Imagine the scene – three important-looking foreigners from faraway lands ride into Jerusalem on camels, with all their retinue, and make their way to the palace. Perhaps it’s not as splendid and excessive as the procession in Disney’s Aladdin (on the Christmas tv watchlist), but it will certainly have been noticed. These men arrive at the palace, and ask to see the recently born child who is King of the Jews.
The King in Judea is Herod, and he’s no baby. There is no royal infant here.
So, they explain that they are astrologers, wise men from the East, and they’ve seen a star which is the portent of the great King promised by God, and that star has led them here.
The wise men would have had to tell their story to the chief of the palace guard, the chief vizier (or whoever ran the palace for Herod), and probably several other high-ranking courtiers. After all, one did not simply pitch up at the palace and get to see the King without explaining one’s business! And of course, many others will have overheard these conversations. Whispers would be running like wildfire! A new King of the Jews? One foretold by a star? Could this be the Messiah? You can imagine the scene. If newspapers had existed, imagine the headlines!!
Herod is the puppet king installed by Rome, and he’s not all that popular. In fact, he’s known for his cruelty and evil actions. However, he’s the only way the Jewish religious elite manage to retain any semblance of independence, so they put up with his actions. Now these important strangers have arrived, and their news threatens to upend the political settlement, which is a precarious one at best. Given all that, it’s no surprise in political terms that Herod is very unhappy about this, and tries to trick the wise men, and use them to locate the child so he can kill him.
Imagine the scene in Bethlehem when these wise men with their camels and retinue arrive in Bethlehem, seeking a small child, no more than two years old, who is born King of the Jews! The whispers would again have spread like wildfire, indeed might already have reached Bethlehem from Jerusalem ahead of them. Mary and Joseph have clearly remained with their wider family in Bethlehem after the census, for it is clear later in the story that Jesus is no longer a tiny baby. If the star appeared at his birth, then he must be at least several months old, to allow for the wise men to travel to Palestine from the far East, along the Silk Road.
In Matthew’s gospel, the coming of the wise men symbolises the revealing of God’s son to the wider world. God is revealing his plan to redeem the world from sin and evil. But evil fights back, foolishly thinking it can stop God’s plan. So even as God comes among us as one of us, a king desperate to hold on to his worldly power at any cost, even to the point of fighting against God, unleashes one of the worst evils imaginable – the slaughter of innocent children. Herod’s anger and his capacity for evil in order to eliminate a possible political rival – the consequences of the lust for power were then, as now, utterly tragic for the ordinary people who might threaten that power.
God comes, as He promised, to bring us peace. The response of the powerful elite is fear, anger, and destruction. The writer of Matthew’s gospel focuses on the great irony that foreign wise religious men recognise Jesus for who He is, when the Jewish religious leaders do not.
Epiphany season (the wise men, Jesus’s baptism, the miracle at Cana) is all about the appearance of God as one of us – and it’s true that sometimes we have to look beyond the surface in order to see God at work. It’s about revelation, realisation, seeing what God is already doing among us, in our lives and in our churches and communities. May God give us the grace to see, and the wisdom and courage to follow His leading.