by | Dec 31, 2023


Meg Peery McLaughlin
December 31, 2023
Isaiah 60:1-6 // Matthew 2:1-12


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.


You know when the map on your phone says
(in that annoyingly calm British voice): Recalculating?
Our Christmas didn’t exactly go as planned.
Good grief, I missed being with you on Christmas Eve.

Every plan we had was upended.
Preaching schedule—changed.
Grandparent visits—changed.
All of it was reworked.

The only one happy about this was Desmond,
who had someone to be with him at home every single minute of every day.
(Not that anyone was counting minutes or days, no not at all).

Not the Christmas we planned for.

No offense to Christmas, but I am glad it’s behind me.

Technically, it still is Christmas tide, and will be until January 6th—

But as we’ll be starting a new sermon series that weekend,
today we are reading the story of the three wise men.

For they are the bridge characters that take us from Christmas to Epiphany.

The word Epiphany literally means “manifestation,” or “showing.”
Or, less literally, it is a moment of recognition.

In Matthew’s gospel the first people to recognize Jesus were the least likely.

In spite of the fact that the Messiah was born into a place that had anticipated his coming for years through the voices of a variety of prophets,
Jesus’ own people did not recognize him when he arrived.

For the religious authorities in Jerusalem – along with rulers like King Herod
– it hadn’t even registered.  They missed it.

Remarkably, the first people who recognized who Jesus was were foreigners – outsiders – people from another culture, who had a different faith.

They came from the east…a part of the world we know today as Iraq…
because they had seen a star at its rising.

And what has always struck me as a little strange is why,
if these men were so wise,
did those visitors arrive at the wrong place
expecting to find who they were looking for?

They went to Jerusalem, not Bethlehem. They were off by 9 miles.

They went to Jerusalem because of the scripture that Jarrett read this morning.
Isaiah wrote that beautiful poem to a displaced people,
who had once called Jerusalem home. He dared to imagine that their city would once again be great – and proud – and prosperous– and a place of privilege.

…the wealth of the nations shall come to you, Jerusalem…
…all those from Sheba (which is the East) shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord…

So, that’s exactly where the wise men and their gifts show up.
And they ask Herod, the guy now in charge, who seems like
the natural one to know about the next King.

As Scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it,
In his panic, Herod arranges a consultation with the leading Old Testament scholars, and says to them,
“Tell me about Isaiah 60. What is all this business about camels and gold and frankincense and myrrh?”
The scholars tell him: You have the wrong text.
And the wise men outside your window are using the wrong text.
Isaiah 60 will mislead you because it suggests that Jerusalem
will prosperous, restored as the center of the global economy.
And in that scenario, nothing will really change.
Herod asks, defiantly, “Well, do you have a better text?”
The scholars are afraid of the angry king,
but tell him, with much trepidation, that the right text is Micah 5:2-4:
And you, O Bethlehem, are by no means least…
…for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.

As a prophet, Micah talks about a ruler born in the little town of Bethlehem
who isn’t concerned with building up the prosperity of a city or any nation,
but is focused on the well-being of the people.

Micah anticipates a shepherd leader, who will be born in humility and works to make sure the humble are lifted up – and protected from the powerful.

Unsurprisingly, this frightens King Herod
– and all of Jerusalem with him, because when the leader is upset,
the people tend to feel it –

What frightened Herod wasn’t only that there might be a new king,
but that there might be a different future.

King Herod was invested in a future that kept things going as they were – which was to his own benefit. Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem represented change that would upend that future.

+ + +

There are only nine miles between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Those Wise Men got close, but, even so,
there is a world of difference between King Herod’s throne
and where the star eventually settled over the Christ child.

Those visitors from the East covered a lot of ground on their journey,
but I dare say those last nine miles were the hardest.
Because their Christmas, well it didn’t go as planned.

They had to recalculate.
They had to adjust their expectations
of what they thought they were looking for,
to what was their heart’s true home.



They started their search looking for a King whose interest was prosperity and power – and ended at the edge of a manger,
to find a king who would grow up with a singular interest— loving God and neighbor.

To their credit, and as a testament to their wisdom,
after they travelled those final nine miles, the Wise Men got it;

they were overwhelmed with joy when they discovered that they had found what they were searching for;

they had their epiphany moment and recognized Jesus as the true King who promised to usher in a different kind of future.

And once they had encountered this King, they left changed, and returned to their country by another way.

+ + +

All this time later, it is easy for us to hear this as just a part of the Christmas story.  Something we remember every Christmas season before we pack it all away and move on with a new year.

But – let this Scripture work on you a little bit…
let it, not just rest on the page in your pew Bibles, but let it read you:
in your journey through this life,
have you ever discovered that you were off by nine miles?
looking in the wrong place for the wrong thing?

Have you ever set out – in a career, in a relationship, toward a goal
– only to find that it wasn’t…quite…right.
That what we thought we needed…didn’t satisfy.
We were investing in the wrong future.

I’m as ready as anyone to put this Christmas behind me.
It didn’t go as expected.

But before we put Christmas all the way in our rear-view-mirror,
maybe, like those Wise Men, we might be willing to keep looking.

Perhaps we could have the courage to continue the journey
past the place where we may have settled and compromised,
to imagine a future brimming with peace and hope
promised by a child born in a Bethlehem manger.

They’re not easy miles to walk.
But it’s worth the extra effort.
Because it’s there that we find salvation and our heart’s true home.