Three Men and a Baby
“Three Men and a Baby” 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, 2asking, ‘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.’ 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 “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.” ’
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then 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.’ 9When 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. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On 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. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Astronomers and astrologers keep odd hours. When the rest of the world is asleep, they are wide-awake, pouring over their charts and maps, staring off into space. What looks like a vast muddle of light against dark to the rest of us is a familiar map to one who studies the stars. They see repeating patterns and comforting images where we only see a confusing sweep of twinkling light.
They were used to being nighthawks, so of course they arrived at Bethlehem at some odd hour, drawing the night clerk out from the middle of a warm bed and a good dream. They gave vague answers to the innkeeper’s queries: how long would they be staying? What was their home address? Was the purpose of their trip business or pleasure? Which credit card they would be using?
They had come a long way for people who did not know exactly where they were going when they started out. To their friends and relations, it was debatable whether they were wise or foolish men, but most concluded that the three were foolish. Why would anyone leave a life that was comfortable and familiar, and follow their curiosity, to follow their hearts, to the ends of the earth? They were probably unaware that they were in good company. Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Ruth and many others before and since had left places and lives whose contours fit so nicely around them in order to strike out after an elusive God. The reasons for starting such journeys are many, but more often than not, curiosity is a motivating factor for these strange religious jaunts into the heart of night. Follow your curiosity, and who knows where you will end up.
It had started with curiosity with these three travelers, but in time it had become something much more. The whole meaning of their lives, the very purpose of the universe, the secret of existence seemed at stake.
One night, while pouring over their maps and pointing at the stars they had seen something out of the ordinary. They stared hard at the sky throughout the night until the faint edging of the dawn began to blend with the stars. What they saw made their hearts race. The planets Jupiter and Saturn were in close conjunction with one another in that portion of the sky known as “The Fishes.” In those ancient times, each star had a meaning. Everyone agreed that Jupiter meant “a ruler.” Saturn was considered the star of Palestine, and “the fishes” were associated with the last days. The stars spoke their own language, and they revealed things to those who had the eyes to see: a ruler for the last days was to be born in Palestine.
God was about to do something extraordinary, and these seekers didn’t want to miss it. They hired guides and camels and loaded up the necessary supplies for the long trip. And just in case they happened to be right, they took along some gifts fit for a king. They departed for an unknown destination for an unspecified amount of time. They were hungry for something that their safe, predictable lives did not provide.
The trail of stardust led them to some unexpected places. The three men glanced nervously at each other as they stood before Herod. They had not intended to have an audience with the King, but had only asked a few questions here and there of Herod’s associates. Had an heir recently been born to the king, we heard such a rumor? Was the king old? In good health? Innocuous questions, really. Questions any tourist might ask about the local monarch. But Herod was so paranoid that he had spies everywhere, and the words of the men had traveled back to the king and now they stood before him. Herod smiled at them. But they saw that the smile was false, that his eyes did not smile along with his lips. Herod waved his hands and servants appeared with food and drink for his honored guests. He wanted to know what they knew. Curious, really, that is all.
And the three travelers suddenly saw their own foolishness: one does not go to the seated king to ask who will depose him. Had Herod been a secure king, things might have turned out differently. But they saw the fear in Herod’s eyes, and they knew that his greed for power would lead only to destruction, and his fear to power and aggression.
And so they had talked their way out of Herod’s courts, making promises they knew they would not keep, bowing and scraping their way right out the door. But they did not realize just how dangerous Herod was until they found themselves standing just outside of a house in the middle of the night. Only a frightened fanatic would fear what the stargazers had discovered. And leaders afraid of their own shadows do desperate and dangerous things. Herod saw the world through post 9/11 eyes, everywhere he saw terror, conspiracy, threats to his security and power. But the wise ones found something else. They heard the soft singing of a mother as she soothed her infant son, a sound that stood out against the common night noises around them. Plain, ordinary, common sounds. Who would be afraid of a baby?
Later they would return to the stable, and instead of satisfying their curiosity once and for all, they found themselves more curious still. Had they misread their charts? They revisited their calculations and spent several more days reviewing their maps and their journey before presenting themselves to Mary and Joseph. No, they all agreed. This is the place. What they discovered was this: Most journeys of faith do not end up where we think they will. So it was for the wise travelers.
They had been wishing on a star. Wishing for God knows what. But they discovered that their notion of the King to surpass all kings was not at all what they found. The one born under the proper sign was born in the heart of poverty and powerlessness. They came seeking power and might and instead found a child standing on fat little baby legs that wobbled as he took his first steps. If they could see into the future, they would see that this “king” would meet no one’s expectations. He would stand up in a synagogue where he grew up and read from a scroll and boldly declare that he is the one God has sent to provide release for the captives. People will shake their heads and say, no, you are not the one to do that for us.
He will stand eye to eye with the leaders and rulers of his day, an angry young man who confronts their rigid legalism. And they will say, all this talk about God’s love and mercy will not get us out of this jam with Rome; you are not the king we are waiting for.
This king is not what the wise men expect. He is not what we expect. We want a savior who will swoop and fix our lives and make it all better and instead we see a young man who stumbles as he tries to stand under the weight of the cross he carries on his back… staggering under the weight of our rejection. This baby king will surprise us all, for he is never what we expect.
In the cool of the early morning darkness the shadows make it difficult to see, but he stands there just outside the empty tomb. Alive, forever alive. It is not what we expect.
The wise seers stood for a long while just watching the family. The mother’s young face lit up as the baby gurgled his happy nonsense. And the epiphany startled them, for they saw holiness shining through the ordinary. How could they have known? Slowly, one by one, they took a step forward, awkwardly holding out their gifts. They had no idea that their gifts would be sold to finance their journey to Egypt where they would go to escape the rage of Herod. Had they known it was such a poor family they might have brought casseroles and diapers, vouchers for babysitting and a gift certificate for a spa treatment for the exhausted and sleep deprived mother. This is not what they expected. But as they see the child of hope and promise, they discover that this is what they were wishing for all along.
And the tragic sadness of this story is that even Herod, the king with a heart ruled by fear, would have been welcome to visit the baby. Herod and his bullies might have found their own hearts melted and softened by the way the mother cradled her young son in her arms, brushing the tufts of hair away from his sweaty forehead, singing him to sleep as if his life depended on it. Maybe something about this child’s vulnerability would have worked it way in through a tiny chink in Herod’s impervious armor, letting him know that such raw vulnerability is a strength, not a liability, in a human being.
And you? What do you expect, what are you looking for? Do you bring the eyes of Herod to the world: fearful, defensive, seeing threat or defeat all around you. Or do you bring the eyes of the wise seeker, able to be startled by the holy that is all around you. Are you able to look in the faces of your family, of your brothers and sisters in Christ, of your co-workers, of the person you pass in the street, of the world around you, and see the holy shinning through? Look carefully; God is all around us, just where we least expect to find God.