St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

Epiphany 2007

In the time of King Herod

Ser­mon preached at Enmore, Epi­phany, Sunday 8th Janu­ary 2017

Read­ings: Mat­thew 2.1–12; Eph­esians 3.1–12

Mat­thew begins his account of the vis­it of the Magi by telling us that it occurred ‘in the time of King Herod’. If you were writ­ing about an event that had occurred in Sydney in the past week I won­der what time ref­er­ence you might wish to use for the bene­fit of later gen­er­a­tions read­ing your account? In the time of P.M. Mal­colm Turn­ball, in the 65th year of the reign of Queen Eliza­beth 2, in the 4th year of the arch-epis­copy of Dr. Glenn Dav­ies; there are plenty of options. Mat­thew loc­ates the epi­phany event-the appear­ance or mani­fest­a­tion of Jesus to the Gen­tiles by ref­er­ence to Herod because the story he is about to unfold is in many ways a tale of two kings.

Herod’s time sig­ni­fies the so called real world, the world of polit­ics, the world where rulers believe that they determ­ine the course of events. The story of Jesus’ birth and the events that fol­low it, is not a myth­ic­al story, but a story that shapes the time in which we live. The Herod we meet in Mat­thew 2 is Herod the Great who was declared King of Judea by the Romans in 37 B.C. Although the date of his death is dis­puted (4B.C. – 1B.C.) it is likely that he died in the year that Jesus was born. He was a ruth­less tyr­ant but earned the title ‘the Great’ for two reas­ons: he man­aged to main­tain peace for over thirty years in one of the most trouble­some parts of the Empire and he was a great build­er. He was respons­ible for build­ing the temple in Jer­u­s­alem, which pleased his Jew­ish con­stitu­ency, he rebuilt the city of Samaria and built the port city of Caesarea. In his later years he became increas­ingly para­noid and was respons­ible for the death of two of his sons and one of his wives. His beha­viour in Matthew’s nar­rat­ive is con­sist­ent with the pic­ture we have of him from oth­er sources.

Matthew’s story of the vis­it of the Magi is both mys­ter­i­ous and unex­pec­ted. The story raises a whole host of ques­tions-what was this star the wise men saw, who were they and where did they come from, how did they know the star sig­ni­fied the birth of a King of the Jews? We have no way of know­ing the answer to any of these ques­tions. The story is unex­pec­ted because Mat­thew is the most Jew­ish of our four Gos­pels and Mat­thew does not come across as one giv­en to flights of fancy. In the end we must simply listen to the text and be open to receive the mes­sage the story con­veys. In this endeav­our we may find the artists and poets are bet­ter guides than the scholars.

The arrival of the wise men in Jer­u­s­alem search­ing for the child born king of the Jews pro­duces not joy but fear. Herod is frightened and all Jer­u­s­alem with him. Herod’s fear of this vul­ner­able child reveals the depth of his own fra­gil­ity. The Herods’ of this world rule by employ­ing fear as a means of con­trol. If you do not obey me the con­sequences will be dire. The last thing Herod wants is a new rival for his throne. The estab­lish­ment in Jer­u­s­alem who have learnt to live with Herod and get what they want are also keen to main­tain the status quo. Herod seeks advice from the reli­gious author­it­ies as to the likely loc­a­tion of the new king and learns that Beth­le­hem in Judea is the favoured town. Hav­ing eli­cited the inform­a­tion he needs Herod sends the wise men off to Beth­le­hem with the instruc­tions to search dili­gently for the child and to let him know when they find him.

There is a stark con­trast between Herod’s rule and the rule of the child born in Beth­le­hem. Herod held power only because it pleased Rome to have him reign over this tur­bu­lent region. Jesus was born in an unim­port­ant vil­lage in an occu­pied land, a small out­post of the great Roman Empire. His birth was unnoticed by Rome and although he would even­tu­ally be killed under Rome’s author­ity, his death would pass largely unnoticed as well. How could Rome have known that this power­less, itin­er­ant preach­er would be the cause of one of the most decis­ive polit­ic­al chal­lenges it would face? Stand­ing before the Gov­ernor Pil­ate, anoth­er petty tyr­ant like Herod, Jesus will one day be asked, ‘Are you a King’ and he will reply, ‘My king­dom is not from this world. If my king­dom were from this world my fol­low­ers would be fight­ing…’  In his per­son and in his work, Jesus is God’s embod­ied king­dom. If we want to see what the king­dom of God is like, we look not to a set of ideals but we look at Jesus him­self. In the words of Karl Barth, “Jesus is Him­self the estab­lished King­dom of God.” Cen­tur­ies earli­er the great schol­ar Ori­gen expressed the same view with his state­ment that ‘Jesus is the king­dom in per­son’ – the auto­basileia.

With Herod’s dir­ec­tions to assist them, the wise men fol­low the star until it stops over the place where the child and his par­ents are to be found. They are filled with joy when they real­ise the jour­ney is over and the quest suc­cess­ful. The first response on see­ing the child is to pay him homage, in short to wor­ship him. When we under­stand that we are in the pres­ence of the divine, wor­ship is the only pos­sible response. We can only assume that it was the Spir­it of God him­self who gave to these for­eign vis­it­ors the insight that this child was worthy of their wor­ship. St. Paul tells us that it is only by the Spir­it of God that any of us are able to make the con­fes­sion, ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’ and to offer him worship.

The gifts offered by the wise men have been a source of much spec­u­la­tion through­out the cen­tur­ies. With a story rich in sym­bol­ism we should not be sur­prised at this. Schol­ars tell us that by medi­ev­al times there were at least six dif­fer­ent mean­ings giv­en to the gifts. St. Bernard’s view that the gifts were intensely prac­tic­al is attract­ive: gold because Jesus’ par­ents were poor, incense because the stable stank, myrrh to get rid of the ver­min and to “com­fort the tender mem­bers of the child.” The only prob­lem with this inter­pret­a­tion is that by the time the Magi arrived it is very unlikely that the Holy Fam­ily was still housed in a stable. I have always been drawn to the mean­ings found in the well- known Car­ol by J.H. Hop­kins, ‘We three Kings’. Verses 2,3,and 4 are worth quot­ing in their entirety: “Born a king on Beth­le­hem plain, Gold I bring to crown him again- King for ever, ceas­ing nev­er, over us all to reign.” “Frankin­cense to offer have I; Incense owns a deity nigh: Pray­er and prais­ing, all men rais­ing, Wor­ship him God most high.” And finally verse 6, “Myrrh is mine; its bit­ter per­fume breathes a life of gath­er­ing gloom: Sor­row­ing, sigh­ing, bleed­ing, dying, sealed in a stone cold tomb.” The car­ol acknow­ledges that the story of the wise men com­ing to Jesus does not have a happy ending.

When the wise men out­wit Herod and return to their own coun­try by anoth­er way-they are not called wise for noth­ing- Herod is incensed and embarks on some eth­nic cleans­ing in Beth­le­hem, get­ting rid of all the infant Jew­ish boys under two years of age. His­tor­i­ans com­plain that we have no oth­er record of this mas­sacre but Beth­le­hem was a small town and the death toll was prob­ably only about twenty, an event hardly worthy of men­tion in a reign marked by ruth­less beha­viour. Chil­dren remain vul­ner­able- we have wit­nessed on our tele­vi­sions the anguish of par­ents in Aleppo hold­ing the bod­ies of their dead chil­dren and in our own coun­try we still have appalling high infant death rates in our indi­gen­ous com­munit­ies. Matthew’s story of the nativ­ity moves swiftly from the epi­phany, Jesus acknow­ledged as King by for­eign­ers rep­res­ent­ing the nations out­side Israel, to a dark­er world of polit­ic­al intrigue, murder and fam­il­ies made refugees. Herod’s world and our world are not so very dif­fer­ent. We live in a world riddled with fear and uncer­tainty where inno­cents still die every day as a res­ult of war, pre­vent­able ill­ness and hun­ger. At the heart of Matthew’s nar­rat­ive is the belief that Jesus came into this very real and troubled world, not to con­demn it but to save it. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us- the God who chose to die for us so that in Christ’s resur­rec­tion we might exper­i­ence new­ness of life and hope for the future. John says of the com­ing of Christ that ‘the light shines in the dark­ness and the dark­ness has not over­come it.’ Today we cel­eb­rate the light that has shone on us and in response to that light let us offer the gift of our devo­tion and our love. Love for God and love for his suf­fer­ing world.

Philip Brad­ford