Matthew’s story of the Magi reminds me of Susie who came home from Sunday school and proudly showed her father the picture she had drawn there. It was a picture of an airplane and through the windows there were four people visible in the plane, 3 in the back and one up front. Dad asking a very natural question not recommended for parents of young artists inquired, “What is it?” Susie replied, “It’s the flight into Egypt. See, there’s Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus in the plane.” Stifling his laughter, Dad got in deeper. “Oh, I see, and who is that in the front of the plane?” “Dad,” said Susie, “You should know who that is. It’s Pontius the Pilot.”
Matthew tells the story of the holy family’s escape into Egypt so briefly and matter of factly that it’s easy to pass over it too lightly as Susie did. This story of the magi and Herod is a significant addition to Luke’s more peaceful account of angels and shepherd. In Matthew the innocent babe of Bethlehem is not only homeless but is quickly forced to run for his life from a homicidal King Herod. What might this dark side of the Christmas story say to us today as we come to the end of another Christmas season with the horrors of Newtown and Rochester still hanging in the air? Matthew reminds us that Jesus didn’t come into a world of pretty lights, tinseled trees and holiday parties. He came into the real world, the world that had always stoned and rejected God’s prophets and resisted those who try to challenge the status quo.
Jesus came into a world where Caesar Augustus issued a decree to tax an oppressed people – a first century fiscal cliff if you will. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the warmth and love of Christmas. We need breaks from our normal routine; we need to pause and ponder the meaning of life, to visit with friends and family; but lest we forget, Matthew 2 reminds us that like Jesus, when the party’s over, we must still live in the real world. Given Herod’s slaughter of innocent children, I’m sure there must have been some in Bethlehem who would have lobbied for an armed guard at the manger, or maybe the wise men should have been brought guns and ammo instead of Gold, frankincense and myrrh.
In the real world there is always the struggle between good and evil – has been since time began. It is both a cosmic and a personal conflict, which plays out here between Baby Jesus and King Herod, a symbol of all the power and violence and selfishness the world can muster. It seems a very unfair match doesn’t it, a helpless, defenseless new born baby vs. Herod’s armies? Gun powder vs. baby powder! But remember what Pastor Dave said on Christmas Eve – God loves the underdog. Baby Jesus is far from helpless, because he has God on his side, and we can have that same power on our side too if we worship the right king and not Herod’s kind of power. In the words of the great hymn, “Lead on O King Eternal,” Jesus wins this battle hands down, “not with swords loud clashing nor roll of stirring drums, with deeds of love and mercy, his heavenly kingdom comes.”
My son and daughter-in-law gave me the HBO series on John Adams for my birthday this fall, and those seven hours of viewing were a great way to spend some of my recovery time after my surgery. It’s a great series based on the biography of Adams by David McCullough, in part because it is so realistic in portraying how difficult the struggle for American independence was. Political debate raged for months about if or when independence from Great Britain should be declared. That first Christmas of the American Revolution in 1776 when Washington’s underfed, ill-equipped, poorly trained army looked doomed to an early defeat, Thomas Paine wrote his famous words, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Talk about underdogs taking on the most powerful military empire in the world. Adams and the other members of that Congressional Congress knew they were literally risking their lives, committing treason by standing up to the power and authority of King George. But as Harry Emerson Fosdick once said, they chose to be “loyal to the royal” in themselves, to the inalienable rights of liberty and justice endowed upon all humans by our creator.
As in every generation we are also living in times that try our souls, and we face the same critical decisions every generation faces, to choose the ways of the world or the ways of the Lord. Let’s be honest, our priorities aren’t all that different than they were in Herod’s day. Aren’t we still overly impressed by the lifestyles of the rich and famous? Don’t we stress out and work too hard and go into debt for things we don’t really need and can’t afford?
Let’s not miss the radical point the story of Herod and the Magi makes, of these wise kings traipsing around the countryside looking for a poor little peasant baby born in a barn. But even these wise men are fooled at first- they go to Herod, looking for the newborn king. They expected him to be born in a palace, not a stable, and wouldn’t we make the same mistake today?
The Magi are symbols of worldly wisdom and power. They show true wisdom just in time when they see through Herod’s lies and follow the star to Jesus. And there they bow down and worship the true king, the one who doesn’t force his way upon us or try to impress us with wealth and power. Jesus instead shows us the power that is stronger than any bully or injustice—the power of love.
Herod represents a long line of despots: Pharaoh, Jezebel, Nebuchadnezzar, Nero, Hitler, Stalin, Saddam, and Osama. All rulers who appeared to be all powerful. Matthew tells us that Herod was so powerful that when he was upset about the news of Jesus’ birth, all of Jerusalem trembled in fear of his wrath. But like every bully Herod’s fear-based power is hollow. Herod is so insecure and threatened by a tiny baby that he orders the slaughter of innocent children, a horror all too real to us in 2012. How desperate Herod must have been. His desperation shows us that he feared others far more than they feared him. Herod’s kind of power cannot last long because it is built on fear and violence. Herod has the power of death, he can order men to kill babies and they do it. By contrast, Jesus came in the power of eternal life. He has nothing to fear because he is in touch with the power of God that conquers even death itself. Jesus stands for love and compassion, kindness and peace, eternal values that can be oppressed and oppressed, but never conquered – values that aren’t part of the Herodian vocabulary.
Jesus’ peaceful confidence and power are illustrated in a story by Madeleine L’Engle that tells about the holy family’s dangerous journey across the desert into Egypt. Wild animals and robbers were very real threats in the desert, and Mary and Joseph would have had to join a caravan for safety. The story is called “Dance in the Desert,” and as L’Engle tells it, the first night in the desert might have been like this:
“The child will be frightened,” one of the camel drivers said and with his great, calloused hands began to play upon a tiny reed pipe. A scrawny donkey boy ran into one of the tents and came out with an enormous horn, certainly heavier than he was, and managed to blow into it so that a braying squawk came out the end. The little boy laughed and clapped with joy as he sat on the young man’s knee in the circle around the largest of the fires.
Outside the circle, from the edges of the dark, came a deep, sustained roar. The camel driver dropped his pipe, his huge hand reaching for his knife. “It is a lion.” The tremor of fear that ran through the group touched everybody except the child. He slid off the young man’s knees and walked on his still unsteady legs to the edge of the circle. “Wait,” the mother said, as the camel driver reached for the little boy.
The firelight seemed dimmer, the moonlight on the sands outside brighter. At the crest of a dune stood a magnificent lion, completely still, so that he seemed like one of the stone carvings that the sands cover and then uncover on the desert floor. His tail began to twitch, not in anger or irritation, but in dignified rhythm. Then ponderously, he rose on his hind legs to his full height. The child stood at the edge of the circle of firelight, holding out his arms in greeting. The lion dropped back to his four paws and moved slowly to the company, not menacing, not stalking, but in measured, courtly circles. “He’s dancing!” the donkey boy said. “The lion is dancing!”
The camel driver’s grip relaxed, though he kept his hand on the knife’s hilt. At a responsible distance from the caravan the lion knelt on his forepaws, then dropped to his haunches and lay still on the sands, watching.”
Because Jesus is the real king, He has nothing to fear from any human king or the king of the beasts. That’s the same message the gospels tell us when Jesus shows his kind of power over and over again – refusing to use force, resisting Satan’s temptations of glory and worldly power, calming the seas, exorcising demons, healing the sick and raising the dead. And yet, even with all those signs of divine power, Jesus still had few real disciples. Why? Because most people then and now are fooled by Herod’s kind of phony power. We call the Magi wise because they eventually recognize who the real king is. Herod tries to order them around like he does everybody else. He lies to them about his desire to worship Jesus. But the Magi’s wisdom wins out. Their ultimate obedience is not to Herod, but to the real king, and they refuse to play into Herod’s evil hand.
It is one thing to recognize the real king and bring him gifts and worship him. That’s the easy part. The acid test is which king we obey when push comes to shove. In our heads we know that God will win in the long run, but we live in the short run, and that’s where we must show our loyalty to the true king if we want our world to become more like God’s kingdom. We have the choice, every day, and history sadly shows a lack of wisdom in our ability to recognize and follow the real king. Too many Herods have risen to power in our world. Too many innocent children have died. Following the Newtown massacre, everyone is asking what we can do to make our world a safer place. That’s a complicated question and a debate we need to take very seriously. But there’s one thing we all can do right now today to help change the world and that is to commit ourselves more fully to follow the prince of peace.
In a few days the Christmas trees and decorations will be gone, the manger scene will be packed away in its box, but the choice of which king we serve and how we will live in 2013 will remain. That choice affects how we relate to our families, friends, colleagues, how we respond to economic challenges, to the needs of the less fortunate. It affects everything we do, and we need to be constantly aware of that. Because the forces of evil are subtle and tricky. Herod will try anything to undermine our faith by fear and intimidation, tempting us with all kinds of lies about earthly comforts and rewards instead of eternal ones.
Nobody ever said allegiance to the real king is easy (and if they did, they were lying). Accepting Christ as our king is not a one and done decision. You can’t even do that with your driver’s license, you have to renew it regularly. Each Christmas we need to hear the story again, fresh and new, to be challenged by its simple yet profound truth. And every day we need to make a conscious choice to follow the one true King.
Several decrees go out in the Christmas story – one from Caesar Augustus ordering a census, one from Herod ordering a massacre. But the one we need to hear is the decree of the angels proclaiming the birth of the one true king, the savior of the world who conquers our fear forever. Let’s remember Jesus’ teaching on allegiance to authority. He taught us to render to Caesar only that which belongs to Caesar, but always and foremost to give our ultimate allegiance to the true king and Lord of all creation. Let us remember that this is not a new challenge – that way back in Deuteronomy the Hebrew people were faced with the same choice. And Joshua made it very clear when he said, “Choose this day whom you will serve.” And like Joshua, we pray for the wisdom of the Magi to respond today and every day, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”