The Bible just never lets us off the hook. There’s no coasting. No relaxing. The church has just celebrated Christmas, with all the familiar, comforting stories. The sweet carols. Angels and shepherds. And little baby Jesus, sleeping in heavenly peace. Candlelight and lullabies. The Christmas story is sweet and wonderful. It is a tender story of God coming to us.
Then as the Gospel of Matthew moves from chapter one to chapter two, we have the story of the Magi*.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’ Matthew 2, NRSV
Life, as we all know, is not an unending stream of wonder and joy. Life is also hard- terrible even. The Bible doesn’t leave out the terrible parts- not even in the telling of the birth of the Messiah. From Jesus tender birth to weeping inconsolable mothers in the space of two pages of text.
It is dangerous business being the Messiah, all the more when you are a baby. It’s also dangerous for innocent people who happen to live near you. The powers and principalities that rule the world don’t and won’t give up without a fight. And that means that innocent people will suffer. The Bible doesn’t sugar coat reality, even if we want to skip over these terrifying parts of the text.
It’s an old story and yet it is the story of our time as well.
Kingdoms and empires and rulers of all sorts will not only oppose the Kingdom of God, they will actively work to destroy it. And they do not care who suffers in the process. The babies of Bethlehem were so much “collateral damage” as far as Herod was concerned. What mattered was staying in power.
That is the way the world was and is. Tender and terrible. Beautiful and ugly. Babies are born and little children die. Families flee for their lives and then try to find some place they can live unnoticed and survive.
Remember that the Kingdom of God is not a future, otherworldly heaven. God’s intention is for God’s reign to be on this earth, in this world, with us. The Kingdom of God is about God’s rule on this earth. That is why God comes to us, becomes one of us. God is coming to rule and the current rulers object- strenuously. The “powers and principalities”, the ones who benefit from the status quo will actively oppose the rule of the Messiah.
The good news is that not even the worst of the powers and principalities are beyond redemption. They are not beyond God’s saving grace and reach. But do not underestimate the difficulty of this.
All you have to do is read the headlines, listen to the news to know the Kingdom of God is not fully here. Some days it seems very far away. But the Bible is insistent- we play a role in all this. Jesus clear message is that what we do and how we do it matters. We are not to sit around and wait for God’s reign of justice and peace to show up. We have work to do. It begins with us noticing injustice and then acting. Some of us have the ability to do big things. Some of us can do small things. But we can all do something.
What will be the thing that you do?
*Search this blog for “Magi” and “Christmas” for previous posts on this subject.