Herod or the Child (Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12)
January 6th is Epiphany day. In our day an “epiphany” is any normal happening in the world that somehow clarifies or reveals something previously hidden from us or unclear to us. The word Epiphany is a barely-disguised Greek word that means, “appearance” or “demonstration,” and is related to a verb that means “to display,” “reveal” or “demonstrate.”
Epiphany is the Season of the Church Year when we shift our attention from “Jesus in a manger” with, more or less local importance, to Jesus as an adult whose life, ministry, and teachings displayed or demonstrated the character and values of God as inclusive of the whole world. The story of the Magi teaches this inclusive lesson for Epiphany. The story is also about whether the real power belongs to Herod or the Child. Only Matthew tells this story and he told it because it taught a particular lesson in the church (or churches) he was addressing who were struggling with issues of inclusion and power.
Rather than approach this story in order to deduce facts about the 1st century, or the histsorical identification of the star or even the Magi themselves, let us simply read the story that Matthew gives us and let it confront us with its message.
Any story must have characters and a plot. As for characters, above all, there are the Magi or wise men. Matthew implies that they were not Jewish, says that they were from a place East of Judea, and that they knew something about the stars. In their study of the stars, they discovered one that spoke to them of someone born King of the Jews. Matthew does not tell us how or why finding him was important to them. He simply said that this discovery was powerful enough to draw these “outsiders” on a trek all the way from wherever they were to Jerusalem. When the Magi arrived in the Jewish capital (where else does one look for royalty?), they began asking where the king was so that they could honour him. Well, Herod’s palace wasn’t hard to find, but Matthew doesn’t say that they went there until they were summoned by Herod, who had heard of these visitors and their questions about another king. Matthew foreshadows his conclusion by the fact that they didn’t look for the king in the palace. If not there where? If not Herod, who?
Herod is the second major character in Matthew’s story. We know that there were several rulers named Herod, this one was called Herod the First or the Great because of the many important things he did. He was also, almost insanely suspicious that people were out to get him, and he was totally unafraid to disrupt all of society to get what he wanted, which was maintaining his own power and position and to punish those who were disloyal to him. He went so far as to concoct a plot to discredit, and, finally to kill his own wife and some of his sons because he suspected them of disloyalty. This same Herod the Great, Matthew tells us, was troubled when he heard of these men from the East and their questions about another king of the Jews. This word troubled is used in the New Testament to describe being put into an internal uproar by something one doesn’t quite understand – by the unknown. He didn’t know what it was that troubled him (or who), but he knew he didn’t like the suggestion he had competition.
The next character – if I can call it that – is all Jerusalem that is troubled alongside of Herod. I presume that the all Jerusalem included the powerful who depended on Herod for their positions. I also presume it included the poor who had that inner churning and shortness of breath that comes when you sense you’re in trouble and don’t know why or when it’s going to show up. What would Herod do when his jealousy for power bubbled up in the face of these outsiders who were seeking another king of the Jews. Experience had taught them to be troubled when Herod was.
Herod, next, called together the Chief Priests and Scribes of the people – another character. A lot of ink has been spilled trying to identify just which Jewish leaders these were, but all Matthew tells us – and all that’s important for his story – is that these were the folk who had the religious power in Jerusalem, together with the Bible experts. Many of them would have been Herod’s own political appointments, so they shared Herod’s agenda, at least until he discovered or imagined they didn’t. Like some people today, who still have a little cultural Christianity in their backgrounds, Herod had a little cultural Judaism in his. So he knew enough to tie the King of the Jews to the Messiah and to ask the question of the Bible experts. “So where is the Messiah to be born?” Herod said. “In Bethlehem of Judea comes the answer” (there is one in Galilee). Matthew, then, gives a loose translation of Micah 5:1 and 3, which placed the Messiah’s home in Bethlehem, along with a reference to another scripture from 2 Samuel 5:2 to back up this answer.
Herod then met privately with the Magi to determine when they first saw the star (and Matthew doesn’t tell us when this was). Herod then charged them to go to Bethlehem, find this child, and bring him word that he, too, might worship him. Yeah, right. Anyone who knew anything about Herod (which our Magi probably did not) would not have believed that for a moment, but would take it as one more socially and politically disruptive move to cover a violent act. Like taking the boys from their parents and putting them to death (see the next story).
The Magi, then, went to Bethlehem guided by that same star, and found our last two characters: Mary and the child. Note that Mary is just a name here, it doesn’t say anything about her. People in Matthew’s church would have known the name of Jesus’ mother. Jesus’ name isn’t given in this story at all. He’s only “the child.” And, these wise folk from the East, these scientists, these philosophers, whatever they might be called, they paid homage to “the child.” They gave the child gifts: Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We don’t know why.
And they were warned not to return to Herod and didn’t, but went back home via a route that avoided Jerusalem. That’s the story and those are the characters. It’s a simple plot: outsiders come to the Messiah with what light they have, and find this one, this King in “the child.”
Our Old Testament lesson is intended by the framers of the Lectionary to fill in background to this story. It pictures Israel as a poor woman to whom God comes, and as God’s light shines on the poor woman, the whole world comes to her through whom the light of God shines. It’s easy for us to see Mary, the Magi and the child in the shadows of this passage, and why this would be an Old Testament lesson for this Gospel. It even names gold and frankincense, two of the gifts the Magi present to the child. In the Lesson from Ephesians, the apostle tells folk who are not Jews that God in Christ is available to them as Gentiles – and that this is not an add-on to God’s plan, but has been a component of that plan from the beginning. This is the epiphany in Epiphany, and in the story of the Magi, and in the Old Testament Lesson from Isaiah 60 that stands behind it. God in Christ is for everybody.
Stories not only have characters and plots, they almost always have some kind of conflict or struggle to describe in some way.
The struggle here, as I said at the beginning, is about who has the power. Who is really in charge: Herod or the child?
As I said, Matthew told his story, not just so his community would have the correct data about Jesus’ early life, but so that this community might have real help in their own story with its characters, plots and conflicts. Who had the power, not back in the days of Herod, but now toward the end of what we call the 1st century? Was it Herod (now clearly Rome and the Roman Emperor)? Or was it still “the child”? And, as we approach Matthew’s story today, we must be careful to think of the conflict and danger through not in the first century but in the 21st, on this first Sunday of a New Year. Lurking all through this story is the danger, the disruption, the conflict, the prejudice, the incivility that gets in the way of the right answer to the question: who’s got the power, Herod or the child? And what kind of power is it? Unless we’re in church, where we’re supposed to be pious and correct, why do we usually choose the former? What can we learn from the story?
As Matthew tells it, this story confronts prejudice against outsiders that makes us jump to conclusions about the familiar. Of course, everybody knows that insiders have an advantage. “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King,” everybody there knew that the Jews were the chosen people, they were the ones that had it all together, they were the ones that had the revealed scriptures. Yet, in Matthew’s story, it is not the insiders, the chief priests and the scribes, those who knew where the Messiah was to be born, who had the faith or the desire to go and find, and bow down. Rather, it was the outsiders, these pagan Magi, whoever they were. They were the ones who, with less understanding, were drawn to the light of God, to find and to pay homage to the child, and to give him their gifts. Beware Herod’s disruptive trick of prejudice against the outsider, Matthew says.
Today, this story still confronts our prejudice against outsiders. Who might they be? We need to be careful that we’re not drawing our circle so small as to exclude those we think don’t fit, or are different, or don’t get it right. The call, it seems to me is to be attentive enough to what God is up to for us as a church that we can see those Magi who come to us in odd shapes, sizes and manners, and to facilitate their homage to the child.
Then, this story confronts prejudice for the powerful. Who has the real power? All Jerusalem shouts back, “Herod!” Even the chief priests and the scribes who have all the details figured out, the I’s dotted, the t’s crossed, seem to cast their vote for “Herod the Great.” Beware Herod’s disruptive trick of prejudice, Matthew says. for the powerful.
The bottom line of the story is that the one with real power is the child. Jesus is the one that the magi are wise enough to worship. All through Advent, in many ways, we have seen that God has a vision of the world that uplifts the powerless. So, let us be careful, as we walk ahead through this year of our Lord 2019, with all of its disruptions, to walk as those who understand that God’s power is not like Herod’s. It is a power to save and to forgive and to redeem and to lift up the downtrodden. And, in this new year, let us resolve to identify ourselves, not with the “in group,” who know all the “right answers,” and can chapter and verse all the right Bible passages, and yet are not interested enough to do the unconventional, by worshiping the little child instead of Herod the Great. Beware Herod’s disruptive tricks. Worship and serve the child: even the Lord Jesus.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.