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January 5, 2020
In the church calendar, it is still Christmas!
Today is the 11th day of the season of Christmas!
Do you still have your tree up? Or is it long gone, off to be shredded for someone’s mulch?
Tomorrow is Epiphany, the 12th and last day of Christmas.
Epiphany literally means “around showing”; it has to do with the manifestation of God in Jesus Christ.
The Sunday before Epiphany often focuses on the visit of the Wise Men from the East, the Magi,
representing the first manifestation of Jesus of Nazareth to the Gentiles, to the non-Jewish world.
These wise men from the East come to pay homage to an infant king,
a child born to become a shepherd for the people of Israel.
Our Old Testament reading reflects on the qualities of a worthy king.
Psalm 72 is a prayer offered at the enthronement of a righteous king,
a king who would rule with mercy, justice, and compassion.
The psalm reveals the hope of the people that, through their king’s leadership,
the whole nation might be strengthened, an ordered and just society might be built,
the well-being of all would be sought.
This psalm has been adopted over the years by the British as an ideal description for the Royal Family.
Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.
May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.
In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more.
May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
May his foes bow down before him, and his enemies lick the dust.
May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts.
May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service,
For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight…
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name forever; may his glory fill the whole earth. Amen and Amen.
The second chapter of Matthew outlines the narrative of the magi, the visit of the wise men,
those unknown visitors from the East who come to pay homage to the newborn “king of the Jews.”
This visit of the Magi is found only in the gospel of Matthew.
In later centuries, many embellishments were added to the traditional story –
like the names that were given the Magi, and that there were three of them.
Have you realized that the biblical text never mentions the number “three”?
We are unclear as to where these “wise men” were from, how they knew of the birth,
and why they felt compelled to pay homage.
Some scholars have proposed that they were from Persia and Babylon, today’s Iran and Iraq,
or perhaps Arabia.
They may have been astrologers, or potentates, or dream interpreters, or even Zoroastrian priests.
Magi visiting from the East to pay homage was not uncommon.
Herod himself received envoys from many nations when he completed the grand harbor city
of Caesarea Maritima in 9 B.C. only a few years before the birth of Jesus.
Caesar Nero in Rome in 66 A.D. received a caravan of magi from the east,
and the reports says that these visitors sailed home by a different way.
(Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, p. 165ff)
The idea that eastern scholars would follow a star connected to a birth may sound strange today,
but would not have been so unusual to hear in the first century.
Some astronomers have calculated that, about the time of Jesus’ birth,
there may have been a conjunction of the orbits of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars,
which would have offered a rare spectacle in the sky. (Brown, p. 172)
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 remember a small green and white puzzle that someone gave me when I was a child.
It was a forerunner to the Rubix cube, and had only one dimension.
There were small green and white panels that could be moved within a plastic frame
to unscramble a picture and a message. The picture was of a king kneeling before a manger,
and the message, sometimes painstakingly revealed, was this: “Wise men still seek Him.”
Wise men still seek the One born in the manger long ago; some truths will stand forever.
Wise men still seek the Lord Jesus Christ, the righteous King, the One born to bring well-being for all,
to shepherd the people with righteousness and justice, to reign with compassion and mercy.
Matthew’s recollection of the visit of the Magi sets up two very different ways of being in the world,
two different orientations for life.
On one hand stands King Herod.
When Jesus was born, it was King Herod’s time.
“In the time of King Herod”, the text proclaims, Jesus was born.
Herod was the man. He was the boss.
He had just built a massive, impressive harbor town on eastern shore of the Mediterranean.
He was recognized by world leaders. He had organized his government and amassed great resources.
He was powerful and very much in control, at least in as much control as the Romans would allow.
It seems from our text that Herod’s foremost desire was to hold on to his power and control.
When he learns that a child had been born who would be king of the Jews, he was startled, frightened.
And all Jerusalem with him…When the king is afraid, he makes sure everyone else is afraid as well.
Herod seems filled with irrational fear – why is this powerful king afraid of this infant child?
What threat will this child be to his rule?
Herod secretly calls a meeting with the wise men.
He gathers facts from them, and then he sends them on their way to Bethlehem to find the child.
“When you have found him,” Herod says, “bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
Yea, right. Pay him homage.
Just a few verses later in Matthew 2, we read that when Herod realizes the wise men have tricked him,
and gone home by another way, he “was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children
in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under…”
This is a tragic, terrible story. Can you imagine the suffering of the people of Bethlehem?
Such violence was not uncommon in those days, and sadly, not so uncommon in many places today.
By providential grace, Joseph receives an appearance in a dream, telling him to take the mother and child
and flee to Egypt, there to remain until further notice.
Joseph, Mary, and their infant child fled for their lives,
not unlike the 70 million forcibly displaced persons around the world today.
70 million persons, ten times the population of metro Atlanta,
are today displaced from their homes by violence or the threat of warfare, many in and around Syria.
We do not know exactly where Joseph and Mary went when they fled Bethlehem,
or who helped them, who saved the child’s life.
All we are told is that they fled across the border to a foreign county, to Egypt,
where they remained as refugees until Herod died and it was more safe to go home.
This story of the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt is often lost between the Christmas celebrations
and the start of a New Year.
With New Year’s resolutions being made and decorations coming down,
it is not hard to forget this story of Mary, Joseph and Jesus running for their lives.
In this narrative of the manifestation of God in Jesus Christ,
we find two different types of leaders – Herod and the Magi.
King Herod is focused on power and control. When he is afraid, he participates in untruthful scheming.
He lies to his esteemed visitors. He sends soldiers to kill innocent children.
In the end, Herod is disobeyed, passed by, and ignored.
The Magi, Gentiles by birth, have a different life orientation.
Their desire to pay homage, to worship.
“Homage” is “special honor or respect shown publicly”. (Oxford Dictionary)
Homage “attests to the worth or influence of another.” (Merriam Webster)
The wise men discern the signs of the times.
They show respect by going first to the current ruler, to Herod.
They seek and find the One for whom they were looking.
They are filled with overwhelming joy. They offer generous and expensive gifts.
They listen to their dreams and depart for home by another way,
and, as far as we can tell, they were transformed by all that they had experienced.
As we prepare to come to the Table in this New Year, which life orientation do you want to follow?
Do you want to follow the ways of Herod – focusing on power and control,
and being consumed by fear, caught up in the use and threat of violence?
Or do you want to follow the ways of the Magi – focusing on worship and devotion,
and being overwhelmed with joy, caught up in the possibility of transformation?
I will close with a prayer by Thomas Merton, a prayer I have shared with you several times over the years.
Many of you will find it familiar.
This is not the prayer of those who would seek to be like Herod.
This is a prayer of the wise ones who still seek the Lord and desire to pay him homage.
MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
(from Through the Year with Thomas Merton)
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church, Decatur, Georgia