Lectionary Passage: Matthew 2: 1-12
2In 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.’” 7Then 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.
New Year’s Day is always somewhat mixed for me, filled with hope for the future, maybe a chance at a “reset” but also regrets for what the past year has left undone and a sadness for what is left behind. I always have this feeling that I’m somehow leaving those that are not here to celebrate behind, like I’m moving into a place where they are not. This year is especially bittersweet. The good part is that 2020 is over. I don’t know about you, but I’m glad to see this one leave. But as I write this, there are officially 346,859 Americans that are not stepping into the new year with us because of Covid-19. One of those is my funny, flamboyant friend Brian. And left behind with him is my friend Lahonda and sweet Maynard, the wonder dog. Brian and Lahonda were musicians. Maynard just sort of had his own song. The music is still here but it is different.
This Scripture is used for Epiphany, which is not until January 6th but is celebrated by most churches this Sunday. But it’s also a good reading for New Year’s, for that time of resetting what is normal, of rethinking what it is that is your life, and perhaps figuring out a way to carry the past with you in a new way. Now is the time to go back to what is “normal” (or in our case, parademic-normal). But, regardless, what does that really mean? What do we do after it all ends? What now? The truth is, “after” is when it begins, “after” is when it becomes real, and “after” is the whole reason we do this at all.
The text that we read begins by setting us “in the time of King Herod”. And in it, we find that the last question of Advent comes not at Christmas but afterward and is asked not by an individual but by a group. They believe that the star (or, for some, an unusual conjunction of heavenly bodies that produces an especially bright light—hence the “Christmas Star” name given to the recent conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in our solar system) marks the birth of a special child destined to be a king. And they ask, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?
And so Herod hears that a king had been born in Bethlehem. Well, the formula is simple—a king is born, but a king is already here; and in Herod’s mind and the minds of all those who follow him, there is room for only one king. The passage says that King Herod was frightened and all Jerusalem with him. They probably were pretty fearful. After all, there was a distinct possibility that their world was about to change. It seemed that the birth of this humble child might have the ability to shake the very foundations of the earth and announce the fall of the mighty. Things would never be the same again. So Herod relies on these wisest ones in his court. The writer of Matthew’s Gospel says that they’re from the East. Some traditions hold that these wise ones were Magi, a Priestly caste of Persian origin that followed Zoroastrianism and practiced the interpretation of dreams and portents and astrology. Other traditions depict them with different ethnicities as the birth of this Messiah begins to move into the whole world. In fact, the early Western church gave them names that depict this. (No, these names are not in the Bible.) But according to tradition, Melchior was a Persian scholar, Caspar was a learned man from India, and Balthazar, a scholar with a Babylonian name. These three areas represented the known world at that point. The Messiah had come to every nook and cranny of the world.
But, regardless of who they were, somewhere along the way, they had heard of the birth of this king and came to the obvious place where he might be—in the royal household. So, sensing a rival, Herod sends these “wise ones” to find the new king so that he could “pay homage” to him. We of course know that this was deceitful. His intent was not to pay homage at all, but to destroy Jesus and stop what was about to happen to his empire. It was the only way that he could preserve what he had.
According to the passage, the wise men know that Christ was born; they needed God’s guidance, though, to find where Christ was. When they get to the place where the star has stopped, the passage tells us that they were “overwhelmed with joy”. They knelt down and paid the new king homage and offered him gifts fit for a king. Even though later interpreters have often tried to place specific meanings on these gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, it is possible that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew simply thought that these gifts, exotic and expensive as they were, were gifts that would be worthy of a great and mighty king. They were gifts of joy, gifts of gratitude, gifts of celebration.
And then the passage tells us that, heeding a warning in a dream, these wise and learned (and probably powerful and wealthy) members of the court of Herod, left and returned to their own country, a long and difficult journey through the Middle Eastern desert. But rather than returning to their comfortable lives and their secure and powerful places in the court of Herod, they left and went a different way. They knew they had to go back to life. But it didn’t have to be the same.
We often profess that Jesus came to change the world. But that really didn’t happen. Does that mean that this whole Holy Birth was a failure, just some sort of pretty, romantic story in the midst of our sometimes-chaotic life? Maybe Jesus never intended to change the world at all; maybe Jesus, Emmanuel, God with Us, came into this world to change us, to invite us to travel a different way. Maybe it has to do with what we do after. It has to do with how we choose to go back to our lives. Do we just pick up where we left off? Or do we, like those wise visitors choose to go home by another way? Do we choose, then, to change our lives, to listen to the familiar music in a new way?
God did not just visit our little earth so long ago and then return to wherever God lives. God came as Emmanuel, God with Us, and that has never changed. The birth of Jesus means that God was born in a specific person in a specific place. The Christmas story affirms to us that God is here, that the Messiah for whom we had waited has come, that we are in God’s hands (and God is in ours). But the Epiphany story moves it beyond the manger. And all of a sudden we are part of the story. We are part of the Incarnation of God, the manifestation of God’s Presence here on our little earth. The God in whose hands we rest danced into our very lives and is now all over our hands. It is our move. God was not just born into the child Jesus; God is born into us, into humanity. And the world really hasn’t changed. I don’t know. Maybe it never will. But we have. Our music is the same; but it sounds different to us. Because, it’s up to us. Christ’s coming means that we need to get going. We are called to change the world.
When the song of the angel is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone, When the kings and princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flock, The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among brothers and sisters, To make music in the heart. (Howard Thurman)
I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, ‘Give me a light that I might go safely out into the darkness.’ And he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be more to you than a light, and safer than a known way.’ (M.L. Haskins)
Happy New Year!