God’s grace and peace be with all of you.
Merry Christmas! Technically, today is the 8th day of the season of Christmas, so I hope each of your true loves gave you the traditional eight maids-a-milking. The 12 days of Christmas run until Epiphany, January 6th, but we’re going to observe Epiphany a bit early. On this day we remember the arrival of the last, and most mysterious, witnesses to the birth of Jesus: the magi.
We see them in our nativity scenes: three men, wearing crowns, bearing gifts, often accompanied by a camel. We’re familiar with the song about them: “We three kings of Orient are.” Only, they’re not. You see, most of the stuff we think about the magi is either wrong or, at best, not in the Bible. They weren’t kings and the Bible doesn’t say there were three of them. The names they have been given by tradition—Melchior, Balthazar, and Caspar—aren’t in the Bible. And if you have them in your nativity scenes hanging out next to the shepherds with the newborn Jesus in the manger, then I have bad news, because it took the magi nearly two years to get to Bethlehem to meet Jesus.
Let’s take a look at what we do know about these magi. The gospel of Matthew only tells us they came “from the east” and brought three very expensive gifts with them, which is why we traditionally think there were three magi.
Most likely, these magi came from Persia—modern-day Iran—and may have been priests of the cult of Zoroastrianism. We know they studied the stars, which probably means they practiced astrology. The magi saw a star and took it as an omen, a sign, of a very important birth. They followed the star to Judea, searching for a king.
When we hear the story of the magi, we often center our attention on the image of these visitors gathered around the infant Jesus. We imagine how they bowed low and presented their gifts. We wonder how Mary must have felt, suddenly playing host to foreign dignitaries. We want to include the magi in our Nativity scenes, want our focus to be on their encounter with Jesus.
But in fact, it is the magi’s encounter with Herod where we should focus our attention. Yes, the magi brought gifts from foreign lands for Jesus. Yes, the magi are the first to honor Jesus as a king. But the emphasis in Matthew chapter 2 is on Herod, on those who do not welcome and honor Jesus, king of the Jews.
Before they find Jesus in Bethlehem, the magi go to Jerusalem, to King Herod. “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” the magi ask. Herod, in response, is frightened. He is not happy to hear about this new-born king. After all, Herod is the current “king of the Jews;” he wants to protect his position. He wants to hold onto the power he has. He does not want to hear about a new, divinely appointed king.
Maybe it’s not so surprising that King Herod wouldn’t be happy to hear about competition for the throne. But it is surprising, I think, that “all Jerusalem” shares in Herod’s displeasure. The promised king and savior of the people has been born—God’s people ought to be ecstatic! They should be singing and dancing in the streets. And yet, the birth of the Messiah is not greeted with enthusiasm, but with fear. The people are not excited to hear this news; they are threatened by it. For them, the Messiah is not a hope-filled promise, but a sign of disturbing and unpredictable change.
When Herod is visited by the magi, he is frightened. He finds out from his scribes that the Messiah is supposed to be born in Bethlehem, and he learns from the magi how long ago the star appeared. He instructs them to return to him after they have found the child, saying, “bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” Of course, we know Herod has no intention of paying homage to Jesus.
If we keep reading in Matthew chapter 2, we discover that Herod wants to kill the child Jesus, to protect his own claim to the throne. Because the magi are warned in a dream not to return to Jerusalem, Herod is not able to find out exactly who the Messiah is. But Herod knows when and where the child was born, and so he orders the slaughter of all the children in Bethlehem who are two years and younger. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, meanwhile, escape to Egypt thanks to a warning from an angel—the Holy Family were refugees, fleeing for their lives to a foreign land.
This part of Matthew’s gospel, known as the slaughter of the innocents, is one of the darkest parts of scripture. It’s a painful reminder of how awful human nature can be: a king, threatened by the loss of his power, is willing to kill scores of innocent children. A people, frightened by the prospect of change, carry out the genocidal order.
The story of Epiphany is a story about how people will respond to Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God. The magi—despite being foreigners, outsiders—treat Jesus like a king. Herod treats Jesus like a threat that must be eliminated, no matter the cost. At the end of Jesus’ life, we will see the same dynamic played out once again. Jesus is welcomed like a king into Jerusalem, then put to death by the religious and political leaders who are threatened by who Jesus is and what he represents.
The story of Epiphany also presents a choice. The magi have to choose whether to return to Herod as he asked, or leave by a different road. Will they enable Herod’s murderous intent, or will they defy authority? Will they resist the existing power structure?
The magi return home by a different road. In the story of Epiphany, they are not merely passive witnesses, impartial observers. They have made a choice—a choice to defy the powers of this world, the powers that are threatened by Jesus. They have chosen Jesus over Herod.
What about us? What will we choose? Which side will we be on?
Will we place ourselves on the side of earthly power? Will we choose Herod and his fear and his violence? Or will we place ourselves on the side of Jesus, with shepherds and foreigners?
Of course we say we’re on the side of Jesus. It seems obvious. But what happens when we are confronted with the choice between Herod and Jesus in the present day?
Do we side with modern-day Herod, with political power and military might? Do we kneel and pay homage to wealth and fame and earthly power? Do we choose all the trappings of “success” as it’s defined by the world, and participate in the violence and suffering it causes?
Or do we side with Jesus, when Jesus appears in the tear-streaked face of a refugee? Do we bow low and honor the lowly? Do we align ourselves with shepherds and magi, farm workers and foreigners, in honoring the Christ child? When violence breaks out—and the Herods of this world will always resort to violence when threatened—do we passively participate? Or do we defy the powers of this world, and protect the most vulnerable?
Epiphany is the story of God’s glory, God’s power, being revealed to the world in the face of an infant. It is the story of worldly powers, threatened by God’s arrival, and willing to do anything to preserve their position. It is the story of unlikely visitors who become collaborators in God’s intention. It is the story of a choice: a choice between God’s kingdom and the kingdoms of this world.