Herod and The Theologians
Our passage this morning presents two contrasting groups of people discerning the will of God. King Herod and the Theologians on one side and the “three wise men” or Magi on the other.
The arrival of Jesus makes for a very real, very large scale, as in cosmically-sized, conflict that is introduced into the human narrative and these two parties are the first to go head-to-head over the matter.
This baby, of divine royalty, the one people were waiting for as the messiah or new moses, has managed to slip almost completely under the radar. How humiliating then that this all happened right under Herod’s nose. And to add further insult to injury it takes three pagan Astronomers from the East to come and point this out to him.
I can’t stress this enough. The people who respond and who are held up as our example this morning really are pagan astronomers. I’m not making this up. We call them “wise men” but that’s a translation that goes back to the interpreters of the King James Version of the bible. Those folks who didn’t like the suggestion that there were pagans who responded faithfully to God in the Gospel accounts. It is a lot cleaner if we call them “wise men.”
In either case poor Herod. He is played the fool. The magi ask “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” Could it be that they assumed that the baby born was Herod’s son? This would add to the embarrassment. Not only is this not about Herod’s child, but there is another baby born in a remote village of Bethlehem who they are calling “King of the Jews” that he knows nothing about.
So Herod freaks out.
He calls in the chief priests and the scribes – the theologians of his day. What could possibly go wrong with this? Let’s be sure to not mention that these theologians have already royally screwed in that they too completely missed the birth of the Messiah and now their boss is completely embarrassed in front of some star-gazers.
They roll out their texts and start looking for clues as to where this all must have taken place and they find Micah 5:2 which mentions that a new leader will be born in Bethlehem and that he will be like a shepherd his people and he will be the one of peace.
And as these things go – Herod then chooses to turn to damage control. The theologians he employs have taught and interpreted the Hebrew Bible in ways that supported Herod’s kingship and therefore have no space at all for a new interpretation and a new king. They must protect their “sanctioned” interpretation. They must protect copy-right. There will be no derivative interpretations taking place.
The first thing that I want to draw out here is this: the arrival of baby Jesus creates a conflict around what the bible says. Christmas itself creates a major disagreement with the theologians and the biblical interpreters who are interested in maintaining the status quo and their work for King Herod. In this case, it could be they’re just wanting to stay alive.
It is always shocking to the system when it learns that God is working outside the structure that human hands had established.
Does this sound familiar to you? Any time Jesus shows up, whether it is in the biblical accounts or now, as the Spirit who leads us, there is going to be interpretative work to do. Is this really him? How can I be sure? But he is telling me to do something that goes against King Herod, or is ever so slightly different from my parents, or radically challenging to my culture or my religious community. What are we to do?
Herod’s response is to keep things fixed the way they are. To protect the old interpretations and sustain the status quo.
Caryl Creswell wrote for the Christmas Eve advent reader:
Like we say in Godly Play, “you can walk right through a mystery and miss it if you don’t get ready”.
I don’t want to give away the ending but, why not? It is Herod and the theologians who, even though they have all the knowledge, all the power, all the biblical texts right there in front of them, they are the ones who miss the mystery.
The only thing that can make matters worse is to have outsiders come in and have a better sense of your own tradition than you do. To tell you that maybe you’ve got it wrong and have missed the mystery.
But that’s what going on here with the magi here who are the real misfits in the story. These pagan astrologers are more attentive, more open and have a better grasp of what is unfolding than the people who teach that tradition for a living!
The magi too are apprentices of their own tradition, they’re not just winging it or going on a whim, they are paying attention and practicing discernment to what is happening in front of them. And they are the ones who show up apart from any teaching they discovered in the Hebrew bible.
I have no doubt Matthew included this bit about the Magi because he was hoping to challenge the sensibilities of his readers.
Anyone can listen to God. Anyone can respond. Anyone can at first appear to be on the outside, when in fact they are becoming a major part of the story line of God in the world.
And so you have some star gazers who show up and rattle the cages of Herod and his theologians. They have to be some of the best characters in the bible. They were written into a story that was not their own.
And the best part is of course that they get to see the newborn baby. Their listening was honored in a way that not many people can claim – they got to meet Christ the newborn king, and live to share the story as they are left “by another road.”
We are the stargazers
Here is a metaphor that captures the difference between these two groups well:
Imagine two different groups of scientists. One group, armed with a set of encyclopedic guidebooks which are constantly being annotated, take turns to look at a distant star or galaxy through an extremely powerful telescope. The scientists offer comments from what they see, and in the light of what they see, or deduce, further annotations are made in the guidebooks, and their deliverances are passed on to anyone who is interested.
The other group of scientists is standing round the rim of a huge concavity in the surface of the earth, or maybe there are in submarines, gazing at the rim of a huge concavity which has been detected as giving form to the sea bed. They are trying to work out what has happened, what force, what dimensions, what speed, produced this impact, and what the consequences have been, or are, or will be, for life on the planet as a result of whatever it was that produced this concavity. –James Alison
Q: What do notice about these two groups?
The first group is group fixed, imaginations are limited, impersonal, distant, and focused on the past. The second group is curious, real-time, creative, have a sense of wonder and mystery. They are personally invested. It seems to me the first group is like Herod and the Theologians the second group is like the Magi in the story.
So where is Camas Friends at in this story?
We are the second group of observers.
We are the stargazers.
You are the ones trying to work out what has happened. What does the presence of Jesus mean, not just on Christmas morning 2000 years ago, but right now in this place?
You are the ones following the practice of discernment of what God is doing in the present moment.
You are the ones who are trying to listen to God together, helping each other to listen, prompting one another to continue on down the road even when the journey leads into the unknown.
You are the ones who are trying to remain curious, creative and open.
You aren’t the powerful ones called in to give all the right answers or give the sanctioned interpretations of the biblical text, making sure that no one is deviating from what the text clearly states.
You aren’t the ones called into to protect other people’s power and that everyone is paying proper homage.
You are the ones who are simply trying to not to miss the mystery.
This all leads me to think that you are the stargazers in the story.