THE REV. ROBERTO DESANDOLI
Matthew 2: 1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men[a] 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,[f] until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped,[g] 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.
Welcome to the Sunday of Epiphany, to the real fulfillment of the Christmas Season J
Whether we have been aware of it or not, the Wise Men have been travelling to see the Christ Child ever since He was born on Christmas Day.
Epiphany is the day when the Wise Men finally arrive to pay him tribute, to give their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (symbolic of his kingship, divinity, resurrection, respectively).
Epiphany is a day for Christians to celebrate:
-With the 3 Wise Men in their tribute to the Newborn King
-With the 3 Wise Men as representatives of Christ’s Israel-transcending mission of salvation (that Christ is for Gentiles the world over)
-With the 3 Wise Men who walked right past Herod’s palace on their way to see the true King of Judea
The story of Christmas and the story of the 3 Wise Men is no-doubt familiar to many of us. We may in-fact be ready for a break; having been surrounded by Christmas decorations and songs and television specials over the last six weeks or so… however, in considering the Wise Men’s desire to see the true king in the land of Judea, we might find a new way of looking at this story.
Matthew tells us at the beginning of 2nd Chapter of his Gospel that the Wise Men arrived in Jerusalem and began asking about the Christ Child:
“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.”
Journeying from far away in the East, following the star, the Wise Men arrived into the capital of Judea unsure of exactly where to find the Newborn King.
In Psalm 72, the psalm we read together this morning, we find words of prophecy about this newborn king. Words that would have been familiar to Herod, the scribes and the temple priests, if not to the Wise Men from far away:
10 May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts. 11 May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service. 12 For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. 13 He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. 14 From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.
Matthew tells us that as the Wise Men were asking where they might find this Messiah, this Christ Child, Herod heard of them and became “frightened.”
What kind of King is “frightened” by an infant who is respected and revered by Kings from far and wide?
What kind of King is “frightened” by a child who delivers the needy from poverty? Who has pity on all who come before him?
What kind of King is “frightened” by a Newborn King who redeems the blood of those who have been oppressed with violence?
For us, as Christian people, we ought to be surprised by this fright; as people who know who Christ is, as people who recognize Christ as not just another infant born into poverty in the outskirts of Jerusalem, Herod’s reactions to the wise men and their questions ought to strike us as strange.
We ought to be confused by Herod’s “fright.”
We ought to be shocked by Herod’s scheming (when he tries to use the Wise Men to find Jesus for himself)
We ought to be horrified by what Matthew tells us later in the chapter – that having later learned that the wise men did not honor his request for them to share the Christ child’s whereabouts, Herod mounted a campaign of infanticide: killing every child “in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under.” (2: 16)
How did the situation in Bethlehem become so terrible? Why did Herod act with such injustice? Why was this “king” so terrified by an infant as to commit such an atrocity?
Let us hear the thing that frightened Herod again…
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.
The closest thing there is to a reason for Herod’s fright, a reason for Herod’s insecurity, a reason for Herod’s murderous fear, is that these Wise Men arrived into his province and his city and asked:
“Where is the king of the Jews?”
In asking this question in Herod’s city, they say the equivalent of:
“Where is the true king of the Jews? No, we’re not here to see that unremarkable man in the palace, we’re here to see the real king of Judea…”
You see, while Herod is no doubt the villain of this story; the one who is willing to scheme against a baby; the one who is willing to commit atrocity against a whole town later on, he is not remarkable. Herod doesn’t do anything to earn himself a place in history, besides being present and frightened.
To put this another way: while Herod is deserving of all of the “boos” and the rotten tomatoes we hurl at him in the great pageant of the Gospel, he is only important insomuch as he happened to be king when Jesus was born.
In the world of the Gospel: Herod hasn’t earned anything; either by his fright, his conniving, or his villainy.
The only reason we know Herod’s name is because he was at the right place in the right time when Jesus was born. The great, lasting insult to Herod’s legacy is that Jesus’ light shines so brightly that it even illumined this unremarkable earthly king.
And if there’s one thing an insecure ruler cannot stand, it is the reminder that neither the sun nor history revolve around him.
Herod’s day would eventually end. The days of our modern-day Herods will end and even though history will remember all of them (at least for a time), none will ever achieve the true status of “king” that belongs to Christ alone.
The primary Gospel message of the Epiphany is that Jesus, even as an infant, is everything we know Him to be:
Jesus is King of the Jews
Jesus is the one worthy of seeking by the Wise Men from the East
Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness that illumines absolutely everything around Him, even the darkness itself.
Let us not be mistaken, that is the Good News of this day.
However, there is a secondary piece of Good News in this story.
And this is the good news that the Herods of the world will ultimately not succeed in fooling those who are truly faithful to Christ.
Herod’s motivation in this story; the thing that sent him down a path of deep insecurity and villainy is that when the Wise Men arrived in Jerusalem and looked up at his palace, they already knew they had not found the true king of Judea
These Wise Men entered Jerusalem, they looked up at the palace and without giving it a second thought they asked “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”
“We’ve been following a star for untold miles, we don’t have time for this earthly palace or this earthly king, where is the Christ Child?”
As I said before, one of the things that the Wise Men represent in the great Christian story is Christ’s call to the Gentiles
One of the things that makes Christ different from the kings and the prophets of the Old Testament is that Christ calls everyone to faith in God through Himself, not just the nation of Israel.
This story and these Wise Men show us that long before Jesus had spoken His first word, He had already begun His mission of calling the Gentiles.
These Wise Men were not from Judea;
they didn’t know the God of Abraham and Moses and David…
they didn’t know the prophecies of Isaiah and of the Psalmists…
they weren’t trained to recognize the prophetic signs of the Torah…
But they followed the star.
In order to show the world that this King named Jesus Christ is different.
This King named Jesus Christ is not just the King of the Jews.
This King named Jesus Christ doesn’t just witness to the light.
This King named Jesus Christ is the light!
The Wise Men simply did not have time for Herod and his earthly Kingdom.
And if there’s one thing the Herods of the world cannot stand, it is being reminded that they aren’t as important as they think they are: that no matter how many tantrums they throw, no matter how many wars they start, no matter how many enemies they imprison, no matter how many walls they build… history will not hold them any higher than their shaky self-esteem holds themselves.
To prove this point, Matthew offers to us something that (upon second reading) is actually quite funny:
At verse 7 Matthew says:
“Then Herod secretly called for the Wise Men and learned from them the exact time the star had appeared.”
Herod had to call for the wise men in order to speak with them.
The Wise Men were not beating down Herod’s door.
The Wise Men were not in Herod’s waiting room.
The Wise Men were off preparing to find the true king in Judea and had to be found and asked to come before Herod
(…and what better victory can one ask for against a king who insists on his own importance and balls up his little fists in anger than that?)
Friends, you know that it is said that there are only 2 sure things in life: death and taxes.
Well given the 2000-year-old world that Matthew has invited us into this morning, given the world we live in that has insecure and violent Herods of its own, perhaps we should say there are 3 sure things in life: death, taxes, and Herods.
Friends, until Christ returns and sets the foundations of the Kingdom of God on top of the foundations of this world, we are sure to have these three things:
-Death, to break our hearts
-Taxes, to break our backs
-And Herods, to attempt to break our spirits
In this age of 21st Century Herods, (as in the age of 20th Century Herods who went by names like Mao, Hitler, and Stalin) we are not rid of these insecure little men; these little men with big tempers; these little men who have succeeded simply by willing to be more villainous or more opportunistic than their opponents.
And just like in Herod’s time, there are countless innocent people who suffer and die because of these little men.
People who starve
People who suffer violence and war
People who suffer poverty and disease
People who disappear, as political enemies.
And there are times when even the most faithful souls will waver:
Times when we feel that there is simply too much injustice in the world.
Times when we feel that there is simply too much poverty, too much violence, too much evil.
Times when we feel that the little men with big tempers are going to succeed in destroying what God has made to be beautiful and that there is nothing we can do to stop it.
And I’m sure there are people in our lives, in this city, in this room who right now struggle to believe that anything else can be the truth.
But there is something else. And there is someone else. And He’s small, and He’s vulnerable, and He’s deeply paradoxical, but He is the sweetness of life itself; even amongst all of the bad things in the world.
When I was training for ministry, I worked with a wonderful mentor in Vancouver named Rev. Jim Smith. And at the time I mentored with Rev. Smith, I was still pretty rough clay; not very confident in my preaching; not at all confident in my leadership skills; and I worried an awful lot about what would happen in my future in ministry, and Rev. Smith told me something that I repeated to myself constantly then, and still recall often now; and that is this:
“There’s only one way to fail at ministry. And that is to fail to tell the people that they are loved.”
And so for all of you who struggle to believe that such a broken world can be redeemed, let me say this:
God is Love and God is here to love us. (x2)
Christ has been born in Bethlehem
Christ is the true King of Judea and the world
The Wise Men who walked past Herod’s palace on the way to Bethlehem have arrived to pay him homage
And these Wise Men have secured our place in Christ’s mission of reconciliation for the whole world.
When the Wise Men finally arrived at the home of Mary and Joseph, they came bearing three gifts. Three gifts that have been repeated to us every Christmas Season. Three gifts that we have been reading in Christmas cards and hearing through tinny supermarket speakers for the past six weeks:
Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh.
Gold to crown him King.
Frankincense to mark his divinity. And,
Myrrh to recognize his death and resurrection.
These three gifts have been offered by the Wise Men for every Gentile of every time and place, including our own.
Each of our names have been written on these gifts because we too have recognized that this child is no mere child at all.
When we struggle within ourselves or when we meet those who struggle; much troubled by the latest news made by the Herods of the world, let us not forget our mission and our task as Christian witnesses:
To offer the assurance of love in Christ.
To recognize the only true kingship in this world or the next.
And to offer each other the blessed opportunity to go with the Wise Men and add our own names to these gifts: a gift to crown Him as king, a gift to praise Him as God, and a gift to know that he has died to save us from sin.
A truth and a love that no earthly power can separate us from.