Text: Matthew 2:1-12 (RSV)
The Visit of the Wise Men
2 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, 2 “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet:
6 ‘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 govern my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; 8 and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 9 When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; 11 and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.
A French atheist told a farmer, “We’ll pull down every church steeple and destroy your superstitions.” “Perhaps,” replied the farmer, but you can’t help leaving us the stars.” (from Jesus: A Contemporary Walk with Jesus, by Mark Link, S.J.)
It appears that Joseph wasn’t the only person in our Christmas story to have dreams. The Magi were also warned about Herod in a dream, and took a different way home.
People of faith have always terrified the tyrants of the world. This is as true now as it was then – I think of that dramatic photo of that single unarmed man who stopped a tank in Tianmen Square just by standing in front of it and refusing to budge.
History is replete with examples of everyday people utterly confounding the powers of their day. And the most remarkable thing about it is that they have done so without firing a shot, without bloodshed, and without riots. They have done so just by the courage of the conviction their faith has given them. Mohandas K. Gandhi ended centuries of rule by the British Empire, the superpower of its day, by simply offering non-violent, passive resistance. Mary K. Slessor was a Scottish missionary to Nigeria whose work is amazing even today. She was able, just through the force of her personality, her determination, and her deep faith in Christ, to influence tribal chieftains to evangelize their people.
The three wise men – or magi – or kings, or whatever title you want to give them – were also people of faith. It takes, not just guts, but a lot of faith to leave your home and travel over hundreds of miles of trackless desert just on the strength of your belief that that star overhead means something and is leading you somewhere.
And when they show up at the court of King Herod, they strike terror into his heart.
“When King Herod heard this, he was frightened…”
When we think of the arrival of the Magi, we usually only think of the gifts they brought to the Christ Child. We think automatically of the carol we’re going to sing in a few minutes – “We Three Kings.” We think of the star that guided these wise men to that place where Jesus lay.
What we don’t think of is the upheaval that the arrival of those three strangers from a far country set in motion with that odd message. Once we take that into consideration, we can understand why King Herod was frightened by that message.
Now Herod had no idea at this point about the identity of this baby king, or about what this baby was going to grow up to do, and certainly nothing about the Cross. But it was enough for him to hear that this baby was born a king. He was a puppet king to begin with, a nobody who was chosen to sit on that throne in Jerusalem and do the bidding of his Roman masters. At any moment, the Romans could have removed him. It was in Herod’s best interests to maintain the uneasy status quo and keep the Romans happy. At the same time, he knew how unpopular he was with his own people. If ever there were a person who could be described as “being between a rock and a hard place,” it was Herod. So it’s no surprise that Herod was scared. As we read in the Gospel lesson, Herod set about immediately trying to wheedle out of the three wise men just who this king was and where he could be found. Not, of course, to pay him homage, as he said, but to make sure that he could be removed as a threat.
But it’s maybe a little less clear why today’s Gospel lesson tells us that “all of Jerusalem” was frightened, too. That gives us pause. What might that phrase mean?
It may be that everyone was frightened because what the Magi said was bound to cause some big changes. “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t,” as the proverb puts it. We all know that change is hard. Even small changes can upset our personal apple carts. Change makes us uneasy, even when we recognize that the changes we need to make are for our own good. We’re all familiar with Einstein’s observation that “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result each time is the definition of insanity.” Sticking to the status quo is familiar, comfortable, and easy. Change is the opposite of all of that.
But sometimes change comes upon us whether we like it or not, and we have to adapt. The change to the order of the world that Jesus brought happened, and there was no going back. The world has never been the same since. Frank Viola and Leonard Sweet write this about our King Jesus: “Look again at the babe from Bethlehem and see a King who was destined to redefine power, glory, and peace. And He would do it by subverting the kingdoms of this world by a cross – an instrument made of the same material that composed the manger into which he was born: wood. Even so, God’s glory was revealed not in the manger but on the cross. And therein lay His destiny.” (Jesus: A Theography, by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola, p. 71) For this Jesus was not just a king. He was – is – The King of Kings. His Kingdom has no borders, no restrictions, either on the physical map, or in the human heart. His kingdom takes in the entire universe and all of heaven, too.
Subverting the status quo certainly can bring with it all kinds of uncertainty. But as far as everybody else being nervous is concerned, hadn’t they all been pining away for just such a King to show up? Hadn’t they been praying for the Messiah to come for countless generations? The citizens of Jerusalem were no friends of the Romans, and certainly not of Herod. Since Jerusalem was the capitol city, they got to see the cruelty of Roman rule “up front, close, and personal” every single day. Executions for minor infractions, houses searched day or night whenever the Romans felt like showing these people who was boss, arrests of people who were just going about their daily business, prisoners executed in their local version of the Coliseum for entertainment, taxes heaped upon taxes – in short, all of the injustices and abuses of power that have been the stock in trade of thugs throughout history, up to and including the present day.
Be that as it may, they were scared. Yes, they had been praying for the Messiah for countless years, but, well, you’ve all heard the saying: “Be careful what you wish for – you might get it!” Just as the Gospel lesson says. They knew what was going on around them. They knew what had gone before, particularly what had happened with all their previous attempts to free themselves from whatever foreign power was oppressing them – they remembered the turmoil, the upheaval, the terror of those days. Many were reluctant to have a repeat of those times. It may be that that’s what had them so afraid.
Because what they didn’t know was how things would turn out if they got their hopes up and followed this king the Magi were here to find. What did it all mean? Could they be sure that this really was the Messiah? What would happen to them? Their friends? Their children?
We can see a connection here between those fearful people and ourselves. We do tend to stick with what we know and are used to, no matter how bad or unhealthy it might be for us.
That’s why New Year’s resolutions made on January 1st often don’t last until January 2nd! We, like the people of Jerusalem, give in to our fear and worry about the unknown future. And, at the same time, oddly enough, we become complacent, even indifferent. We say to ourselves, “well, things really aren’t that bad.” Even though they are. Or we’ll convince ourselves that it’s all bound to get better, even though we might not do anything about it ourselves. Rather than follow that star, we’re content to let someone else do it.
Yet there are times when we are called upon to “take the bull by the horns” and do what must be done.
Throughout the Bible, both in the Old Testament and the New, we read time and again of journeys. The journey of the Magi is just one of them. Abraham was told to rise up and leave his home and travel to an unknown land where God said He would make Abraham’s descendants as numberless as the stars in the heavens. Moses led his people on a long and arduous journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. Jesus Himself journeyed through the length and breadth of His country, proclaiming the Good News.
Life itself is a journey. Life is movement. Even the blood within us travels miles every day through our bloodstream, bringing oxygen and nutrients to our cells, keeping them alive. If our blood did not take that journey, we wouldn’t be around long.
But life is more than just a journey – it is a pilgrimage. We are not allowed to be spectators. Jesus calls us to act in faith, like the Magi.
Sisters and Brothers in Christ, we stand at the beginning of a new year. We will have our challenges and we will have our triumphs, our sorrows and our joys. As we set out on our pilgrimage we trust God will set our feet on the path we need to follow. We don’t know what will happen, but we do know that together we can be a positive and a powerful force for good in this world.
Let us also take up our crosses and follow the Star that leads us onward on God’s chosen path for us!
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.