Of Nations and Kings – January 2, 2022
Isaiah 60:1-3, Matthew 2:1-12
January 2, 2022
Today we read Matthew’s account of the Birth of Jesus. And this is where the story starts to get interesting. So far it’s been angels and shepherds and the glory of God. But now the “nations and kings,” that Isaiah told us about, were becoming part of the story. Oh, and things were about to get messy!
Today we celebrate Epiphany, and Epiphany is all about the visit of these “wise men,” these “Maji” from the East. As I’ve said before, “Epiphany” is a word that means a “sudden realization” of something. It is an “Aha moment.” It’s like finding the keys you’ve been looking for for months, and then realizing why they were in the place you found them! I had one of those moments recently. And it’s wonderful!
In this case it’s a “sudden realization” that this story, the story of Jesus, was about more than just Israel. The “Good news of great joy” truly was “for all people” as the angel said! These wise men from the East were the embodiment of that. And I think their visit would have been a very strange thing for those who were there. In fact, the more I think about it, the more bizarre it seems to me that these men from another country, another culture, another religion, were there to see this child.
Now, it isn’t that foreigners were not seen in Israel. Think about it. Geographically, Israel was located at the crossroads of three continents. It was the place where Africa and Asia, and Europe all meet. And it still is! And there were a lot of trade routes that went through there. And there were certainly people and caravans traveling along those routes from places like Ethiopia, and Asia minor. And of course, there were the Romans!
If you’ve ever been a lay reader on Pentecost Sunday, you might remember that list of crazy names of countries that you had to try to pronounce! They were the names of all the places that people were from, and who were in Jerusalem that day.
So, it was not unusual for there to be foreigners in and around Israel at that time. But this was more than that. For these men from another culture, another religion – some scholars think it was Zoroastrianism – for them to be visiting this child, for them to be seeking this child, that was a very unusual thing! As I said, the more I think about it, the stranger it becomes for me! And I’m sure it was strange, maybe almost shocking, for Mary and Joseph.
But there’s even more than that going on here! As I said, things were about to get messy! Because there was a power struggle going on here! And these “wise guys” were involved in it! Because Matthew doesn’t just tell us about these men. He tells us about Herod. And Herod was not a nice guy! Herod was a jealous ruler! Herod was known to put members of his own family to death, if he saw them as a threat to his power. And now hears of these Maji asking about this newborn “King of the Jews.” And he sees that as a threat. So he calls them in to talk about it! and notice this line. When he heard about this child, Herod was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him! What was he going to do? It could get messy!
Matthew tells us that Herod says to the wise men, “Go and search for the child, and when you find him, send me word, that I too might come and worship him.” Now, we know that’s a deception! Don’t we? We know it’s a ploy to have these wise men find this baby for him! It’s devious. It’s conniving! And we see right through it, don’t we! We might even read his words with that “tone of voice”
We also know the end of this story. We don’t like it! But we know it. When the wise men go home, they do so avoiding Herod. And Herod becomes enraged. And he has all the children in that region who are two years old and younger killed! Yeah, we don’t like to read that part of the Christmas story. But it’s there!
If you remember, a similar thing happened at the time of Moses! At the end of Genesis, there was that whole “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” thing going on. So, we find this Hebrew man, Joseph, who was now second in command of all Egypt. And that was an amazing story!
But then, at the beginning of Exodus, we read that “There arose a King who did not know Joseph.” That was a key sentence in that whole book! And that king, that Pharaoh, was afraid of how numerous the Hebrews were becoming in his country. He feared that if an enemy attacked they might join the enemy! So, he instructed the midwives of Egypt to kill the male babies of the Hebrews as they were born. But if you remember that story, you know that plan didn’t work. Because we’re told that the midwives “feared God!” And they told Pharaoh that the Hebrew women had their babies too fast – before they could get there!
So, in that story Pharaoh got mad! And he ordered that all the male Hebrew babies be thrown into the Nile. We don’t like to read that part of that story either! But of course, we do know the part of that story where one baby was rescued from the Nile – rescued by the Pharaoh’s daughter. And that baby, of course, was Moses. That’s another amazing story of a child rescued from terrible circumstances! And isn’t it interesting that Jesus himself is “rescued” in this story, when his parents fled to that same Egypt from the story of Moses!
So here we have this scene. These foreigners, these wise men, come seeking the “King of the Jews.” And they come to this humble peasant family, rejoicing that they have found what they were seeking. And they bring gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And it doesn’t say here, like it does in Luke, that Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. But I’ll bet she did! I’ll bet this was overwhelming to her!
And I’m hoping today that we do, too. I hope we will ponder in our hearts what it means that our Savior came to this earth as the “Good news” to “all people?” Does that make us uncomfortable? It can, can’t it? It can seem as strange to us, just as this scene was strange to the people who were there the day these wise men showed up.
I hope we’ll think about that. And I hope, in our pondering, we can we set aside those feelings of discomfort, and simply worship the Christ child! And I hope, through him, we can know better the amazing love of God, that caused him to send his son into the world that he “so loved.” I hope we can see this “Good News of great joy” as truly being “to all people?” And I hope this is as much an “Aha” moment for us, as it was to the world that first Epiphany.
Eternal God, help us to understand better your love for the world. Help us to have the compassion Jesus had for all people. Help us to have your mind and your heart, as, like these wise men, we too seek the Christ child in our lives. For we pray in his name, Amen.