Jeremiah 31:7-14      Psalm 84             Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a             Matthew 2:1-12

Well, there they are.   The manger scene is complete.  If you haven’t helped decorate the church for Christmas before you may not realize this, but Baby Jesus doesn’t go into the creche until Christmas Eve, preferably after dark.  The Wise Men don’t get to the manger until around Epiphany -  that’s why they were all the way over here, in front of the pulpit , for two weeks.  The completion of the Nativity scene has to wait for events to unfold.  We’re a tiny bit early – Epiphany is January 6th, not January 5th - but it’s close.  The Wise Men have found the Baby.

 

Why in the world do we do it that way?  Why not just pitch the whole Nativity set when we get it out of the box?  Every Christmas, we mail cards in early December that have Baby Jesus on them, or feature a silhouette of the Wise Men trekking across a barren desert, following a Star.   Why hold out on them in the church?

 

Well, tradition for one thing.  But the real reason is to help us keep the story straight.  We wait because the waiting itself has meaning.

 

If you skip over Advent and go direct to Christmas the day after Thanksgiving, you miss all the waiting and watching for a Messiah to be born.   The Jews have been looking for the Messiah for about 5000 years, give or take a century or two, so they know about watching and waiting.   It’s been a long hard wait.  (Incidentally, some Jewish scholars claim that the Messiah must come by the 6000th year since creation, which they apparently reckon to be the Year 2240 in the Gregorian calendar.  So if they’re right, we have 220 years or less until the Messiah comes, though of course we Christians believe it already happened 2000 years ago and they missed it.)  Still, in Advent, we watch and wait for the coming of the Messiah, remembering too that Christ promised to come back.  

 

Well, that’s a reason to keep the Baby out of the crib until sundown on Christmas Eve.  But why don’t we put the Wise Men in the barnyard immediately?   Because that’s not the story we hear in the Bible, even if it’s the condensed version of a thousand Christmas pageants, complete with very young shepherds wearing fake beards, and short magi sporting bathrobes and paper crowns smeared with glitter. 

 

The story is this; a Baby was born in Bethlehem, and suddenly there was a star that the astrologers claimed shouldn’t be in the sky, so the magi, Eastern astrologers, set out from as far away as Persia to find the newborn King – because odd astronomical events were a means by which the gods told humans something big was happening.  At least that’s how the magi viewed them.   It was a portent - a new star meant a god was being born, or an apocalypse was coming or whatever, but a huge, lifechanging event would be heralded by signs in the night sky.   The magi followed the new star. 

 

This was not a simple commute, you know, to drop off the baby shower presents, grab a latte, and get home at a reasonable hour as you or I might do.  It was a mounted expedition.  Pack animals, tents, money, food, guards, gifts, and bribes to local warlords – all of that had to be arranged and carried along.  It took some time, likely weeks, to get it all together, then it took time to get it moving.  It took time to set up camp every night and to break camp the next day.    They did not set out from home that morning and end up in the stable at bedtime, as we tend to suggest in our pageants.  Instead, it was long, weary days of travel, enduring hardship with patience and waiting hopefully for another sign to appear.  I suspect they needed encouragement. It took them quite a while to get to Judea.

 

It took so long, in fact, that Herod had to question the magi when he heard of their arrival, questions concerning the timing and meaning of the star.   It was long enough that, when Herod realized the magi weren’t coming back after they found the baby, as he had ordered, that the execution of all Jewish boy babies age 2 or younger seemed like the right next step to Herod.  All little boys 2 and under slaughtered, just to be sure that the tiny, would-be King of the Jews was eliminated.  Although the magi showed up in the Bible right after the manger scene, creating the impression that the wise men were present in the stable, it may have taken them two years to get to Judea and find the baby. 


 It was a long hard wait traveling all that time, and it was dangerous.   It wasn’t safe to be on the roads where bandits lurked, and it surely wasn’t safe to cause Herod any concern about his future.  The magi were seeking the newborn King of the Jews… but there was already a King of the Jews, thank you very much, and Herod the King wasn’t about to share his throne with anybody, much less give it up for a child.  Bear in mind, Herod’s teenage sons Alexander and Aristobolus  became popular with the people - so Herod had them strangled to death.  He murdered his own two boys to keep them from challenging him for power.  Herod was ruthless, power hungry, and probably clinically insane.   Killing random Jewish babies was nothing. Killing astrologers from the East was nothing, too.   

 

But that raises a question – why astrologers from the East?  Yes, they saw the star, and old sailors can attest that you can follow or at least steer by stars, but does it seem peculiar to you, for them to travel a couple of years to try to find the new king of other people?  If they were Persian and sought the new Persian king, that would make sense.  What’s odd is that they were such outsiders – Gentiles –  practitioners of astrology which is condemned in various places around the Bible because the hated Babylonian oppressors practiced it so much -  and yet came looking for the King of the Jews.   The magi found Christ by an unusual process – studying the star.   They spent a couple years of their lives, working and waiting to find Him and they weren’t even Jewish; the Jewish priests and scribes that fawned on Herod missed Jesus entirely.  The Messiah would be a light for all the nations, saith Isaiah.  This is a hint that he spoke the truth.

 

There’s lot of waiting in this story.  And so we wait too, to add various characters to the Nativity scene every year.   

 

It’s a slow process, and in this world of instant-everything, it’s different and seems like strange tradition.  It’s good practice, though, because I’d be willing to bet there’s something in your life that you are waiting for too.   Not necessarily waiting by sitting around – the magi were waiting while they were on the march -  but waiting while still doing the work.  Taking care of business while you keep one eye on the sky, so to speak.

 

Have you spent time waiting for something important?  There are a lot of things to wait for – waiting to get out of school, waiting to get married, waiting for the kids to finish school, waiting until it’s time to retire.   Sometimes we wait for a child to be born, or we wait in misery for a family member’s suffering to end.  (Don’t feel guilty if you’ve ever struggled with waiting for the end with someone – none of us want our loved ones to suffer even though we also don’t want to say goodbye.)  It’s easy to believe, in theory, that God is working things out on His own timetable, and it’s our job to be faithful and ready.  It’s a lot harder when the delays come at a price.  To resist getting impatient or losing hope when things don’t work out soon enough. 

 

Waiting can sometimes be bitter and painful.  It has been for our Jewish brothers and sisters for around 5000 years.  It’s not much better for us, waiting on Christ to return in glory.

 

You see, waiting is another name for practicing faith.  Our waiting is a holy discipline, helping us learn to persist in adversity.   To trust in God, in good times and bad, when we can see the road ahead but most especially when we can’t.  We wait for the coming of the Messiah into the barnyard mess of our lives, illuminated in holy light from a star that not everyone can see and no one could predict. 

 

The manger scene is complete.  The baby is born and the magi have come, over long miles and through trials and tribulations, to worship Him, bring gifts, and pay Him homage.  Their waiting is over, but some of our waiting is yet to be done; we too wait in faith on the Lord. 

 

Thanks be to God, the Messiah has finally, FINALLY come – the Christ Child, the newborn King of the Jews.  

May we all worship Him, bring gifts, and pay Him homage. 

 

AMEN+++

© 2020 St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Connected Sound - Websites for the Barbershop Community