Reading: Matthew 2.1-12
At last it is Christmas. The frantic noise and frenetic rush of Christmas shopping have ceased. The volume of traffic on the roads has decreased as families have gathered and now prepare for the annual celebration.
It was business as usual in Jerusalem. The Roman census was over thankfully. Suspicions that it the real purpose was a much tighter taxation system were well-founded, But the Jews had done it their way -and no doubt messed up the Roman figures in the process! The order had said that each was to go to his own city -which surely meant that the people living in and near Jerusalem were to go to Jerusalem to be enrolled. The people living in and near Bethlehem were to go to Bethlehem. The people living in and near Nazareth were to go to Nazareth ... Taxation had to be handled entirely by local collectors. If taxation was the purpose of the census, what else would the Romans intend by sending each to his own city?
But the Jews had done it their way. If they were to be counted -very grudgingly, if it was for the Romans! -if they were to be counted, it had to be according to tribes and clans and families. Even the Romans had to let the stubborn Jews do it that way! So people had moved all over the country -some may have travelled from other countries -to be counted in the Jewish way – an action that would have caused all sorts of imbalances in the Roman figures, making them almost useless for taxation estimates!
But that was now over and, by and large, people had returned home. In Jerusalem it was business as usual -the sounds of bartering in the market place mingling with the worship in the Temple and the march of Roman boots on cobbled streets. Away from the watchful Roman eye little clusters of Jews would talk together. Visitors gone, there were many things to share. Beyond the gloom of Roman rule, there had been the joy of family reunions, lost time to recapture, news to share ...
And beyond the gloom of Roman rule, there was the Hope of Israel. It was because of this Hope that they had stuck together, refusing assimilation into the various conquering powers – stubbornly standing out as Jews, God's people: It had been a long time since the promises were given, the promises that a Messiah would come – enough time for discouragement and despair. Yet though at tunes the hope burned low, it was never extinguished. Yes, some day he would come – the Messiah, the promised King of Israel! .
It was business as usual in Jerusalem, animals and people mixing on the busy streets. That's how it was when the visitors from the east arrived. Of course, it was not unusual to have visitors in Jerusalem, but some visitors stand out – their dress, their accent, the harness of their camels, but, above all, their request, "Where is the baby who has been born to be King of the Jews? We saw his star when it came up in the east, and we have come to worship him."
The people of Jerusalem were upset, disturbed, troubled by the news. Might this be the time? Might this be the promised one, the Hope of Israel at last?
But there was already a king – Herod! A puppet king appointed by the Romans. He came from Idumea – Edom – close enough for the Romans, but ancient enemies of the Jews. And what a cruel, evil king he had been!
One writer has put it this way, "It is not surprising that news of the enquiry made by these astrologers on their arrival should have speedily reached the ears of King Herod, and that he should have been greatly perturbed in consequence, for the last thing in the world that that ill-tempered tyrant could contemplate with composure was the presence of a rival king in Jewry; and even if the inhabitants of Jerusalem did not share his fear of the new-born child, they would certainly be alarmed at the prospect of a fresh exhibition of Herod's anger" (RVGTasker).
There was no baby at the palace. Surely God wouldn't attempt something at a time like this!
Surprisingly, the visitors didn't "pick up" either Herod's fear or the anxiety of the population. Perhaps they had to make use of an interpreter. We are surprised by their naivety and gullibility in the presence of Herod.
We aren't told that they went straight to the palace. Herod picked up the story and immediately called a conference with the chief priests and teachers of the Law. Not just a rival – this must be the Messiah! Gentlemen! I know that you and all the Jewish people eagerly await the time when your God will send the Messiah. Please, can you tell me? Where will this Messiah be born? I would really like to know!
Like to know, would he? So he believes that is why these wise men have come, does he? We're not so sure. We can't afford to have the people all excited by false claims and false claimants – and we have to calm Herod down somehow too! There's no saying what he might be thinking or plotting. Yet, whoever these visitors are, they need the truth -as much of it as we understand. Only in that way will they – and the rest of us – know the meaning of their mission. But is the truth safe in Herod's hands? Yet surely, if God is doing something among us, no one – not even Herod – can block it! How can we be sure of Herod's intentions? He can be so unpredictable and devious, and yet we mustn't play his game. It would be worse to double-cross him! No, we must tell him the truth, as we perceive it. Perhaps that will be the end of the matter. We look forward to the Messiah, even if Herod is up to no good. His interest in this matter isn't good. We can but hope it is the end of the matter.
King Herod! We have considered this matter carefully -- the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem in Judaea. This is what the prophet Micah wrote some eight hundred years ago, "Bethlehem in the land of Judah, you are by no means the least of the leading cities of Judah; for from you will come a leader who will guide my people Israel". So, your Majesty, we expect the Messiah to be a son of David and to be born in Bethlehem.
The chief priests and teachers of the law were dismissed and the visitors from the east were called to a secret meeting. Friends from the east welcome to our land! 1 hear that you are seeking the baby born to be the king of the Jews. I welcome your news. At the moment, of course, I am the king of the Jews, as you well understand. But you have seen, I gather, a star which heralds the birth. of a special king. That news is very important to me. For many centuries now my subjects have been looking for just such a king – the Messiah, they call him. You must be very keen star-watchers – none of my servants has reported seeing this new star! When did the star first appear? You studied it for some time until you were sure that it meant the King of the Jews was born, and then set out on your journey? You're a long way from home – that's a long journey on your camels! Well, yes, I can help you – but I need you to help me too. The ancient prophets foretold the Messiah's birth in Bethlehem. That's not too far to go now – only about ten to twelve kilometres south-south-west of here. You go with my blessing. But remember that, from now on, you are not just on your own personal errand – it is also the king's business! When you find him, please let me know, so that I too may go and worship him!
Having received the information and the royal charge, the visitors went on their way – probably by the western gate which was not far from Herod's royal palace. So there may not have been a very large crowd to see them on their way. But as evening came, they saw it again! The star! There it is! The king's word was true! The star is true! Both are guiding us to Bethlehem! What happiness! What joy! Soon we will see the king of the Jews! We will kneel down and worship him! We will give him our gifts! Joy, O joy!
Here we are in Bethlehem and the star has gone! It has disappeared! Does that mean that this house is where we will find the baby? Come, let's take our gifts and seek entry. We will know this is the place! We will know this is the baby born to be king of the Jews!
"They went into the house, and when they saw the child with his mother Mary, they knelt down and worshipped him. They brought out their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and presented them to him."
But what of king Herod who says he wishes to worship him too? Do not go back to Herod. Herod will be looking for the child to kill him. Go home by another road!
We have come to worship him. That is our stated purpose in meeting here today. Yet what do we mean by worship? It is far more than singing some hymns and going through some rituals and prayers. It means bringing ourselves to him, laying our lives before him, acknowledging him as our Lord, committing ourselves to trust him and to obey him every day of the year ... That doesn't mean we get it perfect all at once. He loves us and is patient with us. He can pick a wise man from a Herod any day!
I share with you a poem by Rev. lan CoIlings entitled "Christmas in Australia" (this may be sung to Hymn to Joy, AHB 92) –
Cloudless skies adorn this nation,
warm, the sun shines overhead.
Hearts are joined in celebration
gathered at a baby's bed.
Now the Ruler of creation
comes to take a servant's place;
on a day of revelation
God appears with human face.
To this land of sandy beaches,
arid deserts, fertile plains,
busy towns and cities, reaches
news – as fresh as summer rains!
Silence falls on work and shopping
as the timeless message rings,
people rules by time are stopping
for the peace that Jesus brings.
Hear the kookaburra's laughter
spread the word upon the wind,
of a Friend to follow after
who is happy, loving, kind.
Birds in eucalypts are singing,
kangaroos leap, free and wild;
each cicada's sound is bringing
honour to this new-born child.
Fragrant flowers in brilliant blossom
crown the brightness of this day.
Each koala, emu, possum,
praises God in its own way.
Nature seems to join the chorus
prompted by creation's Word!
God, in person, stands before us
through the love of Christ outpoured.
Jesus, king of the Jews, king of creation, king of the whole world, was born in Bethlehem. That beginning of a whole new era was two thousand years ago. And we still need to come and worship him, bringing our whole life under the Lordship of the one who is our Saviour!
© Peter J. Blackburn, Buderim Uniting Church, Christmas Day 1994
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, (c) American Bible Society, 1992.