December 16, 2018
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover 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.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.”
King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”
“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote:
‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
are not least among the rulers of Judah,
for a ruler will come from you
who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’”
Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared. Then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!”
After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.
* * * * *
We’ve heard this story so many times, I’d be willing to bet that most of us don’t even notice how strange it actually is. We simply accept it as a given, like our oddball family customs and diehard holiday traditions. This passage is so familiar we hardly even hear it any more. We’ve heard it a thousand times – not only in scripture, but in every pageant we’ve ever seen, with every nativity set we’ve ever set up, in all those beloved anthems we’ve heard and carols we’ve sung for all these years.
Of course wise men come from the East to worship Jesus.
Of course they follow a star.
Of course they bring gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.
We’ve been expecting them, these magi, along with the shepherds and angels, and everyone else who shows up that very first Christmas.
It’s hard to hear this scripture afresh when we already know it by heart; when it’s firmly lodged in our hearts. It’s hard to notice what’s eerie, and strange. So bear with me as I try to come at it by another way; and try to hear Matthew’s peculiar message on its own terms.
The thing is, each Gospel writer has a particular story to tell about Jesus, each with their own agenda in telling it. In Matthew’s case, he’s using these birth stories to set the stage for the whole book. Think of it as the prologue, or the prequel. These Christmas stories point us to the future of Jesus’ life, and ministry, and teachings, and eventually his death and resurrection. They set us up to ask questions: Who is this Jesus, and why did he come into the world? What is his life’s work, and why is there so much conflict? All of it is foreshadowed in these first two chapters of Matthew.
Which is why, by the way, I had us start with that long genealogy two weeks ago – God bless Janice for reading all that! - because that’s how Matthew begins. There’s a message in all those names, that long list of forbears, including those unlikely women – and the tinge of scandal that surrounds them. After that, Matthew gives us Joseph, dealing with Mary’s, um… condition, and his huge risk in standing beside her, in believing the angel, the dream. Then come these wise men seeking the king of the Jews – who have to consult with the current king, who is none to pleased to hear there’s a new rival. And it’s why next week, we’ll be hearing the end of the Prologue – the holy family’s flight into Egypt, running from Herod’s wrath. It’s the worst possible passage for right before Christmas, but it’s there; it’s how Matthew tells it. You rarely hear this in carols and anthems. Herod’s never been part of any pageant I’ve ever seen.
But he’s central to the story, in Matthew.
Herod the Great ruled the area of Palestine – home of Bethlehem and Nazareth – from 37 BC to about the time of Jesus’ birth. He was part of a family dynasty, one of six Herods mentioned in the New Testament, a family who held onto power for 150 years. They were puppets of the Roman government, but had plenty of power to do what they liked. We know, for instance, that Herod the Great was a firm Roman loyalist, and that he was “moody, cruel, and sometimes violent… [He] often imprisoned or executed even members of his own family.” Not unlike despots today. Some things don’t change. [Long, 17]
This is important to Matthew: that Jesus was born in the reign of King Herod. When the wise men approach this current King of the Jews and ask about the infant born to be King of the Jews, it seems as naïve as it could possibly be. How did they think he’d react? This infant is a usurper of the throne. This is a coup in the making. That people outside Herod’s own country have heard of it before he has makes it all the worse. That the religious leaders are ignorant makes him even more frightened. Matthew is clear: Herod has no intention of worshiping Jesus; he’s trying to trick the wise men into telling him where to find the baby so he can kill him.
This is what Matthew wants you to hear: Jesus’ life is under threat from the beginning. The cross is foreshadowed from the start. It is a hard word to hear, in this tender season, a season when we just want to celebrate family, and innocence, and generosity, and love.
But Matthew insists that we see the hard truth about the evil that exists in the world, this world Jesus comes into, with forces at work we would rather not see… rulers who cling to their power; religious leaders who cow-tow to their wishes; ordinary people caught in the currents of forces beyond their control, at the mercy of others, where even children’s lives are in danger. “Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod,” Matthew writes. “During the reign of King Herod,” we hear, and the picture snaps into place. The sweetness of tenderhearted Hallmark movies dissolves, and news headlines come blaring in.
And yet… this is such a gift. Such a gift. Our faith in our Savior isn’t ever about pretending that all is right with the world. Our Savior comes precisely because this world needs him. It isn’t in spite of the Herods in the world, it’s because of them. This is why Jesus is born. Because God is greater than any power to hurt or destroy.
And if there is King Herod with his minions, his lackeys, and yes-men, there are also these magi, come from afar. There are wise ones in this world; willing to watch for signs, and to follow. They are not afraid. They will do what it takes to find him, and worship. It is worth it. It is worth it.
These wise ones do not worship at the feet of power, but only the One sent by God.
They aren’t intimidated by the political machinations of the local regime, but choose to follow God’s sign.
These foreigners, who know nothing of this God of the Hebrews, listen to the words of the Prophets, and go…
Until they find the place where the child is… and they enter the house… and they see the child, with his mother, Mary, and they – these erudite, learned, esteemed men – they bow down, and worship.
And they are radiant with joy.
They know what really matters in this world…
And what is worth seeking…
And what is worth worshiping….
And they are willing to give what is precious.
Jesus came into a world filled with tensions – between those who seek wisdom, and those who would cling to power; between those who are willing to risk, and those who will not venture out; between those willing to humble themselves, and give what they have, and those who cannot.
Matthew sets up this tension – and then invites us…
to follow the magi,
who follow the star,
who follow a Savior for the world.