Sermon; Christmas 2; Matthew 2:1-12
Today is the 12th Day of Christmas. Tonight we conclude our Christmas festivities with the 12th Night party (potluck & gift exchange) in Trimble Hall at 5. Bring a dish to share and, if you so choose, a gift to exchange and/or steal ($25 suggested limit). It's a fun way to celebrate the end of the Christmas season. And then tomorrow is the Feast of the Epiphany, the day we celebrate the arrival of the wise men.
The gospel passage we heard today is one of three options, the other two being the Holy Family's flight to Egypt and Jesus being left behind in Jerusalem as a pre-teen. Today's gospel is also appointed for tomorrow's Feast of Epiphany. But since Epiphany doesn't fall on a Sunday that often, I opt to have it read on this Sunday as a wrap up to the season.
On Christmas Eve we hear the traditional story of the birth in Bethlehem, shepherds, and angels. Today we hear the other great Christmas story – that of wise men from the east bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There has been a lot written about these men who followed yonder star, and there has been a lot written about the star itself and trying to assign a date to this event. I recently read an article that posited the “star” wasn't a star at all but a conjunction of Jupiter and one or two other planets, and that their retrograde orbit gave the appearance of it stopping over Bethlehem. That, however, is more effort than I want to put into this story.
What I want to look at today is the reaction the wise men got when they showed up in Jerusalem.
“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.”
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.
For some 32 years Herod ruled his territory with an iron fist. He was a contemporary of Marc Antony and Cleopatra. He had multiple wives and executed anyone, including family, he saw as a threat to his rule. During his reign there was a time of relative national “peace,” and he instituted many building projects, including the Temple. But that “peace” was more a result of “My way or the highway” empirical domination than of anything else.
Besides King Herod, there were others who participated in and enabled this system to flourish – think tax collectors and religious leaders. They had a good system – if you followed the rules, didn't cause trouble, and supported the empire, you were fine.
And now, into this system that benefited the rich, powerful, and well-connected while stepping on the poor, weak, and outcast come a group of outsiders looking for a new king. And new kings, like new coaches or new priests, tend to do things in a new way. So this new king was a threat to the established system, certainly to the existence of Herod, and to all who benefited from the status quo. It's no wonder these people were frightened.
Change can be a scary, frightening thing. If the fear of change is greater than the fear of doing nothing, or of continuing on the same path, then nothing will happen and the status quo, as bad as it is, will remain intact.
I'm reminded of the formula I presented a few months ago where:
Change = Dissatisfaction x Vision x First Steps > Resistance
This event of the new king produced a great vision: we saw his star rising. But the resistance (and they were afraid) was too much to overcome.
I know you're not supposed to conflate gospels, but this sense of fear by Herod and others falls in line with the Magnificat, that great anti-establishment song of Mary: “He has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”
These are words that should make the proud and mighty, and those complicit in the systems that benefit them, very afraid. This resistance to change, this desire to maintain control, is what drove Herod to act as he did in order to maintain his power structure. It's also what drives us to act in certain ways to maintain our preferred power structures.
Herod never intended to pay homage to the new king. This was made abundantly clear when he sent troops into Bethlehem to kill every child under two. This was true when a white man feigned interest in a bible study at a black church and killed everyone present. This was true when an anti-Semite believed Jews were taking over the world and attacked several people at a Hanukkah party. This is true when we quote Canon 40/41: We've never done it that way/We've always done it this way.
Christmas is, in my opinion, the biggest miracle we have in scripture. It is the story of the immortal, invisible, omnipotent God humbling himself to become a mortal, visible, lowly human being. It is the story of light breaking through the darkness. It is the story of God with us.
But the Christmas story reminds us that not everything was a time of rejoicing. Not everything was a silent night. Not everything was gloria in excelsius. There are powers and dominions who would be very happy if this never happened or if it were kept from being made known.
We may not actively advocate or assist in enforcing a status quo that benefits the powerful and persecutes the poor and weak. But we all certainly have behaviors and habits that are resistant to change.
On this Second Sunday after Christmas we are reminded of the birth of a new king. We are reminded that God became human to show us a new way of being. We are reminded that God is with us. And it just might be that this other great story of Christmas, the story of wise men from the east and their gifts, also has another important message for us: don't be like Herod and act on our fears, but face our fears with the knowledge and confidence that God is doing a new thing.
For unto us a child is born, Messiah and king. What are we afraid of?