Jesus … threat or gift?
1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
6 “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (Matthew 2:1-12 ESV)
The story of Christmas – of Immanuel (God with us) – of warmth and wonder because there is a birth and baby involved – of the mysterious bordering on magical regarding the conception and the announcement from the angels and the motley shepherds (hardly regarded as upstanding in Jewish society of that time despite the royal and divine associations of a millennium earlier) – is the ‘peace on Earth’ one where we get the presents. If you’re going to have a church festival, then this is a nice one to have. In fact it has been so hyped up as a happy time since the Victorian era in the 19th century, that today’s Christmas can have clouds of tough times, loneliness, and mental illness that usually only our emergency services see. What do you do if everyone is supposed to be happy and at least saying ‘peace on Earth’ but that’s not you? Nevertheless, most people smile at Christmas and regard it as a good occasion overall. God with us … why not?
However by the time of the twelfth day of Christmas – The Epiphany – the world has had time to think about it and now maybe the world isn’t too sure any more. God with us … why not? Hmmm … well, if he’s going to ‘take over’ that’s why not! Where Christmas might be an account of God’s action and imply human response, The Epiphany makes it clear what the human responses can be – and we can sense already how Simeon’s words are coming true – that Jesus is a focal point that divides humanity – some fall and some rise – some perceive him as a threat or an annoyance or a limitation to their lives – while others see him as a gift, something hoped for, help.
The Epiphany is God’s revelation to the world that Jesus is King of all humanity and challenges people about which kingdom they want to live in. Saying it like that makes it seem like a choice between good and bad but what we need to remember is that everyone on Planet Earth is part of the kingdom of sin, fear, and death and
to align oneself to any other kingdom is to be viewed as a traitor to this one. It’s weird, I know. But that is the perversity and hold of sin that we don’t see the rescuer as a rescuer but as a threat.
We know little of the Magi apart from they’re from the East and they study or follow stars and whether or how they have links to the Babylonian captives who never returned, we simply don’t know but they do the logical thing when they read the stars to say there is a new King of the Jews born and follow one and so they go to Jerusalem and the palace because that is logical – but a mistake. And the current king – and note – all of Jerusalem as well – are troubled – and their search engines – the chief priests and scribes are asked to search for ‘Messiah’ and Bethlehem is the answer.
Herod the Great (‘great’ because he was a big builder of palaces, forts, and infrastructure) is where is he in a long reign because he can deal with human challenges but these Magi suggest something else – the heavens and God are involved – and we can sense that Herod is up to something and it isn’t good. He sends the Magi as scouts but doesn’t get the information he needs and now no stealth but slaughter and he doesn’t care about his reputation anyway.
The Magi, on the other hand, find Jesus – probably a toddler – definitely in a house – we are way past a manger setting – and their gifts suggest their understanding but, I put it to you, not any sort of complete understanding because they still think of Jesus as King of the Jews – special enough to revere and honour, maybe even worship so he’s linked with the divine – but they, in my opinion, have no idea of the truth, but their pointing, their hunches, their signs are on the right track. Gold for royalty. Frankincense for priestly or divine service. Myrrh is the wildcard – precious to be sure – an ointment which could be used at times of death – but, again, my opinion only, they give it because it is precious and expensive – and it is us who see this gift more clearly as a sign that Jesus will be a sacrifice – the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, as John the Baptist would later say.
Jesus is possibly playing with his toys in his playpen and it is the world that is dividing itself on the basis of news about him. Is he a challenger or a comforter? Is he boss or butler? Will he follow me or will I have to follow him? That there are claims that Jesus is God only raises the stakes – and it leads to final consequences – a winner and a loser – a life and a death. And humanity chooses death each time! The world did not and does not receive its creator, its light, its rescuer, its life and wants the darkness and the self. And that’s what the world got – darkness – in the middle of the day when they killed Jesus.
And before we think too much about others, let us all remember that we began the Divine Service with confession and absolution – and this battle with Jesus and with our sinful dying self is within us. When Jesus’ call to ‘follow me’ makes us struggle, challenges us about faith and obedience, and is pushed away, then we are facing what all humanity faces when the real God turns up – fear and a dread of being accountable.
And that is when we need to pause and listen to where the world put Jesus – on a cross – in the dark – and yet he prayed for our forgiveness – and today look at the gold – this King is here for you on that cross so that you can live because humanity is already doomed, dead in our sins. Look at the frankincense – smell it – and see how Jesus is the Great High Priest – who is the sacrifice for our sins and the intercessor before God – and now the host and meal at his table for his people. And look at the myrrh – it was for death – not yours or mine – but Jesus’ own – so that we might live now – dying each day to self as we return to our baptism – because death no longer can keep us in its clutches – even should it stop our bodies.
The Epiphany reveals God’s goodness to all people – and the depth of how spiritually blind and dead we are – and to what lengths God has gone so that we will not be his enemies but rather God’s friends. And yes, now we – God’s children – are living in enemy territory – and that’s not going to be easy – but take heart, we are not alone. Jesus – King, Priest, and Lamb of God is with us – and the world doesn’t have a chance! God with us … thank you!
- Matthew 2:1 - 12