January 11, 2015
My guess is that most of us like the wise men quite well. There’s something about these mysterious guys who see a star, intuit that it means that a new king has been born to the Jews, and then, amazingly, strike out on a journey to Jerusalem to visit with this new king. It’s just too cool! What one of us, upon discovering that a new governor had been elected in the state of Massachusetts, would drop everything to travel to Boston to attend the inaugural festivities?
But that’s just what these guys did. And they did it gladly and joyfully with much anticipation and hope! What were they thinking? Even a slow driver could have gotten to Boston this week in about four hours, but, as near as we can tell, the journey that the wise men embarked upon probably took them many months of strenuous and dangerous travel.
And that’s part of what makes the wise men so interesting and so mysterious. Truth be known, we don’t know a whole lot about them. We don’t know where they came from, we don’t know how long their journey took, we don’t know how many of them came to visit with Jesus, and we don’t even know what their true profession was. Most of what we think that we know about the wise men has been created out of whole cloth. Were there three of them? Maybe. Did they worship at the manger, along with the shepherds? Absolutely not! Their visit with Jesus could have been as much as two years after he was born. Did they come from Turkey? Its as good a place as any. Were they kings? Most probably not. Did they ride on camels? Who knows? Did they have names? Of course. But probably not the names that tradition has given them. Were they astrologers or astronomers? Perhaps. But Matthew, in his Gospel, calls them magi, which is not, in the rest of the Scriptures, a very complementary term at all. In the rest of the Scriptures, a magus is a demonically motivated magician who is to be shunned and spurned and avoided at all costs. Faithful Jews and Christians are to have no dealings whatsoever with magi. In the book of Acts, the Apostle Peter actually curses a magician and threatens him with eternal damnation.
But this we do know about the wise men. They came, they eventually located a young child named Jesus, they worshiped him, or payed homage to him, and they presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and then they went back home. But in doing that, they managed to excite the anger and the paranoia of a man who has already plenty angry and plenty paranoid.
King Herod was a whack-job in the extreme. He was afraid of everything and everybody. He lived in constant and legitimate fear that his reign of power would be toppled. He was despised by the Jews, and barely tolerated by the Romans. Murder was one of his hobbies. If he even suspected that someone might be sneaking around behind him, or plotting his demise or overthrow, he had them murdered. Even his own family was not exempt. He took his wife, Mariamne out of this world, and one by one, he eliminated three of his sons. Aristobulus, Alexander and Antipater died at his hand. One of the boys met his death as he and his father were playfully splashing about in the family swimming pool.
And so it is understandable that when the wise men arrived in Jerusalem wondering where this new king born to the Jews might be found, that King Herod would be upset. It was eerie enough that perfect strangers would show up looking for a new king, but it was even more frightening to Herod that this new king hadn’t even shown up on his radar. Its bad enough to know who your enemies are. Its even worse to not know. And sorrowfully, when news got around Jerusalem that Herod was upset, the whole city got upset with him. And it wasn’t because there was news of the arrival of a new king. A new king would be welcomed. Nobody would be upset about that. What everyone feared was a fresh exhibition of Herod’s anger, and what could be imagined about his ruthless response. Nobody wanted to witness that. There had been enough murder and mayhem already. People lived in fear of this guy, and they lived in fear of what he might do next. He was a fearsome character, but all too often he was also quite predictable.
And so Herod does some snooping around. He gets his religious advisers to do some research, and they report back to him that the promised King of the Jews is to be born in Bethlehem. And here is where Herod makes a huge tactical error. He sent the wise men to Bethlehem alone, by themselves. He should have sent a handful of Roman soldiers along with them. He could have done it under the guise of protection. Or he could have assured the wise men that the soldiers would show them the way. The soldiers could have slain the child, his parents, and the wise men to boot. No one would have known. It would have been neat and tidy, at least in terms of the way that Herod usually did things. Scholars have debated this one for centuries, but I think that this time Herod probably had too much confidence in himself. I think he really believed that he had the wise men fooled. I think he really thought the wise men were stupid enough to report back to him. And maybe he was right, and maybe they would have come back if God had not intervened. I think that God had plans for those wise men, and that they needed to get back home in order to fulfill them. God did, after all, send them all that way; God must have intended that they get home safely. That puts some meaning for me into the story of the wise men. Otherwise, the visit of the wise men seems to be just an odd story. The shepherds went back to their sheep on the night that Jesus was born, and as they went back, they went back glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen. And you gotta know that they did something with their new-found knowledge. I don’t think they just forgot it and got back to their lives as usual. I don’t think they got back that night and said to each other, “Well that was an interesting night!” I don’t think that was the end of it. I’ve got to believe that the same thing was true of the wise men.
Well, when Herod realized that he had been tricked by the wise men, he flew into a rage. They had disobeyed a direct order, and no one treated Herod this way. And so this time he did mobilize the Roman soldiers, and those soldiers ransacked the town of Bethlehem, breaking down doors of houses, ripping young boys from the arms of their shocked and dismayed parents, and slaughtering them as their parents looked on in horror. Before the day or night was over, every boy-child in that town, two years of age and under, had been senselessly murdered. The entire community was plunged into deep grief and loss, and helpless to do anything about it. They were yet even more helpless victims of a crazy, despotic man who styled himself as a king.
Why did that have to happen? A more plaintive question, perhaps, and one that we often ask in response to events in our own lives is, “Why did God allow this to happen? Could not have God prevented this? Could not God have preserved those families living innocently in Bethlehem? Why did the birth of the Prince of Peace have to be characterized by so much senseless violence? It is difficult to know how many little boys died in that terrible massacre, but given population data, and mortality statistics among infants in that day, a conservative guess is that about 20 little boys met their deaths. But even so, by my reckoning, that is 20 too many.
The short answer to these questions is that we live in an evil, broken world, characterized by evil, broken people. And while Herod was certifiably nuts, he was also certifiably evil. There is death and violence all around us, even today. That violence is also perpetrated by crazy, evil people, but sometimes it is perpetrated by evil people who are wise and calculating.
In his Gospel, Matthew attempts to put this evil into some kind of meaningful context. He quotes from Jeremiah, chapter 31. He says,
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
Wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children,
She refused to be consoled,
Because they are no more.”
When we go to Jeremiah chapter 31, we discover that Jeremiah is describing the march of the people of God out of Jerusalem as captives, and into exile in Babylon as slaves. As they are driven out of Jerusalem, they walk past the grave of Rachel. Rachel has been dead for a very, very long time. She was the first love of Jacob, and the mother of Joseph and Benjamin. But historically, she has been considered as the mother of all faithful Jews. And as the people are marched past her grave, in poetic metaphor, she weeps. Her children, the people of God, are as good as dead. Many of the people of God have been slaughtered by the Babylonian soldiers, but even those who live have lost hope as they are driven from their homeland. The attack on Jerusalem was particularly bloody and terribly horrific. And we can see how Matthew might draw lines of connection between these two events.
But when Matthew quotes from Jeremiah 31, he intends for us to familiarize ourselves with the whole chapter. And in this chapter, in the midst of the horror, there is also hope.
And so we also read these words:
“Thus says the Lord:
Keep your voice from weeping,
And your eyes from tears;
For there is a reward for your work,
Says the Lord;
They shall come back
From the land of the enemy;
There is hope for your future,
Says the Lord.”
There is hope, even for a people who are being driven from their homeland. There is hope even for a people who have endured much violence and death. There is the promise of restoration and renewal, even for a people who believe that they are dead.
But further along, in this same chapter, we read these tremendous words of hope:
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt–A covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
The Prince of Peace has come into our world and into our hearts. He lives within us, and he has shown us a new way of living and knowing God that eschews violence and hatred and death and evil. We have a new way of dealing with the frustrations and temptations that flood our lives on a daily basis. We have a new way of relating to one another, summed up in the words, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Yes, we live in a violent, evil world, filled with death and destruction, but that is not who we are and it is not how we live with one another. We are the people of Jeremiah’s new covenant. We are the people of peace and hope charged and commissioned to share the promise of that peace and hope with all whom we encounter. We are the hope of this broken world. Jeremiah says, “There is a reward for your work.” Let’s get to work. Let’s be part of making this world a better place for all to live. Let us be the ones who fulfill this new covenant that God has made with his people.