The Christmas story is one of the best known stories in the world, and I’m sure all of us here know it quite well. It’s been presented to us in dozens of movies, played out in church pageants with children wearing bathrobes and towels around their heads, portrayed in Christmas cards – well, sometimes! – and retold in dozens of books for children and adults. Also, preachers have preached on it every Christmas for the last two thousand years. So you might be forgiven for settling back into your seats this morning and getting ready to have a nap. “Coming of the three kings, blah blah blah – he preached on that one last year, nothing new to say…”
Wait a minute – did you say ‘three kings’? There’s a problem with that. Yes, it’s true that we’re going to sing ‘We Three Kings’ a bit later on in the service today. Furthermore, tradition has filled in all sorts of details about them – that they came from three different regions, that their names were Melchior, Casper, and Balthazar, and that one of them was black. Also, in Christmas pageants they usually arrive at the stable in Bethlehem a few minutes after the shepherds, giving the impression that on that first Christmas morning both ordinary people – shepherds – and great people – kings – came to visit the baby Jesus.
The problem is that none of this is actually in the text. The Bible doesn’t say that they were kings, and it doesn’t say that there were three of them. It does mention three gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – but that doesn’t mean that they were brought by three people – could have been more, could have been less. Furthermore, it doesn’t say that they visited the baby at a stable: it says in verse 11: ‘On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother’. A little later on in Matthew 2 we learn that they had been following the star for about two years, and because of these details the church has always celebrated the coming of the Magi at a different time from the rest of the Christmas story – on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany. We’re celebrating it today, the Sunday before Epiphany, because we can’t seem to get many people out to special midweek services these days!
Notice also that I didn’t call them kings; I called them ‘Magi’. That’s the Greek word that Matthew uses, and it’s traditionally translated as ‘wise men’. It can mean magicians, astrologers, or experts in interpreting dreams, portents or other strange happenings.
The most likely translation seems to me to be ‘astrologers’. The ancient world paid a lot of attention to the night sky. The stars weren’t dimmed by streetlights as they are today; they shone bright and clear, and seemed very close and connected to life on earth. Many people, especially in the countries east of Palestine, had given a lot of time to the study of the stars and planets and had given to each one a meaning of its own. They believed that the world was a whole – earth and heaven were all connected, and if something particularly important was happening on earth you could expect to see a sign of it in the heavens. Vice versa, if you saw something remarkable happening in the night sky, that must mean that some important event was happening on earth as well, and the symbolic meaning of the individual stars and planets involved might give you a clue as to what that event might be.
Since Matthew concentrates on the star that they saw, it seems likely that the wise men were in fact astrologers, and that something they had seen in the sky had led them to believe that something significant was happening in Palestine. What was it that they saw? Probably not a moving star as in the Christmas pageants; it seems more likely that it was a more traditional astronomical event. Halley’s Comet appeared in 12-11 B.C., but that seems a bit too early for this event. A more likely proposal is that they saw a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, which happened three times in 7 B.C. We know that the medieval monk who calculated the date of the birth of Christ got it wrong by a few years, so it’s possible that this conjunction might have been at the right time to alert the wise men to the coming of Jesus. Since, in their symbolism, Jupiter was the royal planet, and Saturn was especially connected with the Jews, the conclusion that a new king was about to be born for the Jews was an obvious one.
We don’t know if this was what the wise men saw, but even if it wasn’t – if there was some other astronomical event that got their attention – it’s very likely that thoughtful astrologers in the ancient world, seeing something unusual in the heavens, would go out of their way to find out what it was all about. This stuff was taken very seriously in those days! In fact, the Magi took the star far more seriously than Herod’s scribes took their Jewish scriptures, which told them clearly where the Messiah was to be born – in Bethlehem – but apparently didn’t command enough respect to persuade them to go and see him, as the wise men did.
Which brings us to Herod. I find it interesting that he never appears in Christmas pageants! Instead we have an entirely fictional character, the grumpy old innkeeper, who sees that Mary is nine months pregnant, but hardens his heart and won’t even consider making room for her in the inn, banishing her to the stable out back. As I said, he’s a fictional character; he isn’t mentioned anywhere in the scriptures, and in fact there might not have been an inn at all. As I’ve said here before, many modern scholars believe that the Greek words traditionally translated ‘there was no room for them in the inn’ would be better translated as ‘there was no guest room available for them’. And that would make sense: if Joseph’s family was from the Bethlehem area, why wouldn’t he plan to stay with relatives when he got there? And, given that the whole world was on the road for the census, it would be no surprise that all the rooms in all the houses of his relatives were full – except for the room at the bottom of the house where the animals were brought in at night. That’s where the manger was found, and that’s where Jesus was laid.
So there is no grumpy innkeeper, despite the fact that we’ve made him the character everyone loves to hate in the Christmas pageants. But the real guy who refuses to make room in his world for Jesus, the murderous tyrant who is so addicted to power that he will mercilessly slaughter all children under two in Bethlehem to make sure he’s taken out this little Messiah before he can do any damage – this guy gets left out of the Christmas pageants. Maybe it’s because we’re in love with the gentle magic of Christmas and we can’t stand the thought that the story took place in the real world, where real people sometimes do despicable things in order to hang onto their own power and wealth. It happened in Herod’s day, and it happens today too.
Did you notice the word that Matthew uses to describe King Herod’s reaction to the arrival of the wise men? We’re told that they arrived in Jerusalem – which of course would be a logical place for them to go, if they believed that a new king had been born: where would he be but in the royal palace? So they asked, ‘“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’ (vv.2-3).
‘Frightened’; that’s a strong word to use for a powerful king who was used to getting his own way. Herod doesn’t come across to us from the pages of history as a man who would be easy to frighten. He was not a full-blooded Jew, and there had always been people who questioned whether he was fit to be the King of Judea, especially since everyone knew that it was the Roman state – the hated enemy – that kept him in power. Throughout his long reign he was vicious in eliminating anyone he suspected of plotting against him. He slaughtered the last remaining members of the dynasty that had preceded his family. He executed more than half of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin. He killed three hundred officers of the court out of hand. Even the members of his own family were not safe; when he suspected them of treason he executed his own wife, Mariamne, her mother Alexandra, and his sons Antipater, Aristobulus, and Alexander. And when he lay dying, he remarked that he knew no one would weep for him, but he was not going to die without any tears being shed, so he arranged for the leading citizens of Jerusalem to be rounded up and killed the moment his death was announced.
This is the figure who now appears in the story of the birth of Jesus, and he is ‘frightened’. Why frightened? He was frightened because of the word ‘Messiah’. It’s true that this word is not used in the story as Matthew tells it, but it certainly appears in Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus, and we can be sure that some of the people in Jerusalem were joining up the dots. The Magi claimed to have seen a star in the heavens, a sign that a new king was being born. But there was already a king in Jerusalem. It could only mean that God was displeased with this present king – something many people in Judea had suspected anyway – and had decided to send a replacement for him. And the word ‘Messiah’ was close at hand for that replacement – the anointed one, the good king like old David, the one God was going to send to rescue his people from oppression and injustice and lead them into the golden age that had been promised by the old prophets.
You can imagine why that sort of story would strike fear into the heart of an absolute ruler like Herod. It meant not only rebellion, but rebellion sanctioned by religion, and all absolute rulers know that’s a powerful combination. There was only one thing to do: the messianic pretender must be eliminated and the rebellion nipped in the bud. So Herod craftily goes along with the story the wise men told him. “A king, you say? Yes, our old scriptures say the same thing – down in Bethlehem, where old king David was born. Tell you what, why don’t you go down and have a look for him? And if you find him, come back and tell me, because I’ll want to go and pay my respects as well”.
But God outsmarts Herod; he sends the wise men a dream, and after they find the holy family and give their gifts, they go straight home, without going back to Herod. When Herod hears of this he flies into a rage, and orders every baby boy in Bethlehem under the age of two to be slaughtered. This has gone down in history as ‘the slaughter of the innocents’, and it’s another detail that doesn’t usually make it into Christmas pageants.
So here, once again, we have two different ways of being a king. On the one hand, we have Herod’s way: you seize power and you do whatever it takes to hang onto it. This is a common story, even today. All around the world there are dictators who will stop at nothing to maintain absolute power in their countries, and the cemeteries are full of the bodies of the people they’ve murdered. And even in more democratic countries like our own, there are still politicians who will go to any length in order to gain power and hang onto it.
How do you defeat those dictators? How do you get rid of those evil rulers? The wisdom of the world is that you have to meet power with power. God is on the side of the big battalions, and so if you want to be free you have to be stronger than the forces of evil. And maybe along the way you might have to commit some acts of evil as well. Maybe you’ll have to firebomb some cities and slaughter some innocent children, just like Herod did, but we’re the good guys, after all, so for us the end justifies the means. It’s what we have to do to live in the real world.
We know from the Old Testament prophets that God is just as concerned about injustice and oppression as we are – far more so, in fact – but he chose not to meet power with power. Instead, he chose to come among us in weakness, as a helpless baby, born in a poor family. True, he was a descendant of King David, but David had lived a thousand years ago and he probably had thousands of descendants in Judea in the time of Jesus, most of them living in humble circumstances, like Mary and Joseph. God decided to change the world not by changing governments but by changing the lives of ordinary people. Instead of using brute force, he taught us the power of love. Instead of killing our enemies, he taught us to love our enemies. And he embodied that way himself, by going to the cross and allowing his enemies to kill him rather than calling on twelve legions of angels to protect himself.
Jesus never pretended that his way would be easy or risk-free. After all, he called it ‘taking up your cross and following him’, and in the ancient world people who took up their crosses were usually on their way to be executed by Rome, the great slaughterer of the innocents. Jesus doesn’t promise that if we follow him, our story will always have a happy ending – at least, not in this life. His own story had a happy ending, but he had to go through death first in order to reach it.
This is our God, the servant king;
He calls us now to worship him.
To bring our lives as a daily offering
Of worship to the servant king.
Matthew is offering us a choice. We can give our homage to Herod, the king who lives in the real world where it’s either kill or be killed, or we can give our homage to Jesus, the king of love, who gathers his people around him and teaches them a new way of living, the way of the kingdom of God. As we go into 2016, let’s choose the way of Jesus, the king of love, and pray that the Holy Spirit will give us the courage and strength to be faithful to him.