The wise men, by far, are the most mysterious characters in the whole Christmas story. And that is why the wise men are so interesting to me. This mystery, though, ends horribly and tragically. But it is yet more evidence of the cosmic battle between the powers of light and the powers of darkness that rages all around us. This story ends with lots of dead baby boys and with the parents of Jesus fleeing their homeland for fear of their lives, to live as refugees in a foreign country. It is not at all what we might have wished, for the story of the birth of our Savior.
In truth, we do not know a whole lot about the wise men. 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! Did they come from Turkey? It is as good a place as any with the possible exception of Port Clyde. Were they kings? Most assuredly 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? It is likely. But Matthew, in his gospel, calls them magi, which is not, in the rest of the Scriptures, a very complimentary 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 times. Faithful Jews and Christians are to have no dealings whatsoever with magi. In the Book of Acts, the Apostle Peter actually curses a magus 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, 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 was already plenty angry and plenty paranoid. And the wise men had the gall to trick him.
When Herod realized that he had been tricked by the wise men, he quite characteristically flew into a rage. They had disobeyed a direct order, and no one treated Herod this way. And so Herod mobilized his soldiers and sent them to Bethlehem to ransack the town. The soldiers broke down doors, ripped young boys from the arms of shocked and dismayed parents, and slaughtered the children as the 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 by this act of terrorism, 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, and who believed that there were no limits on his authority.
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 the Lord of the universe have prevented this? What has kept Almighty God from preserving those families who were so innocently living 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, and I could quote population data and mortality statistics among infants in that day, but a reasonably conservative guess is that about 20 little boys met their deaths. Even so, just one child would have been too many. When we start to use the word “only”, when it comes to counting violent deaths, we’ve slipped a notch.
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 always death and violence all around us. The violence that we see is also perpetrated by crazy, evil people, but sometimes it is perpetrated by evil people who are wise and calculating, and who work in cooperation, intentionally or unintentionally with the powers of darkness.
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 lamentations, Rachel weeping for her children, she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
When we go to the prophet Jeremiah, we discover that Jeremiah is describing the forced march of the people of God out of the city of Jerusalem. These people are prisoners of war, and they are being driven into exile in Babylon, where they will become slaves. As they are rushed 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 the
mother of all faithful Jews. And as the people are marched past her grave, in poetic metaphor, Jeremiah depicts her as weeping. Her children, the people of God, are as good as dead. Many of God’s people have already been slaughtered by the Babylonian soldiers, but even those who live have lost all hope as they are forced out of their homeland. The attack on Jerusalem was particularly bloody and terribly horrific; and we can see clearly how Matthew might draw lines of connection between these two events, especially when we consider the refugee status of the holy family in addition.
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 absolute horror, and terror, there is also hope. And so we 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:
your children shall come back
to their own country.
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 people who are convinced that they are dead. And these promises and this hope is ours.
Further along, in the same chapter, we read these words:
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 theirGod, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, ‘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 a new way of knowing God that utterly dispenses with 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 terrorism, and with death and destruction. And filled with those who would perpetrate that evil. But that is not who we are and it is not how we choose to 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.