Advent IV, 2018
People joke that the trio of wise men were the first and last group of men invited to a baby shower, since their gifts were not practical at all.
I love the story of the boy attending his first ever Christmas pageant who glanced behind him in the darkness and caught sight of the three kings entering the sanctuary from the rear. “Don’t look now,” he whispered to his mother, “but God just got here…
Only I’m not sure which one he is.”
But laughter and warm images aside, such confusion seems to have been part of the story when these folks from the east appeared at the gates of Jerusalem. “Hello, King Herod of the Jews. Where is the newborn King of the Jews?” The danger begins. I can imagine Herod’s double-take with a slow boiling rage. “What did they say? King? I’m the king!”
To some, King Herod was a man at the top of his game. He held a position of great significance. But that was not enough. He hungered for more. His appetite for power left him vulnerable in his leadership, relationships and life. Imagine what it was like for those who served in the king’s court. They knew that he was prone to be restless. They knew what could happen if his uneasiness was left unrestrained. So that day when the intellectuals from the East showed up, it was a day of trepidation for all in the court, the chief priests and all the people of Jerusalem.
Imagine the expression on the King’s face when the staff told him of the erudite philosophers of wealth and status entering the city. At first he must have believed the brilliant and prestigious individuals had travelled for months to know more about the one who was great in his own mind. For as Herod saw it, he was the most important person in Jerusalem. This was outside recognition of his greatness! Then he heard their question.
In an instant, the king’s lifted head of arrogance declined as the rage of humiliation rose. In a moment his ego-driven expression changed. He was afraid people might discover there was one born so significant that a star was placed in the heavens to announce his arrival. Fear of losing control took over. The limitations of his unrestrained ego affected his leadership.
Herod was a tyrant. 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. And when power becomes a god, you fear losing it. When you reign by fear, you live by fear.
The era of Jesus’ birth was a volatile time as most of the world lived in fear. The famous Pax Romana, that hailed Roman achievement in road systems and building projects, came at a price. Kept in place by oppressive and deadly force, it was a time of dictatorship, tyranny and totalitarian rule. A time of fear. “Prosperity” and “peace” were only for the few, like Caesar, Herod and their cronies. In fact, you could say Pax Romana was ancient media spin, fake news.
The world still knows volatile times. One researcher of contemporary culture notes about our troubling times, “If people can’t access their hope, they live by their fear.”
And that is the key. Fear is rampant, easy and almost all consuming in our world today. We fear economic collapse, govt. shutdowns, travel, science, immigrants, others, cancer, hospice, dementia, death, alienation, age. We fear being inconsequential, of being left behind, of being out front.
We get caught up in the fear story. It is compelling and we are convinced that to put up defenses is the only way to stay safe. When people are kept from their hope, they are more easily swayed by fear. And living in fear, as Herod shows us, continues serving tyrannical empires.
Today’s tyrants occupy positions of power around the world. But today’s tyrants also occupy positions of power in our heart and mind. Tyranny for some is the almighty dollar, perfectionism, the mythical past, upward mobility, or appearance. For others it is the tyranny of an abusive spouse, an unforgiving relationship, the rejection of family, addiction to things in an attempt to numb the fear.
To this fear, perhaps because of the tyranny of fear, God is so determined to proclaim the “good news of great joy for all people” that God reaches beyond fields in the region around Bethlehem to “the East.” God reaches beyond shepherds at the bottom of the barrel to Wise Ones at the top. God reaches beyond people scared witless by God’s glory to those who observe the glorious star, methodically, persistently, sincerely, following it to a king.
In the story of the Magi, the light of God’s guiding star illuminates the false evidence that the Caesars and Herods of the world pronounce as real. You could say F.E.A.R. equals False Evidence Appearing Real.
God’s determination is to embrace all people, to offer hope for all. Hope is the opposite of fear. It is defiance against despair. We find hope in knowing the end of the story. We need not fear, for we know death does not have the last word. It will take some time to bring Caesar down and the Caesars of our world keep cropping up. But what we find in God’s determination, in God’s story of humanity, is that love and life, joy and hope, peace and light, calm and bright are more powerful truths. They are more mighty than the tyranny of fear. Because of this, we can choose to live with those as out 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 of fear to repair and build up God’s reign.
Watch for the star illuminating your path, “Alleluia” to our King, for God just got here with trouble for tyrants.
Ann Weems says it thus:
The World Still Knows
The night is still dark
And a procession of Herods still terrorize the earth,
killing the children to stay in power.
The world still knows its Herods,
but it also still knows men and women
who pack their dreams safely in their hearts
and set off toward Bethlehem,
faithful against all odds,
undeterred by fatigue or rejection,
to kneel to a child.
And the world still knows those persons
to follow a star,
those who do not consider themselves too intelligent
to kneel to a child.
And the world still knows those hearts so humble
that they’re ready
to hear the word of a song
and to leave what they have, to go
to kneel to a child.
The night is still dark,
but by the light of the star,
we can still see
to kneel to a child.