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.