Isaiah 9:6 (CEB)
A child is born to us, a son is given to us,
and authority will be on his shoulders.
He will be named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
Matthew 2:1-12 (NIV)
1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Haven’t we got the cart before the horse? The scripture about the visit of the Magi or the Wise Ones and Herod doesn’t usually come before Christmas. Typically it lands on Epiphany Sunday in January. But this fourth verse of our “Silent Night” hymn points us toward this term “King,” and it feels important, like a movie that gives you a hint of the trouble ahead before ﬂashing back to the start of the story, to approach Christmas Eve with the knowledge of the radical nature of this naming Jesus as “King.” Singing “alleluia’s to our King” can, when we look at it closely, still oﬀer us a vision of hope in the midst of chaos and troubling times.
Silent night! Holy night!
Wondrous star, lend thy light;
with the angels let us sing,
“Alleluia” to our King:
“Christ the Savior is born!
Christ the Savior is born.”
A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the “Pax Romana.” Caesar Augustus had decreed an era of “peace” after a long time of war and violence. He was called “The Prince of Peace” (Yes, the use of this term by the Gospel writers is a not too subtle slight to Caesar.), and he was considered (especially by his own deﬁnition) to have a divine nature (“lord of all”). However, this time of progress that saluted Roman achievements in systems of roads and building projects was made possible courtesy of a lot of oppressive and deadly force. It was a time of dictatorship, tyranny and totalitarian rule. “Prosperity” and “peace” were only for the few. Pax Romana could perhaps be called ancient media spin that has been seen in human history over and over again.
For those not considered the elite few, for instance the Judeans, the hope of liberation would have been discussed in terms of a king to overthrow and replace the reign of fear and oppression by Caesar. They weren’t thinking of democracy or freedom as we think of them. They thought that things would be better for them if it were their dictator in charge. People would be looking for “signs” of change. What was the birth of a child in a “nowhere” town to a couple of shaky reputation? After all, she was pregnant and unmarried which made her really low on the radar of power. It should have gone pretty much unnoticed, but it becomes a sign of trouble to Caesar and a sign of hope to the oppressed as the story unfolded over the years.
The ones who “let the cat out of the bag” to Caesar and his local representatives were in the business of “signs” and wonders. They were astrologers (considered a science at the time) who paid attention to these things. Astrology not only notices the stars and planetary bodies, but assigns meaning to them. A “sign” was something to pay attention to because it was a form of guidance in the quest for truth and knowledge about the future. The star that appeared was so signiﬁcant that they traveled to investigate it, a clue to us that they considered this something of a sign that would guide them to an important discovery.
A man was traveling in a taxi with his wife, and he was sure that he was looking at a helicopter. The night was dark, and this bright light was shining over the next town. He thought that the police must be looking for criminal or that there had been a car accident. They had come from the city, and their eyes hadn’t adjusted to the night in the country without all the ambient light. Yet, they could see this bright bright light in the sky. The man was sure that it had to be a man-made searchlight or something from an airplane or helicopter.
His taxi-driver was delighted to inform him of his mistake. It was the planet Venus. This was a time when the planet was closest to Earth in its orbit when it would look its biggest and brightest to the naked eye. (Matthew for Everyone, NT Wright, pg 9-10)
If you live out of town, or ever go star gazing out in the countryside, you will see things that you can never see in town, things that will amaze you. The longer you look at any one point, the more you will see. The only places that look empty are where there might be a black hole.
These people at the time of Jesus’ birth, we really don’t know how many, they studied the “heavens,” and noticed an extraordinary sight. Their religion and system of beliefs told them that they must investigate this astonishing event.
And when they approached Herod, agent of Caesar, the Gospel of Matthew described their question this way, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?”
Uh. Oh. The word…. king.
It made Herod afraid. Herod was the current king, and he expected one of his sons to be king after him. Herod was a tyrant, no doubt about it, and tyranny only works when you have all the power over a people. Tyrants have to be afraid of losing power in order to stay vigilant enough to ward oﬀ threats to that power. Herod had his own son executed when Herod thought he was too much of a threat. When power becomes a god, you fear losing it. When you reign by fear, you live by fear.
It is perhaps true that the opposite of fear is not simply “calm,” but rather it is hope. Hope serves a defense against despair. “Hope” is our word for this week. Joan Williams writes, “If people can’t access their hope, they live by their fear.”
What are you afraid of? Alternatively, what gives us hope? What about God, about Jesus, that is tangible in our lives gives us hope? What would make us follow a star to find him? Are we willing to look? What do we do when we find him? Do we rejoice, being overwhelmed with joy like the Magi? (Shelly Matthews, WorkingPreacher.org)
Sometimes we get caught up in the fear story. It is compelling, we are convinced that to put up defenses is the only way to stay safe. Protect “our own.” When a people are kept far from their hope, they are more easily swayed by fear. But staying in the fear story continues to serve evil, or as we say in some of our creeds, the forces of spiritual wickedness. Is it possible instead to follow a sign of hope illuminating the way to a better way of being together? Not that we will all magically agree, but the calm that comes with hope gives us the assurance that we have the time to listen to one another, to help the story unfold in a diﬀerent way, to watch a new reign of peace and justice mature, grow and change us into the sorts of persons we want to have inhabiting this world.
There so many things that can be defined as tyranny, evil, or spiritual wickedness, and these will be different for each of us. It can feel like the situation in the world with the way that people are separating into factions who cannot merely disagree but view opponents as evil enemies that must be destroyed. It can also hit much closer to home with family conflicts, unforgiving relationships, perfectionism, addiction in an attempt to numb the fear, or even worshiping ourselves because that is the only one you trust. The “empire” that we resist has many faces. The light of God’s guiding star illuminates the false evidence that the Caesars and Herods of the world pronounce as real. We can look at the word as an acronym. F.E.A.R. meaning False Evidence Appearing Real, and there is really nothing new about that.
We have hindsight about this story with Jesus and the attempts of evil and tyranny to stop him. We know what ends up being true: death does not have the last word. There is a lot of truth in the famous phrase of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “The only thing to fear is fear itself.” It is overly simplistic, but it was very important in the circumstances of his time, not so different from where we find ourselves now. It was 1933, and it was the time of the worldwide Great Depression. People were desperate, and they were willing to try extreme things because of their fear. Their fears about the economy and their future caused them to do things that made things worse. They needed hope that things could get better.
I have a friend, Nema, who is a pastor just outside El Paso, Texas. This woman is an inspiration to me with all of the things that she is doing in ministry to help people. But, even she can have hard days and lose hope. The other day she shared: “Here’s the thing: the other night I was feeling a bit lonely and forlorn with [my husband] Donnie on the road, Lila [my daughter] in Dallas, and all. I decided to do what I preach about so dang much. I sat myself down and told God all about it and then thanked him straight up for those feelings. I also asked him to help me mean that. Now look what happened, in the midst of all the world’s suffering God gazed deeply into me and sent out an all call to YOU [her friends and congregation]. It totally transcends my understanding, but there you have it. Each of us, and that means you too, is critically important to this God we call by so many names. Our silly stuff matters. Our major stuff causes him to bend down and cradle our feet, feed us from his own body and sustain us through the power of his spirit. Thank you, friends, for being hope made visible, peace extended, joy without even trying, and most of all… love. I always say I ain’t shy about saying I love you. So, consider yourselves, every single one, hugged.”
There’s a lot to learn there. There is the knowledge that no matter how strong or weak we think we are, we have a God that is there to be with us in the midst of our stuff, no matter how big or small. Our God coming down in human flesh to experience life as we do understands what it’s like. We have a God that is always there for us. But Christ within us allows us to step up and be the hope for someone else when they are down or afraid. We can be there when their fear, anxiety, or grief takes over to encourage them. It may be talking. It may be praying. It might be just sitting with them. What I call the ministry of presence. Sometimes when you can’t think of anything to say, it’s best to say nothing. Just be there.
It will take some time to bring Caesar down and the caesars of the world keep cropping up. But what we see in the overarching story of humanity and our faith is that love and life, joy and hope, peace and light, calm and bright are more powerful truths, more mighty, than the tyranny of fear. Because of this, we choose to live with those as our guiding star. And that star leads us to each other… to listen to God’s cry in the silent night, to get out of our trenches and then to repair and build up God’s reign.
What is our hope? In trying and conflicting times, how is it more than simply words? Because we have the Word, the Final Word. The Magi had hope, hope that something wonderful had happened, something that they have to seek out. They were looking for the “king of the Jews,” but in Jesus they found someone that also could be their king and worthy of worship. We are invited to come to him, too. We should do it by whatever means we can and with the best gifts we can find.