Mt 2:1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men[a] from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising,[b] and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah[c] was to be born.
5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men[e] and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising,[f] until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped,[g] they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
To get started this morning, I’m going to ask you all to close your eyes. (Every head bowed, every eye closed!) Close them as tightly as possible so that no light gets in at all. I want you to imagine that you are out in the wilderness in the middle of the night, the middle of a dark night with no moon. You can barely see your hand in front of your face, much less the trail you were on. It’s hard to know where you are. It’s hard to know where you’re going. You don’t know who or what is out here with you. How do you feel? Disoriented, uncertain, scared?
But now, all of the sudden, you see a single star just above the horizon, a flickering pinprick of light. The light does not make the darkness go away, it does not make the world a less dark place. And yet as encompassing as the darkness seems, it’s the light that you can’t stop looking at. As small as it is, it’s the light that defines the darkness as nothing but the absence of more light. The light doesn’t make the darkness go away, but it gives you something to look toward, something to desire. It gives you a way to go as you stumble through the darkness. It might not seem like much but in the darkest of nights a still point of light can be the most hopeful thing in the world. Open your eyes. This is where we are.
Tomorrow, Christians all over the world begin the season of Epiphany. At Christmas, we celebrated that God took on flesh; at Epiphany we celebrate that God helped all of us to notice. At Christmas, we gave thanks that the light was kindled; at Epiphany, we give thanks that the light shines out so that we can see it. Epiphany is a season where we remember that Jesus shines like a light in the darkness of our world.
We need this season because there is such deep darkness in our world. Though the holiday season can be difficult in it’s own way, the bustle can also be a distraction (sometimes a welcome distraction) from our struggles, so maybe as you are getting back into your routine you’ve found yourself sitting with pains and anxieties that you maybe thought you’d left behind. Maybe a family member or a close friend is sick right now and that’s just all you can think about. Maybe this week you’re really worried about your health insurance and if you, or perhaps your children, are going to have coverage in the next couple of years. Maybe you’ve heard of the two babies who died at Macdougle Terrace in Durham because the city wasn’t keeping up the carbon monoxide detectors. Maybe you’re worried about World War 3, as the engines of our national war machine shift from 4th gear into 5th. There is darkness in our world, that characterizes our world. And so we need Epiphany, this grace, this reminder in the darkness to look for a star on the horizon, so that we can take our bearings and find hope when hope does not come naturally.
That’s what our story is about this morning, these three characters called the magi who practice hope by following a star through the darkness in search of Good News. They see a star on the horizon and somehow are able to discern that a king has been born in the land of Israel, and so they go to pay homage to this king.
But it turns out the light they see doesn’t make the darkness go away. They travel from the darkness of the night into the darkness of King Herod’s world. The magi have seen in the stars that a king has been born. Even in the darkness, hints of the light remain etched in creation. But while the stars give them a hint, they still can’t tell exactly where to go. So, like any of us would probably do, they search for a king in the kind of place where you would tend to find a king, a place of power. They go to the capital, to Jerusalem. And they do find a king there. But not a king whose kingdom would be called good news by very many. King Herod was a puppet of the Roman Empire and he was known throughout the ancient world for his massive wealth and his opulent building projects...and also for his cruelty. He had a way of murdering anyone whom he thought might challenge him for power.
So the magi come to Herod in search of Good News, but Herod takes their good news as bad news. They say to him, “We’re looking for the king of Israel so we can worship him.” And Herod had to be thinking, “I’m right here!” But obviously they didn’t mean Herod and so Herod was afraid, and all of Jerusalem with him (Herod afraid of the child, Jerusalem afraid of what Herod was going to do out of his own fear). How fragile men like Herod are. Here he is, one of the richest most powerful men in the whole world, and he’s afraid of a baby. Even just a rumor gets under his skin and sets him off. Herod is afraid that he will lose his power, his reputation, his ability to control his world. The more powerful he wishes to become the less powerful he feels, and so he lashes out. His attempts to keep his place in the world become more and more desperate, and he doesn’t care who he hurts. Eventually, to try and keep Jesus from becoming king, Herod murders all of the children who are younger than 2 in and around Bethlehem. Fear and the darkness go hand in hand. Herod’s fear, his fragility, his insecurity make him assert whatever strength he has against people he knows he can dominate. That’s Herod’s kind of world, that is the essence of the darkness.
But for Herod, it’s not enough for him to have power. Herod wants us to believe that we have to go along with what he wants. He doesn’t just want to rule us, he wants to get in our heads so that we rule ourselves, so that rather than seeking the light, we choose the darkness. Herod gathers all of the scribes and teachers in Jerusalem to find out where the Scriptures say the next king of the Jews will be born. And when they tell him that it will be in Bethlehem, he doesn’t immediately send henchmen there. He sends the magi. He tries to get them to do his work for him: “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
Herod doesn’t just want Jesus dead, he wants the magi to participate. He wants to take their search for good news, and make that search work for his purposes, so that even as people go looking for a different kind of king they always come back to him. Herod wants the magi to know there is no alternative to his kingdom.
This is how the Herods of the world always work. Why dominate people when you can get them to give up? Why make them fear you, when you can allow fear to become a part of their lives so that they have to turn to people like Herod for help. Herod tries to deputize the magi so that they’ll do his work for him, even though it’s bad for them, even though it means forsaking the very good news they’ve come to find.
So finding liberation from fear, finding freedom from shame and self-accusation, are not just personal matters. Those realities, those voices in our heads that measure us and tell us we are wanting, that tell us we are not safe, that keep us up at night with worry, are trying to get us to doubt ourselves so that we trust Herod, rather than demanding of him “Stop killing us and our children!” They are trying to get us to look away from the light and the hope that the light represents so that we are left with nothing but darkness and those in our world who profit off of darkness and fear.
But the magi do not give in. They’ve become practiced at walking through the night and finding the light even as the darkness closes in. And I think they have something to teach us about what it means to walk in the light even in the land of darkness, even as Herod whispers fear in our ears.
Ultimately, at the end of the story, the magi ignore Herod. This is the first thing that I think we can learn from them. They find the star again and they follow it and they do find the baby, but instead of going back to Herod like he’d told them to, they just go home. They refuse. Herod tells them that they have to participate in his plan and they just say, “No thanks.” Sometimes when people or media are whispering fear and threats into your mind, you just have to say, “No. Why would I listen to you? Why would I let you set the terms for my behavior?” The magi refuse. They say no, which is a word that people in our world, in a wide variety of contexts, need to get used to hearing. That person on Facebook or whatever who doesn’t think you’re a person, you don’t have to engage them. No. “But what about dialogue and reaching across the aisle?” No. “You have to admit, the Iranian general was a pretty bad guy.” No, no you don’t. “Some wars are just wars, you have to fight power with power.” No. They’re not, and you don’t. Churches in our country need to learn to say no to Herod especially when it comes to war. Because the Herod’s of our world will always be ready to sacrifice the next generation to maintain their power, but he doesn’t care about any of us anyway.
Before they leave, the magi do something else. They do find the child, and they bring what they have to Jesus. The magi have tremendous wealth, and they do the only thing the Scriptures give you the option to do if you’re rich and you want to be righteous, they give it away: the spices and minerals they bring are very expensive. And they give them away to this vulnerable baby, to this child king who the kings of the earth already want dead. So the magi refuse to participate in Herod’s plan, and they give what they have to the vulnerable. While they themselves are strangers, they throw their lot in with the child, with the victim, with the oppressed.
This is what it means to be followers of the light, disciples of Jesus: to refuse the patterns of this world that exploit and destroy the weak, and to do whatever we can to take care of those who for whatever reason find themselves in need of care. In the coming weeks, during this season of Epiphany, the lectionary is going to take us through the Sermon on the Mount, where we’ll find exactly the same themes of refusal and care spelled out in greater detail. In those chapters we’ll find described a kind of life together that lives and loves and thrives even a world of darkness and fear.
But for now, this morning, I don’t know what darkness or fear whispers, or perhaps shouts into your ear. I don’t know how Herod is telling you that you have no choice but to participate in his world, to go along with the status quo. No matter what, my friends, this morning we remember that a light shines even in this darkness. There is another way even when it seems there is no way. For all his flailings, and they are certainly dangerous, Herod is a toy king on a plastic throne, but the child in the manger, vulnerable and innocent, is the light on the horizon, flickering with the possibility of a new land, one where we are all called to come and gather together. Amen.