The nativity set on our altar is a beautiful portrayal of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. From the gospel of Luke, we have baby Jesus who is lying in a manger. His parents are staring blissfully down at him, and Mary is clearly pondering things in her heart. We also have a shepherd boy with a lamb draped over his shoulders. He has come to worship the Christ Child.
From the gospel of Matthew, we have Magi from the East who are offering their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Thankfully, one of them is dark skinned because the rest of these people are awfully white for a bunch of Middle Easterners!
But let’s set aside their inaccurate ethnicity and consider what is missing from this nativity scene. There is a more ominous presence that is not represented here. However, it is equally as important to the story.
Luke places Jesus’ birth in the midst of the ruling powers of his time. Caesar Augustus, the great nephew of Julius Ceasar, is the leader of the Roman Empire. Quirinius, a Roman aristocrat, is governor of Syria. Matthew places Jesus’ birth under the watchful eye of Herod the Great, who was Jewish, but ruled Judea on behalf of Rome. These three rulers in the nativity story remind us that not everyone was running to Bethlehem to worship the Christ Child. The news of a newborn king would not be met enthusiastically by everyone. Herod would even commit genocide in order to eliminate this threat to his power and authority.
So there is an ominous presence that is missing from our nativity scene. When we add it to the story, we see a clash of powers, a clash of two kingdoms, that would continue throughout the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Some would choose to follow Jesus, the Light of the World. Others would try to snuff him out. Some would seek Divine wisdom. Others would rely on human wisdom and tradition. Some would follow the law of love and serve those in need. Others would resort to violence in order to maintain control. This the story of the two kingdoms that not only clash in the Bible. They clash in our lives as well. We always have a choice regarding which of these two kingdoms we will follow.
Looking at this nativity scene, it’s easy to say “Yes. Yes, I will follow the Light. My heart belongs to the Christ Child and I will make room in my life for him to dwell. Yes, I’m a citizen of God’s Kingdom and will follow the law of Love and seek to serve others in need.” It’s easy to say yes when or hearts are full of the peace this season can bring.
However, when the other kingdom casts a shadow over our holiday glow, it’s sometimes hard to remain optimistic. When wars and rumors of war upset the serenity of the stable, it’s difficult to hold onto the peace the Christ Child brings. When consumerism constantly tugs at our wallet and politics dominate our Facebook feeds, it’s hard to remain strong.
Loving our enemies is sometimes downright impossible in this political climate. Praying for those who persecute us becomes an arduous task. Serving those is need becomes the thing we do after we pay all of our bills. Make no mistake about it, it’s easy to have dual citizenship in both of these kingdoms. It’s a lot harder to live for the Christ Child, and the Christ Child only.
This brings us to our gospel lesson for today. I bet you thought we’d never get to it, but we have arrived! This is where these two kingdoms first clash with one another in the New Testament. As we examine this story I hope it will teach us what it takes to remain strong when the Herods of our world try to snuff out the light. Our story begins with the wise men. The Greek word used here is MAGOS which is where we get the English word MAGI. MAGOS was the name given by the ancient Babylonians, Medes, Persians, and others, to teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, visionaries, interpreters of dreams, and practitioners of magic. They were the community leaders of their people who were highly respected for their wisdom. The gifts they brought of gold, frankincense and myrrh were the tools of their trade. These gifts were used by merchants, medicine men, and priests. So instead of trying to pin down exactly who these Magi were, perhaps its helpful to think of them as all of the above.
The amazing thing about their presence in this story is that it’s these foreigners with their strange customs, religions and languages, who are among the first to worship the Christ Child. It took them a considerable amount of time, effort and resources to do it. If we are going to be citizens of Christ’s kingdom this tells us that we must view all people as beloved children of God. Foreigners were not excluded from Jesus’ first worshipping community. We should not exclude them as well.
Therefore, any time we are tempted to label someone as “the other,” and say they are not welcome in our church, or in our country, we are on shaky ground if we consider ourselves to be citizens of Christ’s kingdom. Throughout the gospels we read countless stories of Jesus reaching out to those who had been rejected by mainstream society. We must follow his example and do the same.
As the story continues these wise men go to King Herod and ask him, “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.” Matthew says that when King Herod heard this, “He was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.”
Now, I don’t think all of Jerusalem was frightened by the news of a new king being born. In fact, they were waiting for a Messiah who would set them from their Roman oppressors. Instead, I think this means Herod was frightened and because of this the citizens of Jerusalem were frightened of what he would do next. You see, Herod had a reputation for being both paranoid and ruthless during his reign. People never knew what kind of action he would take if he felt threatened.
After the Magi’s initial visit Herod consulted his best political strategists and religious scholars to try and learn what he could about this Messianic king. He then tells the Magi to go and find the child and report back to him so that he could “pay him homage.” This is a nice way of saying he wanted to eliminate the threat to his kingship.
In this portion of the narrative we see the values of this other kingdom at work: Maintain power at all costs, no matter who gets trampled in the process. Surround yourself with people who are in agreement with you and can help you to accomplish this task. Finally, appear virtuous and lie thorough your teeth in order to get what you want. Sounds like a typical day in American politics, doesn’t it?
These values are the exact opposite of what Jesus taught us. Furthermore, they are hard to resist when we are surrounded by them on a daily basis. This is the reason why some Christians sound more like ambitious politicians than they do followers of Christ. The things that some Christians have said during this past election season have very little to do with Christ’s kingdom and a lot to do with the Herods of this world. This reminds us we must remain strong in our conviction to do what Christ has taught us to do, even when those around us have failed to do the same.
The last portion of this story we need to examine happens after the Magi visit the Christ Child. An angel appears to them in a dream and tells them NOT to go back to Herod are report what they have found. So they stage an act of civil disobedience and leave the country by another road. They realize Herod wants to kill this baby and they refuse to help him do the job.
Unfortunately, we know what happens next. Jesus escapes with Mary and Jospeh. But all the children age two years and under are murdered by a paranoid King who would do anything to remain in power. This is one of the most horrifying stories in the New Testament. However, the scenario is not unlike what we have seen in counties such as Syria, Rwanda, and Afghanistan. Trust me, the Herods of this world can be mean and ruthless. But this should not make us lose our resolve to do what Christ has taught us to do. Like the Magi, it may even require an act of civil disobedience on our part in order to stand up for what we know is good and right and true.
Friends in Christ, as we stand at the beginning of 2017 I am certain there will be some great changes that will happen in our nation this coming year. No matter what those changes may be may we never lose our citizenship in Christ’s kingdom. May we hold fast to the values Christ taught us: Loving our enemies as well as our neighbors, taking care of those in need, being a voice for the oppressed, and shining Christ’s light in all the dark corners where the Herods among us like to hide. I wish you a blessed Epiphany as we continue the celebration the birth of the Light who shone on the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome him. AMEN.
Copyright ©2017 by David Eck