Sermon for Jan. 6, 2019, Epiphany, Year C, click here for audio (available for several weeks)
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 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.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘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.'”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 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.” 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. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
I have a couple of really good jokes that I learned in Romania and Croatia. I was just up in the Boston area visiting my brother and his wife over the holidays, and we went out to dinner with another couple, so I had a chance to tell them again. They got great laughs. But I always have to provide a bit of historical and cultural context before telling them, otherwise, the punch line would be missed. Like the one about people waiting in line in Romania. It comes from the Communist period of shortages, which all Romanians experienced, but we Americans, of this generation, did not.
The Time of King Herod
So, similarly, Matthew tells a story to people who know things that we don’t, so to get the story we have to fill in some knowledge gaps. The story starts “In the time of King Herod”.
So, in other words, in the time of a power-hungry, brutal man, capable of having members of his own family, including a wife and a son killed because they threatened his power. His background was Idumean, which the Bible calls Edomite (which will be important). The Edomites embraced Judaism but were not ethnically Jewish.
So his claim to be King of the Jews, even though it was conferred on him by the Roman Senate, was dubious in many people’s minds. It took him 3 years of bloodshed to secure that title, leaving many other aristocrats dead on the battlefield, and leaving their estates in Herod’s hands. You get the idea.
He loved architecture. He built palaces, a harbor complex, and was undertaking a massive renovation of the temple in Jerusalem. These were all hugely expensive, but no problem, there was no anti-tax Freedom Caucus to stop him from bleeding the peasants dry. So the story starts, “In the time of King Herod.”
The story continues, telling us that “Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea.” Jewish readers know that this is where King David came from, which is also significant for this story.
The Wise Men
After Jesus, who a descendant of David, was born in David’s hometown, Matthew says,
“wise men from the East came to Jerusalem”.
Wise men, or literally “Maggi” – from which the word magic comes, were probably Persian astrologers, with dubious reputations. They were also, dream interpreters who don’t do well when tested, as when Nebuchadnezzar asked them to interpret his dream after telling what he had dreamt. Only Daniel could manage that feat.
These “wise” men ask the current king of the Jews where the new king of the Jews is, who was born king, unlike Herod. They asked as if they did not know that a rival to the throne from a different family would not be good news to Herod.
The Star prophecy
At this point, the story starts to get other-worldly. These gentile Persian people reveal that they have been on a quest, a journey. They are seekers. They explain that they are looking for this new king because,
“we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
Jewish people hearing Matthew tell this story would think immediately of that ancient prophecy by that strange character named Balaam (the one with the talking donkey) who was promised money to curse the ancient Israelites, but instead blessed them and offered a prophecy. He said
“a star shall come out of Jacob,” (meaning Israel)
“and a scepter shall rise out of Israel”; the two parallel phrases say the same thing: the star is a scepter – the symbol of a king. Then he says, “…Edom will become a possession, … One out of Jacob shall rule,” (Herod was Edomite). (Numbers 24)
So, the prediction of a rising star indicating a new king is an immediate threat to King Herod. Herod gets it.
We cannot help but notice that the story of Jesus is both a story of promise and of threat. Jesus, a powerless peasant child, born to marginalized people, is a threat to Herod, and Herod a threat to Jesus. Nevertheless, gentiles of dubious reputation have been on a journey, and have found themselves lured, drawn to Jesus, and finding him, find themselves star-struck.
The Prophecy and the Plot
Back to the story. Herod and the whole aristocracy is frightened by their report. They go to the priests who know the prophecies of Micah and of Nathan, and put two and two together and say that when Messiah comes, he will be born in Bethlehem.
So Herod hatches a plot to use the wise seekers as his spies. The threat-level goes to red. They set out, and again, the mysterious star guides them. Jesus who will turn the lights on in so many ways is found, we could say, by unlikely strangers who are on a journey, seeking enlightenment.
The Gifts Given and Received
They find the baby Jesus with Mary. Matthew says,
“They knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
Jewish people would hear echoes of Isaiah who imagined a future for Israel, after their devastation and exile, saying there would be a reversal of fortunes, so:
Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord. (Isa. 60:4-6)
I like how one scholar explained the gifts:
“There are royal gold and priestly frankincense to be shared. In addition and in a nod to [Matthew’s] literary vision that culminates in crucifixion, there is also among the three treasure gifts an odd gift of myrrh, a burial spice that prepares the child for cruciform [cross-shaped] kingship.”— Jarvis, Cynthia A.. Feasting on the Gospels–Matthew, Volume 1 (Kindle Locations 732-733). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
The threat and the promise come together.
Home by Another Road
The newly enlightened gentiles have just given gifts to the baby Jesus, and this time, get a dream interpretation correct, and shirking Herod’s decree, go home by “another road.”
So what do we do with this story? What do we get out of telling it? We get to see how Matthew wants us to understand Jesus, who came proclaiming the alternative kingdom of God, or we could call it, the reign of God.
We understand that from the start, the reign of God may threaten the interests of empire. The blessings of God’s reign come, not to the Herod’s, the cut-throats in power, but to the “poor in spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for justice,” and to “the pure in heart.” In this kingdom, the bottom line that guides decision making is compassion, not consumption.
We get from this story that the door into the kingdom is wide open. Gentiles of shady character who are on an honest journey find themselves lured and drawn to Jesus, just as we have been. Jesus is for the world.
But notice that it is not just that they are welcomed to come, what is even more amazing is that they come bringing gifts, and the gifts are received. We are continually receiving gifts from outsiders, from those who are “other”, from strangers to our tradition. We do not claim to have an exclusive grasp of the Divine. So we can learn from the gifts that other traditions bring to us and receive them with joy.
From Muslims, we can receive the gift of their example of disciplined lives, of answering multiple calls to prayer every day, and their humble shoes-off, head-to-the-floor submission to God.
From the Buddhists, we have received the gift of the language of mindfulness and the way meditation has been let out of the confines of the monastery where now, everyone can participate.
From the Hindu tradition, we receive the gift of humility, acknowledging that though the Divine is One, that humans have an endless variety of ways of conceiving of God’s characteristics and express them in multiple colorful ways.
All of this changes us. We could say that the star of Jesus enlightens us. It leads us to go home by a different road. The journey continues, and on that journey we are transformed. We do not follow the dictates of culture or the powers that be. We are open to dreaming a different dream.
We dream of a world made right, made whole, made just, made inclusive, where God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.” In our dream, we keep seeking Jesus on this different road, and as Matthew will later recount, we keep finding him. We find him in marginalized people, the “least of these,” the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoners of conscience. And as we find them, and offer our gifts of compassion and mercy to them, Jesus takes it personally.
Our journey, our different road, our dream, our star has led us here, to this moment. We will soon come to the table to share the bread and cup together, remembering the sacrifice that the gift of myrrh foreshadowed, of the one who would rather die than kill, who spoke truth to power, and who forgave his enemies. We remember his death, but we celebrate his life in each of us, which still shines as brightly as it did, back “in the time of King Herod.”