Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren
There are all sorts of fun facts about the three wise men. First of all, the only reason we assume there were three of them is that Matthew lists three different gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. He doesn’t tell us that there were three guys, just that however many men there were, they brought three different kinds of gifts.
“Wise men” is an assumption, too. These guys also get called “kings,” but the word Matthew uses is “magi,” meaning something like “magicians.” Magi were followers of the Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest religions with around 2.6 million people still practicing it today. Zoroastrians believe in one God, like Jews and Christians, and they also expect a Messiah to come and restore the world. It might have been that Zoroastrians from the East of Bethlehem also practiced astrology – paying close attention to the heavenly bodies and making meaning out of their movements for life on earth. So, it makes sense that when these faithful Zoroastrian men whose faith taught them that God would one day send a Messiah to earth to change the world noticed something new and different in the heavens, they set out to follow that star’s lead.
The Christian church celebrates these magi arriving and meeting Jesus in the holiday of Epiphany, which is always on the 6th of January. In many countries around the world, Epiphany is a much bigger holiday than Christmas. So what’s the big deal with these men from the East? Why are Jesus’ visitors celebrated, in most of the world, more than the birth of Jesus himself?
There are several reasons: first, that the magi were from far away and traveled long distances to catch a glimpse of this tiny baby savior means that God’s incarnation isn’t just for Joseph and Mary and the tiny city of Bethlehem, but for all the world. The magi hear about Jesus’ birth and travel far away from home to find him. It tells us that this thing that’s happening isn’t just for some people, not even just for the Jewish people, but for EVERYONE. Even foreigners, even weird magicians from far away.
And, the magi bring Jesus gifts. Of course, any newborn king would get showered with presents – even our own non-royal babies are often buried in tokens of good will and celebration. But the kinds of gifts that the magi bring are really interesting – riches, fancy perfumes, and the trappings of human power structures.
You can imagine how those packages looked once they opened them in the dirty stable where Mary and Joseph were hiding out…completely irrelevant to the task at hand. I heard someone say that if the magi had been women, or men more attuned to what a newborn requires, they’d have brought extra diapers, casseroles and offered to let Mary and Joseph get some sleep while they watched baby Jesus. The picture of these foreign stargazers showing up with royal gifts in the dark cave of a stable tells us just how strange what God is doing really is: this King is not going to act like all those other Kings. This new reign will be something very, very different.
And, actually, if we’ve been paying close attention to the story, we already know this. When the magi arrive in Jesus’ state, they start asking around for where this new King of the Jews has been born. King Herod, that old-model, tyrannical, power-hungry kind of King, hears that they’re asking around about some new-fangled kind of newborn King, and calls them to his palace to interrogate them.
Herod, you might or might not know, was an interesting character. He was friends with big time stars Marc Antony and Cleopatra and Marcus Agrippa, too. He took Antony’s side in epic Egyptian power struggles. He steadily increased his territory, and built enormous palaces, fortresses, and the Temple of Jerusalem. Herod was not Jewish, so it might seem strange that he’d put so many resources into rebuilding the sacred home of a religion not his own. But the Jews made up a large portion of his populace, and he seems to have fancied himself their protector, going to great lengths to win their favor and act as their patron. The relationship was not necessarily mutually agreeable. The Pharisees, Jewish leaders, did not appreciate Herod’s patronizing leadership. They saw him as an outsider prone to worldly excess, living dangerously in the halls of precarious worldly power, and they generally kept a safe distance from him.
But the magi were foreigners, probably unaware of all these political dynamics, not aware of the complicated relationship between Herod’s power and the Jews’ hope for messiah power. So, when Herod summoned the magi to tell him what’s going on, they’re honest. They tell Herod what they know: they saw a peculiar star that meant the new King had been born, and followed it all the way to this place. But they couldn’t find the exact spot where Jesus was, so they were asking around.
Herod, who must have been really anxious about this new info, sensing that his reign might be about to be threatened, called together all the priests and scribes from the Jewish world. He asked them what their faith told them about where the Messiah would be born. Herod, of course, wasn’t Jewish, just the state’s ruler over all of them, so he had no idea that the tiny little town out on the edges of his territory was the subject of ancient prophecies that explicitly threatened his own power. But the priests and scribes knew immediately what was going on. “Oh, yes, you’re talking about Bethlehem! That’s where this has been foretold to take place. Are you telling us that it’s HERE? The time has come?! Are you SERIOUS?”
Herod takes in the excitement of the scribes and priests and the deep curiosity of these foreign magi, and knows that something big is up. And, since he is Herod, hyper vigilant of all that might aid or detract from his ability to rule absolutely, he also knows that this big thing has great potential to interrupt his path toward greatness. So, Herod gets wily. He tells the magi to continue their search with this new information he’s provided them, to find the Messiah, and then to report back to him so that he, too, can go and worship him with some royal sorts of baby gifts. You can hear the duplicity in his lines right there in the text. You can see his sly smile as he formulates his plan to rid the world of this gigantic threat to his hold on absolute tyranny.
The wise men make their way to Bethlehem, where the scholars and priests have told them they’ll find the great, long-awaited miracle King, and – wonder of wonders – they do. There he is, little baby boy, far from home and shut out of every official establishment, hanging with his young, exhausted mother and travel-weary father in a barn. They give their ridiculous gifts, pay him the homage due, and “having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for home by another way.”
This is where our reading ends, today, but it is not where the story of Jesus, the Magi, and Herod ends. The next few verses tell us in plain, stark detail, what Herod’s reaction was to being disobeyed and played for a fool. He’d been expecting those magi back, trusting his informant plants to report back to him all the missing information about this threat to his reign. But they evaded him, allied themselves with the baby King, refused to participate in his rule of terror and might. They simply went home by another way.
Which, you might imagine, infuriated old King Herod. The stress of being a tyrannical dictator was starting to wear on him, and he’d suffered a few illnesses of both body and mind by this time. Even before this betrayal by the magi from the East, Herod had been be so far gone to madness that he’d murdered his wife, his children, his brother-in-law and mother-in-law. Soon after, he’d unsuccessfully attempt to kill himself and die of heart problems not too long later. So, you can imagine what sort of state of mind he was in when the newborn King of the Jews happened to be living in his territory and foreign visitors started taking the kid’s side over his, pledging their allegiance and their protection to this kid in a stable instead of to him.
Betrayed, infuriated and half crazed with madness, Herod needed to get rid of this threat. He ordered every male child under the age of two within the realm of his governance to be killed. Luckily, Joseph had heard in a dream that he should flee to Egypt, not back home to Nazareth, and not to a proper house in Bethlehem. Instead, Joseph and family fled, becoming refugees abroad until Herod finally died.
But all the rest of those babies in Bethlehem were not so lucky to be warned and have fathers who risked flight to save them. They were, in fact, killed by this state-sponsored terrorist, the ruler of the land, the one who fancied himself the protector of the Jewish people. We remember this in the church calendar as what’s called the “Slaughter of the Holy Innocents.” Jesus was spared, yes, but the tyrannical regime of Herod killed dozens, hundreds, of other innocent children.
This is not a part of the Christmas story that we talk about very often. We tend to imagine the three kings arriving at the manger as the end of the nativity play. The wise men from afar have arrived, and they’ve brought gifts! Yes! The story is complete! But this awful thing, too, is part of the story of Jesus’ arrival here on earth. This story of tyrannical governments, refugees fleeing violent lives, and state-sponsored killing of innocent people: it’s all right here in the Christmas story. It’s all right here in scripture.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Tamir Rice this week. Do you know who Tamir was? He was a twelve year old boy who lived in Cleveland, Ohio. Last November, he was playing in the park by his house with his older sister, who had to go home for a minute and left him alone. Tamir had his toy gun with him, and someone nearby saw him, a boy alone in the park with what looked like a weapon, and called 911. “It’s probably a juvenile,” the caller said, “and the gun is probably fake.”
Two Cleveland police offers showed up at the park, drove their squad car through the playing field, yelled out the window for Tamir to “drop his weapon,” and within two seconds – TWO SECONDS – had shot him in the stomach, inflicting fatal wounds that would kill him the next day. The officers offered no assistance to the boy. One of them tackled his sister, who heard the gunshots and came running, and they threatened his grieving mother, weeping and wailing upon hearing that her son had been shot, with arrest if she did not calm down.
Tamir is in the news this week because a year after police officers shot and killed him in his own neighborhood park, a Grand Jury refused, on Tuesday, to indict either of the two police officers in his death. They will not be charged, they will not be tried, they will not be sentenced or punished, not called to account in any legal way for killing an unarmed, innocent twelve year old boy in his own neighborhood park.
There is much, much more to the story of Tamir Rice – more about his family and more about the Cleveland police department, more about how his death is but one among many murders of black people at the hands of local police. But to have this decision by the Grand Jury come this week, the week when we are remembering the legacy of those holy, innocent children also killed by someone in power pretending to be a protector, also dead as a sacrifice at the altar of some version of the tyrannical version of a violence-hungry state gone mad with power…well, that is just impossible to ignore.
The Reverend Doctor Wil Gafney wrote a lament for Tamir on her blog this week. She said:
Herod didn’t invent state-sponsored genocide. Nor did it end with him.
My people are being slaughtered in the street, in our doorways, in our homes, in our beds, in our churches, in jail cells.
We can be murdered in public, on film and then be blamed for our own murder, with none held accountable.
Rachel, the heart-mother of Israel was said to have wept for the slaughter of the Holy Innocents as her spirit did in Jeremiah’s time, (Jer 31:15; Matt 2:18). She refused to be comforted because her children were gone.
I am so struck by the murder of holy innocents that continues to wrench our hearts. Herod didn’t invent state-sponsored killing. And it didn’t end with him, either. It still happens. Tamir Rice was and is one of our own, modern-day Holy Innocents.
And in the face of that reality – the heart wrenching news that kids are still being killed as sacrifices at the altar of an old-style tyrannical kind of power and kingdom – I often feel pretty helpless and unsure of how to act. I can’t unknow what I’ve learned. I can’t forget that Tamir was killed by his own police in his own neighborhood. I can’t refuse the reality that people whose skin is darker than mine are much more likely to face this kind of violence and obscene death. I can’t unknow any of that.
So, it is helpful, for me, to think about the magi. These faithful foreign men came, seeking a King. They knew what Kings looked like, they asked in all the right places to find out where royalty might be residing. They won an audience with Herod himself, gained his confidence and could have returned, coughed up the information and lived happily in his graces. The wise men were people of distinct privilege, maybe a little bit blind to what was really going on. But they didn’t stay blind.
What the magi discovered was really surprising. They found a king lying in a manger. The star led them to an unlikely place, but there in that dark, dank stable, they beheld the very face of God, and they were changed. They couldn’t unknow what they’d learned, couldn’t forget how God decided to come in this very tiny, helpless form on the margins of society, couldn’t refuse the reality that they had been shown a new King whose power lay not in tyranny or violence but in unexpected vulnerability. And so, having had their eyes opened and being unable to unknow any of what they’d learned, they “returned home by another way.”
What I hear in that simple phrase is the decision of the magi to ally themselves with the baby in the manger and not with the tyrant in the palace.
What I hear in that phrase is their agreement to avoid returning to the halls of power and, instead, follow this tiny prince out toward the margins.
What I hear is that the magi, suddenly confronted with some world-shaking truths about who the Messiah really was and how the Divine really operated, altered their path. Changed their trajectory. They couldn’t unknow what they’d learned, couldn’t ignore the horrific reality of Herod or the unimaginable grace of Jesus, so they shifted their allegiances and stood with the vulnerable one on the margins, the one born in a barn, threatened with death by the state, forced into becoming a refugee.
It makes a difference where we stand and who we trust. Imagine if the magi had retraced their steps and informed Herod of Jesus’ exact whereabouts. Imagine where we’d be, then.
The thing is, we are all magi. We are all seeking a Messiah. We are all having our expectations turned upside down, being surprised by the unbelievable, upside-down ways God is at work in the world. And once we’ve seen the face of God, we can’t unknow what it is we’ve learned. So: Will we turn around, go back the way we came, report our findings to the authorities and pretend to live lives of admirable respectability? Or will we choose to go home by another way, to ally ourselves with the Vulnerable King, the Refugee Messiah, the Great and Holy Innocent?