Matthew 2:1-6 (New Revised Standard Version)
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.’”
We three kings of Orient are.
Bearing gifts, we traverse afar.
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
following yonder star.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve looked at God’s announcement of Jesus’ coming to Mary, to Joseph, and then, at Jesus’ birth, to the shepherds going about the business of tending their flocks. We’ve remembered how Jesus was born into a humble family, poor and unworldly. We’ve celebrated how God chose to bring earthy, rough shepherds to Bethlehem to be the first visitors to the newborn Savior, born in a dirty, borrowed animal stable.
Now this simple, beautiful story collides with a very different world. Royalty, scholarship, power, intrigue. And we see the ways the world responds to the story of Jesus.
First, the “Wise Men,” who, before their story begins in Matthew 2, have likely traveled a thousand miles, following that surprising star they discovered in the heavens.
But although we sing “We three kings of Orient are,” we don’t actually know the number of men who travelled. Three is the number handed down in tradition, but all we know is that there were more than one, as the Greek word is plural: magoi, the Magi, the Wise Men. Three, or two, or twenty. We don’t know.
They also weren’t kings. They weren’t royalty. They were astrologers, scholars, interpreters of dreams, priests, teachers. They were intellectuals who passionately sought knowledge.
And these unlikely outsiders travel so very, very far to meet a king of a nation they’re not a part of.
From outside the Jewish faith tradition, God reached out to these men through the language they understood: science and astronomy. Through an astronomical, celestial event, God announced Jesus’ birth to these men from a distant, foreign land.
After long, arduous travel, they arrive in the place they deem most likely to find the child: they come to the city of Jerusalem. After all, where else would you expect to find a newborn King in Israel but in the holy capital city?
They enter Jerusalem and immediately begin to make inquiries: “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” they ask. “We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.”
Perhaps they didn’t realize what a politically charged question this was. After all, there already was a “king of the Jews” in Jerusalem, appointed and supported by the occupying Roman government. Not surprisingly, word quickly reaches King Herod’s court about these new arrivals in the city and their surprising questions.
They are quickly summoned to the palace, where they learn that the new king is not there. They may have been quite disappointed to learn this, and to realize that their long journey wasn’t yet over.
But King Herod seems helpful, setting his own wise men, his scholars to work, digging through the scripture to locate the birthplace of the king in the line of David. Herod tells them: “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!”
This would not have seemed a terribly strange request to the Magi. After all, this was the same King Herod whose national building campaign had included a restoration and expansion of the Temple in Jerusalem, the center of worship in Israel. Of course he would wish to worship this powerful new King, sent from God!
And so, the Magi set out for Bethlehem, just a few miles south of Jerusalem, and find Jesus. And when they do, oh boy! The translation we used today (the New Revised Standard Version) says that they “were overwhelmed with joy.” Three Greek words to describe one emotional act: charan megalen sphodra.
Chara, which means grace, joy, delight.
Megas, meaning large, great, big in the widest sense.
And sphodra: exceedingly, greatly.
When they saw the star hanging over the place where they would find Jesus, they were filled with delight, with huge, enormous, soul-stretching joy! Their long journey was over. Even without a GPS, they had reached their destination. They had arrived. And now, they could finally meet and worship this King whose birth the heavens themselves had proclaimed. They have come to worship.
They are offer gifts to Jesus — deeply symbolic and powerful gifts. Gold, as a gift fitting for a king. Frankincense, incense to be used by a holy priest. And the gift of myrrh, which would be used to anoint a body for burial. In these gifts, they recognize Jesus’ authority, his purity, and his self-sacrificial love.
What a beautiful story.
But, layered behind it,
is a much, much darker one.
Back in Jerusalem, King Herod had received word of the Magi’s arrival, and had summoned them to his palace. He told them that he wanted information about this newborn king so that he, too, could go to worship him.
Herod used the same word that the Magi had for worshipping: proskuneó. From pros- (towards) and kuneo (to kiss), proskuneó means to kiss the ground by prostrating yourself in worship. It is a sign of deep, humble, submissive respect.
But we know from the scripture that where the Magi actually do worship the child, Herod has absolutely no intention of doing so. He only wants to know the whereabouts of Jesus so that he can rid the world of this perceived rival. Herod’s reaction to the news of Jesus’ birth is nothing short of fear.
The tragedy of Herod is that he utterly misunderstood the promise of Jesus. In many ways, Herod is an awful caricature of everything that is wrong with humanity: greed, lust for power, paranoia, anger, mistrust. He surrounded himself only with people who would tell him what he wanted to hear, and murdered anyone who he believed was a threat to his power.
“King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this.” Deeply disturbed. That’s tarassó in Greek. It means to be agitated, troubled, terrified, stirred up inside.
When he hears from the wise men about the birth of the King of the Jews, it strikes at the very core of who he believes himself to be. He fears that this child King will strip him of his power, taking his kingdom — and all that goes with it.
He’s so afraid that he will not even travel the mere six miles from his palace in Jerusalem to the town of Bethlehem, just to see for himself if there is actually anything to be afraid of.
The Wise Men and King Herod. Two incredibly different reactions to the same birth of the same child. Let’s look for a brief moment at the main contrasts.
The Wise Men are deeply curious. They see evidence of something new and amazing happening in their world, and they want to know more. They undertake a long, difficult journey, willing to go through hardship to achieve their goal of meeting this new King.
They’re open. They call Jesus the “King of the Jews.” But these non-Jewish men have come to worship this new king anyway. They know that something remarkable has occurred, and they want to be a part of it.
And they’re excited! I have to admit that I have I picture in my head of them seeing the star above the house where they will finally encounter Jesus, and giving each other jubilant high-fives as they “rejoice with exceedingly great joy”!
And then, there’s Herod. He isn’t curious. He’s afraid. He doesn’t care that a star has announced the coming of a king. All he cares about is how this new arrival will affect him. He doesn’t want to know more. He just wants it to go away.
And so, instead of being open, he rejects the opportunity to see this new thing that God is doing in the world, something so momentous that a star would herald its beginning.
And, so very, very sadly, he’s not excited that God has done something amazing, but instead is hard-hearted. He had already decided to have nothing to do with what the angels had declared “Good News for all people.” And when the Magi don’t return to Jerusalem to report back, Herod will brutally act out the violence in his heart, desperate to find a way to destroy the newborn king.
So… I have two words for you this morning: “What if?”
Herod did not have to do what he did. I very much believe that God gives us all free will. Herod allowed his fear to take ahold of him and move him to terrible, horrible action. He set something in motion, when he should’ve remained still. It didn’t have to be this way.
That Greek word for the fear that King Herod was facing — tarassó — agitated, troubled, terrified. It also means to set in motion something that should remain still. Herod could have chosen to obey those beautiful words from Psalm 46: “Be still, and know that I am God!”
What if — instead of lying to the wise men about his motives — what if Herod had actually gone to meet Jesus?
What if — instead of walling himself off in the security of his palace — had, like the wise men, bowed down in respect in front of the child?
What if he had brought gifts to honor this God-given king, this Savior of the people?
I have no doubt that if Herod had done that, his life would have been changed — not in the ways that he feared so deeply — but in ways that would have brought peace to a troubled heart. Reconciliation and forgiveness to a soul scarred by paranoia and worry.
The story could have been very different.
This new year, all of us will have choices to make. Choices about work, about family, about finances, about where we live, what we do. And we also have choices to make about our faith.
Will we choose to be curious about God:
who God is, and who God has created us to be?
Or… will we be afraid of what changes
we might have to make if we know more about God?
Will we choose to be open to learning more:
to seeking out God’s love, even if it means
temporary discomfort and a less-than-easy-road?
Or… will we reject God’s offer of relationship,
shutting ourselves away from God
in an effort to keep everything
just the way it is now in our lives?
Will we choose to be excited
about what God has in store for us this year,
whatever it might be?
Or… will we harden our hearts,
turning our backs on the adventure
and settling for something less?
Here’s what I believe — deep in my spiritual marrow: God loves you. Loves you with a love greater than any you have ever experienced in your life. And God wants you to know that love this year!
So, how will we react to the baby born in the manger? What will we decide to do with Jesus’ call on each of our lives to love as he loved, to serve as he served?
In 2017, this beautiful new year we’re entering, may we, like the wise men, welcome Jesus, cherish him, and invite him into our very hearts, minds and souls. May we allow God to work within us in ways that may not always be comfortable, but that will always be redemptive and healing. May we celebrate the love of God in our lives, rejoicing with exceedingly great joy.
This year, I pray that it would be so in your life, and in mine!