The Empire Strikes Back
Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men[a] 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,[b] 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[c] 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[d] my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men[e] 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,[f] until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped,[g] 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.
13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph[h] got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,[i] he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.[j] 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
Good morning and happy New Year! I know I said this about a month ago, but it’s a different New Year and I wish you joy and good health. Speaking of good health, I made a very simple resolution this year: run! I started running about four years ago and I did pretty well for a little while. But sometimes my schedule got pretty hectic, and for about two years, I was serving a church that was more than forty miles away from where I lived. I spent two hours in the car each day and I didn’t have the energy when I got home. That was my excuse—I mean, my reason, my reason for not running more often.
Seriously, though, what started out as valid reasons for not running more often eventually turned into excuses for not running more often. So, this year, I’m resolved to get back into running—and I began my New Year by going to the Manasquan Reservoir, where I ran and walked about four miles, with more running than walking. There were even witnesses from this congregation who saw me running the trail; I’m not making any of this up.
Toward the end of my run, I passed a family with a few small kids. As I passed them, I heard one little boy say to the other, “Is that Santa?”
Mind you, it was a beautiful day; I was wearing black shorts and a gray t-shirt. I wasn’t wearing a red suit. Clearly, I need to spend a little more time running at the reservoir. And maybe buy some Just for Men—to return my beard to its natural color—if that’s not too vain.
Travel is one of the dominant images in our reading this morning, the story of the Epiphany. The Magi have journeyed a long way, as they followed the Star of Bethlehem. They are foreigners, priests who worship another god, yet they glimpse the truth in the light of the star that they’ve followed.
Then the story shifts back to Herod, who responds with rage and fear; he orders the slaughter of every male child in Bethlehem under the age of two. Knowing that their child is in mortal danger, Joseph and Mary take the baby Jesus and flee to Egypt, to escape the political violence in their own country.
In the liturgical calendar—the church calendar—Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas season. We love the story of the baby Jesus in the manger. We love the story of the Magi bearing gifts from afar. We love these stories, but the story of Herod’s response to the birth of the Messiah reminds us that we can’t stay in the Christmas season indefinitely.
My mother is a therapist, so I grew up listening to therapy shop-talk. By that I mean that my mother talked about her work. A lot. I learned that therapists, when they’re listening to their clients, are always looking for overreactions—those times when a client is presented with some sort of challenge in life, and then the client responds with too much anger or too much force or too much anything. I’ve learned that this can be a good technique for reading Bible stories, too.
On the surface, Herod’s response is completely out of proportion to the situation. He’s the king, right? He ought to be able to ignore a baby who would seem so poor, so ordinary, so humble. Yet there are the Magi, a visible reminder to Herod that somewhere out there is a baby who can challenge his political power.
Despite his royal title, King Herod was in a tenuous position. Herod was neither a Roman nor a proper Jew. He was an Idumean; his recent ancestors were from the country that was called Edom in the Old Testament. He remained a ruler as long as he kept the political order: he didn’t interfere greatly with the religious life of the Jewish people and he kept the taxes flowing back to Rome. But if the Jews revolted, Rome might decide that someone else should be king. Even if the Magi were just some crazy priests from Persia, Herod couldn’t take any chances. Yes, Herod was part of the official power structure—he was part of the greater empire, but be didn’t have any true authority. Herod wasn’t the true king.
When someone challenges the official power structure, the empire always strikes back—and it frequently does so with overwhelming force. All empires do this, so that they strike fear into the hearts of their opponents. The empire must respond disproportionately, so that no one else dares to challenge the empire. In this way, Herod’s response is not a gross overreaction, it’s a logical response. That’s the cold and calculating logic of empire.
So, where are we in this story? Which part do we play? I think most of us would want to be the Magi. Certainly, countless sermons have been preached, urging us to lay our gifts before Christ the King. And yes, we should always offer our gifts to the Lord—our talents, our time, and our treasure. It’s tempting to think of ourselves as being as generous as the Magi, but it’s dangerous, because we can fall into the trap of self-righteousness; we can “prove” how great our faith is by showing how much we give to the church.
It’s also worth pointing out that the Magi were political and religious outsiders. They were priests from Persia who worshiped a god called Zoroaster; that’s what the word Magi means. We are insiders; we worship the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The comparison between the Magi and ourselves breaks down because we are already on the inside. We already know that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. And after the Magi gave their gifts, they went home.
We don’t want to see ourselves standing with Herod, standing with the empire that Jesus has come to overthrow. Yet in many subtle ways, we stand with the forces of empire. No, we don’t use our political power as Herod did, trying to kill the baby Jesus, so he could hang on to his own throne. While we don’t pursue political power through murder, we are seduced by the softer power of money.
Like Herod, we feel insecure in our own lives. We spend more time at work than we do with our families. We have mortgages and rent, expensive car payments, credit card bills, and student loans. We work fifty or sixty hours a week—or more—because we have to save enough money for college or retirement. Or worse. We work those long hours because we’re afraid of what might happen if we refused. If I don’t work on Saturday, the boss might get rid of me and hire someone else who will, and for a lower salary.
Money is the soft power of empire and we all chase after it. And we spend a lot more time pursuing money than we do worshiping God. We want to claim that we’re like the Magi, giving extravagantly to Jesus, so that we can ignore all the time and effort that we put into chasing that money in the first place.
We don’t want to believe this about ourselves, but what happens when the Powerball jackpot gets up over $100 million? We start buying lottery tickets and we start praying to God, saying, “God, I’m gonna give soooooo much money to the church if you just let me hit the Powerball!” I think I heard a sermon about that.
We are afraid that we won’t have enough money to buy all the things we need and want, so we fight to preserve what we think is ours. Along the way, we conflate the things that we actually need with all of the stuff that we want, and then we work really hard to maintain the stuff. And that’s exactly what empires do, they work hard to maintain the stuff. They work hard to maintain power and wealth. We work hard to maintain our own power and wealth. That’s where we focus our time, our energy, and our attention.
I think that most of us have far too much wealth—or at least too much stuff—to claim that we’re like Jesus in this story, that we’re somehow fleeing persecution. But if we can’t be like Jesus in this story, then at least we should be seeking out those who are like him in our world today: those who are homeless and displaced, physically or emotionally. This includes:
· Homeless veterans suffering from PTSD
· People who suffer from mental illness, especially those without adequate medical care
· Drug addicts
· Families of addicts
· Women and children who flee from domestic violence
· Men, women, and children who flee from wars and political violence
These are the last and the lost and the least. We recognize that Jesus is Lord when we pledge our gifts to the needs of those folks.
Yes, it’s wonderful if you can give of your treasure and bring extravagant gifts like gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It’s also wonderful to bring you time and your talents to the last and the lost and the least. Walk with them. Run with them. Listen to them. It’s up to us to seek them out; Jesus is already there. We can’t be Jesus in this or any other story, but we can follow him. We can shine the light of his love in so many dark places. We can still show that star. Let it be our Epiphany and may we show it to all the world. Thanks be to God. Amen!
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that God never turns away from us. Remember that in these uncertain times, we are called to watch and wait. Remember, too, that we are baptized into the life, the work, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!
 Niveen Sarras, “Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12,” retrieved from: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3931