Journey of the Magi c.1894 oil on canvas Tissot, James Jacques Joseph 1836-1902 Minneapolis Institute of Arts MN USA.sermon Caitlin Trussell

Majestic Magi Priests Subvert a King’s Cruelty [OR An Epiphany Sermon: Celebrating the “Wise Men” Beyond Nativity Sets and Christmas Pageants]

**sermon art: Journey of the Magi c.1894, oil on canvas, Jacques Josepha “James” Tissot, 1836-1902, Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 7, 2024

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Matthew 2:1-12 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “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.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6‘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.’ ”
7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then 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.” 9When 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. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On 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. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

[sermon begins]

The promise of Christmas, of good news of great joy for all people, of a light that shines in the darkness and cannot be overcome, is eclipsed ever so slightly by the celebration of Epiphany today.[1] Epiphany is a celebration of divine light that reveals Jesus and who God is through Jesus.[2] We move from a baby in a manger to a toddler on his mother’s lap. We move from shepherds, angels, and animals to magnificent Magi priests from the east.[3] Oh sure, our nativity scenes and Christmas pageants compress time and include the Magi in the birth story. That makes sense. The Magi following a star and worshiping the toddler Jesus embody the Christmas promise. Jesus is such good news of great joy for all people that even the Magi came to see the good news for themselves.

Magi is the Greek word for the people named wise men in our gospel reading. These Magi are likely from what is now western Iran but what used to be called Babylon in the Persian empire thousands of years ago. The Magi were from a tradition that read the stars and interpreted dreams. They were from the place where the Jews had been held in exile hundreds of years before Jesus, until King Cyrus of Persia freed them and sent them back to Jerusalem. The Magi came from a place with their own history and their own religious practices. When they saw Jesus’ star at its rising, the King of the Jews’ star, the time had come to bring him gifts and pay him homage.

Consistent with Jesus’ story even before birth, the good news of great joy for all people was now revealed to the unlikeliest people – stargazers and dreamers from the land that once held Jews captive. The Magi enter the story and continue to teach us what God may be up to in this special birth.

The twelve days of Christmas are over, and we pause on Epiphany to remember the Magi, even celebrate them. We’re so used to their story it’s fun to remember how crazy it is. The exotic Magi priests from the east followed a star and showed up in Jerusalem asking about the King of the Jews which “frightened [King Herod] and all of Jerusalem with him.” King Herod, not the last politician to play at being religious, called for the Magi to hear their story and then asked that they report back to him so he could also pay homage to the child king – a lie with a deadly goal. This is the same King Herod who, not too much later, unleashed a murderous rampage on Bethlehem that killed all the boys under the age of 2 years old.[4] He was a scared, cruel king who did scary, cruel things. Thankfully, the Magi escaped his clutches. This is no bedtime story.

The Magi’s story is a subversive one. They are a good reminder that God is interested in people outside of our in-group – sometimes calling them by the stars. The Magi give gifts and pay homage to a toddler Jesus whose mother sang about a God who topples tyrants and feeds the hungry, a God whose mercy is known across generations.[5] This God’s radical grace and expansive love revealed in Jesus was seen as a threat. The Magi’s gifts to Jesus drew their loyalty to him, so much so that they are willing to risk death by avoiding King Herod on their way out of Bethlehem.[6]

Unfortunately, the upcoming national election in 2024 cannot be similarly avoided. Although the election has nothing on the drama that played out between Jesus, Herod, and the Magi, it’s setting up to be a doozy. Yet the Magi’s story gives us a place to begin our thinking and engage our faith before we get drawn into the ugliness of what’s to come, before we get scared and become cruel without even realizing that we’re doing it. In just a few short chapters after the Magi’s story, an adult, likely bearded, Jesus teaches his disciples about being merciful peacemakers.[7] Not glossing over issues of justice but encouraging them to “hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

In the spirit of being claimed by the light of Christ this Epiphany while avoiding the trap of Christian Nationalism, 60+ ministry is hosting a four-week series for all adults called Coffee Talk: Examining Faith and Citizenship. The details are in your Announcement Page this morning. Like the Magi, we could wait for directions to come in a dream but it’s good to have a daytime, in-person option just in case.

Another opportunity to see what God may be up to in Jesus comes next Sunday during worship. Professor Harry Waters Jr., who parents Harry and Betty are members of our congregation, will preach part of a sermon from Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. in honor of his birthday. The full version is Baptist-preaching-long, so Professor Waters has taken great care to distill it into the main things. Reverend King spoke and preached often about racial equality, care for the poor, and non-violence. He prioritized nonviolence to subvert scary, cruel systems and create change for black folks and so that we may all be free from the bondage of racism’s sin. He preached from Augustana’s sanctuary pulpit during Holy Week in 1962. Professor Waters’ time with us includes a class between worship services to lead us in wrestling with Reverend King’s faith and theology and our own.

Our faith is a gift, perhaps a fragile one today for you. Is it any wonder that faith can be a struggle with so much suffering and violence in the world, not the least of which centers around modern-day Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and the Holy Land. Pausing to celebrate Epiphany allows our faith to keep time differently because of who God continues to be despite our doubts and questions in the face of horrific violence. The Magi help us do so as they embody more than the sweet scenes in our nativities and the glittery golden bottles carried by children in Christmas pageants. They subverted the power of a tyrant king, buying time for a small, holy child to grow up and shine light on more than anyone bargained for. A child who lived, died, and resurrected as good news of great joy for all the people. Alleluia and amen.


[1] Luke 2:10-11 and John 1:1-5, 14.

[2] Karoline Lewis, Professor of Preaching, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave podcast for worship readings on January 7, 2024.

[3] Scholars think that they were Zoroastrian priests from Persia located in what is now modern-day Iran.

[4] Matthew 2:16-18 Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.

[5] Luke 2:46-55 Mary’s Magnificat

[6] Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave podcast for worship readings on January 7, 2024.

[7] Matthew 5:1-12 Read the full list of Jesus’ beatitudes here.