In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star.
They have haunted our Christmas imagination for centuries. They still haunt our Christmas cards, our carols (of course), our crib scenes. As if first century Bethlehem were not exotic enough, they turn up in their rich robes, their fancy camels, with the fragrance of another sort of East about them. Not the dusty east of poor Palestinian peasants under Roman occupation, but the spice-laden Persian east, the Aladdin east of our Western imagination- turbans, colourful robes, vast palaces, sultans, minarets and genies, astrology and magic and smoke and mirrors. We do not even know, really, if there were three of them, or even if they were all male, or whether or not they travelled on camels. They are unlikely to be kings, though they were probably advisors to kings. The Bible calls them wise men- magi (we get the English word magic from that word). Much of what we think we know about them comes is, simply, the accumulated imagination of two millenia. They arrive late in the Bethlehem story, for they have come a long way, and took a detour to consult with a tyrant:
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.”’
They wander into our Christmas dreams, adding colour among the shepherds and the animals to the dusty manger scene. But as Matthew tells it, when they wander into the story, they wander into trouble. As they are probably men of high social standing, they seek the new king in a royal palace. There they meet Herod, the local king, a pantomime villain if ever there was one. Herod had not been expecting a new king, not least one announced by a star. He is worried, and calls in his own advisors. Instead of consulting the stars, they consult their old books, and by accident stumble on the old prophecy that a special ruler will one day come from Bethlehem.
It might seem strange to us today that the advisors of kings back then might be astrologers- although maybe not, for Nancy Reagan had her astrologer. Or that other advisors of kings might look to ancient texts, but even that happens across the world today, as advisors interpret (or misinterpret) the Koran or the Bible for justification of their government’s policies. Back then, the stars and the old books were all they had- everyone believed in astrology and prophecies.
We’re often taken aback by the things our ancestors believed, the strange dogmas they lived by, the old-fashioned attitudes they had. ‘Thank goodness we don’t believe that any more!’ we say. But perhaps it would be more relevant if we said, ‘I wonder what dogmas we believe in today might be unbelievable to our descendants?’ For are we any better? What about the wise men who told our governments not to control banks too closely? What about the experts who suggested that going to war in the Middle East was such a good idea? What about the think tanks who suggest economic policies that fail to benefit the neediest in society? Often the predictions of today’s Wise Men are little better than astrology!
They may have been wise men, these Persian mystics, but surprisingly Herod pulls the wool over their eyes. It’s funny how stupid intelligent people can be sometimes:
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.’
Herod uses them. He knows it’s in Bethlehem the danger lies- but where exactly, he’s not sure. So he pretends to be a potential worshipper (when in fact he has far more nefarious intentions), and sends them off to do the finding for him. And so the naive wise men toddle off to Bethlehem:
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.
The supposed site of the birth of Christ, in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, is apparently quite hard to get into- and not just because of the crowds. It’s a tiny cave, now under the high altar of the church, and it has a low entrance so that you have to stoop to get into it. For there’s a good chance that the stable was, in fact, a cave where the animals were kept. There is, of course, something incongruous about these richly dressed (as we like to imagine them) wise men stooping to get into a tiny cave to worship a baby. And that even today, that if you want to visit the scene, you must bend down to get in. For here is a child who is worthy of worship- the son of a carpenter and a peasant-girl. Here is, indeed, the mystery and magic of the Christmas story. The wise men, offer their gifts, and then they fade out of our story, but not before they manage to put one over on Herod:
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
It would have come naturally to the wise men to obey King Herod (just as it was natural for them to have originally sought their new king in the royal palace of Jerusalem). For the Wise Men were members of the establishment. They were accustomed to royalty, used to honouring power, comfortable with kings telling them what to do. But this time, they go back by another road, because they had had a dream (people put a lot of store in dreams back then as well).
Sometimes the most conservative and establishment and conformist of us find that we cannot just do as the powerful want us to do. It is, I suppose the sort of impulse that led Rosa Parks, in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 to refuse to give up her seat to a white passenger, even although the law said that she should. God sometimes calls us to go take another road. Especially when the powerful have evil intent:
Now after [the Wise Men] had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’
It is, in fact, very hard to put much of this story into historical perspective. There are no other records of this massacre of the children of Bethlehem, beyond this story from Matthew’s Gospel. Yet today, and always, this story leaps out at us. The Wise Men, inadvertently, caused a massacre of children. A wicked tyrant, King Herod, thinks nothing of ordering this mass killing, simply because he needs to preserve his own power. Herod is much more than a pantomime villain. He is, rather, the representative of the sort of person who will stop at nothing to maintain his power. And that is why this story is so powerful- for we know who these people are today.
We know the stories- from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq- the bombings and the beheadings and the shelling and the gassing that indiscriminately kill men, women and children. Shamefully unreported is Yemen, a poor country bordering oil-rich Saudi Arabia, which since March has been leading a coalition which is blockading and bombing the country. The BBC reports: ‘Just under half of Yemen’s population is under 18 and at least 505 children are among those killed. The UN children’s fund (Unicef) warned in October that the “the situation for children is deteriorating every single day, and it is horrific”.’1 We don’t need to know the political or strategic reasons why the children are being killed. We should just feel revulsion and shame that it still happens today.
Not surprising that so many, like Joseph, grab their families and seek refuge elsewhere. One of the images we will not forget from this year was that of a three-year-old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi. His lifeless body was photographed, not in a war zone, but on a Turkish tourist beach, after he had been drowned during his family’s attempt to find safety in Europe. The child-killing tyrants are still at it. And it is hard for their victims to find safety. Yet we who claim to be inspired by the story of Christ cannot forget that he, too, was once a refugee, fleeing a violent, child-killing tyrant.
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.
God’s gift to the world is Jesus Christ. Christ is God’s way of reconciling the world to himself. Yet to undertake that plan, a plan in which the entire future of creation was at stake, God stoops into a cave in Bethlehem to be born, and very nearly doesn’t make it out of the manger. Which is what makes all of this more than just a nice story. I find it a sobering story- for it is a story about how God is in our turbulent world. Around the crib- that familiar scene of a holy family, with a child in the manger- there’s power politics, misunderstandings, terrific evil around the crib- Rachel weeping for her children. And all because of a child born to a peasant woman and a carpenter in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire.
The Word has become flesh and lives among us- even today, in a world where wicked politicians and their wise men still cause the death of children, the Word is coming among us. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out. Thanks be to our God, who is involved in the darkest places in our world, and in our lives.
After sermon: Hymn 309 Still the Night, holy the night!
Biblical references from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo