Last Sunday, we heard of the shepherds who visited the newborn son of Mary in the obscure village of Bethlehem. Today, we hear of the magi who come from afar to pay him homage. These familiar biblical Christmas stories that we hear during this holy season provide important lessons for us. They do so through the many unexpected events and characters. They hardly seem fit for a king, much less a god. It all begins with a poor young virgin who cannot possibly be with child, yet she indeed conceives a child within her. This child is then born after his parents endure a difficult journey to Bethlehem. The birth is subsequently announced by angels to the most ordinary of people, people on the fringe of society: shepherds. Finally, the only “important” people who recognize the newborn as a king are non-Jewish foreigners.
How is it that there are no Jewish leaders – no Sadducees, priests or scribes – present to greet the promised king? Surely, they must have been prepared for his arrival. After all, even the magi – wise men from afar – knew of the prophecy that he would be born in Bethlehem and would be announced by a star. Furthermore, why isn’t he born in a castle surrounded by servants and other royalty and important people? How can anyone believe that this is the birth of a king? If this child is truly the King of the Jews and their Messiah, his beginnings demonstrate that he is not going to be like any other king.
He is called the King of the Jews, their Messiah and Lord, but his importance seems to be much larger than simply the nation of Israel. This king is overlooked by the Jewish leaders but proclaimed by the simple shepherds and the magi. The king is born to a simple virgin but called the Son of God. The king is born in a cave or a barn, yet the visitors from afar bring lavish gifts. The king is praised by angels but hunted by Herod. This Jesus is turning the whole world upside down and he begins even as a newborn.
As we examine the characters in this chapter of Jesus’ life, it seems that all the wrong people are involved. None of these people would be considered important or worthy to the outside observer. It seems that this king has invited the poor and the outcast to his birth. How can King Herod be so afraid of a weak baby born into poverty and obscurity.
How do we understand the message for us now? When we come into the presence of the Lord, we can also feel unworthy. It is good for us to remember that even from the beginning Jesus has welcomed the outcast and the overlooked. If we doubt that Jesus loves or invites us, we simply need to recall the humble shepherds and the “unclean” magi who were the first to be summoned. This king is not judging by appearance or status. In Jesus we celebrate a king who is longing to save those who need his mercy. The gifts that he asks us to offer are our love and devotion to him.
And, just as the shepherds returned to their daily lives glorifying and praising God, we are called to praise and glorify God every day of our lives. In a moment, I will call up some from our midst who have been spending time delving ever more deeply into their relationship with Jesus as they engaged in faith studies with small groups of fellow parishioners. I will commission them to lead others to our Lord, just as the shepherds and the magi did, just as the first followers of Jesus did. Every generation is called to follow their example, to come to our Lord and lead others to him.