In a little bit, we’ll hear the story of Epiphany – the story of Jesus’ visit by the wise men. Even though tradition has tried to fill in some of the details missing from scripture, we don’t really know that much about these three men. We often describe them in a few different ways that may of may not go together – sometimes we call them kings, sometimes, wise men. In Matthew’s gospel, the author uses the Greek word magus to describe them. The original term refers to a caste of Persian priests in the early religion of Zoroastrianism. As part of their vocation, these priests paid particular attention to the stars as they viewed astrology as a highly regarded science.
So, according to the story, the stars told them of a momentous event. As they searched for the newborn king of the Jews, these three men come face to face with King Herod.
Now, there’s another interesting piece of history that is not explicitly explained in the story we find in the Bible. We hear about King Herod throughout the gospels – King Herod orders the slaughter of first born children after hearing about the infant Jesus and King Herod tries the adult Jesus on his way to the cross; Herod murders John the Baptist and James and tries to kill Peter and Herod faces off with Paul. (It sounds like Herod really got around during that first century.) Actually, the truth is, we hear about five different Herods throughout Jesus’ life and the life of the early church: there’s Herod the Great, his older son Arch-e-la-us, his younger son Herod the tetrarch; his grandson Herod King Agrippa and Agrippa’s son, also named Agrippa.
Five Herods; three generations; all of them persecuting Jesus and the early church. Why? Because their kingdom was in direct conflict with the kingdom of God preached about by Jesus. Where they ruled by oppression, Jesus preached equality. Where they believed that only a select few deserved money and power, Jesus proclaimed that resources should be shared by all. Where the Herods held onto power through violence and bloodshed; Jesus talked about a kingdom where justice and peace reigned supreme.
The Herods were afraid of Jesus, because they knew that he threatened their comfortable way of life— so they resisted him at every turn, for years and years, throughout the generations of their family.
In contrast to these Kings, we have three foreigners. Existing in their own community far to the East, following their own traditions and coming to their own understanding of God. Yet, they make a long and arduous journey to come and worship an infant. If we consider their gifts of money and incense and perfumes, we can assume that they, like the Herods, were wealthy men. Yet, they freely gave their offering to the Christ child. The magi recognized that this child brought great change yet, unlike the Herods, they welcomed the change that he would bring. Instead of resisting God’s transforming work in Jesus, the Magi worked hard to get to him, laid their life before him and worshipped Christ.
Have you ever seen a cartoon where the character trying to make a difficult decision is shown with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other? In some ways, I think we have a Magi on one side and Herod on the other. Our lives present us with a choice everyday: do we resist God’s call as King Herod did, running away from God and trying to discredit Christ’s message? Or do we follow the example of those Wise Men from the East, bowing down before this new king, this new way of life; placing everything we have before him and opening ourselves up to the new ways that God calls us to change our world?
Five King Herods tried their best to get rid of Jesus and to silence the message of Christ and the church. Yet here we still are today, telling the story and exploring our ever growing understanding of God. History gives us the names of all five Herods but nothing is left of their legacy but stories of deception, murder and failure. We may not know much about the Magi but those three steadfast visitors from a far off land have taught us much and their story continues to be a light leading our way towards Christ.
The choice is ours. Who shall we follow, the five Kings or the Three Wise Men?