First UMC Shelbyville
January 3, 2015
Matthew 2:1-12 (CEB)
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”
When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:
You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
because from you will come one who governs,
who will shepherd my people Israel.”
Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood 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 Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.
We think of this passage from Matthew as a story about three visitors from the East. The word for them in Latin was “magi,” plural of “magus.” Sometimes that’s translated as “wise men,” and sometimes – as in the Common English Bible, from which I read today – it’s not translated at all. The idea that they were kings is not mentioned in the Gospels. Matthew, in fact, is the only one of the Gospel writers who tells this story, and he uses the term “magi.” It was later Christian writers who called them kings, perhaps inspired by Old Testament prophecies of kings bowing before the Messiah. In fact, two of our other Lectionary passages today make reference to this. From Psalm 72:10-11 (CEB):
Let the kings of Tarshish and the islands bring tribute;
let the kings of Sheba and Seba present gifts.
Let all the kings bow down before him;
let all the nations serve him.
And from Isaiah 60:2-3 (CEB):
Though darkness covers the earth
and gloom the nations,
the Lord will shine upon you;
God’s glory will appear over you.
Nations will come to your light
and kings to your dawning radiance.
There have been various theories about exactly who the magi were. The commentator William Barclay quotes the historian Herodotus; Herodotus identified the magi as Medes. The Medes were part of the Persian empire. They tried to overthrow their Persian conquerors and failed, and the leaders of the Medes lost their ambition for military victory, according to this story, and just became priests and religious leaders. They not only served their own people but they became advisors to their conquerors, the Persians.
As you’ve heard many times, we don’t actually know how many of them there were. “We Three Kings” makes a nice song, but all we know is that there were three different gifts. Those gifts could have been given by two magi or by 10. But we like the idea of three people, each one holding a different gift, and so that’s what we put on the Christmas cards.
The magi, whomever they were, saw a star which they interpreted as a sign, an indicator of the birth of a new king and they traveled to Judea to try to find out about it. Billy Hix will have more to say about that star during his program next Sunday night; it’s a great program and I strongly encourage you to attend.
The star only leads them in a general direction, towards Judea, and so when they arrive in that country they went to its capital, Jerusalem, to check in with its current king.
That king was Herod – or, more specifically, Herod the Great. There was a story just a week or two ago at the Christianity Today website, by a seminary professor named Alexander Stewart, in which he makes reference to three different books that have been published about Herod the Great in the past two or three years.
Most of us just know about Herod from this Bible story. The king about whom Matthew writes in this story is Herod the Great. There’s another king named Herod, Herod Antipas, who is referred to elsewhere in the Gospels, during the adult ministries of Jesus and John the Baptist. Herod Antipas was one of the sons of Herod the Great.
Herod was not the king because he was descended from David. In fact, he wasn’t descended from the Jews at all. Herod was born about 73 B.C.E. His ancestry was Idumaean. The Idumaeans were known in the Old Testament as the Edomites. They had been conquered by the Jews in the second century B.C.E. and forced to convert to Judaism. So Herod was brought up as a Jew but was not truly of Jewish ancestry.
Herod the Great was King of the Jews because he’d been appointed to that post by the Romans. Julius Caesar had first appointed Herod’s father as procurator of Judea, and Herod was able to curry favor with a succession of Roman emperors and stay in power for 40 years.
By many earthly measures, Herod’s reign was a successful one. There’s a reason that he’s called “Herod the Great,” in comparison to his sons.
Herod expanded the temple in Jerusalem, and the Western Wall – a retaining wall which is one of the only remnants of that temple – is a must-see stop for tourists to Jerusalem. That western wall is part of what Herod built. He also built fortresses and seaports. His reign was a peaceful one. When there was famine, or hard times, he reduced taxes or even donated some of his own treasures to buy food for the people, something that few kings of that day or time would have done.
There was a famous saying about the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, that said, yes, he was a dictator, but at least he made the trains run on time. It turns out that statement is a bit of a hoax – yes, the Italian train system got a lot better during Mussolini’s lifetime, but most of that had to do with improvements made by the administration from before Mussolini came to power.
Herod was an efficient ruler; if there had been trains in Herod’s time, Herod would certainly have made them run on time. But he was also jealous, and ruthless with those whom he perceived as a threat. Herod ruled with an iron fist.
Given Herod’s paranoia, it’s not surprising that he was upset when the magi showed up with reports that a new king had been born. But what surprises me is the rest of verse 3: “When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him.”
Everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him?
What reason did the people of Jerusalem have to be troubled?
Herod was not well-loved by his people, and he knew it. When Herod was near death, he gave his officials a list of prominent citizens of Jerusalem, with the order that they were to be arrested, and whenever Herod died, those citizens were to be executed as well – so the people would not be inclined to rejoice at Herod’s passing. (Fortunately for the citizens of Jerusalem, this plan does not seem to have been carried out.)
Is that the reason the people of Jerusalem are troubled – because they’re afraid of how Herod will react to this threat? Are they afraid of being caught in the crossfire? Shouldn’t the promise of a new king be a sign of hope? Shouldn’t it give them reason to hope for redemption from the cruelty of Herod – and maybe even redemption from the Roman government which was the source of Herod’s power?
If anyone in Jerusalem was hopeful as a result of the magi’s visit, Matthew doesn’t tell us about them. He just says the people of Jerusalem were troubled, just as Herod was troubled.
We are often threatened and troubled by changes, even good ones. The prospect of a new king – a new regime – a new era – is a prospect full of questions. And we don’t like questions; we like certainty. Questions make us nervous. We want to be in control of our own fates, and changes remind us that we’re not.
The arrival of a new king would be a dramatic change, a change that could have profound effects, good or bad, for everyone in Jerusalem. Would he be a wise king or a foolish one? Herod derived his power from the Roman government, but perhaps a new king might try to challenge the Romans, to lead the people in revolt. Maybe such a revolt would be successful – but it might not be. And it could be bloody either way.
Or maybe Herod would try to end this new king’s reign before it began – perhaps that’s what the people were really concerned about. And if so, they had a right to be concerned. We know about the tragic action that Herod took in Bethlehem, killing all of the young boys under the age of two – an evil response from a ruthless and frightened man. Fortunately, Joseph had been warned to take his family to safety before Herod carried out this evil plan.
No one in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ birth could have possibly imagined what kind of king Jesus would turn out to be. Even the people who lived through his earthly ministry had trouble understanding what was going on and recognizing it as it happened. But the people of Jerusalem, hearing reports of a new king, could imagine enough possible outcomes to make them nervous. They were too busy imagining the worst to hope for the best.
The most troubling thing about our relationship with God isn’t going to church, or trying to do good, or confessing our sins. The most troubling thing about our relationship to God is that we have to give up control. The most troubling thing about true Christian faith is that it requires us to trust God, and often it requires us to reject the things that give us security. Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell everything he owned. He told Peter, Andrew, James and John to drop their nets and walk away from their livelihood as fishermen. He told a Pharisee named Saul to abandon his self-righteousness and the laws of Moses which had governed his life in order that Saul could become Paul, an evangelist to the Gentiles.
The Christmas season is a time of tradition and comfort, as we celebrate the arrival of a baby in a manger, someone who – it seems – cannot threaten us at all. But we cannot forget that this this baby is a king, a king who is destined to rule over us.
It’s interesting that while the people of Jerusalem were troubled by the arrival of their new king, the magi – who, according to most interpretations, were Gentiles and from another country – were celebrating. They, somehow, had a clearer view of the truth of what was happening. It reminds me a little of the story of the Roman centurion who asked Jesus to heal his daughter – a case where an outsider had a clearer understanding of who Jesus was, and how his kingdom worked, than Jesus’ own disciples had at the time.
The holiday which takes place on the Christian calendar this Wednesday, and which we’re celebrating a bit early this Sunday, is called “Epiphany.” That word has two common uses – one is as the name of this holiday, and the other is defined as “a moment in which you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way.”
The magi, despite the fact that they were pagans, if you will, from another country, another religion, another way of life, had an epiphany. They saw a star, and they knew somehow, through some revelation of God, that the star was the indication of a new age to come. And the magi knew enough to come in reverent adoration, bearing gifts, to honor this king. Despite what we see on Christmas cards, this visit did not take place on Christmas night. It was some time later, after Joseph and Mary had moved into a house. In the 11th verse of the passage I read earlier:
“They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
Herod saw Jesus as a threat. The people of Jerusalem saw Jesus as a question mark. Both were afraid of this infant king. But the magi saw this king as a new hope, a cause for devotion and celebration.
It’s easy for us to be excited during the advent season about the celebration of the baby Jesus. But what will happen when we realize that this little baby is our king? Will we welcome him to the throne, or will we be troubled? Will we be like Herod, and refuse to yield the throne to this new ruler?
What does it mean to make Jesus the king of our life? It means giving up control. We don’t like giving up control. We want to be the king. We want security. We want to rule with an iron fist.
Or sometimes we are like the people of Jerusalem – we sit around and worry, more concerned about our own safety and convenience than we are about God’s plan.
When we reserve the throne for Jesus, when we make Jesus the king of our lives, sometimes we have to step out in faith. Sometimes we have to do things that frighten us. Sometimes we have to love people who are difficult to love. Sometimes we have to change our priorities. Following the star – following the king whom the star represents — may mean traveling far from home and comfort, and it may mean changing your travel plans if God tells you to.
But it also leads to a sense of joy and wonder that Herod and the people of Jerusalem were, it seems, incapable of experiencing.
What would happen this year if each of us decided to follow God’s epiphanies rather than our own fears?