Isaiah 60.1 – 9; Matthew 2.1 – 12
Today we remember the story of magi who came from afar bearing gifts for the newborn king. There’s a wonder and strangeness about these wanderers, led to Jesus, from the distant East, by a star. Strange because, why did they set out on this hazardous journey based on a hunch about the significance of a curious star, and a Jewish prophecy. Why leave the comfort of their surroundings for such an uncertain journey? And why carry such odd gifts, sourced from the bowels of the earth and plant extracts harvested from trees; not the sort of thing you would get for a new-born child at Toys R Us?
Historical evidence is a bit sketchy, but it appears that magi were astrologers and interpreters of dreams, and may have come from the area we know today as Iran. They were not kings themselves, but more likely to have served in the courts of kings, perhaps as advisors. Presidents and prime ministers today have their inner circle, their ‘kitchen cabinet’, a closed group of trusties. They need to know what is going on in their territories; surround themselves with people who can ‘whisper in their ears’; seemingly always fearful that they might lose their grip on power.
Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses. We have all been brought up on scary stories read to us by our parents. A hero or heroine who is being stalked by someone or something nasty, a ghost or a monster, or something ‘other’ from the underworld, or alien planet. But it’s always reassuring to know that it’s it’s your mum or your dad or your grandma who’s telling you the story and that actually, you’re still safe, in the protection of your home. The important point in our stories is that the heroine or hero should triumph. And triumphing over evil would be a bit dull and pointless if the evil one wasn’t scary.
King Herod was a very scary individual. His people and his family lived in fear of him. He does not greet the news of a newborn king with joy. Herod is very afraid of the magi by their presence and their news. And for good reason. Whereas the storyteller Matthew makes a particular point about tracing the royal lineage of Jesus, Herod had none. He was essentially a military man, rewarded by successive Roman emperors; a puppet king.
During the reigns of Herod, the economy of the kingdom was stretched by a severe drought and famine. A historian of the time called Josephus writes of a delegation sent to Rome complaining that Herod had “reduced the entire country to helpless poverty” Antiquities, 17. The majority of the population were subsistence farmers, labourers or tradesmen, living in poor agricultural communities, who had been reduced to borrowing for the food they needed to live, often at exorbitant rates of interest.
So for much of his reign, Herod had to mind his back, with the Emperor looking over his shoulder and even his own family plotting to kill him. When the magi appeared on his territory, Herod was fearful: the presence of senior emissaries from another land, uninvited, raising questions and making demands. Their visit signalled a potential change in the political order. Herod would have considered the news as a concern of ‘national security’ something shared by “all Jerusalem with him.” It seemed that the prophecy of Daniel might actually come to pass.
In response to their fear, Herod, along with the chief priests and scribes, conspired to find the the Christ-child and kill him. They did not succeed however, because the magi did not report back to Herod as they had promised, having been warned in a dream, they went back “by another road” (Matthew 2:12).
So what about us? What does fear do to us? We are in the darkest time of the year when the days are short and the nights long. In Epiphany, we have taken down the tinsel and glitter of Christmas to reveal the darker story of Jesus’ birth. Epiphany however is represented by a beckoning star. A star that led the magi to the humble setting of the birthplace of Jesus, where it must have been a shock to find the hard and bitter reality of his birth. A life changing moment for them. A transformational moment of the unexpected and they knelt down before him and freely presented their gifts.
The question for our time is this. Are we prepared to accept that the old ways are changing? Are we prepared to accept that our power systems, our belief systems and our ways of thinking are no longer fit for purpose in an changing world that is different from what we have experienced so far? As the poet Denise Levertov writes On the mystery of the Incarnation,
when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
How fearful then are we to guide our society along ‘another road’?
We may think that, like the magi, we are few in number, but remember, they would not have travelled alone. Nor do we. A third of the world’s population professes to be Christian. Jesus has more followers than Facebook. God has drawn near to us to encourage and transform us. As Isaiah says, “Arise, shine; for your light has come; and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (Isaiah 60:1).
Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses, so long as we are not gripped by fear. Fear causes us to pause, assess our situation and decide whether it is wise to remain where we are or to change course. Matthew’s story should challenge us to find another way. At the moment we are peering into the darkness of the nativity and before long we shall be accompanying Jesus on the road to the cross. True, the resurrection will bring new life, but in the meantime we have a road to travel.
Over the holiday period I read a book by Alistair Moffat, called The Hidden Ways. He tells of the paved roads that the Romans built in Scotland. Their empire spread was driven by feats of engineering and clever ways of overcoming obstacles and difficult terrain. Yet Moffat struggled to find lasting evidence of these military roads, because stone crumbles and paths get washed away, or are replaced by new forms of construction.
But the paths of God’s kingdom are made of different stuff. The paths of the kingdom are solid ground, built on the generosity of God’s love; generosity that we can share in practical peaceful ways. Ways that will last. And we can be confident that our Chief Surveyor, God’s Word made flesh, is working for us day and night. Jesus is the Light that will shine for us in the darkness; and the darkness will never overcome it. At the beginning of 2018 let’s turn away from the old ways and move on with confidence, not fear, in our step.