Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Unexpected Guests: An Epiphany Reflection

Today on the Christian calendar is Epiphany. Epiphany is the culmination of the Advent/Christmas Season and the Twelve Days of Christmas. This day is also known as Three Kings’  Day, which tells us that the purpose of this day is to remember and celebrate the coming of the Magi to see and pay homage to the Christ Child.

Of course, we are familiar with the traditional images of the Magi. We mostly see these guys in Nativities that blanket home and church yards at Christmas, and we experience them in Christmas productions, sometimes with elaborate fanfare that surely surpasses the original story. But what do we really know about these Magi?

You might be surprised to know that much of what we believe about the Magi has developed through tradition and is not really found in the Gospels. There exists a manuscript from the 8th century, which could possibly be a copy of a text that originated in perhaps the 2nd or 3rd centuries, that claims to be an eyewitness account of the visit of the Magi. And while this text, called the Revelations of the Magi, offers interesting details about these men and their visit to Jesus, it is highly unlikely that we can take it as historical.

Adoration of the Magi by Botticelli (1475)
Nevertheless, the Magi have taken on a bit of mystique of their own that is perhaps unequaled by any of the characters we associate with Jesus’ birth. But, there are some things that we have traditionally believed about the Magi that are certainly up for debate. For example, we do not know how many there were, from where they actually traveled, what exactly the star was, how long it took them to arrive in Bethlehem, and exactly how old Jesus was at the time of their visit.

All of these questions are certainly intriguing, and these are somewhat important issues for historians, but whether their travel to Bethlehem is a historical reality or not, for most of us who desire to find great meaning in this story about these mysterious visitors to Jesus, we are left to read about their visit from Matthew’s Gospel.

Matthew's Gospel is the only Gospel to include this story, and in doing so, he must have had some purpose in telling this tale about these unexpected guests; a purpose that perhaps offers something of significance to modern readers.

The story can be read as having various intentions and layers of meanings that could lead readers to different understandings of this narrative. For one thing, these are the first Gentiles to receive the news of Jesus’ birth, which says a great deal about what the author of Matthew believes about the scope of God’s love for the world.

Moreover, the stark difference between the Magi’s response to Jesus and that of Herod says something about Jesus as a polarizing figure even before he becomes an adult.

Yet, I find one element of the story to be both intriguing and also relevant to the question of what God thinks about those who seek places of power.

In reading Matthew’s story about the Magi, we should note with some curiosity that when these men arrive in Bethlehem, they visit first with King Herod instead of making their way to Jesus. This seems to me to be a strange twist in the story. After all, if the star has led them this far, why does it not lead them directly to the place where Jesus is, without them having to stop by to visit King Herod?

Of course, these "wise men" eventually see the star again, and it does lead them to the exact spot where the Christ Child is, but not before they stop off at Herod’s Palace to see what he knows. Is Matthew perhaps saying something through this little narrative twist? It is certainly not the case that Herod has information about the birth of Jesus, so what purpose does Matthew have in telling us that the Magi go to Herod before they find Jesus?

To get at the answer to this question, we need first to understand who Herod was. Herod was the appointed king of Judea; appointed to this post by the Roman authorities. His rule over Judea, however, was illegitimate in the eyes of many Jews, and, at least from the perspectives of both John and Jesus, he was also not legitimate in the eyes of God.

From the narrator’s point of view, it seems that the purpose of the Magi’s visit to Herod may have been more than just to inquire into the whereabouts of Jesus, the one who is the born king of the Jews.

Indeed, by their very mention of one who is born king of the Jews, these Magi serve as mouthpieces for the narrator, who speaks from God’s point of view. Their declaration to Herod, the so-called appointed king of the Jews, is that his time on the throne is coming to an end. One who is born as king is certainly a more legitimate king than one who has been appointed. Herod’s response is one of fear, and rightly so.

We should also notice that when the Magi come to Herod, Matthew twice calls Herod, “king”. But, after the prophecy about the ruler from Judah who will come from Bethlehem to shepherd God’s people is read, Matthew drops the title “king” from Herod’s name. He is simply Herod.

This switch in the way the narrator refers to Herod seems to be no accident. By dropping the title king from Herod’s name, the Gospel writer is demonstrating that Herod is no longer the king of the Jews; indeed he really never was. Even though he still acts as a ruthless ruler, his kingship is illegitimate in the eyes of God.

The Adoration of the Kings by Niccolo di Massio (1423)
Thus, these Magi are unexpected and unwelcomed guests in Herod’s Palace, for they bring him news that his time as the ruler of the Jews is coming to an end, for the one they seek by the sign of the star is the born and legitimate king of the Jews.

Moreover, the prophecy that Matthew mentions speaks of a ruler who will shepherd God’s people.  The image of the shepherd should not be overlooked at this point, as it carries with it rich meaning throughout the biblical narrative.

The long standing command of God to those in leadership over God’s people was for leaders to be shepherds over the people, which meant that they were to lead and guide with compassion and justice. It meant that rulers were charged with making sure that those on the margins of society were cared for.

Israel’s leaders, however, like Herod, did not always heed the command of God to lead with justice. At times they ruled for selfish gain, failing in their God-ordained role as shepherds over the people. I am reminded of Ezekiel’s prophecy against the rulers of Israel when he declares that they had failed to be shepherds, and thus they had fallen under the judgment of God.

The visit of the Magi reminds us that the rulers and powers of this world are not the true authorities over God’s cosmos, and this is particularly true for governments, kings, dictators, and anyone who seeks to rule with illegitimate, unjust, and oppressive power.

Herod had failed as king, for he was simply the appointed king, placed there as the illegitimate king by an illegitimate empire. He was no shepherd over God’s people, and his rule was one of injustice and ruthless power, which Matthew represents through his story of Herod ordering the killing of all male children under the age of two; an event that cannot be verified, but a story that nevertheless illustrates what the author thought of Herod as king.

For Matthew, the one who has been born, the Christ Child, is the legitimate king of God’s people. He is the Good Shepherd who will shepherd God’s flock.

Whatever we might think about the historicity of the Magi’s visit, from the perspective of the only Gospel writer that tells of their journey, these unexpected guests were not the bearers of good news to Herod. They were messengers of doom for Herod and any ruler that does not rule with compassion and justice.

(This is a shorter version of a sermon preached on 1/5/14 at First Presbyterian Church, Monticello, Arkansas. You can listen to an audio version here.)