From Pastor Kenny's Desk
January 6, 2019
After Jesus’ birth – which happened in Bethlehem of Judea, during the reign of Herod – astrologers from the East arrived in Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the newborn ruler of the Jews? We observed his star at its rising and have come to pay homage.” At this news Herod became greatly disturbed, as did all of Jerusalem. Summoning all the chief priests and religious scholars of the people, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.
“In Bethlehem of Judea,” they informed him. “Here is what the prophet has written: ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah, since from you will come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Herod called the astrologers aside and found out from them the exact time of the star’s appearance. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, after having instructed them, “Go and get detailed information about the child. When you have found him, report back to me – so that I may go and offer homage, too.”
After their audience with the ruler, they set out. The star which they had observed at its rising went ahead of them until it came to a standstill over the place where the child lay. They were overjoyed at seeing the star and, upon entering the house, found the child with Mary, his mother. They prostrated themselves and paid homage. Then they opened their coffers and presented the child with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
They were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they went back to their own country by another route.
~ Matthew 2:1-12
Matthew’s story is the only one that includes the visit of the Magi … or the astrologers in this translation of the text … sometime after Jesus’ birth, during the time of King Herod. The appointed king over the Jews by the Roman government is completely thrown off by
whose star they observed at its rising. Herod has the scribes search through the scriptures, and they come across passages from the prophets speaking of a messiah, a new king. While Jerusalem has long been the city of kings … where the temple and the palace have been … Bethlehem was the birthplace of David … a city of shepherds. Herod tells the magi to go visit the child, but then to come back and tell him where he is, under the ruse of also paying him homage. The magi find the house where Mary and Jesus are staying, delivering to the child gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh; then return home by a different road, avoiding Jerusalem, after being warned in a dream.
Mostly likely many of us grew up with this story being told as the three kings who came from afar following the star and bringing gifts for the newborn king, the baby Jesus. There’s a wonder and magic … no pun intended … about this story of wondering magi led to Jesus from the distant star in the east. It testifies to the far-reaching … global and cosmic … implications of Jesus’ birth. Even more, it witnesses to God’s commitment to reach ALL the world with news of God’s redeeming and transforming love.
We love this story in part because of the mystery these three distant and somewhat exotic guests introduce into the story, and in part because of the beauty and fittingness of their gifts, the source of all our gift-giving at Christmas. It has led to the wonderful Christmas carol We Three Kings and spin-off carols and stories like The Little Drummer Boy as it draws attention to the fact that we all have something to give.
As we think about the gifts the Magi brought to the Holy Child they invite us to consider what gifts we might offer as well. What talents, interests, passions might we see as gifts from God that we now can offer to Jesus by giving them to those all around us and especially to those in need?
I believe there’s also another part of this story that often gets lost in the shuffle of our contemplation of the magi … and that’s the note of fear and opposition that Jesus’ birth brought right from the start. For example, Herod does not greet the news of a newborn king with joy, nor does he search for a fit gift to present to baby Jesus. Rather, he is afraid. And not just Herod, but all of Jerusalem.
Why … perhaps it is because the one thing the powerful seek more than anything else is to remain in power. Gone from Herod and his court is any notion of the kind of servant leadership prescribed and required by Israel’s prophets. Gone is the memory that God placed them in their positions to serve rather than be served. Herod seeks his own ends and so is immediately threatened by even the mere mention of another … and therefore rival … king.
Or … perhaps it’s also simply that the presence of these three magi and their quest for God’s messiah with the reality that the world is changing … that God is approaching … and that nothing can remain the same in the presence of God’s messiah. The arrival of these wondering astrologers signals that the reach of God’s embrace is broadening considerably, that there is no longer insider and outsider but that ALL are included in God’s plan of redemption … that ALL people are given and deserve to know God’s love. This isn’t a new theme in Judaism … the very beginning of the story God promises to bless Abraham that he may … in turn … be a blessing from the world. But now it is happening … all distinctions between people of different ethnicities and religions is dissolving. ALL are becoming one through Jesus … and who knows what may change next!
Whatever its many causes ... fear is a powerful thing. In response to their fear, Herod … along with the chief priests and scribes - his administration so to speak … conspire to find the Messiah and kill him. They will not succeed this time, but much later in the story there will again be an unholy alliance between the political and religious leaders of the day who will not only conspire against Jesus but this time capture and crucify him.
And what about us? What does fear do to us? Do we install more security systems in our homes and cars? Do we build more gates or buy more guns? Do we buy into the notion that a wall will protect us … offering safety from the plight and pain of others? Do we save even more for retirement, pulling back from charitable contributions to make sure we have enough? Do we close our hearts … and minds … to those who are different or those who are in need? Do we put others down, gossip about them, point out their weaknesses and struggles in an attempt to elevate ourselves … or seek to tear down the successes of others … in an effort to hide our own insecurities, shortcomings or brokenness? Or … do we seek to hold onto to titles and positions of authority and quasi leadership in an effort to control or to be seen as someone of worth thus giving into the dysfunction of power and prestige? Or what else?
Matthew’s story of the nativity moves quickly from the glad moment of the adoration and gifts of the magi to a darker, more ambivalent world of political intrigue, deception, and fear-induced violence. Truth be told while Matthew’s account is more sober, it is also realistic. We live in a world riddled by fear, a world of devastating super-storms and school massacres, a world where innocents die every day to preventable illness and hunger … a world where people flee their homeland to escape the horrors of violence, marginalization and more only to experience more rejection and pain as they risk everything in the hope of a better life. In Matthew’s story of the visit of the magi Matthew paints an accurate if also difficult picture of the world.
And that is what is at the heart of Matthew’s darker story of Jesus’ birth: the promise that is precisely this world that God came to, this people so mastered by fear that we often do the unthinkable to each other and ourselves that God loves, this gaping need that we have and bear that God remedies. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, the living, breathing, and vulnerable promise that God chose to come live and die for us … just the way we are … so that in Jesus’ resurrection we, too might experience newness of life.
We enter this new year on Epiphany, remembering how it was foreign visitors … outsiders … who saw that God was doing something new. Herod and all of Jerusalem were frightened. To them … this new king … this new understanding came out of nowhere. Even for the writer of Matthew’s story, the looking back to the Hebrew scriptures came many years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. These weren’t clues left for people to find and point to the Messiah; rather, the understanding of who Jesus was came much later. In the same manner, God is doing something new right now, but it’s frightening … it’s different … and we may not see God at work until much later, when we see that God was with us all along, and that what God has called forth is different and good. The question is: who are the outside voices showing us the way now? What light are others seeing, that we have been unable to see?
And finally, the choice really is up to us … can we … or are we willing to allow the Star that led to Magi to also lead us? Can we allow God’s transforming love and grace to fill us and rid us of our fears, our pain and brokenness which only grows our insecurities … holding on to what is familiar instead of experiencing the change that God’s love brings into our lives? God’s loving and transforming embrace is always present and welcoming for us ALL. What and who will you choose and follow?