In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “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.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘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.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then 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.” When 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. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
The Magi are a great mystery. They appear only once and they leave soon after they appear. They are often described as kings, or priests, or astronomers, but we ultimately have no idea where they came from or who they were. The scripture is dense with astronomical terms that tell us they were some sort of nobility that studied the stars, but beyond this we are left to wonder, to imagine who these people were who somehow found their way to the infant Jesus.
The number of visitors is not given, but it is unlikely that a group of nobles traveling through an area would be without an entourage. Servants and supplies to see them through their long journey. They may have gone on foot, but more likely came riding in some kind of cart or chariot. The classic image of three single people on camels fits well into a nativity scene, but there were major disruptions created wherever they went. They would fill up any highway they traveled on and crowd any town that they walked through. Nobody would see this caravan and shrug their shoulders at it.
Though the exact place from which the Wise Men comes in unknown, we have some general ideas. Magi were at one time a class above even priests in the Persian empire. They were the keepers of rituals and secrets that were known only to them. Though we cannot know where they left from, the Magi likely left from the capital of the old Empire – meaning that if they traveled full tilt it would have been a fifty-day journey. Adding in the inevitable need to wait and to stop to resupply, this expedition was months and months of moving tens and tens of people.
The unlikely journey of a priestly class of people from an ancient conqueror of Israel to the ancient city of David: This was the first disruption caused by Jesus. When the rulers of an ancient enemy of God’s people became one of the first to worship the incarnate deity. In a life defined by reversing people’s expectations of God and God’s kingdom, Jesus began his work as an infant, working wonders enough to bring people who, in their own country, were more important to kings, to their knees. The first gentile mission of the church was achieved in the radiance of Jesus, a child so wonderful that even Magi bowed before him.
The celebration of Epiphany, the transition from Christmas into the Ordinary Time, represents the first of Christ’s “Theophanies,” or divine appearances. These were moments when people understood who Jesus was. The writers of the Gospel made it clear that when these occurred it was the people who should have been furthest removed from God’s work in the world that fully understood what it meant. The Gentiles who did not know Israel’s story, the lapsed people of God who did not keep covenant, the sick and the outcasts who could not keep purity laws – all of these saw Jesus for who he really was. Not just a teacher, not just a miracle worker, but God.
The Magi are described as having followed the signs of the sky. Some celestial combination of planets and stars that suggested to them that a king was being born that was more important than just being sovereign of a single kingdom. The king forecasted by the skies was greater than Nebuchadnezzar, than Cyrus, than Augustus in Rome, and certainly greater than Herod. This was someone who all people were to follow, the final and perfect king of all creation. However, at this time there was another King in Jerusalem…
The Herod in this scripture is the original Herod, the definite article. He was an Edomite who was able to work himself into the good graces of Rome. In backing Rome following Pompey’s conquering of Jerusalem he was made King of the Jews by the Roman government. He immediately got to work to try and win over the Jewish people, already suspicious of a king who was born to their ancient enemies in Edom and who sided with their enemies. Herod demolished Ezra’s temple and built it to rival Solomon’s. A massive plinth rose up above the city and a full system of pillars and roofs surrounded it to allow for people to gather and trade outside the Temple. To fund these projects he collected regular taxes, but some historians reported that he also stole gold and silver from King David and Solomon’s tombs. An expedition thwarted by Methane pockets under the temple mount that exploded when the robbers’ torches entered.
Having taken the throne Herod did not feel secure in his power. He was willing to kill anyone who opposed him. Though he had a fair number of children, several died because he suspected them of opposing his rule. He killed off his children anytime they seemed too interested in the throne, or even if they were just too popular with the people. To live in Herod’s household was to live with the threat of death over you constantly.
The Magi come to Herod and tell him what is coming. The King of the Jews is born, and more than that he is a king worthy of praise by all people. The scribes show Herod that this is true, that God is bringing something new into the world. Yet Herod sees this only as a threat, he claims he wishes to bow before this king, but as the scripture reveals his intent was to kill rather than to worship. Herod is not only unwilling to submit to God’s will but is willing to kill in order to avoid it. The idea of giving up his power to anyone is too much for him.
There is within each of us Herod and in each of us the Magi. We are rulers over various amounts of things, we have influence over many things in our life, but how we act with the power and influence we are given makes all the difference. The kingdom of God has only one ruler though, and it is our choice whether we accept Christ as King or if we go on trying to rule the world ourselves. We do not lose our power or opportunities when we accept God’s leading, but we do reorient them to the purposes of God, and away from the selfish impulses of our hearts.
While we do not rule countries or provinces, we are each of us rulers of our lives. From our birth to our death we control our actions. Situations may arise that limit the choices we have, but the ability to own our actions is one of the greatest gifts that God gives us. What we do every day has weight, and we have a real ability to impact the world around us. The money we make, the people we meet, the family that we have. All these are domains that we have some amount of influence in if not control over.
We can either be like Herod and decide that there are things we cannot give up. Our right to feel superior, our right to withhold help from those we call unworthy, our right to hoard money rather than give it to those in need. We can meet the Christ in his home in Bethlehem and see a threat rather than salvation, we can see this child who deserves the throne we sit in and do all we can to remove him from our stories.
Alternatively, we can be like the Magi. Seeing that God has entered into the world, we let ourselves be led into a Kingdom. We do not cease to hold influence over the world when we bow the knee toward God, but we accept that we are not ultimately responsible to ourselves. A child who is born to nothing becomes the model of our lives. We put our rights down in front of Jesus, it is no longer important what we can do, but only what we should do. Kindness overcomes our selfishness; a love of our neighbor overcomes our love of self. We are no longer held captive by ourselves but are freed to act with righteousness.
We gather together to worship God. Every week we rehearse the acts of the magi. We put our gifts toward God, we devote ourselves to the King of Kings and let go of our own desires for power. The table fellowship which we participate in is a prime example of what God does for us. As we gather together and share this meal, we share God’s grace. We necessarily put God first. We who for so long wanted to rule over our life and our world now have the chance to acknowledge the true ruler of the universe. A ruler who is not a tyrant, but in all things works for the good of all people. Let us bow down now, and in thanksgiving offer ourselves to our God and King.