“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