Pastoral Prayer: Holy One, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and not Jerusalem signals that we may want to look outside of the centers of power for the light to see our way in the world. Remind us today that we find our hope not in the stars, be they human or heavenly, but in Jesus. And all God’s people say . . . Amen.
“We look to the sky to see what is happening, what mark it has made. And we make meaning out of that mark. It’s kind of like having a living map of your life.”
Chani Nicholas could well have been quoting the ancient Persian astrologers. She wasn’t. Instead, Nicholas was part of a story recently reprised on CBS This Morning. The story led off with a reference to the American Psychological Association that notes Millennials are among the most stressed Americans.
“Millennials self-report more stress and less certainty about their future than any generation before them,” Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Jessica Pels said. “They’re also less religious than any generation before them. So they are looking for guidance.”
The magi, that group that many grew up calling Wise Men, paid careful attention to the stars. They made meaning from certain observations. When they noticed a star they had not seen, or one that appeared brighter than usual, they often understood it to mean someone had been born. In the same way, when they no longer saw a star, it meant someone had died. These Persians were both mocked and respected. Rather than finding their place with confidence, the magi inhabited social space that was neither in or out.
Given that Matthew is the only Gospel writer to include the magi in his gospel story, we cannot simply dismiss the features of this group out of hand. In fact, it may well be that their presence in the story of Jesus is a signal to the church to which Matthew intends for his gospel. That is, history reveals that early Christians also found themselves in a social space that was neither in or out. Some call this space “liminal,” a space in between. And, given the world as we know it, this may still be the best place for Christian disciples, Christian churches. But, as we will see, and as has been clear for at least 100 years in America, the tug to be used by the center of power has been costly to the church and to the very people who need a witness to the meaning of life found in Jesus, the Christ.
Amidst the dark skies the magi saw a star that caught their attention. They set out, on their own dime, to find the meaning in the star’s appearance. Even more, they set out to worship the one for whom the star appeared to them. These foreigners came to Jerusalem asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” Why Jerusalem? It was the center of Jewish life, the Capitol City and where the Temple was located. For Israel it was the center of everything. Where else would you expect the future king to be?
The next time we read those words, king of the Jews, in Matthew’s gospel it is Pilate asking Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” before washing his hands and turning over Barabas. Matthew bookends his gospel with the designation assigned to Jesus – king of the Jews – here at the news of his birth and at the event that precedes his crucifixion.
The magi caused quite the stir. They did not come representing another government entity. Instead they came asking about town if anyone knew where to find the one born king of the Jews. What made this so disturbing is that Herod laid claim to that designation. And, though an Idumean, not a Jew, the religious leaders – scribes and Pharisees – had bought into the circumstances in order to keep their positions, to maintain their social and religious authority and influence. If Herod was troubled, and all of Israel with him, it is clear that the news was disruptive. Herod had secured allegiance by force and favors. He had secured the silence of his critics by force, even John the Baptist’s head on a platter, and he had curried approval by the religious leaders for the favors of an extravagant Temple and concessions to their pseudo self-governance,
Should there be another king it would unravel everything.
It would help to capture the intention of the magi. They planned to worship the one born under the sign of the star. Telling Herod their plans was to say to Herod, we will not bow ourselves before you, we will not pledge our allegiance to you, even if you are Rome’s representative. We are here to give ourselves to another. This will be the action by the early disciples that will set them as neither in or out. They will not bow to Caesar, or Herod, and they will not abandon those in need. Did you catch what put the early church in the middle? They refused to pledge allegiance to anyone but Jesus. And though cast aside and persecuted, they did not abandon those in need for their own safety and security.
How would they find meaning to the confounding question posed by the magi? How would Herod know? How would the religious leaders know? How would the magi know?
That’s right! When Herod wanted to know he called the chief priests and the scribes and asked where the Messiah was to be born.
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.
Written by the prophet.
Don’t miss this. The star sparked the curiosity of the magi. The answer to their question was in the Scriptures, the Old Testament. Herod would be no suitable substitute for the Messiah. But the pull of power and influence left the religious leaders more concerned about losing their place than what they knew in the Scriptures. This is born out in the story Matthew tells. By the time we get to the end, these are the people involved in asking for Barabas.
The way we interpret the Scriptures often expose our desire. It is not that the chief priests and the scribes had lost hope in the coming Messiah, at least we don’t think so. Instead, it is that given the prospect of losing power, they choose to ignore what is right in front of them.
Please do not think this does not happen today. It does.
What we may learn is that magi may appear, some who really have an interest in Jesus, and if we give them anything but Jesus, we will have revealed our own desire. And in the process contribute to the death of innocents.
Bethlehem. If the community of disciples, like the magi, are considered neither in or out, then Bethlehem would be the place where the king of such a people would be born. The only noticeable feature of this out of the way place? King David was born there. Otherwise, it served no place of significance. Look back at what the prophet Micah said.
You are by no means least.
Others may mark you insignificant. They may identify you as neither in or out. They may even dismiss you. But, the role Bethlehem plays is foil to power. The Story of Jesus is full of indicators that Jesus and his people would not rely on the sort of power on which the religious leaders in the story of Jesus depended. What’s more, in order to keep that kind of power, the sort represented by Herod, some will suffer.
When Herod realized the magi were not coming back, he ordered all children who were two and under in and around Bethlehem killed. Maintaining their advantages, the religious leaders chose their own safety and security than thinking through what sort of decisions Herod would make. Take notice. Once the magi ask where the Messiah was to be born, Herod references not the Messiah but the child.
Go and search diligently for the child.
Eight times Jesus is referenced as “the child.” Though loved, children inhabited a space in between. They were neither not yet born and at the same time not yet adults. Until they learned and could fill the space inhabited by adults, they were considered weak and invaluable not sweet, innocent, good and harmless. From that perspective, that were dispensable.
he was furious, and he sent and killed all the children
Reducing others to a general designation that ignores their value makes them easier to harm. None of us like babies reduced to a fetus, even if scientifically accurate. We should like it no less when children are given labels so that they may be mistreated, even die. Remember, the early church was marked by an allegiance to Jesus is Lord and a commitment to those in need even at risk to themselves.
Matthew interprets the escape of Jesus and his family in such a way as to call back to the Exodus story. Those reading his account would quickly connect the theme of God’s liberation from oppression and captivity to the life and work of Jesus. We may even see a tie in to the second temptation Jesus faced in Matthew 4. There on the pinnacle of the Temple Jesus was asked to prove his own allegiance to God by jumping. It is as if Jesus’ own words were not enough. H was tempted to perform.
Whether Matthew had access to or knew about the Revelation of Jesus written by John from Patmos, it is clear that Matthew knew that not only was Herod the human opposition to Jesus, but also the Tempter represented a more sinister battle. We see this replayed in Revelation as the Great Dragon that pursues the Woman.
Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. . . .
And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God ad his throne;
The Powers of Sin and Death take up a position against God and all people. We are treated as the child, dispensable. But, the story of Jesus in Matthew, and the fantastical telling in Revelation, point to the victory that is won by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
When Herod died the family returned to the land of Israel. Joseph learned that Herod’s son was in charge he did not return to Judah. Instead, he went to Galilee, to Nazareth. He did not take up residence near the place of power but instead raised Jesus in an insignificant, even scorned, location. Nathaniel mocked the idea the Messiah could come from Nazareth, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Like the places and people featured in the Story of Jesus, the community of Jesus followers, inhabit a space that is neither in or out. Instead it is a place from which we bow only to Jesus and risk helping those in need as illustrations of God’s grace.
Chani Nicholas thinks the matrix of astrological signs will help young people find the guidance they need in a world full of stressors. Look to the stars to make meaning of what you see. Pels thinks it a fun way to connect for young people.
Christians have understood the meaning of the signs Jesus gave us in bread and wine, his body and blood. Rather than putting the innocent to death, Jesus suffered death in our place putting an end to the Powers that war against us. God raised Jesus from the dead to affirm the message of liberation, of freedom. Today we look not to the stars but to Jesus whose life gives us meaning and guidance in a world full of stressors.
I generally take a manuscript with me to preach each week. However, the preached message is often a bit different than what you will find here. You may listen here.