In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
These wise guys weren’t really so wise after all, at least when it came to navigation. Perhaps they were book smart, not street smart. These wise guys took their fancy gifts and their herd of camels to the wrong place.
They were nine miles off, to be exact. Instead of Bethlehem where Jesus was, they went to Jerusalem. Maybe their star navigational system hadn’t quite been calibrated correctly. Nine miles away seems pretty good to me if you’re navigating by heavenly bodies.
Or, maybe they had just been looking at the wrong scripture, the wrong prophecy. Especially if they were referencing Isaiah for navigational help. The prophet Isaiah pretty much exclusively spoke of how peace and prosperity would return to Jerusalem. If you were listening to him, you’d go to Jerusalem. Listen to what Isaiah prophesied, “A multitude of camels shall over you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.” And what place was he talking about? Jerusalem.
No fault to our foreign wise people then for showing up on their camels with their gifts to Jerusalem. But if they were looking for a King like Jesus to lavish their gifts upon, they must have been sorely disappointed in Herod.
To call Herod a not so nice guy would be an understatement. Herod had gotten the title of King from the Romans and it seems like the power went to his head. This Herod, for there are many in the bible, is the one with the unpleasant distinction of ordering all of those children to be killed in an effort to weed out Jesus.
I can’t imagine the chief priests and scribes to be particularly thrilled then when they received the summons of Herod to come and sort out this mystery of the magi. But diligently they came, and I assume with voices trembling they shared that just perhaps, these foreign Magi had referenced the wrong prophecy, sorry Isaiah. They needed to look again at what another prophet, Micah had said.
Micah’s prophecy looked toward Bethlehem, saying, “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
Route recalculated. Now the Magi and Herod both knew that this caravan needed to go just a bit further south to drop off their mostly kind gifts. (Because side note: don’t give myrrh to a child. It represents death, which is okay as a symbolic note referencing the future death and glory of Jesus on the cross, but not okay pretty much in any other circumstance.) Weird gifts and all, off they go.
And what a difference those nine miles mean. For me, it’s my morning commute. For Jesus, it’s the difference between being born in a place of power and a place of humility. To rule from Jerusalem would mean a reestablishment of urban power and privilege. To come from Bethlehem, well, that’s a clue that Jesus was gathering his followers from the margins. The coming reign of Christ was full of tax collectors, lepers, sinners, and, of all things, women.
Nine miles can make a difference.
This is the story the gospel of Matthew, the good news from God, repeats over and over again. Not a geographical shift of nine miles exactly, but a shift. A nudge. The promises of God are fulfilled again and again, but not in an expected way.
It’s like the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew, which might be easy to skip over because who wants to read lists of names. And it would be easy to skim if it followed the set pattern. But sneaky, sneaky Matthew tosses in a few extra names, like Rahab and Ruth. Suddenly it’s a genealogy that includes Gentiles and women, which is out of bounds from what would typically have been listed. Yet it’s still a fulfillment of this line from Abraham to David to Jesus, just with a little extra flair. A little nudge to the side.
Let’s not get too metaphorical, but what might need adjusted a bit in your life to find Jesus? Let’s recalculate a bit together, shall we?
I’m assuming you, like me, want to be nimble enough like these wise guys to make the jump from Jerusalem to Bethlehem when need be. Let’s not confuse Herod with Jesus. It’s worth a bit of extra travel to go see the real deal.
The Magi challenge me to not settle with good enough. They brought their gifts and camels and went to a city that was laden with prophecy and they found a king. Thank goodness they didn’t stop there.
Let’s commit to the spiritual practice of redirection. Let us trust that God sometimes needs to give us a nudge to get us back on track. What we’re looking for is just nine miles away.
**Many thanks to Walter Brueggeman’s commentary, “Off by Nine Miles,” from which many of this sermon’s insights are borrowed.