – it was 1988).
It had those thick novelty sized spokes that looked like helicopter blades spinning. It even had those little pegs on the wheels for doing those spinning tricks that…I never even attempted. But I rode that bike with my head held high – like I was king of the neighborhood. My parents really hit the bullseye that year. The Christmas of the GT Performer – that was the best Christmas ever.
The Magi brought gifts – they brought gold for a king, but they also brought frankincense. Some say that’s an incense used for worship – you might bring frankincense if you had the notion that you would encounter God.
They may have missed him by five miles, but that’s why they asked everyone in Jerusalem “Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews, for we have come to pay him homage.” That’s how the NRSV translates it.
The Greek word is proskuneo, which can also mean “worship” – we have come to worship him. If you are going to meet God, I suppose it is best to bring a gift that is extra special…a gift that is fit for worship. The Magi brought frankincense.
Even better than receiving a bullseye gift is when you give one. I remember the year of the extra-special photo album – Italian leather with parchment pages. This was the end of a year in which I had traveled a lot – national parks out west followed by a long trip to Spain and Italy. But all along I had taken Meg’s ratty old teddy bear named Trudy and my ratty old teddy bear named Orange and I took pictures of them, all over the place.
Tourists everywhere looked at me sideways as I sized up shots of these two bears with Yellowstone falls in the background…or the Spanish Steps in Rome. For a moment I contemplated sneaking a contraband photo of the Sistine Chapel ceiling with the two bears touching hands just like God and Adam. But then I thought better of spending a night in a Vatican holding cell.
This was definitely the year I was way more excited about what I was giving than what I was getting. The Christmas of the homemade photo album – That was the best Christmas of all.
The Magi brought gifts – gold fit for a king; frankincense fit for worship – bullseyes, both of them. But they also took a big risk when they decided to bring myrrh. Now, no one in his right mind brings myrrh to a baby shower. Myrrh is a spice used in burials – it masks the smell of death and decay.
Those Magi may have missed him by five miles, but they did bring myrrh…almost as if they already knew that this child, even as he slept so peacefully on his mother’s chest, he was already living in the shadow of the cross.
They may have missed him by five miles, but they were also the first ones to really see Jesus; the first ones who understood what God was up to in this little baby boy. When you are going to meet the one who will give his life to the very last drop – it is best to bring a gift that honors such sacrifice. The Magi took a chance and they brought myrrh.
It’s really difficult to get the right gifts isn’t it? I didn’t tell you about the year of the frying pan. I didn’t tell you about the year where I gave a copper bucket to hold firewood. Those were not the most memorable years. When it comes to choosing the right stuff, those were not the best Christmases – because it is hard to get the right stuff…but in the end it’s not just about the stuff.
Sure, the Magi brought “stuff,” but they brought gifts that revealed what they knew to be true about Jesus – about who he would become and what he would do.
Gold for a King
Frankincense for God
Myrrh for a holy sacrifice
They may have missed him by five miles, but their gifts demonstrate that they knew exactly who he was.
I said earlier “at least we aren’t Magi – we don’t have to figure out what to give Jesus.” But that’s not exactly true…we do have to give him a gift – the kind that demonstrates that we get who he is and where he is. And the place where Jesus is born – the place where Jesus lives – is into our relationships with each other.
That space between you and somebody else – that is the place where you may find Jesus and pay him homage…and if we are to serve Jesus in our relationships, then we are going to have to work at really seeing each other, and really understanding one another.
The Magi missed him by five miles, and Lord knows we miss each other by at least that much all the time – but the good news is that if you miss him at first, it’s not over. If you find it difficult to connect with somebody, that doesn’t have to be the end of the story. There is a way back home to one another – like the Magi before us, we can always go home by another way.
Isn’t that a message worth writing in the stars? Amen.