Date: January 6, 2019/Speaker: Jon Hauerwas


Isaiah 60:1-6 and Matthew 2:1-12

History is often told in relation to the earthly rulers who exhibit control in one realm or another. And so, in Matthew’s telling of the birth narrative, it appears as though “Jesus, the eternal Son of the Father, is born into Herod’s time.” [1] In the modern world, “it is often said that we live in the American century. Like Herod, Americans believe that we are in control of time because all people must tell their time, must tell their stories, in relation to the American story. Herods, however, are seldom as powerful as they think.” [2]

Yuri Gagarin, the first person in space, is said to have declared that he went beyond the clouds and, yet, did not see God. “For good Soviets in the communist years, astronomy and space exploration were part of the larger propaganda effort. Stargazing and space exploration involve politics and religion.” Thus, “when King Herod hears of the arrival of the wise men in Jerusalem and their questions about stars and the birth of a king, he understands the stakes are high. Indeed, the hopeful question of the Magi, ‘Where is the child?’ will ultimately lead to the murder of many children and the flight to Egypt.” [3]

Herod is afraid, and his “fear of this baby reveals the depth of his fragility.” Rulers of his kind know that “their positions require constant vigilance, because any change may well make their insecure positions more insecure. Herods rule in fear by employing fear as a means to secure power. And like all who rule by fear, the last thing Herod, or those he rules, wants is to be surprised. It cannot, therefore, be good news that strangers appear believing a king has been born. Moreover, their reason for finding the new king is so they may worship him.” [4]

Our lesson presents a telling contrast. Herod, the named ruler, rejects Jesus, while unnamed travelers from afar come to pay him homage. And in the midst of it all, the Christmas star, this supernatural phenomenon, identifies Mary’s baby as the long-awaited Messiah. [5]

The unnamed strangers take a leading role, entering and exiting the narrative surrounded in mystery. [6] They are Gentile astrologers who have aligned their lives with the movement of the stars. Yes. “The first people to recognize the arrival of the ‘king of the Jews’ are outsiders. Originating ‘from the East,’ they represent the wider Gentile world to whom Jesus’ followers will be sent when the Gospel ends.” [7] And they serve to “caution readers against assuming that it is easy to tell who the true insiders are.” [8]

Tradition suggests that they are from different parts of Asia, Africa, or Europe. Given that Jerusalem lies at the intersection of these three great continents, it is easy to understand how these wise men came to symbolize the known world coming together to pay homage to the newly born king of the Jews (indeed, the king of all the world).” [9] Here, we find a message of “extraordinary hope: the people of the earth coming together united in their recognition of what’s important, all offering gifts to the ruler of the universe.” [10]

Reflecting upon this, I’m reminded of a simple but beautiful prayer for this time of year. It reads like this, “What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do my part. Yet what I can, I give him, give him my heart.”

We learn that, for their part, the wise men brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold, a rare and precious metal has been associated with monarchy from the earliest times, while fragrances, often imported from distant lands at great expense, were also royal favorites. “Frankincense,” in particular, “was a key ingredient found in the holy perfume used in the [Jewish] sanctuary and nowhere else.” [11] And in the Jewish tradition, myrrh was included in the high priest’s anointing oil. According to John’s Gospel, we hear that Nicodemus bought ‘a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds’ weight,’ for the preparation of Jesus’ body for burial.” [12]

The symbolism is hard to miss. “As the hymn ‘We Three Kings’ reminds us, Jesus will receive not only the gold of royalty and the frankincense of deity but also the ‘bitter perfume’ of the myrrh. Alleluias will ‘sound through the earth and skies’ for the babe who will be all three – not just king of the cosmos, not just God of the universe, but also the sacrifice that a broken, sinful humanity desperately needs.” [13]

When the visitors come into the presence of Mary’s child, they kneel to him, “unwittingly anticipating the day when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” [14] The role of the magi in Matthew “is to assert that Jesus deserves adoration as the one who announces and institutes the kingdom of heaven.” [15] And they “succeed in paying homage to Jesus the king, which is something no one else in Matthew 2 appears willing to do.” [16]

And yet, it’s not finally the gifts that they give that are the most significant;
it is the gift that they receive. You have heard it said that “it is blessed to give.” But, “it is also blessed to be open enough and willing enough to be surprised in order to receive. All that we have of our faith has been received. None of us were born Christian. Someone had to tell this faith to us, had to live it before us. Someone had to give the faith to us.” [17]

And so, if we are to be open to a living God, then we are opening ourselves to surprise, and a willingness to be shocked by what a free, sovereign, and living God might have to say to us. [18] Herod was, indeed crafty. But, in the end, his craftiness could not save him from death. Herod was “a pawn used by Rome to maintain order useful to Rome.” [19] And there he remains, reminding us that while “kings come and go, God’s people endure” forever. [20] May it be so and all thanks be to God both now and forever. Amen.


[1] Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew: Brazos Theological Commentary of the Bible, ed. R.R. Reno (Brazos Press, 2006),37.

[2] Ibid., 37.

[3] David Keck, “Living by the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary,” Christian Century, December 5, 2018, 22.

[4] Ibid., 38-39.

[5] Douglas R.A. Hare, Matthew, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, ed. James Luther Mays, (Westminster John Knox, 2009), 14.

[6] Matthew L. Skinner, “Epiphany of the Lord,” Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship, Year C, Volume 1, Advent through Epiphany. ed. Joel B. Green. (Westminster John Knox Press: 2018), 157.

[7] Ibid., 157.

[8] Ibid., 158.

[9] Ibid., 22.

[10] Ibid., 22.

[11] Ibid., 11.

[12] Ibid., 14.

[13] Ibid., 22.

[14] Ibid., 13.

[15] Ibid., 158.

[16] Ibid., 158.

[17] Will Willimon, Lectionary Sermon Resource, Year C, Part 1, (Abingdon Press, 2018), 87.

[18] Ibid., 87.

[19] Ibid., 37.

[20] Ibid., 42.

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