Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Herod & the Wise Men: Matthew 2:13-23

If you have ever attended a performance of a nativity play, chances are that whilst it featured shepherds and wise men, it probably didn't include the story of the what is often referred to as the 'slaughter of the innocents', the brutal murder of children in Bethlehem by King Herod. This event is an integral part of the Christmas story, but we tend to ignore it because it doesn't sit comfortably with the nice image that we have of the birth of Jesus, of angels, shepherds and wise men. People often say 'Christmas is for the children', but we clearly feel that this part of the story isn't for them.


This part of the nativity story, the visit of the wise men and King Herod's subsequent attempt to destroy Jesus, is uncomfortable and disturbing, but shouldn't be done away with.


There is a great contrast between the reaction of the wise men to the birth of Jesus and Herod's reaction. So what do we know about the wise men and Herod?


The Bible tells us very little about the wise men, or as Matthew refers to them, magi. It doesn't even say how many there were, or who they were. All Matthew tells us was that they had seen a special star and had travelled from the East. The likelihood is that they were astronomers, who would have been extremely important in an agricultural society, because they would have predicted the best times for planting crops, would have known maths and calendar systems, and would have been able to navigate using the stars. Although someone did observe that they must have been male, because if they had been wise women they would have asked for directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, brought a casserole and given the baby much more practical gifts!


In contrast to the wise men, we know a lot about King Herod. Herod was born around 74BC and died in 4BC, and ruled Judea for 34 years, with the backing of the Romans. Herod could be extremely brutal, for example he had his wife and two of his sons killed when he feared they were plotting to over throw him. The Jewish historian Josephus wrote that Herod was so concerned that no one would mourn his death, that he gave orders to have distinguished men killed at the time of his death so that the displays of grief that he craved would take place. But Herod also left behind another legacy, during his reign he oversaw many great building projects, some of which we can still see to this day. Amongst his 'greatest' achievements was the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem.


The response to the birth of Jesus of the wise men and Herod could not have been more different.


The magi on seeing the star that signalled the birth of Jesus travelled a great distance to find Jesus. It would have been a long, arduous and potentially dangerous journey that would have lasted many weeks. We are accustomed to thinking that the greatest gift of the magi was gold, frankincense and myrrh. It wasn't. The greatest gift they brought was their devotion, their willingness to endure whatever it took and to search for this new king. Their physical gifts paled in comparison. Maybe this is the most important lesson that we can learn from them. There must have been moments on their journey when faced by cold, hunger, danger, or simply the enormity of the journey ahead of them, that they thought about giving in, and returning to their homes, but they didn't. They kept on searching for Jesus until they found him.

When they eventually arrived in Bethlehem, after first stopping to see King Herod in Jerusalem, what they discovered was a small child and his parents, not surrounded by the trappings of wealth, power or privilege that you would normally expect royalty to have, but living in very humble ordinary surroundings. But despite the outward appearances, they recognised Jesus as the Messiah, and kneeled down and worshipped him.

The magi show us what worship is really about.
To worship something, is to that thing worth, it literally means worth-ship. So when we worship God, we give him the recognition that he deserves. If we look in Scripture we see that the central understanding of worship is to homage and submission to God, it is about service to God, it is therefore all encompassing, it is about our whole life, and it is about reverence for God. This is why Paul in Romans 12:1 writes, "Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual
act of worship." Our worship to God is expressed in the way we live.

The contrast between the response of the magi and Herod could not be greater. Whereas the magi were prepared to travel hundreds of miles to worship Jesus, Herod, could not be bothered to travel five miles to pay him a visit. Instead on hearing about the birth of the new king of the Jews, Herod was disturbed. Herod was hated in Israel, although he bore the title King of the Jews, he was in fact a puppet of the Roman Empire, and was generally despised in Israel for his cruelty. And so, on hearing about this new king, Herod probably feared for his own safety, he was more concerned about maintaining his power and his influence. Herod probably recognised that the Jewish people held little loyalty to him, and so he perceived this new king as a threat. And so rather than worshipping Jesus as the Saviour of the world, he sent out to destroy Jesus, by ordering that all children in Bethlehem under the age of two be murdered.


Herod's response to Jesus was one of hatred and fear, hatred of anything and anyone that threatened his self-centredness. The great tragedy is that there are people like Herod still in the world to this day, who are more intent on destroying Jesus and his followers, than coming to worship him. Someone wrote, "If we leave Herod in the Christmas narrative, we can address the shadow of evil hovering over Christmas to this day. Herod still stalks the earth. He may be disguised in the military fatigues of a dictator. He murders street child in Brazil by sending death squads when darkness falls. Herod sells Thai children as prostitutes to wealthy westerners. He detonates a car bond that kills innocent people." But it is Herod's whole sale rejection of Jesus, which is the tragedy which continues to this day. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor writing in a book called 'Faith in the Nation' published last month, claims that the rise of secularism has led to a liberal society, hostile to Christian morals and values, in which religious belief is viewed as "a private eccentricity" and the voice of faith groups is marginalized." He goes on to say, "There are now "serious tensions" between Christians and secularist society, he says, in which atheists are becoming more "vocal and aggressive." We see in Matthew's Gospel the consequence of Herod's rejection of Jesus, and I believe today as a society we are living with the consequences of what happens when people reject God, with the break down of social cohesion in many of our communities, of many young people living without a moral compass to guide and direct them.


What in many ways was even more surprising than Herod's rejection of Jesus, was the response of the Jewish chief priests and scribes. They knew their Scriptures and had no problem in answering Herod when he wanted to know where the child would be born. But did they go to greet him? Did they lift a sandal? Not at all. They knew it all, but they did nothing. Their response, or lack of it, is surely a warning to us all. Their apathy hardened into outright opposition to Jesus as his ministry developed. Their response to the news of the birth of the messiah acts as a warning that knowledge is no substitute for obedience.


There is a great contrast between the response of the Magi and that of Herod to the birth of Jesus. The magi's faith, their insight and their whole hearted search and adoring worship of Jesus is something that should humble us all. Once the magi found Jesus, their lives took a different direction, one that is responsive to and obedient to God's call. So as we move away from Christmas and into the New Year, are we willing to seek him out and be led in a different way, like the wise men of old? Wise men and women still search for Jesus, will we do the same this year?


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