Matthew 2:1-12 (NIV)
2:1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Something doesn’t quite seem right about our scripture reading for today, does it? Oh, the text is familiar enough to us and all, but it doesn’t really seem like a text for October 21st, does it? This is usually a cold-weather passage here in the northern hemisphere, and it is one we might read again in a few months. But today we are going to look at it from a little different perspective.
Today’s passage is often read soon after Christmas as it is the story of the Wise Men following the star to find the baby Jesus. Somehow the Wise Men see a star in the sky and recognize that this celestial luminary is a sign that the king of the Jews has been born. So they mount their camels and head toward Jerusalem, where the star seems to be leading them. But they missed the actual birth site by about 6 miles, which isn’t too bad for someone traveling by star rather than GPS or map. Of course they came to Jerusalem because, where else would the king of the Jews be born? Bethlehem?
Matthew tells us that all of this was taking place at the time when King Herod was ruling Jerusalem. And I use the word “ruling” a bit loosely, because we all know that the Romans were really the ones in charge. Any king that was in place was what we might call a “puppet king,” someone else was pulling the strings.
Herod was a Jewish man that the Roman leaders put in leadership because he was on their side. Herod collaborated with the enemy, and it worked out pretty well for Herod. He had money, he had power, he had authority…sort of. He had authority to do things that really didn’t matter to the Romans. The idea is that the Romans would put a Jewish leader on the throne so that the Jews would be content. But that king is really just a tool of the Romans, doing the will of the empire.
So King Herod is “ruling” Jerusalem according to the ways of the Roman Empire when the Wise Men come seeking the baby Jesus. Matthew shares some important details in verses two through four, quoting the Wise Men, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him. When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.”
There are two things that I want to point out here. The first thing is that when the Wise Men start asking around Jerusalem, looking for the baby Jesus, they ask, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” The word that we translate there as “king” is the very same word that we translate as “King” when referring to King Herod. So you can begin to see why Herod might be disturbed about the news that Jesus was born. These Wise Men believed that Jesus was a king. But Jerusalem already had a king. He, Herod, was the king. And I am not familiar with many situations where there are co-kings in any one nation. Which king did the Wise Men come to worship? Herod is afraid that this baby might be the end of this good thing that he has going.
The second thing that I want to note is that Herod automatically makes the connection that this baby born king of the Jews is the Messiah. The word messiah does not mean god, royalty, or lord. Messiah means “anointed one.” But it was a common practice in the Old Testament to anoint the next king, like when Saul was anointed and later David was anointed as Saul’s successor.
So it is really difficult to know just what Herod thought the role of the Messiah might be. Perhaps Herod thought that the Messiah might be a political king, or perhaps Herod thought that the Messiah was going to be a revolutionary who would overthrow the Roman Empire. Neither of those options sounded good to Herod because Herod had a good thing going and he did not want to lose it. Fear of losing his power motivated Herod to do something that we can’t even imagine: he ordered the killing of all little boys two years old and under.
Fear is a major motivator in the kingdoms of this world. Fear makes people do things that they normally wouldn’t do. But in the kingdom of God, we are repeatedly reminded not to fear.
I find it interesting that after the encounter with the Wise Men, Matthew never refers to Herod as king again. There is a new king in town. God in human flesh, Immanuel. The Lord of lords, King of kings. Jesus is king, so Herod is not. Jesus is king, so Caesar is not. And we must be reminded from time to time that Jesus is king, so we are not. It is to Jesus that we give our lives. Herod can have what doesn’t stand in contrast to the teachings and example of our true king. But we know who is really in charge.
There is a really good reminder of this concept in the Old Testament, in a story that we often use as a children’s story. During the Babylonian Exile when the Jews were taken from their homes and forced to settle in other areas of the world, we find a few Jewish men rising up in the ranks of their occupying nation. One such story is that of Daniel.
Daniel seems to have risen up as a leader because he had a special gift for interpreting dreams. So he was pretty powerful, having the opportunity to speak to kings and other leaders from time to time. This, however, did not sit well with the other, non-Jewish leaders. They were a little bit jealous of the attention and the power that Daniel had been receiving. So they came up with a plan to have Daniel removed from the situation.
These leaders tricked the new king, Darius, into making a law that nobody was permitted to pray to any other person or any other god but him. Yes, Darius was a very humble man. But Daniel, being a devote Jew, refused to bow down and worship Darius and instead he continued to pray to the God of Israel.
News of this got back to King Darius, and of course, there was a prescribed punishment for such an offense as this: the perpetrator was to be thrown in the lions’ den.
We know the story. God protected Daniel. That is usually the point that we tell our children when we teach this story. But there is another point to be made from this story. Daniel refused to bow down and worship anyone or anything that was not God. Daniel knew who the King of kings and Lord of lords was and still is today.
We have many things to be thankful for here in the United States. I am thankful for the freedoms that we enjoy: the freedom to assemble and worship here today, and the freedom to practice whatever religion I chose. Nobody has ever tried to force me to bow down to an earthly king or pray to another human being. But there are other ways that our allegiance to Jesus is tested from time to time. And I think it is so very clear to us right now during this election season that many Christians have bought into the tearing down and demoralizing of people on the other side of the political spectrum.
Sometimes we give this practice a little bit of a playful name; we call it “mudslinging.” Mudslinging sounds like something that children might do. You might say that nobody really gets hurt, we just all get a little bit dirty. But I wouldn’t say that nobody gets hurt. I would say that “the body” gets hurt. The Body of Christ, that is the Church, is broken, divided, and made to view Christians on the other side as the enemy.
This is a little more than I like to read in a sermon, but my friend Phil recently preached a message at a local private school and I think he hits the nail on the head. From Phil’s message:
There is a huge difference between the character of the kingdom of God revealed in Jesus, and the character of partisan politics. Politicians are not just permitted, they are expected to attack. They attack not just the ideas, but the character, integrity and dignity of their opponent…
If our first loyalty is to a kingdom where we love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, lift up those who stumble, and strengthen the weak . . . Why do we get beside ourselves with joy when our candidate really sticks it to the other one. Why do we cheer when the opposition stumbles, when our adversary looks weak, when our candidate piles on insults and verbal abuse…
We do believe, don’t we, that character assassination is not Christlike behavior? We do believe, don’t we, that lying, manipulating, and defaming others to get the upper hand is not the way of the kingdom of God? So why do Christians get so wound up in a system that does exactly those things?
I recently have heard politics described as the art of dividing the people. When I think about politics, I think of someone standing outdoors, holding a stick and drawing a line in the dirt. Politics says, “Which side are you on? Are you on our side, or are you on their side?”
I care deeply about things on both sides of the line. I care about helping the poor; I care about protecting all life from womb to tomb. I care about healthcare, jobs, the national debt, the housing crisis, and the economy. But as I consider which side of that line to stand on, I realize that I simply cannot endorse all aspects of either side of the line.
As Christians we are called to live out our convictions as followers of Jesus. We don’t stop being followers of the King of kings during the election season. We don’t stop being Christians when we enter the voting booth. No, we are to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all of these other things will fall into place. So when politics draws a line in the sand and asks us which side we are on, Christians need to step back, draw a line at a 90 degree angle and say, “I do not choose the ways of this world. Instead, I will stand at the foot of the cross.”
I’m not saying not to vote. If you feel strongly one way or another, please vote according to your conscience. But I do encourage you to vote with a healthy dose of skepticism and realism, knowing that we are not voting for the next messiah. We have a king and his name is Jesus. We are voting for a leader who ultimately has no power outside of that which God has granted him. Furthermore, those who voter differently than we might are not the enemy. We already have one of those as well.
One of my concerns is that politics will continue to divide the church. I remember back in 2004, during the election race between George W. Bush and John Kerry, an incident that really put a sour taste in my mouth for the way that politics can divide the church. After a worship service, I was standing in the foyer of the church, talking with some other friends. One of my friends is a very committed Republican and he was an outspoken supporter of Bush. But it was October in Ohio, so we were talking about football, not politics.
As we were chatting, an older, more “mature” Christian, came up to our group, and broke into our conversation with a chant: Kerry, Kerry, Kerry.
He knew that my friend was a Bush supporter. He knew that he wasn’t going to change my friend’s vote. But what he did seemed like a taunt. It was nothing short of divisive. And that is minimal compared to what we hear on the radio, read in the papers, and see on the television today.
Jesus gave two main guidelines for us as we seek to follow him here on this earth: love God and love your neighbor. When we argue, fuss, and fight, when we call names, point fingers, and make accusations, we are not loving our neighbor. When we allow partisan politics to influence how we see others, we have allowed our political allegiances to be king and lord over our lives.
This is why we are having a communion service here on Election Day. At 7:00 p.m. when the polls close, we are going to come together to remember that we are the church before we are Republicans or Democrats. Regardless of how or if you vote, regardless of where or if you attend church, if you are a follower of Jesus, you are invited to the table.
We aren’t saying that elections aren’t important and we aren’t saying that the things that divide us aren’t important. What we are saying is that what unites us is more important. And what unites us is our commitment to the King of kings, Lord of lords.