I’ve done something for this Sunday that I don’t think I’ve ever done before as a preacher. I’ve significantly altered the appointed Gospel reading for the day. Instead of choosing between either Mt. 2:1-12 (the story of the Magi) or Mt. 2:13-15, 19-23 (the story of the Flight into Egypt), we’ve read them both. Truthfully, it’s not all that radical. It’s always an option to lengthen the lectionary readings. So today, we heard the gospel appointed for 2 Christmas, the second half of chapter 2, and the gospel appointed for the Feast of the Epiphany which is tomorrow, vss. 1-12. What’s left out is the story of the slaughter of the innocents—Herod’s decision to have all of the children of Bethlehem, age 2 or under, killed.
What I would like to do today is something a little different than my custom. We are in year A of the three-year lectionary cycle. It’s the year we will spend our time hearing from the Gospel of Matthew. Last year was year C, the year of Luke, and next year will be the year of the Gospel of Mark. The gospel of John doesn’t have a year of its own. It’s interspersed throughout the three year cycle, especially during Lent and Easter. So this year is Matthew and I would like to take some time to focus on some of the central themes and concerns of Matthew, using chapter 2 as a starting point.
One of the distinctive characteristics of Matthew is his use of “fulfillment quotations.” We see several of them in this chapter. In fact, they are rather curious. If you go back to the original references in Hebrew scripture, it’s usually not at all clear what the connection is with the gospel of Matthew. They are not simply predictions. Rather, they are resonances, echoes that Matthew uses to make connections between Hebrew scripture and the story he’s telling.
Matthew shapes his story in this chapter around a biblical story from the books of Genesis and Exodus—the story of the enslavement of the Hebrew people and their miraculous deliverance by acts of Yahweh. Is it coincidence that Jesus’ father is named Joseph, just as it was Joseph in Genesis who dreamed, believed in God, and did as God told? In response to a word from an angel in a dream, Joseph took his family out of harm’s way into exile in Egypt; just as Jacob and his family went to Egypt to seek refuge from a famine. In the earlier story, it was Pharaoh who sought to kill all male Hebrew children under age two because of fear. In Matthew, Herod is indiscriminate, killing all of Bethlehem’s children under two.
Those are two examples—the fulfillment citations and the echoes of Genesis and Exodus—of one of Matthew’s overarching interests or concerns: to make a connection between the story he is telling, the story of Jesus the Messiah, with the Hebrew Bible and its long story of the relationship between God and God’s chosen people. Those echoes and resonances fill Matthew’s gospel. Jesus appears as the new Moses, reinterpreting the law; Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy, the Messiah hoped for by the Jewish people of first-century Palestine.
There’s another deep connection between the Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth and the Genesis/Exodus story. Matthew depicts Herod as an arbitrary, fearful, and vindictive tyrant. He is an almost perfect replica of Pharaoh in Exodus who is shown to be equally arbitrary and vindictive. Indeed, one of the key themes in this story is the contrast between the two kings: Herod on the one hand, and Jesus on the other.
Although a convert to Judaism, Herod was hated by most Jews as the king of Judea, in part because they thought he was Jew in name only and in part because of his pro-Roman leanings. He became king by submitting to Roman authority. He lavished his territory with building projects, including a renovation and expansion of the temple in Jerusalem. Known for his ruthlessness, Herod executed at least three of his sons for conspiring against him. Herod’s lavish spending and propensity to violence are a sharp contrast to the powerless and impoverished infant Jesus.
Jesus seems to be powerless. In fact, throughout this chapter he is acted upon. The magi see him and worship him; Joseph takes him and Mary to Egypt, and then takes them both back to Galilee. Jesus’ family flee Herod’s wrath, so the contrast between the two kings is drawn especially dramatically. Yet in the narrative itself there are hints of a different reality—the power of the reign being ushered in with the birth of Jesus Christ and the threat it poses to the powers of the world. The text says that Herod was terrified at the news of the birth of a king. It also alludes to his death at least three times. And at the end of the chapter, it is Jesus who is alive and well, while Herod is dead.
There’s another important theme in this chapter that carries throughout Matthew’s gospel. We see in the first few verses the response of Jerusalem’s religious and political leadership to news of Jesus’ birth. No one in Jerusalem has any idea what is happening in Bethlehem, even though the “chief priests and scribes” seem to know where to look. Instead of the religious experts looking for the birth of the Messiah, it is outsiders, wise men from the east who are eager to pay homage to Jesus.
These Magi are probably meant to be Zoroastrian astrologers, adherents of another religion. They were about as exotic as a gospel writer could imagine in the first century, completely outside one’s ordinary experience in Palestine. The magi paid close attention to the skies, charting the movements of the planets in an effort to understand the relationship between the skies and life on earth. They discerned in those skies evidence of something new and came in search of it.
We don’t know what happens to the magi after they return home. We don’t know what precisely they thought, how they responded to their encounter with Jesus Christ. It’s not clear that they came to any conventional sort of faith. They came to Bethlehem to pay him homage; they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and then they returned home by another route.
But their presence here in the story is not simply an excuse for us to add figures of the magi to the crèche, or to explain why we exchange gifts at Christmas. Their presence here is evidence of the power of God to work outside of ordinary channels—the religious elite, the insiders, those who should have known who the Messiah was, where he was going to be born, and what sort of Messiah he would be—the religious elite consistently rejected Jesus. The political elite, the powerful finally killed him. The magi are a reminder that we can see signs of God’s presence and activity in nature and in the world around us, and some people can come to know God through such signs and experiences.
But there’s something else. At the very end of the gospel, just before Jesus departs from the disciples, he tells them: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” In the beginning of the gospel, the nations come to pay him homage, worship him. At the end of the gospel, as the disciples are bowing down and worshiping him, Jesus tells them to go out to the nations to make disciples.
We know which king is more powerful—Herod goes down in history as a petty tyrant while billions across the world worship Jesus Christ. But the story of Jesus’ birth in Matthew stands to us as a stark reminder that the powers of the world are in conflict with the power of Bethlehem and of the cross; a warning to us too that our religious certainties may mislead us to side with the powers of this world and that Jesus is present in all sorts of ways we don’t know and can’t understand, present among the victims of suffering, present with political refugees, present with the weak and powerless. We should seek him there to pay him homage, not in palaces or halls of power.