Today’s lessons point to three styles of rule and ruler, that come from the fist, the head and the heart. King Herod would like to think he has the world locked up. As the representative of Roman rule, he holds the keys to prosperity or poverty, freedom or captivity, life or death in his hands. So it is disturbing to him when there is a rumor of another ruler coming to be, another possible rule of how to be in the world, showing up on the horizon.
We don’t know much about the Magi who bring this news to him: They could be the scientists of the day, when astrology was considered a solid study for research and forecast, they could be the equivalence of therapists and social workers, examining dreams to figure out how the future might unfold, they could have been representatives of foreign powers; but any of these would make Herod nervous.
For they come to him asking if he knows where the child is who is born to be King of the Jews. This king who rules by birthright would be an obvious threat to Herod, who rules by dominance, and his own own resident experts, tell him that: “in Bethlehem...will come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” So there is a dangerous possibility that a new world might be coming into being, the old world turned upside down with new possibilities opening up: a ruler who is a shepherd to his people is not exactly the model that Herod has offered thus far. His response is politic: he asks him he asks the Magi to inform him, as soon as they know, where the child is located so that he can make an appropriate response.
And the Magi go on their way, following a light that seems to come from the heavens, and coming to a most surprising destination:
When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
We don’t know how long they had been on the road. Perhaps their wanderings had turned to pilgrimage and their pilgrimage into homecoming in the moment when they were overwhelmed with joy, when they knelt down, when they offered gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.They were three important gifts to give to a King, but surprising gifts to give to a child in a stable. Let’s look at those gifts.
Gold is a suitable gift for anyone in power. Herod would have recognized its significance, the right thing to give a king or ruler, even one who is a shepherd; but if they could look ahead in their great joy they would have been surprised to see what this ruler would ask as a response to his rule:
Come to me all Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
This is a different kind of ruler with a different set of values and demands: based on compassion and caring for all peoples, based on an awareness that we are but dust. Fragile creatures who are still the salt of creation, a city on a hill, the light of the earth. Our worthiness comes as a gift of grace and love from the God who creates us, from the God who joins us as a child in the middle of the human condition, with a rule that is set in the middle of the human condition, in the smallest and most needy as well as the strongest and mightiest.
I remember back in the 1950s when my father told me while watching a great tennis player (I think it was either Arthur Ashe or Rosewall), “he works really hard to look that relaxed.”.=So it might take a certain kind of power and grace and magnitude to be as defenseless as a child, to be open to listen and to learn and to love; but here is a God, a ruler and a king, who enters into his creation as the least of all -- as a helpless baby in an unimportant place in a single moment of time. So when you give gold to a newborn baby there is a new hope in the world.
Frankincense is used in religious rituals, as a suitable gift to bring to a priest. My sense of priesthood is that, in many ways it is a place where saying “thank you” and “I am sorry” are taken most seriously; not as just matters of custom or etiquette but as an acknowledgment that quite often we are given glorious gifts and we use them wrongly. I remember a professor saying that candidates for priesthood came to seminary to learn to be godly and ended up being somewhat lordly instead. But if Jesus is the head of the priesthood of all believers, then his community, this new creation, is something quite different:
Listen to the Beatitudes a few chapters later in Matthew:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
This is a way of being in the world that is not built on being a strong winner, but instead on being a true lover of God in your own time and place. This way can get you into trouble within existing the systems of hierarchy and heroism -- where “the one who dies with the most toys wins”, and Herod and his friends certainly won’t like it -- but it can make you a real winner in the last, at the end when the biggest blessings are handed out. The good news is that you will win in heaven: the bad news is that you have to die to get there.
I was once told that the big question is this: “How uncomfortable are you going to allow yourself to be for the new Creation?” And this child will go all the way, will live life into the jaws of death to open a way we can follow, that goes far beyond death.
Here we have a hero who is willing to live simply and to die well in light of what he believes to be the deepest truth of the light and love of the world. It is enough to make those wise ones, the Magi who come from somewhere else, feel a great joy: because the holiness in the heart of the universe, the great love which is our hope that every side is seen here beginning as a little boy in a little town in the middle of nowhere and in the middle of everywhere.
In Epiphany we see the God of light and love, as a child who comes to help us to grow up the full stature of Christ. He will offer a rule of life, neither burdensome nor difficult: he will share a priesthood for humble people on the way to share great gifts of righteousness, and he will defeat death, that last impostor, so that we may live with him forever. It is enough to give you pause, and it is enough to give you great joy. In the name of Christ.