Preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields,
January 2nd 2022
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men [magi] from the east came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ (2:1-2)
There are lots of things that one could say about the visit of the magi, to the child Jesus, at a house in Bethlehem. (2:11) Today, a few days before the feast of Epiphany, with its emphasis on light which reveals God at work, I would like to concentrate on Jesus as a light to the nations.
Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, featuring Mary and Joseph’s journey from Galilee to Bethlehem, and the experience of the shepherds, features actors from within the Jewish nation. Matthew’s account, which we have heard today, gives representatives of another nation, or nations, a starring role.
Jesus, Matthew suggests, is born into a world of different nations. Probably, from Matthew’s perspective, the great distinction, or divide, would have between the one Jewish and the many Gentile nations. Today. We would see things differently, but still classify peoples – nations – by differences as well as by similarities. We live in an international, politically connected and at the same time divided world. So, for example, we may laud Astra Zeneca as a British triumph (which it is). At the same time significant scientists in its creation have come from elsewhere in the world, bringing their intellectual gifts with them, so it as international as is British.
So good can come out of others coming to our nation, and political cooperation makes shared living a positive experience. International political systems, though, don’t always function in such happy ways, and King Herod’s relationship with the visiting magi is a case in point. When King Herod heard what the magi had to say about a rising star and a new king of the Jews he was, not surprisingly, frightened. (2:4) And when Herod got frightened everyone else got frightened … if they knew what was good for them. (2:4)
In response to a perceived threat, he did what many a political leader might do today; he called in the experts to advise him. Representing the gathered wisdom of ‘the chief priests and scribes of the people’ (2:4) maybe this group got called “Sage”! And ‘he inquired of them where the Messiah [the Christ] was to be born.’ (2:4) And they had an answer for him: in Bethlehem of Judea, because that’s what the prophets have written.
Still, as we know, advisers only advise, it’s the political leaders who make the decisions. Herod’s decisions were like that of many a political despot, both before him and since. First, he misled and lied to others: ‘when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ (2:8) Then he moved from plotting to action. In verses that we don’t much like to read, perhaps because they remind us that the Christmas story is not a simple joyful tale, Herod ordered in the troops to carry out a massacre of children.
Sometimes Christian believers are told that we are “other-worldly”, that we’re out of touch with “the real world”. Well, here in Matthew’s Gospel, with its international visitors and the murderous machinations of a political leader, we are very much living in “the real world”, both in its positive and negative aspects. Positively, “foreigners” bring good news, as well as an array of gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh. (2:11) Negatively, we’re presented with a case study of how things go wrong when our political systems are misused and abused by those in power, which, too often they are.
If we’re not careful we could end the Christmas season on a negative note: the world is full of political chicanery, which often manifests itself in unjust suffering visited upon the lowly by the powerful; and we don’t want to finish on a negative note. On the other hand, we must not present the Christmas story (that we say is the “reason for the season”) in such an unrealistic, jolly way that when people read it or hear it, it seems like a fairy tale where everyone lives happily ever after. That sort of story does not connect to the “real” world that we and others experience on a day-to-day basis. People are unlikely to consider such a story as saying something about how they should lead their lives.
Instead, look carefully at Matthew’s account of what God intends with Jesus’s birth. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’s birth is a birth for you and me, no matter who the “you and me” is here. Are you a Jew or a Gentile? Jesus was born for you and me. Do you belong to my nation of another one? Jesus was born for you and me. Are you powerful or powerless? Jesus was born for you and me. Do you live in peace and safety, or are you the victim of violence and injustice? Jesus was born for you and me. In the good times and the bad times, with God taking into account both the heights of human virtue and the depths of humanity’s deepest failings, God acted, and so Jesus was born for you and me; a light for all people and peoples, for all the nations. Hallelujah, amen!