When I first read our Isaiah text today, I was taken aback. I had not remembered that Isaiah had predicted kings coming to the Messiah with gold and frankincense. I was thrilled to see the pairing of Isaiah and Matthew today, thinking of how wonderfully the Old and New Testaments’ stories were being woven together. And since Matthew is known for emphasizing the idea of Jesus being the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures, I thought we could not have a better invitation today than to “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.”
But the more I read this week, the more I realized that the math is not so simple. We do not simply get “Isaiah plus Matthew equals fulfillment.” In fact, the introduction of Isaiah 60 helps us see that Jesus’ story is much more complicated than Jesus’ story appears at first glance. Isaiah 60 is written about the city of Jerusalem. About 600 years before Jesus is born, the people of Israel return to Jerusalem after exile, to a ruined city. To these disheartened peoples, Isaiah writes this poem to encourage them and to predict the ways in which Jerusalem will return to Jerusalem’s former glory. The poet believes that Jerusalem will be a hub of international trade, becoming once again a prosperous, productive city where, “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
The wise men from the East in Matthew’s gospel likely knew of Isaiah 60.[i] They journey to Jerusalem because they know about this text, and they bring their gold, frankincense, and myrrh because Jerusalem is where they expect to find this king of peace and prosperity. But when they finally arrive to inquire of Herod about this new king, Herod panics. Herod runs to his own advisors, demanding an explanation of Isaiah 60, wanting to hear all about these multitudes of camels and these extravagant gifts. That is when the story takes a twist. According to Herod’s chief priests and scribes, Isaiah 60 is not where these wise men should be looking at all. Instead, the prophecy they seek comes from Micah 5, which says, “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.”[ii] Herod calls for the wise men, tells them the actual location of this new king, and the rest is history.
What is interesting in this switch within Matthew is the differences between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Jerusalem is the city that Isaiah promises will be the thriving, prosperous city – where the king of kings could easily make his home. And yet, Bethlehem is where the king actually appears. Not in the thriving, bustling, shiny city, but in a rural, dusty, unpretentious town. No one expects such a place for their king. They expect their king to live in the beautiful, prosperous city they have developed, not in some shabby town that does not hold the same prestige as their glorious, revitalized city.
I have been wondering in what ways we too might be like most of the characters in this story – expecting to find greatness in our lives in the obvious places as opposed to in the less likely places. I saw a news story the other day about how housing costs have finally started recovering and are on the rise. The commentator mentioned that although we had a long way to go before we are back to our pre-recession numbers, the increases are promising. The commentator’s observation made me wonder how much we as a people in this country are caught in looking backwards instead of wondering what can be our new reality. Yes, the recession has hurt and continues to hurt many people, sending more people into unemployment, to food pantries, and to government assistance. But in those supposed glory days before the economic downturn, many of us were spending more than we had, assuming lives we could not afford, and forgetting the poor in the process. In some ways our prosperity gave us permission to forget each other, and encouraged us to focus solely on ourselves. We got lost in the prosperity instead of finding the kind of people that God invites us to be.
What is interesting to me in our story from Matthew is the reaction of the wise men. They do not scoff at Herod’s insight. They do not hear about Bethlehem, and begin to ponder whether they really want to see this journey through or not. They, as learned intellectuals and powerful men, do not second-guess Herod’s new interpretation through Micah over Isaiah. Instead, “rather than hesitate or resist, they reorganize their wealth and learning, and reorient themselves and their lives around a baby with no credentials.”[iii] The funny thing is that Bethlehem is about nine miles south of Jerusalem. These men, who have done numerous calculations, a detailed study of prophecies, and have already made a long journey following a star, have missed their mark by nine miles. Though Herod shares the insight about Micah for personal gain, imagine how different the story would be had Herod’s chief priests and scribes not remembered Micah 5, let alone if the wise men had been too proud not to hear this fresh insight.
The response of the wise men is one of letting go of one’s own expectations and trusting that God continues to reveal truth that may not be congruent with what hard work and experience would lead one to anticipate. As one scholar explains, what the wise men learn is that the journey with God is “not about security and prosperity, but about vulnerability, neighborliness, generosity, a modest future with spears turned into pruning hooks and swords of plowshares.”[iv] The wise men show us that the truly wise are always willing to accept that God may reveal truth that is counter to anything else we know, but that is full of greatness and joy.
Our invitation today is an invitation into the same boldness of the wise men. Our invitation is to let the vulnerability of Micah disrupt the self-congratulation of Isaiah, realizing that although we might expect God to redeem us in the way we anticipate, granting us favor and privilege, we might instead experience that God redeems us through much more simple, humble ways. Our invitation is to be bold enough to keep journeying with God, even when we are presented with information that might steer our journey in a direction we never expected or desired. Our invitation is to remember that nine miles may not be a lot, but nine miles can be the difference between a manipulative, power-hungry king, and a humble, vulnerable king who can transform our lives into ones focused not on ourselves but on our neighbors and the greater good of all of us. The question for us, both as individuals and as a community of faith, is what dusty road have we been avoiding. The promise is that the dusty road will lead us to a connection with our Savior, who is so tremendous, that we too will drop everything and pay homage to our King. Amen.
[i] Walter Brueggemann, “Off by Nine Miles,” Christian Century, vol. 118, no. 35, December 19-26, 2001, 15.
[ii] Matthew 2.6
[iii] Brueggemann, 15.
[iv] Brueggemann, 15.