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Sunday— 9:30 AM Sunday School, 10:15 AM fellowship, 10:30 AM Worship Service

Jan. 07

Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12

They had traveled perhaps some 1200 miles by foot and camel. They were foreigners to Judea, aliens from the East, compelled to travel, to seek, by a mysterious, out-of-the-ordinary star that had arisen in their western sky. This star at its rising arrested their thought, it captured their intellect, it commanded their attention. They sensed something different; something life-changing and history-making in the appearance of this star. They were not going to miss it.

We know them as the Wise Men in our Christmas Nativity scenes. In Matthew’s Greek text they are referred to as “magoi,” from which we get in English, “magician.” But these particular magoi did not pull rabbits from a hat. They were learned, wealthy, sophisticated Persians, modern day Iranians, who were the top astronomers and astrologers and philosophers of their day.

Christian tradition has supposed that the Magi were three in number, likely arising from the three gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – that the Magi offered the baby Jesus. But it is more likely that they were numerous in number, certainly in retinue for security, as they had traveled a great geographical distance to call on Jerusalem. Interestingly, it is not their foreign passports, not their number, not their finery, and dress, and assortment of camels and livestock they bring with them that stirs King Herod and Jerusalem. Matthew reports that King Herod, and all Jerusalem with him, were frightened, troubled, stirred at a great depth, not by the appearance of this retinue of alien Persians, but by the question they were asking.

Matthew reports that the Persians were asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at this rising, and have come to pay him homage” (2:2). And now we have arrived at the problem. Put yourself in King Herod’s shoes. Herod is King of the Jews. And there is room for only one king. Thus when Herod finds out that these Persian aristocrats have come calling in Jerusalem, seeking the child who has been born king of the Jews, of course Herod begins to demonstrate all the characteristics of anxious leadership.

Herod is frightened because someone has dared to question his sovereignty; someone has dared to challenge his rule; someone has dared to imply that there is an alternative, other king in town. History has given us plenty of examples of the characteristics of political leaders who lead out of fear and anxiety. Matthew certainly offers us a few examples here of the characteristics of frightened, anxious leaders.

Frightened leaders thrive on an abundance of information. So Herod gathers “all the chief priests and the scribes of the people,” inquiring of them where the Messiah was to be born. Frightened leaders are not transparent, open leaders. They work in secret, so Matthew tells us that Herod “secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared” (2:7). Frightened leaders act out of anxiety, fear, ego and will often disguise their true intent as Herod sends the wise men 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” (2:8).

The wise men appear to take Herod at his word. They have not yet had reason to suspect Herod otherwise. They follow the star from Jerusalem, south and southwest toward Bethlehem. Matthew reports that when the star stopped over the place where the child was, the wise men were overwhelmed with joy. We dare not miss the significance of this moment for Matthew. These learned, sophisticated, intelligent people are now touched in a way all their knowledge cannot fathom. They are overwhelmed with joy.

Joy is a gift. Joy is a gift of God. Human beings cannot have joy – we can only receive it. Joy is the realization that God is in charge; that all things are coming and will come to completion in God; that God intends well-being and will see to it that all creation is redeemed and restored from sin and darkness. When we are given the spiritual blessing of realizing that God is good and God means well and God is in charge, then joy infuses our being, joy saturates our body, joy enlivens our spirit, we indeed are in a position to be overwhelmed by joy.

The wise men were overwhelmed by joy at the sight of the baby Jesus. At some deep level they understood that God was at work in an extra-ordinary way in this baby’s life. The star compelled them, joy overwhelmed them, and there was nothing left for these wise me to do except kneel in obedience and pay this baby homage.

I believe the wise men had taken King Herod at his word, and were ready to return to Herod as promised with news of this baby’s whereabouts. But joy had overwhelmed them, and that joy had opened them to God’s guidance, and in the night a dream convinced them not to return to King Herod. At which point Matthew tells us that the wise men “left for their own country by another road” (2:12).

This is the story of two roads. Matthew lays these two roads out for us quite well. One of the roads leads to cosmopolitan Jerusalem, the city of religious and political and military dominance. This road is paved with the presence of anxious leadership; it is paved with a way of doing religion and politics and business that is calculated to consolidate and hold onto power at all costs. This road is paved by anxious, suspicious leadership, leadership that is easily frightened, leadership that thrives on an abundance of knowledge without critical wisdom; leadership that thrives on secrecy, concealment, subterfuge; leadership that manipulates and machinates, that plots and schemes to get its secretive, anxious, frightened way.

Like the wise men before us, we travel this road that leads to the cosmopolitan Jerusalems and Herods of our day. We can easily stop on this road and get seductively drawn into the power and ideology and dominance this road leads us to. We can easily stop our journey in the cosmopolitan Jerusalems of our day because they lure us with a promise of wealth and happiness and security. We can easily stop our journey on the road that leads to the Herods of our day who sweep us up in their aura, bring us along in their anxiety, compel us in their fearful vision.

Matthew gives us another road in his story. It is the road that leads away from power and intrigue, away from the anxiety and fear of King Herod and all Jerusalem with him. It is a road that leads to the little, unpretentious town of Bethlehem; to a house where a baby and mother reside; to a place where light compels, where truth and righteousness and justice and mercy are embodied and lived. A place where wisdom and discernment lead to true and lasting peace. A place where joy overwhelms. The only place on this earth that once we arrive, truly arrive, we find the grace and courage to fall on our knees in this baby’s presence, pay him homage, and go home by another road.