Happy New Year! Was it only five days ago that we were celebrating the New Year, full of hope for what new possibilities a new year and a new decade might bring? Our celebrations may have been tempered a bit by the realities of all that is taking place around the globe and here at home—the horrific fires in Australia that have devastated the continent, its unique flora and fauna, and led to those images of people huddled near the ocean, waiting for transport away from the devastation.
The realities of Antisemitism have also jarred us out of our complacency with the knife attacks on Jews celebrating the 8th day of Hannukah, and almost daily stories of abuse and attacks towards Jews, in England and in the US. A scourge that we thought had been conquered in the last century has returned as deadly as ever, moreso than ever before in the US.
And now, tensions with Iran have escalated to a point where war seems likely. Those of us who have lived with the rising drumbeat of war in advance of the attacks on Iraq in 1990 and 2003 and Afghanistan in 2001, and the growing militarization of our city and region over the last twenty years, are full of fear as we anticipate another chapter in our now endless war-mongering.
Happy New Year! Merry Christmas, for that matter, as we in the Church still linger in the season of Christmas, now on its 12th and last day. But where is the good news of great joy? Where is the peace on earth, good will to all?
Our gospel reading includes what is probably the most familiar part of Matthew’s story of Jesus birth—the coming of the wise men to Bethlehem. In fact, I have included much of the second chapter of Matthew, omitting only the gory details of what comes between the story of the Magi and the flight to and return from Egypt—the massacre of the innocents.
There are a number of important themes in this story—the magi, being Gentiles, coming from the East, are depicted as exotic strangers. Certainly, that is the way the Christian tradition has presented them. Our creche for example, with the wise men now arrived at the manger, depicts them in Oriental dress, accompanied by an elephant and camel; one of them is African. What’s important in the gospel, is that they come in response to the appearance of a star. Their desire to see the Messiah is not a product of divine revelation through Jewish scripture, but from their careful attention to the movement of the stars in the skies.
Their desire to know may be contrasted with the scene in Jerusalem. Their arrival arouses fear, not excitement or joy. They ask Herod, who consults with the local religious experts. The priests and scribes know where the Messiah is to be born but seem not to have any interest in the wise men’s quest or the birth of Jesus.
Although a convert to Judaism, Herod was hated by most Jews as the king of Judea, in part because they thought he was Jew in name only and in part because of his pro-Roman leanings. He became king by submitting to Roman authority. He lavished his territory with building projects, including a renovation and expansion of the temple in Jerusalem. Known for his ruthlessness, Herod executed at least three of his sons for conspiring against him. Herod’s lavish spending and propensity to violence are a sharp contrast to the powerless and impoverished infant Jesus.
Jesus seems to be powerless. In fact, throughout this chapter he is acted upon. The magi see him and worship him; Joseph takes him and Mary to Egypt, and then takes them both back to Galilee. Jesus’ family flee Herod’s wrath, so the contrast between the two kings is drawn especially dramatically. Yet in the narrative itself there are hints of a different reality—the power of the reign being ushered in with the birth of Jesus Christ and the threat it poses to the powers of the world. The text says that Herod was terrified at the news of the birth of a king. It also alludes to his death at least three times. And at the end of the chapter, it is Jesus who is alive and well, while Herod is dead.
Perhaps even more important is the scene that’s left out of our gospel reading—the massacre of the innocents. Herod’s response when learning that a “king of the Jews” might have been born in Bethlehem is to rid himself of the challenge to his authority, in the most ruthless and bloody way imaginable. The murder of all of the male children less than two years old symbolizes the sort of ruler Herod is, and the nature of the power and the kingdom that is his.
These stories, so simple on the surface, have a great deal to say to us in 2020. We are seeing Christianity being weaponized in our culture, to support oppression and violence. Christian leaders provide cover and legitimacy, eagerly serving as courtiers to a government that seems more and more intent on inflicting suffering on the poor, downtrodden, the oppressed.
State violence is being used to separate families, turn away refugees and asylum seekers even as Jesus and his family are depicted fleeing state violence. Our nation teeters on the brink of war, lashing out with no consideration for possible casualties, the thousands or tens of thousands of potential victims.
And here we are, celebrating the coming of Christ into the world, the inbreaking of God’s reign. When all around us cry out for war, and when violence and the raw, untrammeled exercise of brute power seem to be the modus operandi of our culture and our nation, we are reminded that the God we worship comes to us in poverty and weakness, in utter and complete vulnerability and dependence.
Our God comes to us, resides with us, not in towers or mansions but in crude stables, and on perilous journeys seeking freedom and safety. Our God’s power is demonstrated not in the latest military technology, in bombs or cruise missiles or drones, but in an infant nursing at his mother’s breast.
As we gather on this 12th day of Christmas, lingering to remember and to celebrate still, for one more day, Christ’s coming into the world, may the violence and noise of the world not distract or overwhelm us. When so many in our culture, and so many of our Christian brothers and sisters seem intent on worshiping a God of violence and hatred, may the sight of the magi worshiping the babe in a manger call us to remember the kingdom and reign that God is ushering in and remember where we find God’s presence in the world.
God’s dream for us and for our world, the reign that is being birthed with the birth of the Savior, is a world where swords are beaten into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks. It is a world of peace, where war is no longer waged, where lion and lamb lie down together.
As followers of Jesus, as worshippers who kneel with the wise men at the manger and confess our allegiance to God’s reign, may our hearts be filled with the peace of Christ, and our wills be made strong to seek and work for peace.