Wise Ones and Horrid Herod – 1
A reflection on Matthew 2:1-12 by the Reverend Dr Trevor Jamison at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, 1st January 2023
Watch the whole service on YouTube.
How do you feel about Jesus? Different people feel differently about Jesus.
In our Bible reading there are people who are intrigued by Jesus. There are people who are frightened by Jesus. There are people who are joyful about and in awe of Jesus.
The wise ones who came from the East to Jerusalem (2:1) were intrigued about Jesus. Back home, where they lived, they had observed a special star in the sky, which they associated with a new king for the Jews being born. (2:2)
They were so interested in Jesus (though they did not even know his name at this point) that they set out on a long journey, following the star. I suppose you could call this star-following journey – this pilgrimage – their “star-trek enterprise”!
Wise ones were intrigued by him, but not everyone felt the same. King Herod was terrified of Jesus, and so were a lot of other people – terrified of a baby.
The wise ones turned up at King Herod’s palace: ‘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.’ (2:2) We’re told, ‘when King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.’ (2:3)
Why frightened? Well, how many kings can one nation have at one time? One! If this child really was king of the Jews then what would happen to Herod? He wouldn’t be king any more.
What happens when you have two kings, both of whom claim to be the only king? You have a war, so no wonder ‘all Jerusalem’ was as frightened as Herod to hear about this child. They didn’t want to have a war in their country, with lots of destruction and people being killed.
So there are people intrigued by Jesus, and others frightened by Jesus when news of his birth gets out. It turns out, though, you can feel more than one thing about Jesus at the same time.
As well as being intrigued by Jesus, it turns out that you can also be joyful about him, and in awe of him, because that’s what happened with the wise visitors from the East.
King Herod sent them off to Bethlehem, because that’s where his religious advisers said the child would be born. (2:4-6) Herod sent these visitors to find the child, telling them to send back word to him, so that he too can ‘go and pay him homage.’ (2:8)
When they arrived in Bethlehem and found the house where the child was now living (2:9) they ‘were overwhelmed with joy.’ (2:10) Not only were they joyful, they were awestruck: ‘they knelt down and paid him homage,’ presenting him with gold, frankincense, and myrrh (2:11) – gifts fit for a king.
Then they were wise enough to listen to their dreams, and not go back to Herod, but to head home by a different route. (2:12) The wise ones and King Herod felt very differently about Jesus, but had something in common: they acted on the basis of what they felt and believed about Jesus.
And that brings me back to my original question: How do you feel about Jesus? Intrigued, frightened (I hope not!), joyful, awe struck? Perhaps you have another feeling about Jesus. How you feel will depend upon what you have experienced in life has been up to now.
As you think about that question, about how you feel about Jesus, both now and in days ahead, I simply ask you to remember that this is God in flesh and blood; God with us – Emmanuel; choosing to be born human, like you and me.
So, how do you feel about Jesus … and what will you do about it?
Wise Ones and Horrid Herod – 2
A reflection on Matthew 2:13-23 by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison, at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, 1st January 2023
And so the story moves on in Matthew’s Gospel, from one of the most popular New Testament readings to one of the least popular one: “the slaughter of the innocents,” as it is often called. I can’t think of any other Bible reading where I am so often asked, “why on earth do we have to have this one?”
Herod was acting on the basis of a combination of what he was and how he felt about Jesus. He was a king, a political leader, and felt threatened by someone he believed had just emerged as a rival for the throne.
So Herod did what many political leaders do in such circumstances. Having identified a threat, they seek to eliminate it or them. And the way in which he did that makes us want to look away: he ordered the murder of all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or less. (2:16)
It makes you want to look away, rather than have to witness the pain and violence handed out to the poor and vulnerable by the rich and powerful: mothers inconsolable, weeping for their children who are no more. (2:18)
This is one example of many incidences of violence in the Bible. And in Matthew’s Gospel, of course, Mary, the mother of Jesus, will by the Gospel’s end, be weeping over the body of her own child, Jesus, who has been killed by soldiers of the powers that be.
Also, we know, don’t we, that the world has always abounded in such suffering and injustice, and continues to do so today. People, including children as young as those in Bethlehem back then, continue to suffer and die, whether that’s in Ukrainian cities, in rubber dinghies in the English channel, or in home settings as the victims of domestic abuse.
It’s natural to avert our gaze from such suffering, but actually we need to look reality in the face. This is an unpalatable Christmas story, but when we leave it out of the mix, we turn the story of the birth of Jesus into sentimental fantasy which does not relate to the real world.
A cheerful, carefully edited, violence-free, feel-good tale for Christmas might dull the pains of life in today’s world (though without changing its reality). If this is the sort of thing we do with uncomfortable Bible readings you can see why Karl Marx described religion as the ‘opiate of the masses’. Such an approach does not offer a cure for our ills.
Instead, we do better to look the reality of suffering in the face. Things are not as they should be, and profoundly so. Placing the infant Jesus right in the middle of the world’s violence and injustice says that God is profoundly concerned about these things.
Never forgetting messy, nasty reality, we Christians continue to have hope, because we see that God will not be thwarted in doing what God intends to do through Jesus Christ.
As with the wise ones, so God works through Joseph’s dreams. Like his Old testament namesake, this Joseph (of Nazareth) has lots of them. First, divinely inspired dreams get him and the holy family up and fleeing to Egypt. Then after Herod has died, another dream gets them to cross back over the border, although to head for Galilee, not Bethlehem, in order to get far, far away from Herod’s son and heir.
Just in passing, it’s notable, is it not, that God’s plan for our future depends on refugees being able to cross borders and be accepted in strange lands. I wonder what that says about the Gospel and suffering in today’s world?
Today’s reading reminds us of a vital truth: God grapples with reality, and implements plans to get rid of suffering. The birth of Jesus is not simply a heart-warming tale, though it is that too, of course.
The birth and life of Jesus is pivotal to God’s plan to overcome all that’s wrong in this imperfect world, including the everyday realities of violence and injustice. In the birth and life of Jesus there is hope for us and for the future of this imperfect world.