(a sermon for January 6, 2019, the Day of Epiphany, based on Matthew 2:1-12)
Today, as we’ve said before, is the Day of Epiphany, also known as “Twelfth Night” (or, the 12th Day of Christmas, as it were!), which celebrates the light of God that shone forth in Jesus Christ; and which according to Christian tradition, was the time when “wise men from the East” came seeking the Christ Child, bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
There’s no question that the “three kings” – or more accurately, the magi – loom large in in our text for this morning: their arrival at the manger, with all of its flourish and drama, plays like the grand finale of the nativity story; and even theologically speaking, the mere fact of the Magi’s presence in Matthew’s gospel, as brief as it is, says a great deal about how Christ was given as a light unto the nations as opposed to simply the people of Israel. So speaking as a preacher, I can vouch for the fact that there’s actually a great deal that can be said about these ancient and mysterious star followers; but all that said, I also must confess that this year as I’ve returned to this part of the Christmas story it’s seemed to me that before we can say much about the wise men, we really do have to say something about… King Herod.
That’s right; King Herod, also known as Herod the Great, the Roman appointed King of the Jews, a described by at least one commentator I came across this week as “the nastiest of all nasty kings.” Now, I should point out here that this not the same King Herod that figures in the story of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion; that was in fact the son of the King Herod in this story, actually part of a long line of Herods: Herod Antipater, Herod Antipas, Herod Archaelaus, and on and on! But, as pastor and author James C. Howell has pointed out, really, “Herod, Herod and Herod are the same guy. All were egotistical, insecure petty potentates, in bed with Romans and clueless about God.”
However, there’s a valid argument to be made that this Herod, who reigned at the time of Jesus’ birth, was the worst of the lot. Historians tell us that Herod was growing old and in his aging had become a mentally unstable tyrant who had also become so paranoid about his standing as king that “every whiff of palace intrigue and potential opposition threw him into a murderous rage,” (Thomas G. Long) so much so that Herod actually killed one of his wives, several of his own children (!) and other members of his family, all because he believed they were plotting to betray him! It’s said, in fact, that when Caesar Augustus heard what Herod had done to his own family, he said regarding Herod that he’d much rather “be his pig than his son.”
So… in the midst of all of this here come these “wise men from the East” (and the truth is we don’t know all that much about them, just that they were probably not kings in the traditional sense, but more likely philosophers and astrologers of the ancient world looking to the stars as the sign of something momentous and world-changing; something like the birth of a new King). Here they come; “traversing afar” across the desert sands, following that “star at its rising,” and yet where do they go to find out what’s happened? Not to Bethlehem – not yet, anyway – but right straight to Jerusalem and before “an aging, insane, and ruthless Herod, the King of the Jews,” so that they can ask about where they might find the new King of the Jews! I love what Thomas Long of Emory University has said about this; he writes that this “would be like going to the Kremlin in Russia and asking Vladimir Putin, ‘[Soooo….] where’s the new leader of Russia? [You see,] we’ve come to pay him homage.’” Needless to say, when Herod realized that these visitors from the East had come looking for a new king of the Jews and that his own reign of power was most certainly coming to an end, “it rattled [him] so badly that he shook like a leaf in the wind, and the whole city of Jerusalem trembled with him.”
Well, you know the story: ever the consummate politician, Herod sends the magi on their way with instructions to report back to him once they’d found the child so that, he said, “I may also go and pay him homage.” And armed with prophecies about the child’s birth given them by the chief priests and scribes, the magi followed the star to Bethlehem and found “the child with Mary his mother.” And of course, they’re “overwhelmed with joy” at this discovery and what it all meant – not only for Israel, but for all of the nations, even their own country far from Bethlehem – but once they’d knelt down with their gifts to pay him homage, something very interesting happens. The magi don’t, in fact, send word back to Jerusalem; but, in a twist that we sometimes tend to gloss over in our telling of this familiar story, Matthew tells us, “having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”
You see, one thing is for certain: once you’ve encountered Jesus, everything changes! I mean, we’ve seen this all through the Christmas story, have we not: Mary and Joseph, two impoverished teenagers, become the earthly parents of this “Son of the Most High,” (Luke 1:32); lowly shepherds run through the streets “glorifying and praising God” (2:20) for all that they’d seen and heard from the heavenly host; and now, after having had this collective dream that confirmed every bad feeling they’d had about their conversation with Herod “the Great,” these truly wise men decide that it’s not only prudent but the right thing to do to immediately change course and head back home by another way!
It’s true; once you’ve encountered Jesus, everything changes, and that includes how you deal with the Herods of this world! Because as I said before, to understand the place of the Magi in this story we have to understand who Herod was… and, yes, who Herod is. Quoting Thomas Long once again, “Herod represents everything in human beings and human history that is haughty, cruel, violent and vindictive.” Herod is the definitive reminder of everything that Jesus wasn’t; in that he was not born in the comfort and prestige of a palace, but rather in the silent simplicity of a stable far apart from the vestiges of riches and power; dwelling not among those who desperately cling to power by means of fear and cruelty, but rather among those whom Jesus would later call “blessed,” the ones who are “the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers… it is among these little ones where Jesus is truly to be found.”
This is what happened at the manger of Bethlehem, friends: where once there was darkness that could overcome the world, now there’s light; where division and hatred ruled the day now there’s a spirit of unity and love; hopelessness has at long last given way to , unending hope, and peace on earth: all of this and so much more because of this child “who has born king of the Jews.” If it seems as though everything this child is and represents stands in direct opposition to the world as we know it… you’re right! Because when you encounter Jesus, everything changes; life changes, the world changes, you change (!) and even your journey ahead changes… so much so that like those magi before us you’re compelled to go home by another way!
There is a painting by Leonardo DaVinci (actually one of his earlier works, created around 1481) entitled “A Study for the Adoration of the Magi.” I just sort of found this painting while in the midst of my study this week, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. What’s interesting about this work is not simply what’s in the foreground – Mary and Jesus, surrounded by the Magi all kneeling in adoration of the Holy Child – but also everything that makes up the backdrop of the scene; which, in stark contrast to the calm and quiet visage of a starlit manger, actually depicts something of a ravaged world, complete with ruined buildings, fighting horsemen, men quite obviously engaged in warfare, and a landscape that’s clearly jagged and rocky and in great need of repair. Apparently, there even looks to be something of a self-portrait of the young Leonardo, standing off to one side and yet surrounded by all this chaos and decay. I’m not great interpreter of art, friends, but for me the message of the painting is clear: that it’s precisely into this kind of a world, a world that is teeming with all manner of sin and death, that Jesus has come; and it’s why you and I stand in the need of a Savior.
Maybe for you this morning it’s not so much the “chaos and decay” of life and this world that surrounds you; maybe for you it’s found in the weight of all the sadness and grief that you’ve been carrying on your shoulders; or perhaps for you it’s in the relentless struggle to live life with purpose and a modicum of integrity; could be it’s in trying so hard to keep the faith even as the rest of the world spins increasingly out of control. I dare say that figuratively, literally and yes, even spiritually, there are more than a few King Herods out here that would smack us down given the slightest opportunity!
But here’s the good news, beloved… Christ is born and light – true and brilliant light – has come into the world! Jesus, who is the new King, the Messiah, the Lord (!), has come to us and now the world changes; and by his life-giving, sin-forgiving, hope-renewing word, so do we.
And lest that anyone of think that the time for bowing down at the manger has long since passed, the notion of paying homage to the new born king now to be stored away for another year along with the rest of the nativity figures, I’m here to tell you that even now we have this opportunity to fall down in worship in this amazing, life-changing gift of a Savior who has promised to be with us even unto the end of the age, and makes that promise palpable for us in a simple meal of bread and wine.
So let us come to the table; let us rejoice in his presence and power… let us be nourished and strengthened in this Holy Meal, and then, when we’re done, let’s resolve to outsmart Herod and all the rest of his minions… and go home by another way!
Thanks be to the God of Light and Life who has come to us in Jesus our Emmanuel.
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry