Sunday 8th January 2017, Epiphany, morning
by Revd Chris Palmer
We call it the story of the three kings, but almost certainly the Magi weren’t kings – and the bible doesn’t say there were three of them either. The story does have kings in it, though. There’s King Herod; Kate spoke at the carol service about how we tend to airbrush him out of our Christmas pictures, an allegory for the ways we fail to integrate all that is confusing or unsavoury into our faith. Who is Herod? He’s a client king for the Roman Empire; he rules because they let him. He was an Idumean, who married a Hasmonean princess – that is, he married into the Jewish royal family; not the royal family of King David, but into the dynasty that was establish 140 years early by the Jewish leaders who managed to clear out the last remnants of the Greek empire from Judea. So Herod’s claim to be king was pretty shaky. And on top of it, he was a brute. He ruled by others afraid.
But there’s a second king in the story – the baby king: ‘he who was born King of the Jews’ the magi say. The baby king causes the brutal pretender to fear. Because the baby king has the right pedigree – he is of the house of David. Herod even consults the scriptures and scholars to discover where the true King of the Jews, the Messiah, will be born. In Bethlehem, they tell him. And yet he has the hubris to think he can nullify the coming rule of God. He plans to kill the baby King, to kill God’s Messiah. Fear breeds fear. Fear breeds violence.
And contrast this with the Magi. Who are these strange, exotic, shadowy, mysterious figures from the East. The word Magi came into being 500 years before Jesus to refer to followers of Persian Zoroastrian religion, or maybe to its religious caste or priests; amongst other things they studied the stars and sought meaning in them. The word spread beyond Persia to refer to these Persians, and as it spread it picked up misunderstanding and prejudices. Many of the uses of the word Magi in Greek and Roman literature are pejorative. It is the root of our modern words magic and magician, and the only other time the Greek word occurs in the New Testament it is translated magician – and that’s not a compliment! Wikipedia tells me that as recently as the 1980s the word magi was used as an insult by Iraq to talk about Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war; the implication was they still followed the primitive religions of Persia; they weren’t really Muslims.
So there was every reason to suspect these Magi. They were not Jewish, and they came from beyond the bounds of the Roman Empire. They practised a suspect, pagan, dangerous religion in which they sought meaning in the stars. And they turned up in Jerusalem making trouble, causing anxiety not only to Herod, but – the reading says – to all Jerusalem. They augured ill. They made Jerusalem shudder.
But notice their attitude. They come with reverence and awe. They come with enquiring minds and hearts. They come with a desire to worship. And although they take a wrong turn to Herod’s gate, when eventually they come to the house where Jesus is ‘they are overwhelmed with joy’. That’s a quotation from the reading: ‘they are overwhelmed with joy’. The Greek says, ‘the rejoiced exceedingly with great joy’ – it really rubs it home – this is a deep, profound, special, enormous joy. And the life-giving, joyful, evocative, awe-filled scene of these foreigners paying homage to the Jewish child, in this little house in Bethlehem, with their bizarre, symbolic gifts contrasts absolutely with the image of Herod sitting in his palace in Jerusalem, seething, filled with unpredictable tension, plotting how he is going to undo God’s saving work by butchering his Messiah.
I think those two scenes are images, caricatures perhaps, of attitudes with which we can live life, encounter faith, encounter other people. Most of the time we’re not quite as close to the poles as Herod and the Magi were – our rage or our anger are not as pronounced – so it might be harder to recognise these responses and attitudes within ourselves. We can see them in the world around us today. Fear, suspicion, and prejudice spread their murderous tentacles around the globe, fuelling war, terrorism, the arms race, gang violence, spiteful talk, bullying, domestic abuse, and much more. The violence of Syria may feel far away; domestic abuse isn’t far from any of us; though often hidden behind a polite exterior.
But God is calling us not to diagnose these ills in others, but to own them within ourselves. What causes you to defend position, to react with anger, to lash out with words, or plot revenge? What resentments or fears do you harbour or even feed, brooding on the wrong you’ve suffered, nursing your self-pity, or telling yourself a story of entitlement? How do these infect your relationships, your spirituality, your mental health, your physical health, your enjoyment of life, lead you into compulsive behaviours, lead you to put self-promotion above love, lead you to muster your arguments rather than hear the voice of others? Where is the Herod in you?
The Good News of the Gospel of that Jesus, the baby king, invites us. Makes possible a different way. This baby, his mother too – they are not grasping for power, demanding recognition, or assuming position. Everything comes to them as gift – even gold, frankincense, and myrrh! They are transparent with love, open to receive, welcoming of strange guests. And they inspire these responses in others too. The Magi, already with hearts open to God’s purposes even though they know nothing of his story, of his scriptures, are inspired to joy and homage in presence of his child.
Jesus invites us also to the same joy and homage. It is a joy that is brave enough to go on unpredictable, foolish-looking ventures; to ask questions, recognising that we don’t have the answers; to give, rather than expecting the world to give to us; to be vulnerable to others’ misunderstanding or power games; to discover relationship and fellowship with people who are different, who may not even speak our language; to worship in unexpected places and in humble surroundings; to be open to the voice of God leading us to life.
My own experience is that the commitment to be like the Magi and unlike Herod is a daily decision. It is not a moment of conversion, after which all is well. Herod will spring up unpredictably in our hearts, and that is fine, so long as we choose to listen to and follow the voice of the Magi. In a word, it is choosing hope rather than fear. Or, it is choosing to worship the baby king rather than plotting to destroy him. That is in stark terms the choice in every choice. Pray that God gives you courage to follow the star.