A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas and Epiphany (03/01/21): Unexpected Homage, Unexpected Opposition

 Unexpected Homage, Unexpected Opposition

Matthew 2:1-12

The birth of Jesus is announced in Jerusalem by the arrival of a group of foreign magicians! We call them wise men, and in comparison to most of their contemporaries they seemed wise. They studied the stars, and other natural phenomena, in order to discern what was happening or about to happen. We shouldn’t forget that the Bible actually calls these men “Magi.” Nor should we overlook the connection between the words “magi” and “magic.” On the hills around Bethlehem Jesus’ birth was announced to shepherds by angels. In Jerusalem, the same birth is announced to the great and  powerful by a group of strange foreigners!

At the very least this indicates that the change that God is bringing about in Jesus is observable from the outside. Something in the nature of things has changed with the birth of this child. A change that could be observed by those who looked closely at these things. As they themselves put it: 

Where is the child born to be King of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising.

Something fundamental has changed about creation. The sky itself has been altered. And these strange men have seen it. What God is doing is visible on the outside. Which rather begs the question: Why was it not spotted on the inside?

The whole history of this people,  the people of Israel,  their whole history has been waiting for this moment. This is the time they have been living for when God would intervene directly to save his people. There is a whole class of people in this society dedicated to looking for this :

The chief priests and the scribes of the people.

In some very really sense this is what they are for. They exist to get the people as a whole ready for this moment. But it would seem they were as surprised as everyone else in Jerusalem when the magi showed up.

Or were they? I do wonder about the chief priests and the scribes, and about their attitude and reaction to Jesus. After the magi arrived and when Herod asked them:

Where was the messiah to be born?

I wonder if they didn’t already know the question they were about to be asked. If they too hadn’t already discerned that some fundamental change in the universe had taken place, and that this change meant that the messiah had arrived. But then they, like the rest of Jerusalem, were afraid of how Herod would react when he got the news. So they kept the information to themselves. But their plan to keep quiet and to keep safe failed when the wise men rode into town. I wonder if the chief priests and scribes of the people know all along that Jesus is the Messiah. That from the very moment of his birth to the events of that last week in Jerusalem that climaxes with Jesus’ execution, they know but are afraid of what it means. Like so many religious people, when the decisive moment comes, the chief priests and the scribes suffer a failure of nerve and a loss of faith. Faced with their world being turned upside down with what God is about to do; afraid of the consequences and the reaction of the power of this world, which is always represented by people as cruel as Herod; and looking at the power empire, not really trusting that God can overcome such power, they do what religious people often do: They side with the status quo. They try to keep things the same rather than let God do what God wants to do

The wise men present Herod with news he doesn’t want to hear. They announce to him the birth of a rival:

When King Herod heard this he was afraid.

Even though he wields great power Herod is afraid. He is constantly anxious about threats to his rule. From the top there is only one direction to go, and that is down. The more you have, the more you have to lose. And the more anxious you become about the possibility of that loss. Herod suffers from continuous anxiety about his position. So much so that he has already murdered half his family to be sure to eliminate any threat to his rule. Perhaps more clearly all the other people in this story, and still better than most people now, Herod understands who Jesus is. He knows that his rule, and the rule of every king and every government is called into question by the presence of Jesus. For most people, that is for everyone who doesn’t presume to rule in the world, for most people Jesus’ arrival can be greeted as good news. When the angels show up on your hillside, or when the wise men ride into town this is a cause for celebration. But for rulers and others who possess power and wealth Jesus’ arrival is bad news. Their game is up. The kingdom which Jesus establishes replaces and supersedes all the other kingdoms of the world. Jesus’ kingdom demands a loyalty and obedience that rulers like Herod and all the kingdoms of the world demand exclusively for themselves. Jesus’ rule is a better rule than any that those kingdoms can offer. Jesus genuinely saves his people.

So Herod has a problem with Jesus. Herod knows how he should respond to the arrival of the Messiah. He knows he should go and pay homage. He knows he should give thanks and praise God for what God is doing. But we know that he is lying when he says that that is what he wants to do. Herod is concerned only for himself, and for his on-going position of wealth and power. So he can only reject, and deny, and ultimately attempt to destroy Jesus.

At first the wise men don’t realise this. They are wise. But they have rather limited knowledge. They know enough to celebrate the birth of the King of the Jews. And they do so by bringing appropriately symbolic gifts: Gold, the metal always associated with the wealth and power of rulers; Frankincense, whose smoke as it burns represents the presence of the divine and whose fragrance symbolises the sweetness of prayer; And myrrh, a spice used in embalming symbolising the fate of every human who was ever born, death. This much the wise men know, that the child who has been born brings together kingly rule, divine presence and human frailty all in one place. But as outsiders their knowledge is limited. Observing the phenomena of nature, like the rising and setting of stars, can only take you so far towards an understanding of God. There is no way to go from what we can see, or observe or reason, to a true knowledge of God. And our understanding of the world always distorts our understanding of God. Which is all too evident from the big mistake the wise men make. They go to Jerusalem. They make the assumption that more or less everyone would make about a new born king. They assume they would find him in a palace. It is the same mistake that is so often made about God. An assumption that is so often made is that God’s power must look like human worldly power. So looking at the world the one place we might never look for God is as a child in an out of the way town like Bethlehem. Which is why God, the true and living God, can only be found with the assistance of scripture.

When the chief priests and scribes are called in to redirect the wise men that is where they look. Their answer comes from prophecy:

In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written: “And you Bethlehem in the land of Judah  are by no means the least of the rulers of Judah, for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

Who God is, and what God does can only be fully known by paying attention to the whole story. Of which these scenes in Jerusalem and Bethlehem are themselves part.

In the end the wise men are warned off going back to Herod. In his own land the king’s word should be law. Herod has been quite explicit in his instructions, in his commandment even, to the wise men:

Go and search diligently for the child and when you have found him bring me word

The wise men disobey the king! Faithfulness often requires resistance to the status quo. A resistance which the chief priests and the scribes have refused to offer. The wise men going home by another road is an act of civil disobedience. The kind of act which faith frequently requires. Because the power of this world knows and fears Jesus and seeks to deny and destroy him. The chief priests and the scribes’ failure of nerve and loss of faith meant that they could not and would not act for God against Herod. Discipleship requires this kind of resistance which the wise men show first.


Unexpected Homage, Unexpected Opposition by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

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