Looking for God in All the Wrong Places 1-6-19 Mt 2:1-12
Today we hear the story of the Wise Ones (probably not kings, sorry about that, fans of “We Three Kings”) journeying from the Middle East (probably not the Orient–sorry again) to visit the newborn King of the Jews. It is a tale of true courage. They did not share the culture or religion or history of the child whose arrival they followed the star to witness. So why did they do it? What did they expect to gain? What was it that made them load up their camels and kiss their wives goodbye and ride off to pay homage to a new king who was not their king?
Whatever their reasons, it’s evident that they were unafraid to face the truth, even if learning it made everything else they believed up to that point null and void. I don’t know if this makes them wise, but it certainly makes them courageous.
As someone who has recently traveled to a new place where I hoped to encounter Jesus, I find it a little comforting that these wise star-gazers didn’t have it ALL figured out. They had preconceived notions about kings, and where they might expect to encounter one. They presented themselves, after a long hard journey, at King Herod’s palace. Our wise men knew that Herod was Jewish, and that he was, at least in a minimal way, a king, appointed by the Romans to keep the Jewish rabble in order. It makes sense they would look there. But the baby Jesus was not at the palace.
You probably know a song about a king hearing of the birth of the Christ-child called “Do You Hear What I Hear?” It differs from Matthew’s Gospel because, in the song, the king hears of Jesus’ birth from a shepherd boy instead of from visiting astrologers. The message, however, is similar: “In your palace warm, mighty king, do you know what I know? A child, a child, shivers in the cold; let us bring him silver and gold.” But the song most dramatically departs from the Biblical account when it comes to the king’s response. In the song: “Said the king to the people everywhere: ‘Listen to what I say: pray for peace, people everywhere. A child, a child, born to us this night, he will bring us goodness and light.'”
That is not how the Gospel of Matthew tells this story.
In the Biblical account, King Herod consults his advisors about where the child might be. He tells the magi to look in Bethlehem, and begs them to return with directions so he can pay homage too. When they do not come back, King Herod orders his soldiers to kill every Jewish boy under the age of two. Any one of them might be this spectacular baby, and there was no room in Herod’s heart or head or throne-room for any threats to his authority. He needed to eliminate his competition.
It’s obvious why the authors of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” decided to alter the king’s reaction for their song. Who wants to spoil the Christmas season by singing about The Slaughter of the Innocents? Why allow reality to creep into what otherwise can be such a sweet tale of a star and angels and a baby God-with-us?
The tragedy is that King Herod’s behavior makes sense to me, unlike the behavior of the magi. In our world, when powerful people are threatened, they lash out against the opposition. Politicians run smear campaigns about their opponents, bullying and sometimes cheating their enemies. They occasionally act with pure, unmitigated violence. This bad behavior isn’t limited to politics. All kinds of powerful people, when backed into a corner, can strike out in violence, whether in the form of domestic abuse, war, gang rivalries, tribal retaliation, revenge killings or mass shootings. All of these forms of violent domination involve someone who is scared preserving the illusion of having power over others.
I wish I could say that this response to feeling threatened is ancient history, as outdated as mistaking astrology for science. But both you and I know about very real actions by very real King Herods in our day. It isn’t hard to imagine those petrified families in Bethlehem, cowering as Herod’s soldiers broke down the doors in their neighborhood and slaughtered their babies. All we have to do is watch the news. There we see sobbing refugees, running with infants in their arms; parents bending over their children’s dead bodies on city streets or foreign beaches; we see blood-covered playgrounds, concert venues, and school hallways. From the streets of Palestine to a bar in Thousand Oaks, CA, to a cage on the US-Mexico border, to an emergency room in Yemen or Seattle, the horrific scene is repeated.
Right now, parents all over the world are mourning the violent deaths of their children. Babies are dying for lack of proper nutrition, vaccinations, or clean drinking water. The rich are getting richer and the strong are getting stronger. Herod’s army is everywhere, leaving death in its wake. The fact that–to a great extent–our tax dollars fund this nightmare only makes it worse.
The Bible tells us that in a dream, Joseph was warned to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s soldiers. The Wise Ones, too, were cautioned in a dream to return home by another way. But what about all those other babies and their parents? Why didn’t God send them warning dreams? Why weren’t they spared the wrath of a paranoid ruler? Why are children of color in this nation so much more at risk than white kids? Why do native women disappear at a much higher rate than other women? Where is God in ALL of this?
I really don’t know. That’s the sad truth. I cannot explain why God allows evil now nor why God did so in the past. What I can offer are some things I DON’T BELIEVE:
–I DON’T believe “everything happens for a reason,” a phrase I hear too often in the face of inexplicable circumstances.
–I DON’T believe that God planned for soldiers to massacre other babies so that Jesus, like Moses before him, could be shown to be a very special baby
–I DON’T believe that people who pray hard enough can spare themselves and those they love from hardship or suffering
And here are some things I DO BELIEVE:
–I DO BELIEVE God is with us in the midst of pain, weeping with those who weep, bolstering the courage of those who feel weak, encouraging the strong to bear the burdens of those in need.
–I DO BELIEVE that God, who brings redemption out of everything, including something as evil as child massacres or the cross, can bring good out of even the very worst of circumstances.
–Most of all, I DO BELIEVE that what God does and doesn’t do is often surprising.
The Magi were looking for the King of the Jews. They didn’t find him at Herod’s palace, despite the fact that Herod considered himself the King of the Jews, and conducted himself as a supreme ruler might. Everything the Magi thought they knew from their years of star-watching was upside down. God didn’t reveal what they were seeking until they got down on their knees and looked into the eyes of a defenseless baby. Only there did they see what God’s strength was about. Herod could never understand it, but God’s power is nothing like human power. It has nothing to do with wealth or status or military might.
When the King Jesus grew up, he did not reign like other kings. Jesus killed no one. Instead, he wandered the countryside, raising the dead, healing the sick, and comforting the grieving. He enlightened the ignorant and welcomed the strangers. Instead of a trail of blood, Jesus left light and hope in his path. He taught his followers things like, “Don’t return insult for insult. Pray for your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you. Don’t store up treasures here on earth, but take care that your soul is nourished.” It sounds like absolute foolishness. You might wonder why the wise men didn’t leave behind some common sense instead of frankincense.
But that’s the thing about our surprising God. Jesus calls us to live not by force, but by love; not by ruling over, but by serving; not by controlling, but by offering up all that is most dear for the sake of others. Jesus’ way obliterates everything that seems logical to us. He’s never where we think he should be, doing what we think he should do. When Jesus finally died, having willingly surrendered to the worldly powers who could not bear the idea that their system no longer dominated, he died under a sign that read King of the Jews.
That’s our King Jesus.
So, given the risks, do we have the courage and wisdom to go where this Bright Morning Star is leading us? Are we prepared to seek him, not where we think a mighty God should be, but in the pain-ridden, bloody, dark corners of the earth? And if we find there, not a mighty ruler, but a vulnerable baby, will we know what we have seen? Maybe, on our good days, we might recognize God in those moments. Such occasions can be called Epiphanies. But just as often, we may not get it. We might not even try. We are not as advanced in wisdom as some ancient people who thought they could tell the future by the patterns of the night sky.
In spite of all the darkness, my friends, I do want to make it clear that there is still Good News. Whether or not we know how and where to find Jesus, whether or not we seek Jesus, whether or not we even WANT to encounter Jesus, daily Jesus seeks us. Jesus repeatedly offers us his whole self, his body and blood, his Word, his promises. God bends over us to whisper, “You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased,” and the Holy Spirit blows through our lives, enabling us to try again and again after we fail. In the strangest ways—a star or a dream or a baby or the opportunity to give a gift—God sends us invitations and opportunities to open ourselves up, to be renewed, strengthened, and enriched.
So, Church, “Arise, shine, for your light has come.” In spite of all the hardship around us–in fact, because of it!–we are called to shine. Raising hearts and hands and voices, we are tasked with working to alleviate of the suffering of God’s children all over the world. Let’s follow those ancient Wise Ones, so rich in courage and generosity and faith, so blind to racial and religious divisions, so confused about power. Let’s learn from these strangers how to listen to the angels and ponder the stars, how to offer our treasures to the unlikely Prince of Peace. Let us learn from King Jesus how to exercise power rightly and how to live the truth.