The Magi

This sermon series I will attempt some Christian Midrash. Midrash is a Jewish practice of telling stories as commentary to deepen the experience of scripture or to fill in some gaps. It’s a theological and creative endeavor. I have made up the following story in an attempt to inspire your own theological imagination. In writing this, I tried to be like the fourth verse of “We Three Kings,” a way to connect the whole life of Christ with the story of the Magi.

Hello. My name is Simon. You might know me as one of the magi. Sometimes we’re called the three kings because of the gifts we gave the Christ child. We did give gold, frankincense and myrrh. And I had my two best friends with me. I’m thankful that Matthew recorded us showing up to find the Christ child and that it has made scripture. Yet that was just a snapshot, as you say. The story starts much earlier.

Magi is short for magicians. We were very well off in the cosmic arts, as we also did healing, fortune reading, astrology and more. It takes a lot of training. I was apprenticing under Asim, the great Egyptian magi.

There’s a lot of study. Not all of it exciting. It’s mainly sitting in dusty rooms in libraries, memorizing star charts and constellations and the meaning and stories behind them. You have to know when Mercury goes into retrograde, memorize the lunar cycles, and go to a lot of conferences with bad coffee.

It was at a conference where I met my two best friends, Alsop from Babylon and Ming from the Han Dynasty. We were all apprentices at that time, and we would meet and gossip about our masters, as the youth do, and as our own apprentices surely did with us. We bonded as our masters met a lot and consulted with each other.

We struck up a correspondence to talk star charts, fortune readings, and yes, the latest outrage about our masters. Around 8 B.C.E. we noticed a new star rising. It wasn’t an orbiting star, like the one you call Halley’s Comet or any others we have recorded. This was new. Yet each of us, Alsop in Babylon, what you call modern Iraq, and Ming from the Han Dynasty, what you call modern China, all noticed it around the same time. We saw it would reach its apex in 2 years, around 6 BCE. This seems to be a start associated with the rising of a great ruler or king or emperor. This star meant the birth of a significant leader in history, according to our charts.

We conferred and consulted, and word grew about this astronomical event. We decided to meet where we thought the apex would be, in Palestine. The great cross-roads of the empires! There is a particular tribe of people there. They were conquered by the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and now Romans. Yet they wouldn’t give up their belief in a single god. I mean, if my old gods had been defeated that many times by others, I would have left them and gotten a stronger god. That was my old way of thinking,[1] but I don’t want to get too ahead of myself.

The star led us to Palestine, in the province of Syria when Quirinius was governor. We made plans to meet at Herod the Great’s palace. Maybe he was expecting a child. We thought to check there.

I started about 6 months out. Alsop was about three months out. Ming had a much longer journey of a year to get to Jerusalem. And there were other magi who would meet us there, including the now famous Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. I had around 50 people in my entourage. Servants, cooks, bodyguards, and apprentices. And that’s just me! And my friends call me a minimalist. Most at more!

We showed up at Herod’s palace. This place was massive. I’m surprised that one could live in a house that big! My place in Cyrene has 10,00 square feet, but Herod’s palace. It was like four of my homes. It was a compound. Herod was indulgent and excessive. And this was his smaller palace. He had a summer home near Jericho he would frequent to escape the pressures of being with the “city rabble” as he called them.

Herod’s temple was even bigger than his palaces. Herod had expanded the Temple of his one God from 17 acres to 36 acres.[2] With expanding the temple so much, I guess his people looked the other way when it came to his personal excesses.

We arrived and camped outside the city and then asked of Herod’s house, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

Now the Jews don’t believe or value our work. In fact, there’s a line in their scriptures telling them not to believe in the stars, but only in their one God. In Deuteronomy 18:11-12 states, “Don’t try to learn what will happen in the future by talking to a fortuneteller or by going to a magician, a witch, or a sorcerer. Don’t let anyone try to put magic spells on other people. Don’t let any of your people become a medium or a wizard.”

We knew this was a risk showing up. They could throw us out or worse, kill us. We knew that Herod was close with the Romans, so we figured we had a shot.

The look on the servants’ face told us all we needed to know. Herod was not expecting another child. Yet we couldn’t just leave. We were called before King Herod, and we could tell he was frightened. He had also sent for his chief priests and all the scribes of his religion. We consulted with them and showed them the charts and they combed through their scriptures. Herod was no help. He’s the type that if it’s not about him, he doesn’t pay attention. In fact, I was talking to him and he fell asleep and woke up and started to talk about himself.[3] He did this two or three times.

Their scholars found a section in the Prophet Micah that the anointed one… one they called the Messiah. The military leader from the house of one of their former kings would free them from bondage would be born in Bethlehem, in the land of Judah. About a 5-day journey to the south. Herod sent us with his blessing and told us to send word when we found the baby. We agreed and set off. But as we traveled, Ming had his suspicions. He felt Herod was being shrewd and not playing straight with us. Herod had killed his other rivals. He would kill this one.

We spoke of Ming’s suspicion off and on, but we were more focused on finding this child who had been born. We consulted the charts and followed the star and figured out which house it was resting over.

Bethlehem was just a village. No walls or fortifications around it. It was very humble, back then.

We consulted some more and figured out the house and were filled with such anticipation. What are the odds that a baby would be in this house that we had  followed a star for months to find a humble house in a nowhere town in the backwaters of the Roman Empire? I felt like I was going to throw up knocking on that door. I forgot how many of us there were, Matthew must have, too; as he didn’t write down our number in his gospels. We were all in the moment.

Joseph answered the door, shocked at all of us in our strange garb and various shades of skin standing at his doorway. We asked if there was a child in the house. He led us to Mary and we were overwhelmed with joy!

We knelt down and paid the child homage. He was a months old at the time, maybe a year.

Then the parents told the most amazing story. How they had journeyed here for the census. How there was no room in any of their relatives’ places or at the local inn, so Mary had given birth in a barn and laid the child in the feeding trough, wrapped in bands of cloth to swaddle the child. This couple was tough and salt of the earth. None of the excess and grandness of Herod and his palaces or temple.

We talked for a good long time, talking of the star and of our charts and our crafts. Unlike Herod, they listened. You could tell they were trying to understand, but it was so far beyond them. Mary surprised us again. She talked of a visit by an angel. Joseph had a similar dream of what this child would do and who he would become.

She spoke of how even the shepherds came to visit after seeing a heavenly host of angels proclaiming this birth. I was floored. Moved to tears. As the census ended, a relative’s house had opened up and that’s where they were staying when we found them.

That is where my new faith was born. I mean, what are the odds that all of this could be true? It shook me. Something started to take root. We each were moved and offered gold, frankincense and myrrh. If this child was to be the anointed one, then let us give these expensive gifts of oil to anoint him.

As we began to leave, I offered them if they were ever in Egypt, to seek me out. I was my master’s favorite student and was left in charge of his house and academy in Egypt.

After our meeting, we magi all had the same dream. It seemed to echo what Ming had said. Herod was no good. He would kill this precious child and his wonderful parents. Who would act against such humble people?

We went home by another route. I bid my friends, Ming and Alsop goodbye. I could tell that the visit had impacted them, too. Differently than myself, however. They were convinced of their craft. I felt more uncertain. Yes, we had seen the star and found the house, but the story from the house. Angels? Shepherds? In the city of David. The prophecy of Emmanuel, God with us? Gods aren’t with us, they are indifferent at best. When they did pay attention, it was usually in a jealous fit. What God would be born to such a couple, in such a place?

I needed to know more. I bought all the Jewish holy books I could, and then I started to return home, but there on the road… I couldn’t believe it. There were Mary and Joseph! They were fleeing to Egypt to seek me out for Joseph had been warned about in a dream as well.

They stayed with me until Herod died. It was a wonderful three years. Mary and Joseph taught me the stories of their people. The wonders of their one God and their faith in their child and who he would become. That this God made everything. Most gods are in charge of one thing or another like war or wine or the like. But when their prophet Moses asked what this God controlled, God replied, “I am what I will be.”[4]

What was this god in charge of? All of this! Everything! And who were this God’s people? The lowly. The poor. Their prophets tell of Israel existing to bless all the nations. To be a nation of priests to bless the world. More peace. More love. Less war. Less prejudice and hatred between the peoples. I loved this. The radical inclusion of the God of the Jews. There was a welcome with Mary and Joseph. There was a love and a hope there that didn’t depend on circumstances. They were people who could endure.

Here I was surrounded by all my riches and books and students, and I was unhappy. Deeply so. I was so isolated and anxious. Constantly trying to read my horoscopes to lessen my anxiety of living. I tried so hard to figure out my fate, I found I had no faith, only anxiety.

How freeing it was to no longer consult charts every day. To just see what the day presented. To live in faith that the ground was created and would support me. That the air I breathed would be there, and I could trust it. That my own senses and brain could figure out my next right step. That I was loved and created to be here, not a stranger in a strange land.

Oh, how I wept with joy at the discovery of this newfound faith! I read and came to adopt their God as my God. I loved the promises. I loved the vision of the future. How we would care for the poor and the sick. How all nations would come together in peace and worship and take joy. How we would care for creation and not over farm the land, and even leave part of the harvest for the poor to take. This radical way of looking out for the neighbor, it changed my life.

I wept bitterly when the family made plans to return home. Jesus was walking and started to talk. What a smart child! You could see the intelligence from the start. There was a spark in the eyes. Most children would babble and make noise, but Jesus would listen and seem to be taking everything in. Watching you, but not in judgement, but in interest. Like he was in awe of what you were doing and taking it all in.

I told Mary and Joseph that I would visit in the years to come. It took longer than I had thought. It was some 30 years later when I sent word that I would meet them in Jerusalem. I had to close up shop and transfer the academy to one of my apprentices. I learned that Joseph had died, but I would meet with Mary and Jesus and they would show me my first Passover meal and teach me the ritual of the seder. Jesus was a rabbi and would welcome me into the Jewish faith! He even had his own disciples! Oh, I was so excited.

I was late coming into the city with the holiday traffic. I had missed the seder. It was early Friday and a parade was coming through. It was a man going to be crucified. They pulled me from the crowd to carry the cross for one of these enemies of the state. As I took the rugged wooden cross from this beaten and bloodied man, I heard my name. I looked up and locked eyes with Mary. She had aged, but it was her. And the man about to die… it was Jesus. The child I had sheltered and visited. Whose star I had seen at its rising.

You also know me as Simon of Cyrene. Matthew recorded me in his Gospel as well. Chapter 27, verse 32. What a reunion.

I won’t recount the details of that day. You can read Matthew’s words for yourself. It was horrible. That’s all I’ll say.

But then in three days, some women disciples came with word! They had gone to the tombs! Jesus wasn’t there! Men who were heading to Emmaus came back in a rush saying they too, had seen Jesus risen! A resurrection! While I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I trusted the witnesses. I didn’t need to see.[5] I had my faith and the sense of the Spirit of God at work in my everyday life.

My friends, everything Jesus stood for is true and can be trusted. You are loved. You aren’t strangers here on this earth. Joy is found in service, inclusion, and love. You were created in love. And so was everything else. Thank you for listening to my life’s story. It is my hope that my testimony emboldens your faith and lessens your anxiety. I hope that you find yourself full at home in this created world. I hope you know that you cannot jump over this world or all its hardships to get to God. We must love God through, in, with, and even because of the world.

This is what Jesus modeled. In his birth and first few years, love just poured from him. And in his last days, he didn’t return violence for the violence of the cross. Instead, grace and forgiveness. May you go and do likewise.

Works Cited

[1] This is also the thinking of many pagan cultures in antiquity according to Frank Frick, A Journey Through the Hebrew Scriptures, page 184.


[3] Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ describes Johnson as doing the same in Means of Ascent.

[4] Exodus 3:13-15

[5] See John 20:31-32

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