In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, ‘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.’ 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 “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 and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then 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.’ 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On 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. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 ‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’
19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’
This is the Word of God. Thanks be to God.
Our text today is filled with all the things we experience day in and day out. Wonder and curiosity about the new world dawning, which propelled the magi on their dangerous journey. Fear as we look at uncertain futures, anxious about what will come next – which we know Joseph and Mary must have been feeling in their bodies. The exhilaration of building new connections across boundaries, as the magi and this new family experienced together. Even the terror and unspeakable violence of the most vulnerable among us being targeted by the greed of unjust rulers.
It’s all here. Which means this isn’t just the story of ancestors who came before us, long ago. It’s our story too.
It would be too easy to flatten these characters into classic Sunday school flannelgraph props, sorting them into the good guys and the bad guys. But each character is just a human being, like each one of us. What if we slowed down and found ourselves in this story? What would the Spirit do in our hearts?
Imagine Herod. It’s too easy to say, “He is a monster, I could never be a part of the horrific violence he perpetrated.” But what we know about Herod is that was put in place by the Roman empire to rule Judea, a job that made him and a small group of people with him very rich at the expense of the general population who lived in overcrowded towns and under heavy taxation that all went to fund the empire’s fancy building projects and bloated police and military budgets that would keep the oppressed from pushing back. The truth is that there are many of us – myself included – who benefit just like Herod did from systems of oppression. I own a house only because of wealth I inherited from family who have invested heavily in a stock market that funds big tech companies that abuse their employees, extractive industries harming our earth, and a host of other life-threatening corporations. I have a pension through the Presbyterian Church USA and the Board of Pensions that still refuses to categorically divest from fossil fuels, and industry which we know endangers all of us, but especially those who are already poor. Like Herod, I’m part of a system that makes me richer at the expense of my human and non-human siblings.
We know from this text that Herod got really scared when the Magi asked about this new king they had traveled to Judea to worship. Because somehow he knew that the world order he was benefitting from, that he had come to rely on, would not be left the same with this new king coming on the scene.
We all get scared sometimes, don’t we? We all have times when we feel our own power threatened and it shakes our foundation.
But what would have happened if Herod had slowed down long enough to really be with and examine his fear? Would he have been able to feel an invitation to join the magi in searching for God made flesh among the oppressed? Would he have been transformed by this love, and would it have led him to start making different choices? Perhaps it would have caused him to turn around and start walking in a new direction of justice that very day – finding ways to get the wealth extracted from oppressed people back to those communities. Maybe he would have started using his position to divest from the police state he had helped create so that the most vulnerable people could receive care first, not punishment meant to keep an unjust system in place. If we slow down to examine our own fears, I wonder what daily choices we could make to share our resources, to fund community care instead of punishment, to follow the magi to the place where God is being born in our own community?
And now, imagine the magi. We can’t be exactly sure of their identities, but they were probably some combination of seers, magicians, astrologers, and advisors to the rulers of their own land. We think they came from the Parthian empire, an enemy of Rome. Rome used their version of a border patrol police to keep the Parthians out of Roman occupied territories like Judea. Historians suspect that the magi were also living under an oppressive regime in their home community.
And they didn’t have to go on this risky journey to follow the star! They didn’t have to go to the empire-sanctioned king of Judea to directly challenge Rome’s power by asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” None of the magi’s choices were a foregone conclusion!
They could have tuned out the forces of hope that led them to risk their lives in seeking solidarity with other oppressed peoples like them living in Judea. They didn’t need to risk their lives to find a way to support and partner with the holy family in building the new world birthed at Christmas. But friends, they did! They made the choice to follow a star, not knowing where it would lead them, and they put their lives on the line to be a part of love taking on flesh on earth, rising from the bottom up.
As we look into a new year, how can we make different choices than Herod made? How can we resist the systems that benefit those of us at the top at the expense of those at the bottom? How can we find new ways to share that build up a new world?
And what risks is God inviting us to take in the spirit of the magi? Which targeted siblings are we called to cross borders to be in solidarity with? What new, boundary-transgressing community do we feel God guiding us to build together in 2023? And what kind of transformation will the Spirit work out in our hearts and bodies along the way?
I have the words of God to God’s people from the book of Deuteronomy ringing in my ears: I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life, God says, so that you and your descendants may live. (Deut. 30:19)
May we follow the star and choose the way of life in new and risky ways this year, LPC family. In every big choice. In every tiny, daily action. And always reaching out to hold each other close every step of the journey. Amen.