A War Cry: The Magi - Matthew 2:1-18 (HIUMC)
We’ve spent a lot of time in the darkness of Christmas…or at least the darkness of the nativity story as the first Christmas occurred without Christmas carols and Christmas trees, without blinking lights or elves in Christmas tights…, or as Dr. Suess would put it: “it came without ribbons!...it came without tags!...it came without packages, boxes, or bags.”[i] Since mid-November we have been explored the dark world into which Jesus was born as God declared that the time had come for evil, sin, and even death to be defeated.
We journeyed to tiny Bethlehem with its history of idolatry, prejudice, betrayal, brutal violence, and death.
We walked with Mary as she put her relationship with her family, and even her own life, on the line to respond to God’s call to service—and found herself a rejected, outcast, teenage pregnant mom-to-be.
We stood by Joseph as he chose not to reject Mary and in taking her into his life risked his reputation, his financial security, and his family connections and in Bethlehem realizing those losses.
We encountered the King of kings, and the Lord of lords, come down from His throne in Heaven and born in a stable surrounded not by angels bowing and worshipping, but by animals, their feed, and their waste.
Next we found the shepherds in the darkness of night watching their flocks as a division of God’s warrior angels appeared to proclaim the birth of the Messiah.
Finally, last week we encountered Simeon and Anna in the Temple who, though praising God for having the opportunity to witness the Messiah before their death, also gave testimony to the dark and painful future that Jesus would have—a lifetime of conflict leading to the cross.
However, believe it or not, we have not encountered the darkest part of those that are incorporated into the first couple of years of Jesus’ life…and that part is tied to the star that broke into the darkness of the evening Jesus was born.
It was an unsettled time. People had grown wearing of being ruled over by one empire and then another. Many times the weariness had led to uprisings and revolts, however against Rome, these revolts were quickly put down. However, it wasn’t just Rome that folks worried about since Herod had come into power. Herod would never tolerate a revolt. He was determined not to lose the power that had been granted him by Rome. Herod had been known to have his own children and wife put to death out of fear that they were plotting to steal the throne out from under him. I don’t know for sure, but I am thinking that people probably had gotten to the point that were scared to criticize him, lest they “be disappeared.”
Into this dark, tense, war-like scene, enter a group of magi. Because of the number of gifts they carried with them (which we will get to later) we have usually said that there were three…some have even assigned them names and nationalities…however we do not know the names, nationalities, or even the number by way of the Scriptures, all of that has simply derived from a variety of church traditions. Some have said that they were kings, however many scholars, that they were astrologers. Having noticed a new star in the sky—connected it to a prophecy they had heard or read—and then followed the star for two years, looking for a child that had been born when the star had appeared (their understanding is that the child that had been born under that star would be king), they were possibly Persian members of the Zoroastrian religion.
These magi would have made folks uneasy to start with, foreigners that weren’t even Roman, entering Jerusalem. They approached Herod and told him that they had come in search of the new king that they might worship him—they came to Herod, the current king, thinking that the new baby would likely have been his child. We read that this proclamation made Herod and all of Jerusalem uneasy. Herod would have grown upset, figuring that this “newborn king” was a legitimate threat to his throne…the rest of Jerusalem would have most likely been uneasy, not out of worry about the new baby on the scene, but out of concern with what Herod would do to quench the threat of losing power. The end of our reading this morning shows that Jerusalem’s fears were well founded—for here we see the war between God and evil escalate as evil, through Herod, tries to stifle the plans of God.
Herod, after finding information from his advisors, directs the magi to Bethlehem, asking them to report where they found the child that he may go and worship this little boy. The magi, we figure are wise enough to know that Herod had ulterior motives, but in case they didn’t, God sent yet another “dream angel” to discourage them from returning to Herod after they found young Jesus.
You remember that I said when we began this series that Bethlehem’s history, particularly from Judges, would garner a movie about its story an NC-17 rating? Well, what happens next, when Herod realizes that the magi have ditched him, would help push the entire nativity story in that direction. Infuriated, and worried that his rule was in jeopardy, taking into account the two years that the magi had followed the star, possibly inspired by the Egyptian pharaoh of old, had all the boys in and around Bethlehem two years old and younger, slaughtered. Talk about evil taking a great swing back at God as a result of God’s declaration of war…
While the magi may have avoided becoming embroiled in Herod’s plan to quickly rid Israel of any threat to his throne—their visit contained their own message of darkness. While Luke conveyed the warning to Mary through Simeon—it was the gifts that the magi brought through which Matthew offers his foreshadowing of the trouble to come.
The magi have brought with them three gifts. The first is gold. It is a gift fitting for a king—in that time, it was considered the richest of metals; the gold would also be able to serve as a resource to help aid Mary and Joseph who had risked, and now seemed to be without, financial security. The frankincense, often burned during worship, would be a nod to the priestly role that Jesus would take. However, it was the myrrh that would contribute to our dark picture. Myrrh had two primary uses in the time of Jesus…one was that of a painkiller…the other is when it is used as a form of embalming fluid. These two are the instances, the only instances, in which myrrh appears later within the gospels—the first is when myrrh mixed with wine is offered to Jesus as he hung on the cross, possibly to ease his pain, or maybe to get him to relax and stop fighting for breath and lead death overtake him. The second instance is when Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus remove Jesus’ body from the cross and prepare him for burial—myrrh is mentioned among the spices they brought to anoint Jesus’ body as they placed him in the tomb. Here, amongst the gifts of those who followed the star to find the One who would be King, not only of the Jews, but in reality, all of Creation—an offering to the High Priest of high priests—was a gift that underlined the fact that this tiny baby was a gift of joy and sorrow, for those tiny hands which would wrap themselves around one of Mary or Joseph’s fingers would one day be pierced with a nail—as the One who was rejected in Bethlehem, and in Nazareth, and in the Gadarenes, would also be rejected in Jerusalem and hung upon a cross.
So, some may be asking, if we have spent these two months reflecting on all this darkness of the Christmas story, is there anywhere that we find the call to celebration and light? Is there reason that we might put up the trees, hang the lights, and find joy in the season?
Very much so…God did not leave Bethlehem in its remote darkness and sin but chose to enter into the darkness and wage war on sin and evil with “the light of the world.”
While evil tried to defeat God by having Joseph abandon Mary, God moved Joseph to stay by her side.
While evil tried to gain the upper hand in the war through Herod’s slaughtering of the innocents—an act of unspeakable, unimaginable evil—God prevailed by directing Mary and Joseph to flee with their toddler to Egypt, later to return to Nazareth.
Later evil would try to prevail at the cross, only to have the empty tomb declare God’s victory.
The truth of Christmas, my friends, is that while darkness and evil may still wage a battle here and there, sometimes in unspeakable ways, we worship the God who has already claimed the ultimate victory and we proclaim this through our lights that cut into the darkness and our carols that break the silence and turn mourning into rejoicing.
May the joy of Christmas that God has not left us to suffer in sin and evil but entered in to our dark world fill us not just during December and early January, but all year long…
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.