6 Jan 2019 Epiphany
Isa. 60: 1-6; Ps. 72; Eph. 3: 1-12; Mt. 2: 1-12
God, in a world that stokes hatred and fear, let us be a people who choose to forgive. For in forgiving, we are loving and thereby living as you command. Amen.
There’s a middle east crisis. A brutal ruler who has and will murder anyone that challenges his authority has been panicked into action when some astrologers announce that a new King has been born in his country. As a result, there’s a refugee crisis, a flight to Egypt, and a massacre of murderous brutality carried out by the military against his own innocent people.
But of course, that happened a couple of thousand years or so ago, not likely that anything like that would happen today.
Our gospel reading from Matthew is only half a story. Today we hear of the arrival of the magi at Herod’s palace in Jerusalem, but the second half, with the family of Joseph, Mary and Jesus becoming refugees feeling to Egypt, and what’s often referred to as the massacre of the innocents, that turns up just before Christmas in our readings. But it takes away from the horror of what happened as a result of the magi’s visit.
So, let me introduce you to Herod and politics at that time. The Romans are the ruling power. They took Jerusalem in 63 BCE, and put a man on the throne called Antipater, who wasn’t even Jewish. He was from nearby Idumea which was to the south of Judah. What followed was out of the storylines of Shakespeare and Macbeth. Antipater ruled Galilee, and his power was shared with his sons, Phasael and this Herod who is in our gospel reading. Within a few years, Antipater had been poisoned and Phasael had killed himself. Guess who took control, Herod, or Herod the Great as he came to be called. He was brutal, and he eventually took control of Galilee, Samaria, and Judea, including Jerusalem, as well as areas to the east of the Jordan, and to the north of Galilee. He ruled a very, very large area. This was a powerful man. He’s a man who has converted to Judaism, and is seen ambiguously by many Jews, after all he starts to build an extraordinary new temple, and yet supports Rome and he’s politically ruthless.
And in 30 BCE he was crowned by the Emperor Octavian as King of the Jews.
And that’s unfortunate when the magi come calling. They ask ‘Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews’, and that’s Herod’s title.
And the magi? They are thought to be astrologers, experts on telling the future from the stars. And probably from Persia. They were probably well thought of in their own country, but in Israel and the bible, astrologers are not highly thought of. In fact, one writer describes them as palm readers and horoscope writers, they are undesirables.
And they come to this powerful, brutal man, probably in his own, extravagant palace in Jerusalem. They come to Herod and ask him about a new King of the Jews. And they talk about seeing a star, now in legends of the time usually precede the birth of an emperor. And they are from the East, and have seen the star in the east, which is beyond the Roman Empire.
Not surprising then that Herod is afraid. And all Jerusalem with him?
What’s intriguing then is that he gets the chief priests and scribes, the Jewish temple authorities, to ask them about the Messiah, and where he’s going to be born. Which suggests that Herod has either done some homework on his Jewish faith, or maybe there’s Messiah-talk going on, which from other sources, seems quite likely.
Herod has power, but in the same way that other rulers in the bible are often portrayed, he’s nervous around supernatural happenings, and, as we know, it seems he will go to any lengths to stop a threat to his power and his Kingdom.
He then talks to the magi in secret, finding out some details, like when this phenomenon first appeared, and telling them that he wants to pay homage to this King. Maybe that’s why he’s keeping it quiet, after all probably most people living in Jerusalem would know what he’s capable of and wouldn’t anticipate a good outcome to this. So, he keeps it his little secret.
Now the rest of the story by comparison happens quite quickly in the narrative. They go, they find, they pay homage, offer their gifts, and then they get a dream telling them to go back a different way.
And finishing off the story, God sends Joseph another dream, to flee. They become refugees heading to Egypt, because ‘Herod is about to search for the child to destroy him.’
And when Herod sees he’s been tricked, he’s ‘infuriated’, and kills all the children under the age of two who are around or in Bethlehem. He lives up to his reputation.
Is this the story of Herod more than the magi? Is it ‘real’? Well, Herod was a ruler at that time, he was brutal, it’s been said this is surprisingly and realistically violent. It fits him. But Matthew is using this for a theological purpose. In the previous chapter he’s been telling us about Jesus, the Son of David and son of Abraham, the Messiah, and ‘God with us’, Emmanuel. Herod’s power and authority are challenged by Jesus’ birth and by the idea that this baby is King of the Jews.
Power deals ruthlessly with challenge and the good news. Political power cares little for the poor, the ordinary people, or for the Messiah born in this strange way, in strange circumstances. Matthew is telling us to watch out for the unexpected, God works in mysterious ways.
For the first hearers of the gospel they would have been listening after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, so some eighty or so years later. They would know the dreadful cataclysm that Rome and its political power could unleash. The destruction of Herod’s magnificent temple shows us that his legacy didn’t last that long.
Maybe Matthew is reassuring his hearers that this connects back deeply into the past, all the references into the Jewish bible, that the events in some way fulfil those passages; and other allusions to the stories of dreadful times when dreams were significant, like with Daniel, and to Joseph in Genesis, and of Moses and the idea of Jesus being brought out of Egypt. Matthew sees the dreadful events but wants to set them in a cosmic context, with its angels and dreams, somehow or other he is saying God is in control, even if it doesn’t seem like it.
What does it mean for us? There are times when our world seems cataclysmic, issues of refugees, the environment, nationalism and globalisation, and political leaders who use power in ways which seem destructive. Maybe the call to us is not to pay attention to where political and worldly wisdom would point, or to notice when those powers are paying more attention to their own good than anyone else’s.
Maybe this is about how Matthew sees a God who uses the unexpected, a different way, people who are not always esteemed or thought highly of, like the magi, or in Luke’s gospel, those shepherds on the night-shift.
Is Matthew acknowledging the lack of justice in the world, the evils which are done, and maybe is suggesting that there’s something about this baby, this new child-King, who will point us to a different way? In some ways this story points us towards the Jesus of the sermon on the mount, who will challenge political and religious power. Who started life ‘on the run’ from Herod. And it is legitimate to ask, where is God in all this horror? Matthew’s nativity story leaves us with a grim reminder of the fragility of life. That it doesn’t always work out well. Yet he is still God with us.
Maybe this is inviting us to watch out for the unexpected.
Maybe we need to be dissenters like the magi who chose not to go back to Herod, in a small way to stand up against the tyrant?
Maybe we need to be suspicious of political, religious, powerful authorities, instead to look to the less reputed, those outsiders, the foreigners, who bring unexpected gifts, and might thus threaten the self-interest of the powerful.
And, of course, what are our destructive self-interests?
So, to watch out for the unexpected, the small nudgings in our lives, the individuals who maybe are not the ones which the world values. God is with us in mysterious ways. Are we to follow this Emmanuel, God with us, even when disaster and catastrophe strike?
And, who knows what this year might bring?
So, what might be the unexpected in our lives, or the life of our community? In what ways may God be nudging us, or calling us to listen to something unexpected? What are God’s mysterious ways in our life? In what sense is God Emmanuel, God with us?