2016, I suspect will mean different things to all of us here. I hesitate to highlight events, but we might want to remember Leicester City becoming Premier League Champions, Mark Selby becoming World Snooker Champion for the second time, the resurrection of Leicester as a city after Richard III’s burial in 2015 and a new Bishop coming to be with us in 2016. We might want to be reminded of 2 Bishop’s week here at St David’s when we welcomed Bishop Martin and Bishop Stanley from Kilimanjaro in an historical week for St David’s in our 50th anniversary year.
We may also of course remember times of sadness, times of suffering, events in our world that seem horrific and the turmoil in the world of politics in Europe, the Middle East, Russia and the USA.
There is a contrast between good and troubled times in our lives. Events of goodness and events of suffering and striving for power by some.
The Queen’s Christmas message on Christmas day, which you might have seen, acknowledged the tremendous achievement of Britain’s’ Paralympian and Olympian athletes in the games in Rio in 2016, quite a highlight in the year. The Queen drew out the inspiration that these Olympians had received from former athletes and the inspiration that ordinary people can be in their lives. She talked about those unsung heroes who carry out small acts of goodness with devotion and generosity of spirit that make such a huge difference in the lives of many others. The Queen’s inspiration, is of course, Jesus Christ, a guiding light in her life, born as an insignificant baby to parent’s Mary & Joseph who did not consider themselves important at all.
Our Queen, our Head of State, is paying homage to Jesus Christ, the King of Kings, Emmanuel, God with us. In the same way the Magi, the wise men go to some effort to pay homage to Jesus their King.
You all, I have no doubt, know this story well, of the wise men, two or more of them, following the bright star to find the baby Jesus in the room in Bethlehem, via a quick detour to Jerusalem when they got a bit lost, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
If you critically look at the story though you would have to wonder that if the wise men were wise women, wouldn’t things have been easier, because wise women would have:
- Asked for directions
- Arrived on time
- Helped deliver the baby
- Cleaned the stable
- Made a quiche
- And brought more practical gifts!
But the wise men, 2 or more of them, were not women, they were most likely astrologers who had seen a bright star rise, possibly the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn which occurred several times in the years 7 to 6 BC. Jupiter was known as the royal planet and Saturn sometimes represented the Jewish nation and this may have inspired the wise men or magi to go to Jerusalem, expecting a new King of the Jewish nation to be there. The years 7 to 6 BC are considered the possible years of Jesus Birth, rather than the year 1AD set by Dionysius Exiguus who compiled our calendar, this would also have given the magi time to travel to Jerusalem before Herod’s death in 4BC.
Matthew is the only Gospel writer to record this story of the magi visiting Jesus to pay him homage. It would seem to be quite a significant event for him to write about because Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience who are expecting God’s anointed Messiah to be sent to them, to the Jewish nation. The visit of Eastern Magi is the first indication that Christ has come for all nations, the story echoes the reading from Isaiah “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you… Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn”.
Matthew is making the point that God through Christ, comes to save all people not just one nation.
The Magi naturally come into Jerusalem first, the capital city of the Jewish Nation, where they believe that the King of the Jews has been born and they naturally make for the Palace, where Herod resides and is King.
The Gospel writers use the phrase ‘King of the Jews’ only twice, the first is here when the magi visit Herod and the second is on the cross when Pontius Pilate has the sign ‘King of the Jews’ nailed above Jesus head at his crucifixion.
The encounter with Jesus demands a decision about who he is and therefore causes division between those who accept and those who reject him. Throughout Jesus life he is opposing those who use power and control over others for their own ends for their own corruption. He comes to judge those who would use power in this way and he comes to save those who are subject to it. The dynasty of Herod illustrates power, control, corruption and evil in a very real way. We meet Herod, known as Herod the Great, here at Jesus birth and we meet his son Archaleus who rules Judea after Herod the Great and then we meet Herod Antipas who confronted Jesus before his execution and imprisoned John the Baptist.
The Herod dynasty aspired to be Kings, Kings of the Jews, but they had no right to be Kings of the Jews. Herod the Great, who the magi met, had been appointed King of the Jews by the Roman Emperor Augustus because his father was favoured by the Romans. Herod’s father was an Edomite and his Mother from Arab descent. In no way did Herod come from the line of David or any Royal line. After the Jewish people had returned from exile a new King arose, not from the line of David’ but from the Maccabees line and Herod in an attempt to legitimise his kingly claims, married Mariamne a descendant of the Maccabees.
Claiming power and control under circumstances that may not be seen as legitimate leads to an attitude of defensiveness and influences the actions of those who are hanging onto the power they so much desire. How much do we see this in our world today? Herod the Great became so anxious and suspicious of people’s actions that he even murdered his wife, her 2 sons, her brother, her mother and her grandmother because he thought they might depose him.
Imagine his reaction when the magi arrive looking for an innocent baby born King of the Jews, whom his advisors tell him is prophesied to be born from the legitimate line of David and who is anointed by God as the Messiah and can be found in the town of David, Bethlehem. Herod is intent on removing the threat and when the magi don’t return he sets about killing all the boys in Bethlehem under 2 years of age.
Jesus is a threat to the corrupt use of power, he brings God’s judgement on those who use it. As an innocent baby he is a threat to Herod the Great, as a grown man he is a threat to Herod Antipas, even on the cross he is a threat, in death he is a threat and in his resurrection and ascension he is a threat because everyone will at some time face death and stand before his heavenly throne. But for those of who are subject to oppression who have become enslaved he offers freedom.
In the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Christmas sermon he says:
“To all who have been or are being dehumanised by the tyranny and cruelty of a Herod or an ISIS, a Herod of today, God’s judgement comes as good news, because it promises justice. As Isaiah makes clear, God’s judgement is one piece of a bigger story of salvation – God’s apocalypse of love – which declares, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given”.
For those who believe and follow Jesus Christ as God’s son, Emmanuel, God with us, we have salvation, we know forgiveness, we belong to Christ who is our King and that frees and empowers ordinary people in acts of goodness and devotion in a generosity of spirit towards each other. The small acts make a big difference and they start with us.
There is a great contrast between acts of goodness towards others and acts of corruption and power and control over others. Christ comes to confront these acts of power in humility and innocence and purity so that we may be free from them. In 2017 let’s encourage each other in our faith and be generous towards one another and those that we meet for it is then that we come to know the light that Christ brings into lives and in a world of change, where aggression and power for control have become widespread, Christ brings us gifts of goodness and mercy which we are encouraged to bring to others.