When this time of year comes around and I start reading the early gospel accounts of Christ’s birth and early ministry I am taken aback by the incredible cast of characters there are in all four gospels. Note here, I am not referring to characters as if they were actors in a play because they obviously were real people! But if you were introducing these people to friends unfamiliar with them, don’t you think they would sound and look quirky?

A couple well advanced in age having children, the virgin who finds herself pregnant too, not to mention her betrothed who hasn’t a clue what’s going on until an angel comes to him in a dream. That’s a conversation for a cocktail party is it not?   Then, there’s another old couple standing guard in their temple – praying and looking for the “Consolation” and “Redemption” of their people, and let’s not forget the wild looking prophet who ate bugs and wore camel hair. Then the angel appears to the least likely people (but really aren’t they all?) –  shepherds who were outliers to their neighbors; and then we come to the story I want to explore this week: The Magi, the wise men, the men from the East.

It seems odd that Matthew of all people would have included a story about pagan travelers. Matthew’s gospel is the most Jewish of the gospels, written primarily to a Jewish audience. This is unlike Mark’s gospel which was primarily written to Gentiles most probably in Rome; or Luke’s gospel which was written to Theophilus, or again John’s gospel also most probably written for a Gentile audience.

Matthew’s birth narrative is pretty brief, and it follows a genealogy which was designed to show the full lineage of Christ – all the way back to David and Abraham. This is more thorough than what you might find through ancestry.com!

And now the story begins! (Mat. 2:1-12). I have to admit, my appreciation for this story in part comes from a poem T. S. Eliot wrote – the first poem published after his conversion to Christ. It’s called The Journey of the Magi, and I am including it in this post.

In the story that we read in Matthew there is no mention of how many of these wise men were who traveled to Judea. We know only that they went expecting to find royalty. So they went to the present king, Herod, and asked him for directions to the birthplace of the newborn King of the Jews. (Now mind you, they had been following a star, but nevertheless they went to Herod as soon as they entered Jerusalem!) This obviously freaked Herod out and as a result, the whole city of Jerusalem was also in uproar. Herod questioned them about their source, and they quoted to him from his own scriptures, Micah 5:2 – “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” Herod then summons them, pretending he wants the child’s location so that he too might go and worship him. They leave him, and continue on their journey, arriving by the light of the star to the place where Jesus lay – and I love this –

They rejoiced exceedingly with great joy!

Matthew 2:10

Can’t get much more joy there.

All good stories have a purpose and a meaning that crosses lines – generational, cultural, and time. And the story of these pagan philosophers reveals just how far the kingdom of God will reach. Matthew, our devout Jewish storyteller, tells the world that the Messiah will open his arms not only to his people, but to the rest of the world as well. I’m reminded of the compline prayer, known as the Nunc Dimittis, which is the prayer of Simeon after his blessing of Jesus. “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the sight of all people, to be a light to enlighten the Gentiles (nations) and to be the glory of your people, Israel.”

In Eliot’s poem the first lines are so compelling to me, – “a cold coming we had of it, just the worst time of the year for a journey, and such a long journey.” They’ve left the far country – albeit it their home – but they’ve set out to find the One, the only One who can truly reign as God meant for rulers to reign. As the journey continues, they find themselves in a temperate place, warm, smelling of vegetation. And they pass “three trees on the low sky.” The far country from which they came, cold and bitter, has been left behind, and has become a path of new life and fertile growth.

We know someone else who left the far country. Remember the son in the story about riches and waste, family, and pigs? He left home, to find a home (where he fit in, where he was free!) but found himself cold, hungry, and lonely. He, like our pagans, left that far country and started his journey home. In Eliot’s poem, at the end, he writes that the wise men returned to their kingdoms, but now without peace or ease – only wishing for death – but what kind of death? Eliot hints that the death they now seek is a death to their extravagances, their impoverished riches.  And who was the prodigal in the son’s story? Who was reckless and immeasurably generous?  It was of course, the Father, as it was the Christ in our story from Matthew. God is always the extravagant lover. He is always the one seeking, leaving the safety of his heavenly kingdom to bring to us “great tidings of comfort and joy.

The words of the writer of Hebrews comes to mind here – chapter 11 – the hall of fame for those of faith. All the writer speaks about here are those who left the safety of “home” but who did not receive their full inheritance. But that didn’t matter – for

If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

Hebrews 11:13-16

So, in our own travels from the far country – the place of exile, or dis-location, what have we left behind? and what do we bring to the One who welcomes us with lavish goodness? I find that so many times I cling to that far country because it’s familiar, it’s known. But is it? I know that as I press forward turning homeward, the anxieties, or fears, or bitterness or scorn have no hold on me. And how could I not, how could we not – leave that far country and turn our faces toward the only real home we will ever hold onto?

One more thought – and it’s a quote from a novel written by one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Goudge. – “The love of God is with man…That Nicolas knew suddenly, is the news of the far country, the mystery like a nugget of gold that men travel so far to seek, the fact that is stated but not explained by all the pictures that have been painted and by all the music and poetry that has been written since the dawn of the world. It was as easy as that and as difficult.” In this quote, the far country for Nicolas was the journey home to God.

While our story stops here – Herod’s story does not. Read Mat. 2:16-18 to see what Herod’s terror leads him to do. Grapple with this account. Pray about it, take it in. It’s a far cry from, “the poor baby wakes, no crying he makes.” This is the kind of crucible that can shape our Christian formation.