Lectionary readings: Isaiah 60:1-6 Ephesians 3:1-12 Matthew 2:1-12
And so begins 2021, a New Year with mixed emotions: mourning, fear, weariness, hope and joy. It is perhaps with added poignancy that Methodists will be turning to the annual covenant prayer this year, with many churches preferring to worship via online platforms to keep each other safe. A prayer that, at its heart, reminds us that hope and joy are to be found in relationship with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Our gospel reading takes us straight back to Bethlehem to discover two divergent responses to the Christ-child. Here we meet Herod and his court and the Magi; the one group bound by fear offering feigned interest and forceful self-preservation, the other arriving with respect and reverence who leave rejoicing.
Herod & His Court (Herod the Great, 40-4 BC)
Hymnody gives a great summary of the Biblical account:
But this was not the entire story! Herod’s father, Antipater, was appointed procurator of Judea by Julius Caesar in 47 BC. And because nepotism is by no means new, Antipater in turn, appointed his son Herod to military prefect of Galilee. He became known as Herod the Great because he showed impressive qualities of administrative ability, creativity in the rebuilding programme and military prowess in suppressing guerrilla activity. The Roman Senate, recognising such qualities bequeathed the title ‘King of the Jews’, but although Jewish by religion, he was of Edomite descent and therefore never truly accepted by the Jewish people.
Herod however, faced many problems – some of which were political, others, personal.
- The world was insecure: Anthony was trying to win Judea and Syria away from Cleopatra.
- The region was notoriously hard to administer (the only other most difficult place in the Roman Empire was Britain!)
- Herod was extremely suspicious of his scheming relatives; in fact, he was responsible for the death of his wife, and many of her powerful family; two of his own sons and also his father (so the death of several infants would have seemed relatively insignificant to him.
In to this complex situation and out of the blue, some learned strangers arrive asking questions:
Where is the new-born king of the Jews? We observed the rising of his star, and we have come to pay him homage.
Into this court, where fear reigned supreme, came visitors inquiring: where is the new-born king of the Jews?
Herod had his title given to him; he knew it could not automatically transfer to one of his sons (… if there were any remaining); imagine the consternation raised by this seemingly innocuous question. Whose child was this? Where was he? Had some one perhaps sent these fools on an errand in order to begin yet another uprising?
Herod was a cruel man, but he was no fool, he could not know what lay behind the questions of these men, but they were the most unlikely men to appear in Herod’s court, so he established the facts in private with his own counsellors. Yes, there was a star, and yes, the ancient writings pointed to the birth of a royal child in Bethlehem; so Herod feigns interest:
Go and make careful search for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, so that I may go myself and pay him homage.
Herod…gave orders for the massacre of all the boys aged two or under, in Bethlehem and through out the whole district
Herod had no intention of worshipping this child or any other and whilst there is no historical evidence for mass slaughter of many children, a man who has despatched wife and sons and father is obviously not a great respecter of human life – which was so very cheap, especially a subjugated race. It may have been seen as so insignificant as not to warrant a record.
It is difficult to be objective in looking at Herod and his Court – what evil people! How could they behave in such a way?
The wise men
The Magi were a tribe of Medes who had at best a priestly function in the Persian Empire and at worst, I suppose we might call them magicians. They first appear in scripture in the book of Daniel (1:20, 2:27, 5:15) – a class of wise men or astrologers who interpret the dreams and messages of the gods (who invariably can not manage it…so Daniel comes forward with the truth!)
On this occasion, these non-Jewish, astrologer-astronomers read from the stars that the birth of a great Jewish King had taken place.
by contrast, they seem completely unaware of the kind of man they were dealing with; and perhaps, had they been truly knowledgeable, they would have realised what effect their arrival would have on such a paranoid man. Here at the beginning of this story, is more than a whiff of scandal as we discover the men from Iraq in the middle of the Holy Land – it was simply that shocking.
Or perhaps what the gospel writer prefers the reader to know is that men and women from all walks of life, could find in Jesus, the Messiah, the Saviour of the world.
Whatever their origins, these visitors seemed to have made the right response:
As the wise men present their gifts they bowed low in homage.
This ordinary young family, with a young child received firstly the respect of the wise men – and that is what made them wise. Regardless of how they learned it, they knew without doubt, that this was the promised king, and they would show obedience. As so the first gift, gold, was a gift given to signify kingship.
The other occasion when we might pay homage, might be in church. And even amongst people not given to bowing to altars, and crosses, we are known to bow the head in prayer. The gift of frankincense reminds us of priestly usage. And just as the altar in the temple used incense as a symbol of the prayers of the people, so too today, many will make the same association today as they smell incense in worship.
So the wise learn to bow in obedience and in worship. Yet the final gift of myrrh reminds us that this child – like all of us – was destined to die. Until recent days, many of us have been cocooned in longevity brought about by changes in hygiene, living standards and medicine. We have lived far from close proximity of death that stalked previous generations. The current pandemic has made the frailty of human life all too obvious. One might hope that we also learn to treasure and cherish family and friends anew this year.
Myrrh of course, was one of the embalming spices taken to the tomb after Jesus was removed from the cross. But that grave was not final; the resurrection morning was to follow. This costly gift reminds us that when we bow in obedience, worship and adoration, then we experience the joy of an Easter morning.
Responding to Christ
The occasion of a covenant service, invites us once more to look carefully at how we respond to the Christ-child.
Is this just a nice story from a long time ago to be carefully put away with the decorations?
Will we harbour Herod-like thoughts about anyone who will upset our comfortable existence?
Can we truly welcome all who enter our church this coming year – when we hope to be more fully open?
And will we really put ourselves at Christ’s disposal?
It is impossible to answer this question for anyone, other than oneself.
God of grace, through the mediation of your Son, you call us into a new covenant.
Help us therefore to draw near with faith and join ourselves in a perpetual covenant with you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen