Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 85:29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
Some people think he is a man at the top of his game. And yet, even though he has reached the top level of leadership, it doesn’t seem to be enough for him. He has a seemingly insatiable appetite for power, and that makes him restless. He is self-centered and driven completely by his own ego. The people who surround him—both those who work with him, and those who he supposed to be serving—have learned by hard experience that you can’t trust his promises. They tiptoe around him, always trying to please and appease. Further, he always carries suspicions about others, revealing his deep-seated self-doubt. Because of all of these traits he tends to be short on mercy and long on cruelty. He has clearly forgotten the most vulnerable in society, but gives lip service to them, often claiming that he is their greatest champion. In fact, he has ordered extreme measures against children, the least of society, with the result that, far from protecting them, his actions have actually lead to their demise.
I am speaking of course, of King Herod, appointed King of the Jews by the Roman Senate in about 40 BCE, and went on to be one of the major players in the story we remember today. The Feast of the Epiphany was in fact yesterday; but I didn’t want to pass it up, so we have transferred it on our parish calendar to today. This story, which in fact features three different glimpse of kingship, gives us a golden opportunity to think about models of leadership.
Herod is a complicated leader. He is an historical figure – while some of the characters in the Bible only exist within those pages (that is, there is no other documentation of them), Herod’s identity is verified through many different sources. He was born into a family of influence among the Roman occupiers of the region sometime around 70 BCE, was made governor of Galilee when he was in his mid-twenties, and soon became the Roman King of Judea only a few years later.[i]
Some sources tell us he had a mixed ethnic background, but was raised as a Jew. Other sources clarify that, “While Herod publicly identified himself as a Jew and was considered as such by some, this religious identification was undermined by the decadent lifestyle of the Herodians, which would have earned them the antipathy of observant Jews.” He is generally considered to be a ruthless sort: One historian proclaims him, “the evil genius of the Judean nation,” and another says he was, “prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition.”[ii]
But he wasn’t all bad. He is considered by some to be the greatest builder in Jewish history, having made provision for the building of the Second Temple in Jerusalem (only the retaining walls of that foundation of that temple remain today, one of which is the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall, one of the holiest places in Judaism. He also developed water supplies for Jerusalem, built several fortresses, and founded several cities.
All of that is irrelevant to our story today. The stories we read in the second chapter of Matthew reflect that cruel character that has come to characterize Herod. He is threatened by the question from the Magi, “Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?”[iii] But I get that; wouldn’t you be threatened if strangers came to you and said they were looking for someone who has been proclaimed as taking your job? Still, with this question Herod falls prey to his baser instincts. We are told he became afraid. But note what follows that pronouncement: “he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” When I read that, I imagine that they were frightened because, by this time, they knew this leader well: They knew that when he was afraid, his actions could be very dangerous.
Out of his fear, Herod tries to manipulate the situation to his purposes. He enlists the Magi in his service, to do the work of finding this child for him. I suspect that he thought he was being really clever. They would lead him to this usurper, and that would allow him to be sure that his own position was not threatened. But it seems that the Magi were able to see through his ruse; they will not be used by this desperate leader.
Now let us turn our attention toward the next king – or kings. There is a lot of speculation about who these Magi were. They are not specifically documented anywhere other than in this Bible story. Some say they were magicians who roamed the area; others say they must have been courtly priests serving the rulers of Persia; and still others say they were astrologers who read the heavens and advised rulers on their plans. We really don’t have any idea who they were. What we can observe in this story is that they were thoughtful and curious, willing to take chances.
They follow the star that is central to the story, which leads them to the Holy Family. The star is fascinating to consider too— this remarkable story “clearly testifies to the power of God, not merely to bring foreigners and those who up until now have been clueless about God’s plan into the fold, but even to manipulate nature itself.”[iv] This remarkable star brings us all to the greatest king in the story—Jesus Christ.
When they come upon Mary and the infant Jesus, we are told that these learned men knelt down and paid him homage. Imagine what a remarkable scene that must have been. It wouldn’t have been hard to play, “One of these things is not like the other” in that place. These sages from the East (legend holds that they were three men, but the text never nails any of that down), presumably dressed in garb that must have seemed very out of place in humble surroundings, kneel at the feet of a simple woman and little child, and offer precious and outrageous gifts. Their actions point to the true king.
This story is certainly included in Matthew’s gospel to make sure we understand that this is no ordinary child. But it is also the first glimpse of God’s mission through Christ to bring salvation to all of the world, and not just to the Jewish people. By placing these exotic leaders at the manger we learn that this God comes to both shepherds and kings—to rich and poor, to those who expect him and those who don’t. As we see the breadth of humanity coming to the manger to pay homage, we know that we who fall somewhere in between are also welcome to worship the Christ child and dream of the ways he turns everything inside out.
And the story also points out the kind of king that deserves our respect. Not a bully—not one operating out of fear, not one who operates solely out of his own ego, but a king who comes quietly and humbly, and who will have a laser focus on love. Of course, that king is the real object of this story: Jesus Christ, God come to earth as one of us. These sages from the East understand that God is doing something new in Christ; they pay their respects to this most unlikely king, and avoid the man who would destroy the babe he sees as a rival. They depart “by another road” to evade Herod’s clutches.
Of course, I guess that they, like us were confused by what they had seen and learned. I am guessing they understood the hope of a new king, a better king, but were probably mystified by the details of the story and the ways that it had changed them.
T.S. Eliot, one of the twentieth century’s major poets, and an Anglican, wrote a poem titled, “Journey of the Magi,” which is written in the voice of one of the exotic travelers. After he speaks of finding the Christ child, he says,
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.[v]
(I have placed a few copies of the poem on the back table.)
So, maybe the wise men get it, or maybe they don’t —and what about us? What does the coming of God to earth as a tiny babe mean for us? Where do we go from here? You see, it’s not only about coming to the realization that not all our leaders have our welfare in mind. It’s not just about knowing we deserve better. It’s not even just about trying to speak out against the injustices those leaders might perpetrate. It’s about returning, always, to love. It’s about realizing that the way of Christ is what will ultimately serve us, and our world. It’s about seeing that embracing way of love that Christ offers is always the right choice.
You see, through this story, “Matthew is offering a tantalizing hint about life for those who have met Christ: Nothing is ever the same. You don’t take the old road any longer. You unfold a new map, and discover an alternate path.”[vi]
Jesus does not make our lives more comfortable. Jesus doesn’t help us fit in and succeed. Like the wise men, once we’ve met Jesus, we can no longer be content with a world that isn’t committed to love.[vii] “We detect royal pretenders. Nothing is the same; nothing comes easy. A strange, unfamiliar road is now our path—but the road is going somewhere.[viii] Amen.
[iii] Matthew 2:2.
[iv] Howell, James C. Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. pp. 212, 214.
[vi] Ibid, p. 216.