In our reading, they are called “wise men from the East.” The Greek word for “wise men” is “magi,” and that means something a bit more specific. Magi were Zoroastrian sages from what is now Iran, Persia in the ancient world.
These magi set out on the thousand mile journey from Persia to Israel to pay homage to the new-born king of the Jews. As best we know, their journey is entirely unprecedented. Over the centuries, Jews had had lots of kings. Magi had never visited any of them that we know about.
And, if you look at the politics of the day, the first century seems like an odd time for magi to start visiting Jewish kings. The kingdom of Israel was never particularly powerful, but it was at a low ebb in the first century. The ruling king, Herod, turned out to be the last king of Israel in anything like the normal sense of that term. After his death, Israel was fully absorbed into the Roman Empire. Even Herod was a king in name only. He was in fact a Roman client who owed his throne entirely to Roman support. Herod had a free hand in Israel itself, but Rome determined his foreign policy. Magi had no reason to care about him.
Even Rome probably didn’t carry a lot of weight with the magi. Persian culture was more ancient than Rome’s, and had its own strong imperial legacy. Rome was certainly a mighty empire in the first century. But the Parthians, who ruled in Persia at the time, had inflicted a devastating military defeat on Rome the last time the empires had clashed just a generation earlier.
All this is to say, there was nothing in the situation of the day what explains why these magi would set out on a thousand-mile journey to visit the new-born king of the Jews.
But something was motivating them. Presumably it was the star. Never before had a star risen at the birth of a king. The star must have convinced the magi that this king of the Jews was no ordinary king, that this king of the Jews was something really special, that this king of the Jews had something divine about him. And so they set out, with what must have been very high expectations indeed. Why else would they go?
When the magi reached Israel, they went to the obvious place—the capital city—to consult with the ruling king.
That must have been a disappointing interview. Herod had no idea what they were talking about. To the degree Herod understood them at all, Matthew tells us, he and his court were frightened at the news. The magi soon realized they could not trust Herod. The actual king of the Jews was definitely not worth all the trouble they had taken. The new-born king would have to be a lot more impressive than Herod to justify their journey.
So the magi left Jerusalem, and this time the star led them directly to a house in Bethlehem.
I picture the magi at the gates of the little town, pausing with some anxiety. What could little Bethlehem hold that was worth all this trouble? I doubt the house offered any more encouragement. It was surely just another peasant house, nothing that would impress rich, educated Persians.
I would love to talk with them right at the door of the house. I would love to ask them what they expected to find inside. Presumably they were expecting something pretty dramatic, something more impressive than anything they saw in Jerusalem or anything they could see at home.
And what did they find? “The child, with Mary his mother.”
This is another one of those places where we need to distinguish between what we know now and what they could know then.
We know that Jesus was special. We know that Jesus was God incarnate. We know that all of history revolved around the little child they saw that day. We know that Jesus would grow up to be to be a great teacher and miracle worker. We know that Jesus would die on a cross and rise again, defeating death in the process. We know that Jesus was the only one who could bring us into right relationship with God.
The magi may have suspected some of that, but they couldn’t really know. And, as best we can tell, Jesus looked like an ordinary child. The seemingly ordinary peasant child with his mother was surely not what the magi expected.
But surprised though they must have been at Jesus’ apparent ordinariness, the magi they knelt down to pay Jesus homage, and they offered him gifts fit for a king. I wish we knew what they were thinking. Did they know they were looking at a divine child? Or did they wonder what made him so special that he got a star?
And here is the point of all this. Actually two points. Whatever the magi were expecting, what they got seemed pretty ordinary. And yet, they really did see God incarnate.
That is an important lesson.
It is natural to look for God in dramatic places. In big Churches full of people and services packed with pomp and circumstance. On top of mountains or beside oceans. In moments of great heroism.
God is in all those places, of course. But the stories of Jesus’ infancy, including the visit of the magi, remind us that God is in the quiet moments, too, the apparently ordinary circumstances of daily life, the places where we might not expect to find God because they seem almost beneath God’s notice.
I will always treasure the moment I first made an adult commitment to Church. It was certainly not what I expected!
I was already a Christian and had been worshipping virtually every week for a year or so. But I was not part of the Church family. I intentionally arrived just after services began and left just before they ended. I wanted to worship God. But I wasn’t interested in the messiness of a faith community.
Eventually, out of guilt, I volunteered to help at a fair the Church put on every year. My role was to slice frozen fish. As you might guess, I approached that role without enthusiasm.
But as we worked together, my fish-slicing partner befriended me. And, for the first time, I thought maybe I should get more involved in the parish.
Over the next several years, my fish-slicing partner became one of my closest friends. The people of that Church became my extended family. I was set on the road that led many years later to ordination. And it started with slicing fish.
I learned then the lesson that the magi must have learned in that house in Bethlehem: sometimes we meet God in what appears to be very ordinary circumstances.
Here at the beginning of the calendar year, my prayer for us is that we will have some mountaintop experiences together. But I also pray that we can be open to the surprising ways God meets us in our ordinary lives too.
And I pray that in the name of the Christ child who was born king of the Jews and who welcomes people from every family, language, tribe, and nation. Amen.