Manger Scene: Wise Men

Matthew 2:1-12

As we place the next-to-last figures around the manger scene, I need to teach you two things.  The first is that – as idyllic as our manger scene looks – all these people weren’t actually there at the same time.  When Matthew tells us about the wise men, he says they visited Mary and Joseph and their new baby in a house – not a manger.

Manger Scene Wise Men

But we usually think of them all together, don’t we?  Maybe that’s not so wrong; Matthew and Luke tell us they were all involved in Jesus’ birth.  And they do make a pretty nice set.

There’s something interesting about their togetherness, though, that’s worth more careful consideration.

That leads me to the second thing I want to teach you today.  I want to teach you a song.  From Sesame Street.  Because so many good life lessons come from Big Bird and the gang, and this one will help us as we think about these wise men.

With this particular song, Big Bird might stand in front of a table of items – bowls of bird seed, maybe – and sing…

And we kids watching at home deduce that the really big bowl of bird seed is different from the moderately-sized bowls.  Not hard, right?

We can play that same game with our manger scene today, because today we’ve added new characters that are… different.

We started with Joseph – an ordinary Jewish man.  Then we added Mary – an ordinary Jewish woman.  Then came the shepherds – ordinary, Jewish blue-collar workers.

Today we add… the Wise Men.

One of these things is not like the others;

Which one is different, do you know?

Can you tell which thing is not like the others?

I’ll tell you if it is so!

It’s possible that the wise men don’t stand out to you as clearly as a really big bowl of bird seed.  So let’s see what might make these newcomers to the manger scene different.

First – they’re “wise men.”  In Greek that’s magi, which is a name some first-century nations used for people like teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, interpreters of dreams, and… wise men.  Warren Carter calls them “priests who have access to centers of power,” people who were known for “destabilizing power with threatening predictions.”  Craddock and Boring say they were “experts” in their field.

Mary and Joseph and the shepherds were ordinary… but the wise men were extraordinary.

Next we’re told that they came “from the East,” with a capital E.  Warren Carter thinks they were maybe from Parthia, Rome’s enemy.  Craddock and Boring say they’re from Persia or Babylonia.  Whichever one it was, they were most certainly from a place to the right of Israel on a map.

Mary and Joseph and the shepherds were Israelites… but the wise men were Gentiles – non-Jews.

And how did they get to Jerusalem, and ultimately, Bethlehem?  By following a star, that’s how.  Magi were “experts in the occult arts such as astrology and the interpretation of dreams,” say Craddock and Boring.  They were astrologers.

Mary and Joseph and the shepherds were Jewish.  They got their direction from the Torah and the Temple… but the wise men found direction in the stars.

So:

One of these things is not like the others;

Which one is different, do you know?

Can you tell which thing is not like the others?

I’ll tell you if it is so!

Is it obvious now?  Everyone else is a local, everyone else is Jewish, everyone else is ordinary…  The wise men are from the East, astrologers, and exceptional people.

Why are they there?

I’ll tell you why:  because Jesus Christ came to invite all people, even the one that’s not like the others.   Ordinary and extraordinary, natives and newcomers, Jewish and non-Jewish… all.

Isn’t that great?!  ALL people are welcome at this manger!  I mean, who wouldn’t like that?

Me.  Sometimes I don’t like that.  And I bet sometimes you don’t, either.

When “all” means that *I* am included, then I love it!  But the vast majority of “all” is other people.  Other people who are different than me.  At that point, things get tricky.

The wise men weren’t Jewish.  They didn’t have the Torah memorized.  They didn’t go to Temple every week.  They didn’t follow the Jewish laws.  All they did was figure out who and where the new “king of the Jews” was and show up to worship him.

This kind of “all” includes those who don’t practice their faith just the way I do.  That can be hard for me.  I’m a pastor, and I’ve done a lot of studying and thinking about a particular way of following Jesus.  I’m pretty invested in my beliefs and practices.  The friends I’ve made from the other churches in Andrews help a lot – significantly, some sweet friends from a Jewish congregation.  When I think of all those friends, it’s much easier to remember that God sent a star to call wise men from another religion to worship the Christ child… just as God calls all people today.

The fact that the wise men weren’t from Israel tells us that they weren’t natives.  They hadn’t even moved there at a young age and lived there for most of their lives.  They were outsiders, foreigners.

It’s like the wise men were… Floridians.

[At this point, you need to know two things.  One, I live in the mountains of North Carolina, where a number of seasonal and retired residents come from Florida.  The other is that *I* am from Florida… so now you get the joke. 🙂 ]

But around here (I hope) we have learned to accept those of us who come from the sunshine state.  More difficult is to remember that the “all” that Jesus came for includes those from other countries, even middle-eastern countries like the original wise men.

Last but not least, the wise men were extraordinary… and this makes them hard for me to love.  I like the underdogs, the little guys.  I want to see Appalachian State upset Michigan, or better yet, Andrews upset Murphy.  I’m for Mary and Joseph and those ruffian shepherds.  Look at the wise men, all dressed in their regalia and bringing fancy gifts…  Who do they think they are?

But all means all, friends.  “All” means that Jesus came to invite extraordinary people, too.  Jesus came for the rich and famous, the super-smart and the successful.  I can be tempted to judge them, to resent them for all their extraordinariness…

But Jesus Christ came inviting all people to the manger.  “All” as in, “For God so loved the world, that he sent his only begotten son…” (John 3:16).

It doesn’t matter if you’re a genius or an average joe; it doesn’t matter if you’re from North Carolina or Florida or Iraq; it doesn’t matter if you’re a United Methodist or a Catholic or a Seventh-Day Adventist…  There is a place for you at this manger.

So, let’s ask ourselves again:

One of these things is not like the others;

Which one is different, do you know?

Can you tell which thing is not like the others?

  I’ll tell you if it is so!

Which part of the manger scene doesn’t belong?

None.  The right answer is, “None.”  The wise men may be from another country and another religion and another social status… but through Christ, they are like the others.

May the Christ child make our hearts more like the manger – open to all.  May Christ shine through our hearts like a star others can follow .  May all – ALL – come to know Christ’s love for them through us.

Amen.

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