Jesus Christ, Light of the World
2:1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 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.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
This is the Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to You, O Christ.
A seminary professor of mine once told us a story that went a little something like this: a newly wed couple is getting ready to celebrate their first Christmas together and this young man decides he’s going to make his new wife his family’s traditional Christmas ham. So he goes to the store, gets the ham, brings it home and as he’s prepping it for the oven, he cuts off both ends.
“That’s interesting.” the wife notes. “Why do you cut the ends off?”
The man admits that he cuts the ends off because that’s what his father always used to do when he prepared the ham, but the comment makes him curious so he calls his father and asks - “Why do we cut the ends off the ham?”
Well, the father admits that he cut the ends off because he’d always watched his father cut the ends off the ham and his father isn’t getting any younger so he quickly gets on the phone and calls him to ask, “Why do we cut the ends off the ham?”
And the grandfather says: “Son - the pan your mother told me to use was too small for a ham. I cut the ends off the ham so it would fit.”
Doesn’t every family have a story like this? Some quirky habit or tradition that has been passed down over generations that no one questions, until perhaps one day an outsider joins the family and shakes things up a bit.
The magi’s role at Christmas is its own family legend. Every year Christmas rolls around and we pull out the nativity set and start chiming in:
- Were they actually there at the stable because this text says they were at a house?
- Did they have names in the Bible?
- Did it say there were three of them or were there just three gifts?
- Do they even call them “magi” in this story?
Because we don’t have a grandparent we can simply ring up to clarify the story we have to rely on Scripture. And there is so much about these travelers Scripture doesn’t tell us: they are, as our Advent study writer Amy Jill Levine taught us: “unnamed and unnumbered”, which tells us that maybe that’s not what was important about this story.
Instead, what is important is the fact that these witnesses to the birth of Jesus came from the outside. They weren’t part of the Jewish community that had been praying for and in many ways expecting a Messiah. They were foreigners from the East and the light of Christ was so bright and compelling that it pulled them across deserts and alongside oceans to come and behold what had happened in Bethlehem. The wonder of this moment was not contained to the Jews of Judea, it was meant for the whole world.
But, as we all know coming fresh off the holidays where many of us have spent time interacting with extended and blended families - anytime someone new joins the family they bring with them fresh eyes. They ask questions and make comments about our longstanding traditions, often in the nicest most genuine way possible. But no matter how kind their intent, these new members of the community have a way of unsettling the way things have always been.
King Herod did not need or want fresh eyes up in his house, thank you very much. He liked things exactly as they were. He had all the power and comfort anyone could ask for and those who upheld his rule were taken care of. So why would he - or they - want anything to change?
But everything did change that night Jesus was born. A light came into the world and for some people that light meant hope and promise and for others, like Herod, that light was a fire that posed threat and invoked fear.
Now none of us wants to think of ourselves as a Herod. We don’t want to be the evil one in the story who’s out to get Jesus. Who’s so stuck in his ways he won’t give up just a shred of his privilege to acknowledge that the world is in need of a big change. We don’t even want to be the one in the story so stuck in our ways that we’re still cutting the ends off a ham two generations later even though we have no idea why.
No, we want to join the caravan of the wisemen and hop on a camel and make the journey to the manger with gifts for Jesus. We want to be the ones in the story who follow faithfully and offer our very best and most valuable things to God without hesitation. We want to be the ones who will not question when the light of the star appears to us and compels us to follow.
But if we were to imagine for a moment, very honestly, whether or not the birth of Christ would have delighted or startled us… Let’s just pretend. Present you are an established member of a community - someone with an education, a career, a comfortable bank account. You have been able to put a roof over your family’s head and secure a path that leads to a decent life.
And maybe there are things about your job you don’t love. And maybe at times you even question whether or not they are just, fair, or align exactly with your values. But this is your life and you only have so much control. And things are pretty good and your people are taken care of and maybe there’s even a little extra to go around. You can take a vacation. You can buy presents at holidays.
And then an outsider comes in - unnamed, from a foreign place, who knows nothing about day to day life in your world. Who doesn’t see that there are rules in place that have been around for a long time and we’ve done just fine. Who doesn’t see how you and your family benefit from the way things are.
And these strangers are determined that everything must change. They look around and say “this old way has got to go” we are about to place our loyalty in this new ruler, who will change everything. Your security, your routines, this life you’ve built and the certainty it brings you, this safety net holding you in place - forget everything you’ve been taught. This new ruler is going to ask you to leave it all behind and follow him, placing you and your family in a precarious situation.
I think you see where I’m headed with this… Are we really that different from those who benefitted from Herod’s reign?
As we head into a new year, perhaps the light of Christ is not a threat to us so much as it is a challenge. Seeing things in a “new light” means looking at the world, and the role we play in it, with fresh eyes and honest hearts. Asking ourselves where we have become comfortable to the point of complacency. Listening to the voices of outsiders who ask us to question things that have always been. Discerning whether our actions are coming from a place of fear and desire for control or a genuine willingness to follow Christ.
The voices of the magi may have sounded threatening to Herod and his followers, but their clear vision of Christ’s light guiding their light made them willing to be brave. Willing to leave what they knew behind and willing to disobey the King desperately clinging to his power.
So perhaps our call this new year is to acknowledge the traces of Herod that remain in us and embrace the wonder, wild spirit of adventure of the magi, to behold the promise still before us, and refuse to give into fear and complacency so that we too might embrace the hope of Christ’s presence in the world and allow it to move us forward in faith.
May it be so. Amen.