When God's Reality Breaks In
By: Pastor Krista Ducker
Today I want to talk with us about comfortable illusions. It is epiphany Sunday, and so naturally, we will be focusing our attention on the well-known story of the visit of the magi to the child Jesus in Matthew chapter 2:1-12. Let’s look at the text together:
The Visit of the Wise Men2 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men[a] from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising,[b] and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah[c] was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘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[d] my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men[e] and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 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.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising,[f] until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped,[g] they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
We are in the gospel of Matthew today; although very much like the other gospels of Luke and Mark, Like each of them, it tells the story of Jesus’ beginnings on earth uniquely. Mark begins Jesus’ story with his ministry as an adult and doesn't mention his birth at all. Luke focuses largely on the women of the story; Mary and Elizabeth, and gives us the account of the shepherds visited by angels by night. John gives us a cosmic view, placing Jesus in the context of a dark world illuminated by a light it cannot comprehend. Along with these, Matthew gives us different details. Matthew spends a lot of time talking about the genealogy of generations that came before Jesus, he talks about the angel’s visit to Joseph that encourages him to stay with Mary, and spends only about a half a sentence on the actual birth of Jesus. In fact, Matthew spends a lot of narrative energy in his account talking about what happens after Jesus is born. Here in Matthew chapter 2, we find a fascinating account of a dramatic encounter, full of intrigue, misinformation, and misunderstanding, based on comfortable illusions. On what would certainly have seemed to be a normal day in Jerusalem, exotic visitors appear before King Herod with a surprising request…
“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising,[b] and have come to pay him homage.”
Magi: threatening figures (gentiles, allied with Rome, outsiders, marginal but influential); They were not kings; rather, they were more like pagan priests, perhaps following the Zorastrian religion, perhaps from Persia. They were often consulted by powerful people to read the stars and make pronouncements; but to the Jews they probably were not seen as having much authority. Still, they noticed the star, they did their research, consulted the relevant texts, and then investigated.
From the way the text is worded, it seems they may have assumed Herod already knew about this new king; look at the wording of their request (see above)
It’s almost as if they expect him to just say; “Oh sure, he’s back here”, and lead them to a room somewhere in the palace to where the baby was.
The magi likely have no idea that Herod is completely unaware of this development; Their question is so direct and transparent that they must have assumed Herod would gladly tell them where to find this baby king. Instead, verse 3 tells us that Herod is terrified; and when Herod is scared, everybody is scared. Herod calls his advisors together (you can almost imagine them huddling together in a corner as the magi wait, confused); they consult the scriptures and advise him that there actually is a prophecy in the scriptures about this; Micah 5:2 and 2 Samuel 5:2b tell it; [a]
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
Herod’s comfortable illusion is that he is the head honcho around these parts; so he sees this not as a miracle or an in-breaking of a new God-reality, but as a threat--and he wants to stop it by any means necessary. So he calls a secret meeting with the magi; telling a blatant lie, he asks them to do his dirty work for him; he tells them to go find this baby king, and then report back when they have found the new king so he can go and pay his respects as well. One gets the impression that the magi, foreigners completely unaware of the subtext, are unwittingly aiding Herod in his evil plan. They play right into his hand, at least for now. Any Jewish person, especially a Jewish believer, would be well aware that Herod had no intention of paying his respects to Jesus.
So now we know the comfortable illusion that is motivating Herod. What about the magi? The magi are not afraid, like Herod; they are curious, seeking to learn… all they want do so is pay a visit to this new baby king and pay their respects. In verse 2, the word (proskuneo); literally means “to bow down before”; but unlike in our culture, where our minds immediately jump to a spiritual act, this is a very down-to-earth, physical action; it describes a cultural custom, rather than an inner attitude;
The word literally means to bow down on hands and knees and touch your forehead to the ground as an act of respect for someone of higher rank or nobility (show picture slide). It was more a gesture of respect and honor. So if we set aside our assumptions, we find that what they are saying is; “where is the child who has been born king? We want to visit him and show him the proper respect.” This is primarily a political move, not a spiritual one. The comfortable illusion for the magi is that this baby is just another king to whom they should pay their respects; another potentate to preen and bow before. And so they have done their research, gathered the proper gifts and come to pay their perfunctory respects.
But something surprising happens when they actually meet Jesus. Scripture tells us that when they arrived they were “overwhelmed with joy” and “knelt down and paid him homage.” Then they present gifts to the holy family befitting a king: precious metal and perfumes. The wise men may have come to Jesus with the intention of a perfunctory gesture of respect; instead they encountered someone who filled them with joy and the result was actual worship; something greater than formality overtook them and they became overwhelmed with joy in the presence of Jesus. Their comfortable illusions melted away in the presence of the Christ.
Those of us familiar with the story know what happens next. The wise men are warned not to share Jesus’ location with Herod, and so his paranoia takes over; he does everything he can to utterly annihilate what he sees as a threat to his kingship. Verses 16-19 tell the tragic story of how far Herod goes to protect his position; since he can’t find Jesus, he sanctions the taking of the lives of all Jewish boys two years and younger, causing wailing and unimaginable grief all over Jerusalem and the kingdom.
The story of Herod’s response to the unexpected news of the magi is a cautionary tale; it gives us a glimpse of what we are capable of if we allow fear to control our lives; if we give in to the temptation to play God.
Both Herod and the magi faced a striking disillusionment--of the convenient illusions of their lives being challenged, dismantled and torn away; the response of the magi to this gracious disillusionment was joy and worship. Herod’s response was fear and violence.
I will confess to you that I have tended to think of the experience of disillusionment in a negative way. I have thought of it as a frightening thing; a process that takes something away from us, causes us pain and struggle, and does damage. And sometimes, perhaps even often, that is part of the process; but what I’ve come to understand only recently is that disillusionment is simply an effect of change, of the inbreaking of a new reality; and we have a choice about how we will respond to the new information; the new awareness of life as it is, and not as we thought it was.
To be disillusioned is simply to have our eyes opened; to be suddenly disabused of our comfortable, convenient illusions. And though at times it can feel threatening, it can actually be an opportunity for growth--if we recognize its potential to create space for something new; especially when we give God the reins in our lives:
In her book God in Pain: Sermons on Suffering, Episcopal priest, academic and author Barbara Brown Taylor explains that when God breaks into our world, dissolving our illusions, it can be jarring, even painful; “we find that God does not conform to our expectations. We glimpse our own relative size in the universe and see that no human being can say who God should be or how God should act. We review our requirements of God and recognize them as our own fictions, things we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel safe or good or comfortable. Disillusioned, we find out what is not true and we are set free to seek what is--if we dare--to turn away from the God who was supposed to be in order to seek the God who is.”
The shattering of illusions in our lives; about our place in the world, about what we can assume; even about those things of which we thought we were certain; can be an opportunity to discover something new; to blaze new trails of learning and discovery; to experience God’s generative, creative grace in our lives and in our journeys--if we are looking for them. Like hard ground being broken up so that new life may take root and grow, the times when our lives are broken open could potentially be powerful seasons of growth and maturing, if we allow God to take control, to sow the seeds of new life within us.
King Herod, his advisors and all of Jerusalem, were not looking for something new to break in. They had created a comfortable illusion of control; and so God’s grace breaking in looked to them like a threat and not an opportunity. Herod’s response to God’s new reality was marked by paranoia and violence, instead of curiosity, joy and humble recognition--the response we see from the magi.
What are the comfortable illusions that God would seek to disrupt with a gracious disillusionment? Have you lost your hunger to seek God in an area of your life? Is there someone or something that has disabused you of your illusions? Think for a moment. Is this an opportunity to seek and find God; to be overwhelmed by joy, and to respond in true, humble, heartfelt worship? May we be open to God’s disruptive, gracious disillusionment so that we may receive the new thing God wants to grow within us, in Jesus’ name.