In nomine Jesu!
It probably seemed like a good idea at the time. Historians tell us that King Herod had not one, not two, but ten wives. Ten wives who gave him an abundance of children. An abundance of children who all wanted to be the same thing when they grew up. Unable to commit to a single heir, by the end of his life Herod had written six different wills, hemming and hawing over who would succeed him. Equally manipulative and ruthless, Herod was only able to gain the favor of the ordinary people by â€“ and this is true â€“ promising to cut taxes. Today's gospel begins at the very end of Herod's life, when he began to feel power slipping away from him. When he began to realize that he was vulnerable. When he became afraid.
When Matthew tells you that Jesus was born in the time of King Herod, what Matthew is telling you is that Jesus was born in a time of fear. A time of tension. When people didn't know whom they could trust. A time when people were just trying to hold on to something stable. Just trying to hold on to something.
Matthew tells us that some magi from the East came to Jerusalem asking, "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."
That's a question a lot of people have been asking lately. Where is the child? Where is the change that I've been promised? Where is the hope in the midst of this? It's a question that always comes up in times of fear and uncertainty. If you get below that question, if you ask who the child is that people are looking for, you'll start to see a common story. There is something missing from my life that I am looking for. I am looking for stability, looking for community. I am looking for something to build my life around. I am looking for a reason to hope. And I'm going to leave everything that I know so I can go find it.
There's a lot that we don't know about the magi. Some people think that these magi were kings. Other people think they were some kind of magicians or sorcerers. The tradition has it that they were named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. In the Eastern Orthodox church, there are believed to have been twelve, while we in the West normally depict them as three. And in works of art, they are usually depicted as being from Europe, Asia, and Africa, often with one
young, one old, and one somewhere in between. In short, the magi are everyone. All the people who are on the road looking for something. Everyone who has decided that there's something better out there. Everyone who has looked at their life and asked, "Where is the child?"
Matthew tells us that when King Herod heard what the magi were looking for, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
What Matthew gives you is two ways of looking at the world. One that sees change as a threat, as a cause for fear. Fear of losing power, fear of losing control, fear of losing influence. For Herod, everything and everyone is a threat. Herod is so set on holding on to power that even a child born in a small village is a cause for concern. Only the status quo can bring him comfort.
Matthew also gives you another way of looking at the world: one that sees change as a cause for hope. Where people are yearning for something so badly they leave everything they know to look for it. Where a child born in a small village is not
cause for concern but cause for hope. And in this night in Jerusalem, a group of seekers filled with hope and desire comes right into Herod's court. Hope wanders right into the bastion of fear.
The religious experts told Herod the child will be born in Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet. When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
Even before the magi reach the child, even before they reach that goal they've been striving towards, that they've left their lives for. Before any of that, they are given joy. They are overwhelmed with joy because they know that their hope is not in vain. That theirs is not a lost cause but a redeemed cause. Hope always leads us towards greater joy. That's why it is possible to live with joy even when something is still missing in our lives. It is possible to live with joy because we know that we are still being led to the child, that our question, "Where is the child?" is not going unanswered. That even while we are on the way, God is still with us. Still calling us towards greater joy.
On entering the house, the magi saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The magi do two things when they get to the child. They show us two ways of responding to God. One is to try to match it. To come to God with gifts. To come to God with your hands full and say that we're even now. It's probably not gold or myrrh, but we all come to God with something. Maybe it's your volunteering, or your stewardship pledge, or your private devotions. But try to match grace, try to do enough to balance out the scales, and you'll just end up wondering if you've ever done enough. You'll receive a gift not with gratitude but in fear. And that's no way to receive a gift.
The most important thing the magi give Jesus is not gold, frankincense, or myrrh. It's worship and praise. It's acknowledging grace with gratitude. All of the different parts of our Sunday liturgy are just different ways of doing that. Of saying thanks. Of giving thanks that we are being led to the child. That we are being led to what was missing in our lives. That we've been led out of fear and into greater joy together.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
The gospel ends with these magi going back home, turning around from Bethlehem and heading east. Another way of saying "turn around" is "repent." Repenting is nothing more than going back. Of turning around. Through Christ's birth, God offers the magi a new way of repenting. A new way of turning around. Not going back into the ways of fear and coercion, of living out of anxiety and skepticism. Not of going back to Jerusalem and Herod's court.
No, God offers us another way home. Another way of coming back. A way of repenting not into our own fears or into our worst selves, but repenting out into the world. A way of repenting into what the Apostle Paul called "the commission of grace." A way of giving hope to all who seek a word of comfort. A way of repenting that shows the world and this city where the God is being born, of being God's star in this world. The star that points to this font, to this table, and to this assembly, where grace comes into our midst. Where hope turns into ultimate joy. And where we find that even while we were on the way, God's promise has always been with us.
God gives us a way of being that star in the sky that even the darkness, even fear cannot overcome.
Joseph Schattauer PaillĂ©
Saint Peter's Church
In the City of New York