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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Matthew 2:1-12
“Strangers at the Manger”
January 5, 2014 - Epiphany Sunday

         O.K., so they weren’t really at the manger! The magi came later, not right after Jesus was born. As verse 11 tells us, the holy family had left their temporary shelter in a stable and were now living in a house. So, if you insist on the exact letter of what the text says, the title of my sermon is wrong. The wise men were not strangers at the manger.

         I recently read a Christmas message by another Bible scholar in town who seemed quite upset by the fact that we frequently depict the wise men showing up at the manger, whether in a children’s Christmas pageant or in a papier mache nativity scene. His point, rather an odd one for a Christmas talk, was that if we let little errors like this creep into our telling of the biblical story, we will be prone to let larger errors slide into our doctrine and theology. I don’t buy it.

         My guess is that many of you know perfectly well the later timing of the magi arrival. You may know it simply because you’ve read and been taught the Bible well. If you’ve been attending at Valley Covenant for awhile or anywhere the church year is observed, you know that Epiphany, when we specifically remember and talk about the wise men, happens twelve days after Christmas and that little gap reminds us how they came well after that first Christmas was over. We know the facts, but we let our art, be it drama or painting or plastic nativity decoration like we have by our front porch at home, speak the truth which surrounds and includes those facts.

         There is much speculation about just when the magi arrived. Herod wants to know the exact time the star of Jesus’ birth appeared in verse 7, because further down in verse 16 he will attempt to murder the boy by having killed all babies two years and younger in the vicinity of Bethlehem. You heard about that in the Gospel lesson last week. That suggests Jesus might have been somewhere between one and two when the magi visited, no longer a baby in the manger, but a toddler taking his first steps around the house.

         There is even more speculation about just when Jesus was born. Generally we understand that it had to have been at least a year or so before the spring of 4 B.C., which is when the Herod we’re reading about here died. So our calendar, which is supposed to begin with the birth of Christ, is actually a few years off. Many astronomers, Bible scholars, and other general nut cases have spent countless hours trying to connect the star with a comet, understand dates given by Josephus, and pinpoint, as Herod sought to do, the exact time when the Messiah arrived.

         That historical and astronomical speculation is all very interesting, but what is true for Jesus is also true for the magi. It’s not as important when they arrived as who they were. The time they arrived doesn’t mean much. Where they came from and where they were headed has a huge significance.

         In verse 1 Matthew uses the word I’ve been using, not “wise men,” but magi. We might call them “astrologers” today, because they looked for connections between movements of the stars and events on earth. But in those times there was no distinction between what we see as the “hard science” of astronomy and the soft superstitious practice of astrology. Ancient people in general watched the skies much more carefully than most of us because they believed what they saw there determined what happened down below.

         Psalm 72 as we read this morning, particularly verses 10 and 11, talks about kings from distant lands bowing before the anointed king of Israel, bringing him gifts. So tradition has turned these ancient gift-bearing astronomers into kings. And because they brought three gifts, we imagine that there were therefore three kings.

         Yet once again, what matters in the Psalm is what matters in Matthew. It’s where these travelers are from and where they are going. They were from “the East,” says verse 1. Favorite guesses, because of their interest in the stars, are Persia or Babylon, what we today would call Iran or Iraq. These were fairly exotic strangers in the little land of Judea.

         But foreigners weren’t totally strange in Jerusalem. They came and went in the capital city of that small province of Judea. It was not their foreignness which bothered Herod. It was their inquiry. When they showed up asking about “the child born king of the Jews,” word got to Herod quickly and upset him. He himself was not a Jew, not born to the royal lineage of David. So to hear that there might be someone claiming to be a more legitimate heir to the throne upon which he sat made him nervous.

         So, as we read, Herod got together his own “wise men,” the priests and scribes in verse 3, and asked them where this little “king” was supposed to show up. They seemed to have a quick answer. Bethlehem, where David was born, would be where David’s heir, the promised Messiah, would be born. And in verse 6 they gave him a rough quotation from Micah 5:2 to prove their point.

         Verse 8 tells us Herod then sent the magi off to the little village Bethlehem, about nine miles away. You can hear the cynical deception is his directions that they “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.” He’s already plotting how he will locate and destroy his baby rival.

         The next three verses have inspired many songs, like those we are singing today, and paintings of turbaned or crowned swarthy gentlemen kneeling around a baby or small child offering Him their precious gifts. Once again, the art and music and the Bible invite us to remember where they are from and where they have arrived. They are strangers, yet they came and found Jesus and gave Him whatever they had to give.

         Some Bible scholars think this tale of magi from the Orient is so bizarre, so outlandish, that Matthew had to have made it up to prove a point, to connect Jesus with Micah’s prophecy and with the Psalm we read and with our text from Isaiah 60 verse 3 which proclaims, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” But the magi are not a fairy story with a moral, because they fit.

         The magi fit perfectly at the manger and fit perfectly in the Gospel, because the whole story of Jesus is about strangers coming to Him and finding welcome, finding someone worth their worship, finding salvation. At the manger, literally and truly, we find strangers first in the form of shepherds, despised migrant workers, blessed by the announcement of the angels and coming to see their newborn Savior.

         Then all through the Gospels we see Jesus repeating those encounters with strangers, with people unexpected and unwelcome by others. There is the Samaritan woman at the well, a Roman centurion, a woman caught in the act of adultery, fishermen and lepers and widows. People from the edges or the outside of regular nice familiar networks of people’s lives and business all come to Jesus. They are strangers to most, but to Jesus they are beloved and welcomed children of God.

         Wherever you are from, whoever you are, however unlikely you imagine a relationship with Jesus to be, He is ready to welcome you, to receive the precious gifts that you have to give. Strangers were there from the beginning of the story to tell us, to show us that no one is too strange, too different, too far away to be loved and blessed by Jesus Christ.

         I think you know this too, just like you know the magi showed up later than the scene at the manger. You know that wherever Jesus is, strangers are welcome. That’s why you help us open up this place to strangers on cold nights. That’s why you helped Kay and Dan take Gospel greetings to India. That’s why you spend time discussing how to meet and show strangers the love of Jesus in a way that truly helps and blesses and welcomes them.

         So I will stand by my sermon title, even though it’s not literally true about the wise men. We are all strangers at the manger. We all come separated from God by our sins and our hurts and our fears. Yet there is a place there for us, just as there is for everyone on earth who will come.

         Jesus welcomes us, welcomes the strangers who come to worship Him, because He knew what it was like to be on the outside, to be poor and unknown. At birth His mother and her husband were far from their hometown. He was born homeless, He was born among people who had no idea who He was or what His life meant. He was a stranger. He was the first Stranger at the manger, in the manger.

         And towards the end of His Gospel, Matthew tells us in chapter 25 verse 35 that Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” That’s the good news. That’s the Gospel of the magi for us today. God the little Stranger welcomed these strange, foreign travelers and Jesus keeps welcoming all of us who even just feel strange and far from Him. And in His name, we keep welcoming Him as and in the strangers we meet, whether they live across the street, across town, or across the world.

         The manger is the place for strangers. It’s the place for strangers to meet, gathered around and worshipping the greatest Stranger of all. If you are new here today, a stranger in this gathering, welcome! You are in the right place. That’s who we all are, strangers come to bow down and offer ourselves to Jesus and receive His welcome and grace.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Last updated January 5, 2014