1In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “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.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They 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.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then 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.” 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On 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. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
I have heard it said that if the three wise men had been the three wise women, they would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, brought practical gifts, and there actually would be peace on earth. But I guess we’ll never know!
Today’s sermon is the third in a five part series about the characters in the Christmas story, and their encounters with one another. While we tend to be most impressed with divine visitations, shining stars, and choirs of angels, it is actually the simple human encounters that have the greatest potential to transform our lives. We’ve seen this in the encounters hinted at in Jesus’ family tree, and also in the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth in the gospel of Luke. But today, as we consider Matthew’s account of King Herod and the Wise Men, we’ll see that while encounters with other people have the potential to change us, sometimes they don’t actually change us. Sometimes we resist the encounter, and miss the opportunity to let our lives be transformed.
If you’re paying close attention to the sermon series, you’ll note that we’re not exactly going in chronological order. The Wise Men show up after Jesus is born, and next week’s encounter is Joseph and the Inkeeper, which presumably takes place before Jesus is born. We’re jumping around a bit.
Wise Men. The word in Greek is μαγοι, or “magi” which literally means “firefighters”–specifically firefighters from the deep south. We know they were firefighters from the deep south because we read that “they came from a fahr.” Just Kidding. Actually they came from the East. And μαγοι simply means astrologers.
There’s been a lot of speculation about the wise men throughout Christian history. At some point in the medieval era they got promoted to Kings (hence the song “We three kings”). The Bible doesn’t actually call them kings, nor does it specify how many of them there were, although from the three gifts listed, it is often assumed there were three. We’ve even given them names like Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar, and speculated that one was from Persia, one from India, and one from Arabia.
This is, at best, speculation. In fact, many modern biblical scholars think the wise men are entirely the invention of Matthew, who is trying to introduce Jesus as the new Moses. In Exodus, wise men come to Pharoah to warn him about the prophecied birth of a special child who will deliver the Jews from Egyptian oppression. Pharoah, in fear and anger, orders that all male Jewish infants be killed, but baby Moses escapes and eventually flees into the desert.
In Matthew’s story, wise men come to King Herod to warn him about the prophecied birth of a special child who will deliver the Jews from Roman oppression. Herod, in fear and anger, orders taht all male Jewish infants be killed, but baby Jesus escapes (ironically) into Egypt.
Whether or not there really were wise men, I think, is impossible to prove one way or another. And in any case, to dwell on their historical existence misses the point of Matthew’s story. Actually the point of Matthew’s story is all about missing the point of the story. Throughout Matthew’s gospel, when it comes to Jesus, the outsiders, the gentiles, the foreigners, who you’d think wouldn’t have a clue when it comes to a Jewish messiah…they get it. And the insiders, the Jews, the Pharisees, the Scribes, precisely the people who should recognize the signs…they don’t get it. They miss the point. So the outsiders become the insiders and the insiders become the outsiders. Classic Jesus move.
And while we’re focusing today on the encounter between the wise men and King Herod, notice that the wise men don’t actually go straight to Herod. Listen again to verses 1 and 2: “…wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” They’re asking anyone and everyone. That’s why, in the next verse, we read that “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” Then he calls together the chief priests and the scribes, so by the time we’re through, the guilty ones Matthew is incriminating here include King Herod, all the Jewish leaders, and the entire city of Jerusalem.
But King Herod is definitely the number one bad guy here. And where there is some doubt about the historical authenticity of the wise men, Herod is a very real, very historical figure, attested in many sources outside the bible. In fact, Herod had such a bad reputation, was so cruel and treacherous–even with his own family–that the Roman Emperor Caesar Agustus once said that he would rather be Herod’s pig than his son.
Matthew’s portrayal of Herod certainly fits this description, and adds decietful and canniving to the list. Herod calls the wise men to a private meeting and asks them to “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.”
I have often imagined this moment, this encounter between Herod and the wise men, in my mind. Did they see through his trick? They are *wise* men, after all. Herod is the “King of the Jews.” He had sons of his own, who eventually inherited his kingdom when he died. It wouldn’t even take that much wisdom to be suspicious about why the “King of the Jews” would want to “pay homage” to a baby prophecied to be his replacement.
In my imagination, this encounter is a tense, awkward one. The wise men appear just like they do in most nativities I’ve ever seen: They are tall, exotic, regal, adorned with the trappings of great wealth and power. I have a harder time imagining Herod, because he usually gets cut from the nativity scenes (which is a shame, if you think about it–like any good movie, they’d benefit from a truly diabolical villain!). But however he looks, Herod and the wise men are on equal footing. His cunning is matched by their wisdom. His authority matched by their dignity. There is no imbalance of power. They are equals in every sense.
And yet, when the meeting is over, the wise men seek out and find the messiah, the king of kings, the savior of the world. They left for their own country by another road, and I think the symbolic interpretation of that verse is that they went home changed, never the same for the experience.
Herod, on the other hand, doesn’t change much, or at all. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that when Herod was about to die, he was worried that no one would grieve or mourn for him. So he had all of the most important, well-loved citizens of Jerusalem rounded up with an order to kill them when he died, so that there would be grief and mourning at his death. Fortunately his children weren’t quite as cruel as he was, and they ignored that last order.
Three decades later, Jesus would teach his disciples that some who heard his teachings would never be able to understand because their hearts were hardened. This seems like a good description of Herod.
So what’s the difference between those whose hearts are hardened, like Herod, and those who seek the Lord, bowing down before his humble manger, and allowing their hearts and lives to be transformed?
And which one are you? We all think of ourselves as the wise men, of course–never Herod. But remember, the differences between the two are not so great. They are subtle, and I think sometimes it’s easy to find ourselves on the wrong side of the star.
Here are some differences:
1. The wise men were following someone else’s star. As ancient astrologers, they likely believed that stars were connected to people. A bright new star in the heavens was a sign of an important new person on earth. Each one of the wise men was important in his own right, in his own context, and yet, each one left that context behind to follow a greater light.
Herod, on the other hand, was following the light of his own star. He was most concerned with himself. The wise were following a star in order to see where and on whom it shone. Herod’s only interest was in extinguishing its light.
If we want to be like the wise men, we must always follow the greater light wherever it leads. We must be willing to acknowledge that we may not be the brightest star in the sky.
2. The wise men were following a star. They were on a spiritual journey–they were going somewhere, they had a direction and a dynamic purpose. They were willing to leave behind the place of their power and comfort, and journey into a distant land where they were strangers, where they were vulnerable.
Herod, on the other hand, was going nowhere. It is telling that he summoned the wise men to come to him, and then dispatched them to go find the child for him. Herod is playing it safe, walled up in his fortress, surrounding himself with those who are just as static, just as hardened as he is.
If we want to be like the wise men, we need to be ready to drop everything, to leave it all behind, to step out in faith, and out of our comfort zones, risking and hoping and believing that God will lead and guide us along the way.
3. Finally (and this one is important given the season) the wise men came to give of themselves. Long journeys were costly, but they judged the sacrifice to be a good one. The brought costly gifts and laid them at the feet of the savior. These powerful men bowed themselves at his feet, in a sign that they were willing to give their allegiance, their worship, their dignity. They gave much.
Herod, on the other hand, was intent on not giving up anything. He clutched and clung to his riches, to his title, to his power. He hoarded these things, and when a blessed opportunity presented itself, his paranoid, jealous, hatred only tightened his grasp.
If we want to be like the wise men, we must be willing to give and make sacrifices, to lay all of our treasures at the feet of the true king. We give gifts at Christmastime precisely because of this story–in memory of the gifts that the wise men gave to Jesus. But in our present-buying consumer-shopping Christmas-wrapping frenzy, we sometimes forget that our best and most precious gifts should be given to (and in the name of) the one who gave us everything, including his son.
All of our gifts pale in comparison to this, all our wisdom and power fades away, when our long journeys bring us at last to encounter a child lying in a simple manger, underneath a bright star.
Because even for the wisest of men, for the most powerful of kings, for the most hardened of hearts…love is still the greatest gift of all.