A sermon preached on Matthew 2:1-12 by the Rev. Justin Clemente at New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD on January 5, 2020, Second Sunday of Christmastide.
The High & the Low
In Mary’s Magnificat, her song of praise to God, the Mother of our Lord famously says (or rather sings), “[The Lord] has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” There is an enduring paradox here that Mary points to: that which is seen as great and powerful in worldly terms, is actually weak and ill-prepared to be used by God, while that which is small and insignificant is actually well-suited to be mightily used of God.
I can think of no better illustration of this paradox than the visit of the wise men in the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. Think of it: arrayed on one side you have Herod the Great with his cadre of chief priests and scribes in the seat of power of the Holy City itself. On the other you have Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in rural Bethlehem surrounded by pagan wise men from the East. What a picture this paints! We see the mighty and we see the weak. What does this teach us?
Let’s look first at Herod and the meeting of the minds that occurs in Jerusalem.
The Mighty (vs. 1-5)
These Magi, these sages, who come to worship the king may have been wise, but not in some things. In verse two, the wise men come into the court of Herod and ask, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” As Tim Keller writes, “when you come into a palace and ask, ‘Where is the king?’ it is going to alarm the person actually sitting on the throne.” (Hidden Christmas, pg. 64) Especially if it’s Herod the Great. In the movie The Nativity Story, actor Ciarán Hinds gave audiences a convincing glimpse of just how power hungry and mad Herod the Great was. So, instead of bowing the knee to this new king, Herod immediately moves to defend his throne, calling in the chief priests and scholars to advise him on the birthplace of the Christ. We’re told that all Jerusalem was troubled with him. No wonder. Joseph Ratzinger writes, “The supposed or actual birth of a Messianic king would inevitably bring trial and tribulation to the people of Jerusalem. They knew Herod, after all. What from the lofty perspective of faith is a star of hope, from the perspective of daily life is merely a disturbance, a cause for concern and fear. It is true: God disturbs our comfortable day-to-day existence. Jesus’ kingship goes hand in hand with his Passion.” (Infancy Narratives, pg. 103)
Here, the mighty aren’t stirred to worship Jesus – they’re simply annoyed. I wonder – do we ever long for our comfort over the exhilaration of worshipping the true and living God and being part of his purposes? Of course we do. In reflecting on our passage this week, I’ve come to see that we probably pray for merely comfortable lives more than we realize. And yet, the birth of God into the world – his comfort and joy! — disturbs and upends our comfort apart from God. The grace of God in the Gospel of God gives us uncomfortable truth which, in turn, brings the greatest comfort and joy of all. But it also moves us to uncomfortable places and puts us next to uncomfortable people, doesn’t it? Church, here’s what I’m praying for us in 2020: that we continue to be moved out of our comfort and into mission of God being played out in our community. That Jesus is so worshipped, known, glorified, and exalted in our midst that we are propelled in love and moved forward in mission into the lives of those who desperately need him.
However, these mighty, gathered with Herod, will go nowhere. They are unmoved – and Jesus is six miles away! And here we see a picture of two great evils: political power that views itself as absolute and religious knowledge given over to indifference. How sad it is – when Herod asks where the Messiah is to be born, the chief priests and scribes provide the right answer, and yet do not seek it out themselves. It’s like some scholarship today – forever writing about Christianity, and yet refusing to genuinely bow the knee to Jesus. There we leave the mighty.
The Weak & The Foolish (vs. 6-12)
We move now to the weak and the foolish. The chief priests and scribes tell Herod that the Messiah will come from Bethlehem. They give Herod a combination of two passages from Micah and from 2 Samuel which basically have the effect of saying this: from the least of all cities will come the greatest of all kings. This insignificant city shall be made significant for all time (in contrast to what Herod is building). This insignificant person shall be the true shepherd, the true son of David, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and the joy of all the nations.
And this begs the question: who will rise to meet him? Not those who should have. Not his own people, but pagan wise men from the East. Do you see how subversive Matthew is being with his Gospel by including this account? Few things are probably more familiar to us than a nativity scene with wise men, but few things would have been more arresting to the original readers of Matthew’s Gospel than their presence. To put it quite simply, these people don’t belong here. Compared to the chief priests and scribes, they had but a fraction of knowledge about the God of Israel and yet it is they who go out to meet him, it is they who rejoice in him, and it is they who worship him. Again, Joseph Ratzinger writes, “The wise men do a proskynesis before the royal child, that is to say they throw themselves onto the ground before him. This is the homage that is offered to a divine king.” (Infancy Narratives, pgs. 106-107) Here, these dignified pagan wise men are the only ones undignified enough to rejoice in Jesus. Here, at the beginning of the Gospel, is pre-figured a wave of worship from every culture, every language, every tribe which will sweep over the globe, given to this child. The statement made here is that if God’s people won’t go out to meet the Messiah, surely others will. Here, in the lowest of all places, the greatest of all is given the recognition he deserves.
Lastly, they open those famous gifts. I want to focus our attention particularly on the myrrh. “The myrrh,” writes Joseph Ratzinger, “actually appears in Saint John’s Gospel after the death of Jesus: John tells us that Nicodemus had prepared myrrh, among other ointments, for the anointing of Jesus’ body (cf. Jn 19:39). Through the myrrh, then, the mystery of the Cross is once again associated with Jesus’ kingship and mysteriously proclaimed in the worship offered by the wise men. Anointing is an attempt to resist death, which only becomes definitive with decomposition. By the time the women came to the tomb to anoint the body on Easter morning…Jesus has already risen. He no longer needed myrrh as a protection against death, because God’s life itself had overcome death.” (Infancy Narratives, pg. 107)
I can think of no better way to end Christmas and begin to Epiphany other than to say that in the worship and gifts of these unexpected wise men, the greatest victory of the greatest king is revealed in the lowest of places. He is still being revealed to those who will receive him with humility. May it be so, again or for the first time, as we continue to walk through the life of our Lord together. Amen.