Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Overwhelmed with Joy” (Matthew 2:1-12)
January 4, 2015
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Several years ago I was the assigned reader of today’s gospel passage at a Lessons and Carols service. The lectern was situated right next to the choir, so that the front row of the choir was literally just a few feet on my right. During the reading I got tongue-tied at the question the wise men asked when they arrived at Jerusalem—instead of “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” I read, “Where is the star who has been born king of the Jews?”
It took me a second to realize what I had done, but I just kept reading. But I heard one of the choir members whisper, “Hooray! A star is born!” and another member whispered, “A star is born…wasn’t that a Barbra Streisand film?” Out of the corner of my eye I could see several choir members, faces red, shaking and staring down while trying to not burst out laughing. It was all I could do to finish the reading without bursting out laughing myself. After the service we all had a good laugh about it ☺.
Matthew tells us that wise men journeyed from the east, looking for the newborn king. These wise men, or magi, were known not only for their wisdom, but also their ability to read the stars and interpret dreams. They were Gentiles, not Jews, and were most likely from the region of Babylonia. This is significant because it was the Babylonians who had conquered the Jews and razed Jerusalem five centuries earlier—and now descendants of those Babylonian victors were traveling to Jerusalem to worship Jesus, the newborn king of the Jews.
They had followed a star all the way to Jerusalem. There are various theories regarding this star. It may have been a comet or a planetary conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in the constellation Pisces, or a supernova—or perhaps a unique phenomenon created by God for this occasion. Regardless of the nature of this star the wise men had endured a long harrowing journey of over a thousand miles through severe and often dangerous terrain, and followed this star all the way to Jerusalem.
T.S. Eliot wrote his 1927 poem, Journey of the Magi, from the retrospective point of view of one of these magi. It begins this way:
“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter…
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly…”
T.S. Eliot is very insightful here. After all, in the midst of the long harrowing journeys that you have experienced in your life, have you not, like the magi, had moments when the voices singing in your ears are telling you it is “all folly”?
Perhaps you have those voices recently.
And yet in spite of these voices we continue on, following one star or another—it may be a romantic relationship or a job promotion or a financial goal or an academic degree or the completion of a long term project—we continue looking for something to make the long harrowing journey worthwhile.
On the anthemic second track of U2’s Grammy winning 1987 album The Joshua Tree, Bono expresses this:
“I have climbed the highest mountains
I have run through the fields
Only to be with you
Only to be with you
I have run, I have crawled
I have scaled these city walls
These city walls
Only to be with you
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”
(From the song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”).
What are you looking for?
The magi finally found what they were looking for, or rather Whom they were looking for. After arriving in Jerusalem and then being sent to Bethlehem by Herod, the magi saw that the star they had been following for all those miles had stopped—and as Matthew tells us, “they were overwhelmed with joy” (2:10).
The magi suddenly realized that in spite of the voices that had been singing in their ears, telling them that their long harrowing journey was “all folly,” their journey was not folly at all, but had led them to the One they had been looking for—as the Church Father John Chrysostom beautifully wrote sixteen centuries ago:
“The star, when it stood over the child, held still. This itself demonstrates a power greater than any star: first to hide itself, then to appear, then to stand still. From this all who beheld were encouraged to believe. This is why the magi rejoiced. They found what they were seeking. They had proved to be messengers of truth. Their long journey was not without fruit. Their longing for the Anointed One was fulfilled” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Matthew 1-13, 27).
And Matthew records how these Babylonian magi who were “overwhelmed with joy” responded: “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” (2:11).
The Gentile Babylonian magi worshipped the newborn king of the Jews.
And the gifts they presented reflected both Who this baby was and what he had come to earth to do. Gold was a gift fit for a king—and Jesus would prove to be not only the king of the Jews, but the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Frankincense was used by priests in making sacrifice to God, and this baby would prove to be the Great High Priest whose sacrifice of himself would reconcile all people—Jews and Gentiles—to God. Myrrh was used for embalming the dead, and reveals that this newborn king was born to die.
Back to T. S. Eliot…he concludes Journey of the Magi referring not just to the birth of Jesus, but his death as well:
“All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a birth certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.”
The reality is that in our lives, regardless of what star you follow, regardless of what romantic relationship or job promotion or financial goal or academic degree or completion of a long term project you are pursuing, even if you think you have found what you are looking for, you will still remain “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.”
That’s the bad news…but the good news is that the gospel is not about finding what you have been looking for, but rather about being found by the One Who has been looking for you.
For the newborn king of the Jews whose head was gently caressed by Mary, some three decades later would be nailed to a cross, with a crown of thorns upon his same head, with a sign posted above his same head: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37).
Jesus made the long harrowing journey of his incarnation and passion for you.
Jesus climbed the highest mountains for you.
Jesus ran through the fields for you …“only to be with you, only to be with you.”
One more illustration…in 1872 Christina Rossetti wrote a moving poem about all of this that was later put to music and became a well-known Christmas hymn. It both captures today’s gospel reading, and reveals how we can respond:
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.
Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what can I give Him? Give my heart.
While some people may dismiss the gospel as “all folly,” my prayer for you is that the reality of the love of Jesus will reach your heart, and that, like the magi, you will find yourself “overwhelmed with joy.”