Date: January 2, 2022
Bible Text: Matthew 2:1-12 | Stephanie Hamilton
There are three major actors in today’s gospel lesson. We have King Herod, the baby Jesus, and the magi. Herod is a ruler backed by Rome put in place by military conquest and a challenge to the messianic reign of Christ. The group of astrologers, we know as the magi, who are not Jewish and are from the East, notice something different in the sky at night. There’s a new star signifying the birth of a new king. And in their quest to understand this phenomenon, their belief led them on a journey in search of this new King. When they reached Jerusalem they began asking questions of his whereabouts. The news of these visitors asking questions reached King Herod and he was not happy to learn that there was a future king for his kingdom. After consulting with the religious and community leaders, Herod summoned the magi to gather additional information about the new king. He instructed them to continue their search and when they found the baby they should return to him with information of where he could find the child. The magi obey Herod’s orders and continue on their journey to find Jesus.
They again see the star rising in the sky and follow it to Bethlehem where it stops above the house where they can find the child. They enter the home and see Jesus on Mary’s lap and their response is to bow down and give him honor, after which they give him the treasure they brought. Our passage concludes with the magi being warned in a dream not to return to Herod and so they go home by a different route.
It would seem that I have always taken the story of the Magi following a star in the sky searching for the child who was born King of the Jews at face value. It was a story I heard as a child which I easily embraced, never really taking the time to examine very closely, and mostly I looked forward to who would get to wear the “kings’” costumes and carry gifts for the Christ child on Epiphany Sunday. Even as the director of Christian Education at the church in Flagstaff, in an attempt to bring the story to life, we had the children carrying a star on a pole moving through the church halls, interrupting adult Sunday School classes, choir practice, and barging into the pastor’s office on a quest to find the Christ Child, it never occurred to me that this passage was about something more than a retelling of a Bible story. Until I settled down to try and write a sermon. And then the wait, what? and why? questions quickly surfaced.
A couple of the most pressing questions that emerged are: who were these wise men that spent their time looking at the night sky? What gave them the foggiest idea that one star in a sky chock full of stars was an announcement of the new King of the Jews? What compelled them to leave their home in order to find the star (which they believed would lead them to the Christ child)? And why, upon hearing that these men were asking about the birth of a baby, did that cause Herod to be afraid? And also all of Jerusalem? What is God up to in this story?
Perhaps the biggest reason I accepted the story at face value is because my starting point and the framework for which I approach scripture is read through a lens that believes the love of God is generous and all encompassing. I begin with the belief that my story, our story, originates with a God who refuses to be God without us. And at this point in the story of God’s generous and all-encompassing love, the birth of Jesus was how this love story was going to play out.
However, the gospel writer including the magi and making them the focal point in the earliest part of the birth narrative of Jesus, lets us know that God is doing something a little different. The chief priests and the scribes all knew there was the promise of a future messiah for their people and that he would be born in Bethlehem. And yet, they didn’t join the magi on their journey to find the new king. They advised Herod on the prophecy, but it was left to the magi to find and honor the new king. At the onset, and as a newborn baby, God was already extending God’s love to all people. Already we are seeing the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s saving grace. In the birth of Jesus and the honoring by the magi, God is doing something new.
And in this new thing, there is resistance. Herod is the King and he is not ready to relinquish his power or leadership. His leadership is not aligned with God’s leadership and he is willing to go to great lengths to keep his power. His instructions to the magi to report back to him so that he may worship the new king as well are not his true intent. We find out a few verses later in chapter two, that when the magi have tricked him by returning to their country by a different way, he then has all the baby boys under the age of two killed in order to take the life of Jesus. He is not willing to cede the throne.
I am struck by a couple of things as we move through this passage. 1) There is a power dynamic that was disrupted in the birth of Jesus and 2) the magi returning home by a different route was an act of defiance and courage.
This power dynamic, a ruler backed by the Roman government put into place by military conquest, becomes threatened by the birth of a baby, born to parents with no means. How in the world was an infant a threat to a King? And yet, his birth was the beginning of a radical inclusion of acceptance for all people. Jesus’ birth sets the tone for what the kingdom of God looks like. Everyone is welcome.
As required reading my first semester in seminary I read a book entitled, Lest Innocent Blood be Shed. It is the story of how a small town in the hills of France, Le Chambon, came to resist German occupation and save thousands of children’s lives during the Holocaust. The resistance, led by the pastor, was based solely on their Christian beliefs that to be a follower of Christ was to honor and love all humans and to that end, they practiced non-violence. How they were able to create a safe place and safe passage for thousands of Jewish children by practicing love and nonviolence is nothing short of a miracle. Their steadfast commitment is what the transforming love of God looks like and was what disarmed the violent power structure in their region. It is what kept them and the children they were protecting safe and alive. It was a disrupter to the powers of evil occupying their country and neighboring towns. Their actions, like the magi returning home a different way, were acts of defiance and courage.
Over this holiday break I managed to indulge in a little Netflix binging. Queer Eye has been a favorite series on Netflix and I was happy to see there is a new season of episodes. The premise of this show is based upon the idea that we all need a little help in life. For whatever reason, we can get stuck in our way of doing things or living our lives in such a way that can ultimately be more destructive than helpful. And sometimes, we can’t see our way clearly to make the necessary changes in order to live more fully. Enter the cast of Queer Eye–five members of the LGBTQIA community summoned to come to the aid. They offer a comprehensive make-over–clothing, personal grooming, diet, living space, and emotional functioning. In six seasons, I haven’t watched an episode that doesn’t end with me in tears. It is full of truth telling and I find the storylines compelling and redemptive.
One particular episode that grabbed me and I found myself going back and rewatching was that of Angel, a transwoman, who is a successful weightlifter and full of life when she is in the gym, but so very disconnected and insecure when she is at home or out and about in the community. I found it very telling that although she has the support of her mother and her siblings, the relationship with her father was very problematic. As a child and teenager, Angel’s father encouraged her to play sports and the two spent a lot of time enjoying football together. Angel played on her high school team and was a strong athlete. As she began her transition, her father withdrew and the two of them became estranged. As Angel described the last piece missing for helping her to feel at home in her body, she described the missing connection with her father. She talked about how she, too, had cut off communication with her family because she didn’t want to force them to confront her changing reality for fear of being rejected. It was this statement that the cast member, Karamo, helping her process her emotions, told Angel that he rejects the phrase, coming out. He went on to explain that the term itself gives other people the power to accept or reject a person living their truth and instead he uses the term inviting in because it leaves the power intact. That perspective resonated with Angel and it helped to persuade her to initiate a conversation with her father.
Karamo, sharing his perspective, caught me off guard at first and as he went on to explain his reasoning, I saw the courage and defiance in his words. It was and is an act of him returning home a different way and in doing so, he was the catalyst for helping Angel take that last step in feeling at home in her transition.
Being a follower of Christ will sometimes require us to act with courage and defiance. Where are we called to disrupt the status quo? Whose life depends upon us finding a different way of doing things? Just yesterday, I came across an article about a church in Brookline, MA that has found a different way of doing things. They are a predominantly white congregation who has taken the time to learn about the history and the culture of Negro Spirituals and every time that the choir or the church uses those spirituals in worship they collect a special offering to pay a royalty fee to the Hamilton-Garrett Music and Arts program in Roxbury which is passing on the history and performance of the spirituals to the next generation of young black artists. These spirituals came from enslaved people and were born out of deep pain and the artists who created this music never had the opportunity to receive payment for their songs. And so this congregation is definitely putting into action the words they have on a banner on the front of their church, saying that Black Lives Matter. They are helping to create the change we so desperately need to see and they are starting by focusing on race.
In the birth of Jesus God was at work doing a new thing. Change was coming and it terrified Herod. He knew his power was at stake. The magi didn’t prevent the ensuing violence Herod perpetrated on the families and baby boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding area, but they did provide enough time for Joseph and Mary to escape to Egypt, thus adding to the disruption of the power dynamic at play. In this new year, may we search for God’s light and love and in the journey have the courage to take a different road home.