Faith In Real Life Blog
“Love Will Prevail”
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
December 21, 2022
2 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.
13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”…….
19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazarene.”
This birth narrative is markedly different from the account in Luke that we read last week. We are so used to hearing the separate stories that we conflate them. Hopefully, by separating them and pulling out the distinct elements, we can see the powerful faith claims each gospel writer sought to establish.
The Magi were almost certainly astrologers from the Zoroastrian faith. (This belief system still exists today and was a precursor to Islam). The Magi were awaiting a Messiah and sought signs in the stars to point to his coming. Though Christian tradition has referred to them as the Three Wise Men, we don’t actually know how many nor if the Magi were all men. These are traditions that have been added over the years.
Contrary to millions of mangers scenes, the Magi were never in the stable with the shepherds and baby Jesus. In verse 8, it simply says “the star stopped over the place the child was.” Then in verse 11 it says: “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary, his mother…” No stable. A house.
- The Magi arrived one to two years after Jesus’ birth. We can piece together the timeline. The first appearance of the star marked Jesus’s birth and the Magi followed it to where the child was. This took some time and the amount of time is revealed as Herod sought details concerning this birth—“Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.” He needed to know the when and the where of this child. So he tells the Magi to search diligently to find the child and to report back to him. He was frightened, defensive and duplicitous—but this is true of most of us when we feel threatened—and Herod certainly felt threatened.
When Herod realized the Magi were not returning with the information he sought, “ he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the magi.” He may not have learned where the child was but he knew roughly how old he was. If he killed all below a certain age, he had a good chance of eliminating his rival.
Finally, and probably of least importance, in the Lukean account, Mary and Joseph travel from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem. In Matthew, Mary and Joseph moved from Judea to Galilee and made their home in Nazareth. Joseph had been warned to flee Israel to escape Herod’s wrath. After Herod died, Joseph and Mary planned to return to their home in Judea but Herod’s son ruled that area so they went North to safer territory in Galilee. (“21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth…) In over fifty years of ministry, I’d never noticed this difference—a testimony to the power of repetition and familiarity over careful reading. Especially in these adversarial political times, it is a lesson we need to be mindful of.
- Luke’s story emphasizes God’s coming to the unseen and the disenfranchised. Unclean shepherds who could not enter the central worship area in the temple are chosen to hear the Good News first. Over and over Luke points out that God cares in ways humans do not. God’s love is wider than our hierarchical categories of worth and value. Women are as valuable as men. The poor are as valuable as the rich. The disabled and diseased are as valuable as the healthy. The list goes on and on. Any time we use what makes us different as a measure of worth, we turn away from God. We are sinners. And we do it all of the time. The forces of evil are the forces that discriminate and view others as lesser. They must be fought within ourselves and within our society. The Good News Luke wants us all to hear is: God loves and God loves us all. When human beings are loved, we are kinder, gentler people. Live that way. Live like you are loved.
Matthew’s emphasis overlaps but is different. His story is rife with danger and conflict. His is not a Kum Ba Yah version of the gospel. An innocent child, the Messiah, is at risk from his very birth. It is not safe to be small, dependent and unarmed in the real world. If you didn’t already know that, Matthew makes it quite clear. In the real world deceit, greed, grasping for power are commonplace and lead inevitably to discord, enmity and death. It is an incredible faith claim that “A little child shall lead them….” Yet it is the one we make every Christmas.
We live in a dark world and the way of the world leads to death and darkness. Matthew wants us to know God saves and God prevails. In both the Exodus and the Christmas stories, great leaders survived infanticide. In both cases many more innocent children were killed. In both cases the forces of power were desperately seeking to preserve themselves. The cost to others did not matter. Neither Moses nor Jesus should have survived. Yet Love prevailed.
Matthew also wanted to point out that it was outsiders—foreigners with a different faith—who sought to offer recognition and homage to the infant king. While at the same time, the people who should see, sought to kill him. We should all be careful about the ways our ‘truths’ can blind us from seeing the new thing that God is doing.
Both the shepherds and the wiseman were humble and open. Neither presumed to know. They both sought. Both had eyes and hearts that could see God’s mighty works — in a baby. Humility and gratitude are the pillars of spiritual life. They had both and we need both.
Don’t miss the forest for the trees. Both gospel writers are describing the same Jesus. They are simply looking through different facets of the diamond to see its center. Both gospel writers believed Jesus was the fulfillment of scripture. Both gospel writers believed Jesus was the messiah and both gospel writers believed God acted outside of human expectations to show us the way.
God loves us and God’s love will prevail. That promise and that faith leads to new life. It is the miracle of Christmas.
Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life (FIRL) gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.