“We observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage…” Matthew 2:2
It’s the tyrant versus the toddler. It doesn’t really seem like a fair match-up – the fully grown adult ruler of this corner of the Roman Empire lashing out against a little kid who by this point in our story had probably taken his first steps and was forming complete sentences. (We don’t have any biblical confirmation of those moments, but I’ve always suspected that Jesus was an early walker and talker. I mean, you don’t eventually walk on water without a head start on land first, right?)
But King Herod was not known for being rational or benevolent. History tells us that he had one of his wives and three of his sons killed because he thought they were a threat to his reign. So when our gospel today opens with “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,” it’s not just giving us a chronology. It’s setting up two ways of understanding power. There’s King Herod’s way, rooted in ego and violence and political manipulation, a power that is fraught with the kind of insecurity that would sooner murder you than talk to you. And there is Jesus’ way – not yet fully known by the world but growing day by day in that backwoods town of Bethlehem. Humble beginnings to signify that this kid would be a different kind of king.
The magi – or wise men, as we’ve come to know them – really should have known better than to show up on Herod’s doorstep. They were outsiders, magicians and priests from another ancient religion who may not have heard the tales of Herod’s bloodthirsty power grabs. Had they realized how unstable Herod was, perhaps they would have avoided that stop. They were probably just following protocol. You check in with one local king when you are searching for another.
They could not have known how badly Herod would take the news.
They could not have known what we know when we keep reading in this chapter of Matthew – how immediately and desperately Herod would want to destroy Jesus, forcing Mary and Joseph and the child to flee to the relative safety of Egypt.
They could not have known that Herod would then order the massacre of all the children ages two years or younger living in or near Bethlehem. When an insecure ruler like Herod feels threatened, things always turn deadly.
Herod is twisted and turned in on himself. Everything is about his need for power. Get too close to his torment, and your life will be at stake.
But the wise men are looking for something different. They’re seeking the child who has been born king of the Jews. A child. A child who comes to bring hope to a fractured, fallen world. To bring peace in the midst of violence.
In their quest the wise men give us some ways to think about living in a fractured, fallen world. Notice what they do.
First, they look up. They have come to find the child because they saw a star rising in the east, and they knew it pointed to something – or someone – special. They paid attention to the natural world enough to notice this bright light shining in the sky. They recognized it as something new, a beacon that called to them and summoned them to take a surprising journey. Had they stayed hunched over their desks with worry and fear, they might have missed it.
How often we miss the signs around us, the ones calling us to new possibilities. How often we hunch over our desks – or our phones – and fail to see what is begging for our attention.
The wise men also travel together. Tradition has assumed there were three of them because there are three gifts mentioned – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But I’ve often wondered if it was more than a small group, perhaps even a caravan that included women and children and animals and a whole messy community making its way from the East. In any case it was not just one guy finding his way to Bethlehem, searching all alone. They stuck together – even when they had to go home by another way to avoid Herod’s wrath.
How often we try to travel alone. And how quickly we learn that it doesn’t work well. It’s not just lonely; it’s dangerous.
When the wise men finally get to Jesus, they kneel and pay him homage. The verb that’s used here indicates that they either got down on their knees or flattened themselves on the ground in the way one honors a superior. These men of wealth and status have the humility to see that this child is more important and more powerful than they are.
How often we prefer to keep Jesus at a distance. We’d rather think of him as a wise teacher from long ago than someone who might change us, who might urge us to surrender our pride.
As we begin a new year, it’s a good time to remember that we are not the center of our own lives. It’s time to look up and wonder what God might be calling us to do. It’s time to look around and see who our companions are for the journey. It’s time for humility, for recognizing that we cannot save ourselves, however desperately we wish we could.
My sister Claire and I got our two nieces a telescope for Christmas. They’ve developed a keen interest in space, so we picked out a good telescope for beginners. Like any telescope, it needed to be aligned. During the daylight hours it needed to be pointed at distant object and adjusted with precision so that at night it would be easier to find and focus on the object that we were looking for, like the moon. It’s even more necessary because everything is moving all the time – the earth, the moon, the planets. When it’s aligned, the telescope can stay focused on what’s worth seeing.
All of us need a way to fix our gaze on what will keep us moving forward in faith. The world may feel like it’s spinning out of control, and in many ways that’s true. Herod’s power is always going to bring death and destruction. The power of the Christ child? That power brings life and salvation. That’s where we focus our attention when we are afraid or uncertain.
We look up. We travel together. We live with humility.
There are always more stars rising, more journeys to take.
Epiphany marks the official end of the Christmas season, but as Christians, we live as Christmas people always – people who know that the road opens up before us with new ways to share God’s love embodied in the Christ child.
Theologian Howard Thurman reminds us that Christmas continues when he writes[i]:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
The following sermon was preached by our Seminarian Leif McLellan.
“…And Precious Is Their Blood in His Sight.”
Blood. Bloodline, mixed blood, pureblood, bloodbath, blood pact, blood feud, signed in blood, blood sacrifice, blood relative, blood money. Blood infuses our language with so many different words and phrases. And all these phrases conjure up a wide variety of different feelings and images: family and history, pride and shame, gore and queasiness, faithfulness and fear—a whole range of realities and life experiences. Blood has this curious power in our imaginations and in our lives. I myself cannot stand the sight of blood before I start to feel a bit faint. Blood is, in fact, the stuff of life; it brings oxygen to our cells; it is how we talk about our family relationships; it connects us to those living and to those who came before us.
And we as humans have this odd tendency to value some blood over others. In Star Wars Episode 7, the central hero, a young woman named Rey, was abandoned as a little girl on a desert planet. There she lives a hard life as a scavenger waiting for her parents to return, although she has no living memory of them. Throughout the movie, we get flashbacks of Rey’s past as she gets swept up into the grand galactic conflict. But neither she nor the audience learns anything more about her parents. After Episode 7 hit the box office, Star Wars fans immediately began speculating about Rey’s bloodline. Many fan theories tried to connect her to the heroes of the old movies. She was important, so she must have inherited important blood. Or so the logic goes. However, this most recent Star Wars movie, Episode 8, dashes fans’ expectations. Rey did not inherit any heroic blood. She is special but not because of any special lineage. Her parents were nobodies and she is a nobody who still chose to fight against the forces of evil. Regardless of everyone’s assumptions and expectations, this young woman had precious blood.
In the psalm that we proclaimed together a few moments ago, we said a prayer for the blood of the poor and the oppressed, for the lives that society does not value. The psalmist—the author of the psalm—expresses to God a deep desire for a king to bring justice to Israel and the world. For the world is in clear need of justice. The poor are crying out in distress and the needy lack defense in the face of their oppressors. I can imagine this psalm being sung at a new king’s coronation, with new hopes and dreams for the beginning of a dynasty. The kingdom is weary from those in power taking advantage of the vulnerable. It seems that the previous king had let corruption, poverty, and inequality run rampant. The people are ready for a change.
The people have suffered so much for so long that they cannot but dream of a complete transformation of the world. The psalmist sings of majestic and beautiful renewal:
5 May [the king] live as long as the sun and | moon endure,
from one generation to another.
6 Let him come down like rain upon the mown field,
like showers that water the earth.
The psalmist implores God to let the dynasty rule for as long as the cosmic bodies stay in their courses. This rule of justice shall be like the fresh Summer rain that, after a drought, makes the grass and tress green again.
Finally, the psalmist’s tone shifts from wishing to virtual certainty: the king has compassion for the poor and the oppressed and “precious is their blood in his sight.” Precious is their blood in his sight. This phrase strikes me. What does it mean to see someone’s blood, their life, as precious? I know I feel valued when people listen to me; they show interest in my life and my story; they even laugh at my humor. Those who listen to me tend to build a strong relationship with me; they become like family. In fact, the people who find me most precious are my family—my blood, you might say. They know me and have invested so much of themselves in my life, especially when times were hard. Perhaps you can think of a time when you were struggling or hurting and someone took the time to listen to you…. This act of listening seems to be crucial in valuing another person’s life.
The psalmist prays that the king will begin the process of relationship building by listening to the oppressed so that he might see their blood as precious. In fact, the king must see them as family. As the psalmist hopes, “from oppression and violence he redeems their lives.” In other words, it is the king’s responsibility to literally pay for the freedom of the indentured and enslaved. In ancient Israel, when someone defaulted on their debts or fell into slavery, it was up to one of their family members to redeem them, to buy them back. The king, a man of royal blood, is expected to act as a family member to the lowest in society, to see their blood as valuable as his.
The author of this psalm prays to God and God responds AMEN. God responds, yes, the blood of the oppressed is precious. Our God who transcends all time and all space and all our wildest imaginations chose to take on human flesh. We celebrate Epiphany today because God made an appearance. God made an appearance to the peoples of the earth as a vulnerable baby, a child of a poor young mother and father, in a land ruled by a cruel puppet dictator under the largest empire the world had ever seen. So much could go wrong. Yet God chose to enter into the fragility of human life. God chose to have a real human body with real human blood. God chose to live and die in solidarity with the poor, the sick, the outcasts, to not only listen to the suffering of humanity but also to feel it in Godself. This ultimate act of compassion is part of God’s work to restore the broken relationships in this world.
The blood that ran in the veins of Jesus Christ comes with the wine we drink every Sunday. God has claimed us as God’s blood, God’s family. When we take communion we partake of one blood and one body. We are one family with Christ, with each other, and with those whom society deems unworthy. When we take communion we remember that God finds our blood precious and that this same precious blood resides in the poor and oppressed of our communities. Indeed, Christ lives in us and we live in Christ so that God might repair the relationships between us and the rest of God’s family.
This work of justice and reparation begins with listening. Last November I had the fortune of visiting Broad Street Church in Philadelphia. If you have not heard of Broad Street Church, I encourage you to look it up and go there if you get the chance. It is truly an incredible place. The ministry at this church started as a Sunday meal open to the public and has expanded to an enormous meal program that serves 7 meals, 6 days a week to the homeless of the city. The church not only serves meals, it also provides mental health services, dentistry, mail services (something particularly important for those seeking employment), as well as art therapy. But what really makes Broad Street remarkable is the way it treats every patron as an honored guest. The guests do not stand in line. Instead, they find their own seats at round tables and volunteers serve them like waiters at a proper restaurant. Every guest has their own story and, according to one of the pastors at Broad Street, because of the dignity and hospitality that the guests receive here, they begin to open up and share their stories. The guests do not remain faces in a crowd, but the pastors and volunteers at Broad Street listen to their stories and build relationships with them.
God is at work at Broad Street. God uses ordinary people to bring dignity to those who would otherwise not experience it. And the ministry there is growing. Over the years they have been serving more and more people. While the church is glad to serve as many people as they can, they also recognize that this growth has its roots in a larger societal issue. The city of Philadelphia as a whole needs to find a long term solution to its homelessness problem. So Broad Street Ministry has now set its eyes on advocating for legal and political action to transform the city. What has started with simple meal fellowship has turned into a real force for social change.
God’s work of justice is not yet finished. God is ready to repair the broken relationships and broken systems of this world. So I encourage us to listen to those who insist that society does not value them, whose lives don’t matter. Listening doesn’t mean agreeing 100% with what someone says or completely understanding where they come from. Listening means hearing their frustrations, their hurts, and their struggles. Listening means attempting to put our feet in other people’s shoes, like God walked in ours. In listening compassionately to these voices we hear the voice of God calling to us. God compels us into right relationship with those in need and God then uses us to restore justice for those whose blood is precious in God’s sight. AMEN