Sermon for Epiphany C , Jan. 06, 2013, on Matthew 2:1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Home By Another Way
I love this story, but it should never have been written. It is the most unlikely story ever, at each turn. For starters, it’s about pagan astrologers who look for guidance from the stars, a practice which was well known, but forbidden in the strongest, harshest terms in Torah, the Old Testament.
Of course pagans from “the east” would try to read the stars: for them it was a science. These were wise men; experts. Today, we would call them “scientists.” Matthew’s original readers would probably assume that “from the East” referred to Babylon, an ancient center for such “scientific astrology.”
“Scientists” like these, who studied stars, seemed to have a category for anomalies they observed. Matthew says they report: “we observed his star at its rising,” – apparently, an anomaly.
So, without explaining how they concluded that an anomalous rising eastern star was a sign of a new baby’s birth, or that he would be the new King of the Jews, or why a new Jewish king should matter to Babylonians anyway, Matthew simply tells us there they were, a long way from home, in Jerusalem, at Herod’s residence.
Herod’s Competition for the Crown
Competition for his crown was not what Herod was happy to hear about. Actually in that time, Herod had a reputation for killing off competitors, even in his own family, including two of his own sons. One ancient writer said he would rather be Herod’s pig than his son – it may have been safer, since Herod made a show of practicing Judaism and so presumably didn’t eat pork.
Anyway, Matthew tells us that King Herod was “frightened” at the news the wise men brought, and “all Jerusalem” was frightened along with him. He was afraid of the same thing Bashar Al Assad in Syria is afraid of, and all of his supporters in Damascus: that a change in the status quo would be a direct threat to them and their economic interests and possibly their lives.
Upsetting the Dark Status Quo
I love that Matthew told this unlikely story in this way. How are we to think of Jesus? Perhaps we get him completely wrong if we don’t recognize what a threat to the status quo he is.
But it is a dark status quo, and it desperately needs a new light to shine. The powers that be, and the people who accept the status quo as unchallenged, should feel frightened of the light that will illumine the truth and show the way. Herod will do all he can to keep it dark, just as he likes it.
Our Darkness too
We humans are a strange lot. On the one hand, we don’t like change any more than Herod and those frightened Jerusalemites – especially now, when the world is changing so quickly all around us. “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t” we hear ourselves say. Change is threatening.
But yet, we are not happy with the status quo either. We sense the darkness in us and the darkness around us as a condition that we wish could change. Darkness too, is frightening. We grope the walls for the light switch. We long for a light to dawn. The collect (concluding prayer) for Monday morning in our Book of Common Worship asks God to “dispel all our darkness.” We pray it, because we know it’s there; we hate living in darkness: we long for a change.
And we also know about our own inner dark places. The places in the heart we desperately try not to go to, but our wandering minds keep finding: places of hopelessness, fear, anxiety, guilt, depression, unfulfilled cravings. Nobody gets through life without these. “Dispel all our darkness” we pray.
The Bethlehem Prophecy
So, back to the story, Herod gathers the Torah scholars to investigate – hoping that they can bring some light to bear on this frightening situation. Indeed they do. They go directly to the prophecy from Micah:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,… from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Bethlehem, the home town of King David, would once again produce another star player who would take the scepter in his hand and be king. Only he would use as his scepter a shepherd’s crook, because, in the eyes of this new king from Bethlehem, the people looked like sheep without a shepherd. They were shepherd-less sheep, in a very dark status quo.
The Plot and the Dream
So Herod hatches another dark plot to use these unsuspecting wise men as spies. They are supposed to come back and report what they learn. Again without telling us any of the mysterious details, Matthew says that this dark plot is foiled when the wise men are warned in a dream not to return to Herod.
Now these wise men join Joseph, in Matthew’s gospel, as people whose lives have been changed by dreams. Joseph was told in a dream to go ahead and marry his pregnant fiancé, Mary because the child she was carrying was from the Holy Spirit. The dream changed his life, just as it did the wise men’s lives.
This is quite fitting. God’s people have been “people of the dream” many times over.
Now these wise men are people of the dream. And the dream re-directs them home.
Arriving at the Destination
So, they set out and follow this star until it stops over one particular house. How in the world they can determine a specific house from a star is also left unexplained, but there they are. The light that shines in the darkness shows them the way to Jesus. They do what they told king Herod they would do upon finding the new king of the Jews: they kneel down and “pay him homage.”
They then start the tradition of gift-giving at Christmas. They give Jesus gifts, under the light of that shining star. The whole scene is eerily reminiscent of Isaiah’s ancient prophecy:
“1 Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. 2 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.…. 6 the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, …They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord”
Christmas Gifts & Lights
Christmas is the season of gifts and of lights. Candles, lights on trees, lights on our houses and street lamps; this is for us, the celebration that darkness does not have the last word – neither the darkness of the status quo world around us, nor the darkness in our own hearts. The star has risen and shined its light into our darkness, dispelling that dark hopelessness in the light of Christ’s glory.
This is why we too, Gentiles, like those wise men, pay him homage, or worship (it’s the same word). This is how Matthew begins and ends his telling of the story of Jesus. It begins with foreigners a long way from home, paying him homage. It ends with the risen Jesus, meeting his disciples on a mountain in Galilee. Matthew tells us:
“17 When they saw him, they worshiped him [paid him homage]; but some doubted.” (Matt 28:17)
The very next thing he does is to send his disciples “to make disciples of all nations.” The light that has come into the darkness is to shine to the ends of the earth. The king who carries a shepherd’s crook is the world’s true Lord.
Home by another way
And so the wise men themselves become the first apostles who were sent to the nations, as they returned home to Babylon. Having been warned in a dream, Matthew tells us, they went back home “by another road.”
But, how do you go home again after this encounter with the light? How can home ever be the same? How can the old status quo continue, now that the light has come? The poet T.S. Eliot captures the ambivalence in the hearts of the wise men as they contemplate returning to Babylon in his poem, “The Journey Of The Magi”.
“We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.”
We were never meant to make the darkness our home, as Herod did, nor to even think of it as home. We were never meant to live our days swallowed by dark thoughts and fears. We are not the people who embrace the dark status quo as the only way things can be.
There is another way. We are people of faith; people of the dream. We are called to be people of the light. We are people whose true home is in God. Jesus has come into the world. “I am the light of the world” we hear him say, in John’s gospel (8:12; 9:5). We allow his light to challenge and critique darkness at every level.
He critiques the darkness in our world – it’s unjust systems, its dirty politics, its oppressive economics, its destructive values of all kinds. And we allow the light of Christ to illumine our personal dark places too: our despair, our hopelessness, our fears and anxieties, and to shine into them his mercy, his love, his transforming presence.
We too are sent. “You are the light of the world” he tells us in Matthew (5:14). We, like the wise men, have seen the light, now have a light to share. We have a dream to share. We, who worship the king, we who know that darkness does not have the last word, are called to take the light of Christ’s love into our worlds.
We shine the light into the darkness of our own hearts, and then we shine the light into every place of darkness and pain. We take note of the fact that the first witnesses to that light were radically outsiders, and we learn therefore that no one is outside the reach of God’s light. All are welcomed, just as we have been welcomed home by this other way.