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The Rev. Dr. Thomas G. Long The Rev. Dr. Thomas G. Long

The Rev. Dr. Thomas G. Long is the Bandy Professor of Preaching Emeritus at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, and the author or editor of 14 books on preaching and worship. He is ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

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Presbyterian Church (USA)

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Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA


Tom Long: The Wrong Town at the Wrong Time

Matthew 2:1-12

Epiphany - Year C

January 06, 2019

 

Last fall in Washington, there was a very contentious Senate hearing over appointing a new justice to the Supreme Court. At one point in the hearing, one of the senators on the committee lost his temper, lost his cool, and melted down in rage. Shaking his finger at the senators from the opposing party, he shouted that they were acting disgracefully and conducting a sham process. And then he turned to the man being examined, the man who was nominated to the Supreme Court, and said to him, "You're looking for a fair process? Well, you came to the wrong town at the wrong time."

He was speaking, of course, about Washington in 2018, but ironically, we could say something similar about the wise men in our biblical story from Matthew. They came to the wrong town at the wrong time. Here's what happened in the story. Many years ago, some wise men living in the Eastern lands of the ancient world, saw an amazing sight in the heavens, the rising of a new star, or maybe it was a comet blazing brightly across the dark curtain of the firmament, and they knew that the rising of this brilliant light was a sign from the heavens, a signal that something momentous, something world-changing, had happened.

Although we sometimes sing at Christmas-time as if these wise men were kings - "We three kings of Orient are..." - actually they weren't kings at all. They were almost surely philosophers and astrologers, some think they may have been Zoroastrian priests. But, whoever they were, these wise men were shrewd observers of the night sky, those who looked for signs of decisive events and clues to the future in the heavens. So, Matthew tells us that just as Jesus was born, they saw this new star rising in the western sky over Judea, the land of the Jews. Using all their powers of analysis and interpretation, they determined that this star was a sign that a new king had been born; the Jews had been given a new king, and the lights of heaven proclaimed it. What they did not yet know was that this new king who had been born in Judea was not only the King of the Jews, but the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the savior of all, and his name was Jesus.

These wise men wanted to see this new thing that had happened, and they desired to show their honor for the new king. So, they set out for Judea to the west, in the direction of the star that they had seen. In our imaginations, we see them riding along, mounted on camels, but the Bible does not say how they traveled. It says only where they traveled, to Judea, and when they got to their destination, they went immediately to the city of Jerusalem, to the palace of Herod. Now, Matthew has already told us in this story that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, not Jerusalem. But the wise men went to Jerusalem looking for the new king. If they were looking for the real king, well, as the senator said, "You've come to the wrong town at the wrong time."

Why did they go to Jerusalem when Jesus was born in Bethlehem? I think we can hear some wisdom about that question from a poor Christian man living in Solentiname, a small village in Nicaragua. Every week, the priest in this village, Ernesto Cardenal, would read a passage from the Bible to the people in his congregation, all of them poor peasants, and then they would discuss this passage, saying what they heard and what they thought. When Father Cardenal read this story of the wise men from the East who went to Jerusalem looking for the new king of the Jews, Adan, one of these impoverished Christians said,

It seems to me that when those wise men arrived they knew that the Messiah had been    born and they thought Herod knew about it and that the Messiah was going to be a      member of his family. If he was a king, it was natural that they should go to look for him in Herod's palace. But in that palace there was nothing but corruption and evil, and the     Messiah couldn't be born there. He had to be born among the people, poor, in a stable.[1]

What this humble Christian was saying was that the wise men simply assumed that a king would be born in power and glory, born in the royal palace, but if the wise men thought they could find the savior of the world in Herod's house in Jerusalem, they were "in the wrong town...."

They had also come at the wrong time. Herod the Great, who was the Roman-appointed King of the Jews, was growing old, and in his aging he had become a mentally unstable tyrant, who ruled through fear and cruelty. He was so insecure about his standing that every whiff of palace intrigue and potential opposition threw him into a murderous rage. He even killed one of his wives, several of his children, and other members of his own family, fearing that they were plotting to betray him. When Caesar Augustus heard what Herod had done to his own family, he is reported to have said about Herod, "I'd rather be his pig than his son."[2]

So, if the wise men have come to an aging, insane, and ruthless Herod, the King of the Jews, asking about where they can find the new king of the Jews, well they have come to the wrong town at the wrong time. It would be like going to the Kremlin today and asking Vladimir Putin, "Where's the new leader of Russia? We have come to pay him homage." Sure enough, Matthew tells us that the wise men, when they told Herod that they were looking for the new king of the Jews, rattled King Herod so badly that he shook like a leaf in the wind, and the whole city of Jerusalem trembled with him.

There is a church I know about that has an annual Christmas pageant. Now this is not a simple event like many other churches have with the children wearing bathrobes and coat-hanger-wire angels' wings to play the parts in the Christmas story. No, this church's pageant is a major production, held on the front lawn of the church, and featuring leaders from all around the community as the main characters - Joseph and Mary, shepherds and angels and wise men. One year, the men who were playing the roles of the wise men decided that they could best show that they were mysterious visitors from the East by arriving in swirling clouds of incense. So, from a nearby Greek Orthodox church they borrowed a thurible - that's a metal container in which incense is burned. On the night of the pageant, they were in the basement of their church waiting for the cue to make their appearance on the lawn. Just before it was time for them to be on, they lit the incense in the thurible. Clouds of smoky incense filled the air, and then they headed out across the lawn to the manger.

What they did not know was that they had accidentally set off the church's fire alarm system, and the fire department had been electronically signaled that the church was on fire. As the wise men slowly walked to the manger, suddenly fire trucks arrived, sirens blaring. Soon, firemen in yellow slickers were unrolling hoses among the startled shepherds and angels. But when the fire chief spotted the wise men surrounded in the fragrant smoke of incense, he realized what had happened. In a voice loud enough to be heard by everyone, he bellowed, "You wise men are setting off alarms all over town!"

Well, Matthew would agree. Matthew would say, "Yes, that's exactly what happened." The arrival of the wise men from the East asking about a new king of the Jews set off alarms all over the town of Jerusalem, because if there's a new king of the Jews, then that means the old king is finished.

Now sometimes people will say that politics has no place in the pulpit, that preachers should stick to matters of faith and leave politics alone. But the way Matthew tells this story, he lets us know that this attitude is not right; the gospel of Jesus Christ is deeply political, and politics is thoroughly entwined into this story of the wise men. Yes, no one wants a preacher to peddle his or her party politics from the pulpit, but we cannot avoid the truth that the gospel of Jesus Christ has profound political implications. Herod was a politician, he knew that. That's why he shook all over with fear when the wise men told him that a star had risen in the sky to announce the birth of this new king, Jesus. That tyrant knew that the birth of the true king, Jesus, meant the end of his own abusive and illegitimate reign of terror. Herod did everything he could to stay in power. Matthew tells us that he even ordered the massacre of all children younger than two years old in and around Bethlehem so he could rid himself of this newborn king, and, of course, later in the story they tried to stop Jesus again by nailing him to a cross. But when Jesus Christ is at work in the world, the powers of cruelty and oppression cannot stop him. When Easter hope is alive, it is the tyrants and the power brokers and those who ignore human need for their own gain who should tremble.  As the old hymn says, "O where are kings and empires now, of old, that went and came? But Lord, Thy Church is praying yet, a thousand years the same."

Eventually, the wise men figured out that if they were looking for the new king of the Jews in Herod's city, they were in the wrong town, and finally they made it to the right town. With the help of some scribes and biblical scholars, they learned that the scripture promised that Israel's Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. And they also had the help of that blazing star, which led them to the very place where the child Jesus was. The wise men were able to pay homage to the true king and to give him their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

This story makes me wonder if we, too, do not go at first to the wrong places and at the wrong times to find Jesus Christ. Herod represents everything in human beings and human history that is haughty, cruel, violent and vindictive. The Messiah was not born in his palace. Where is Jesus Christ truly to be found? Jesus, himself, says that the truly blessed ones are the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers, and it is among these little ones where Jesus is truly to be found.

Whenever the church of Jesus Christ believes the Messiah can be found in the White House or the Governor's Mansion, it's looking in the wrong town at the wrong time.

Whenever the church of Jesus Christ believes the Messiah can be found in places of wealth or in schemes to gain prosperity, it's looking in the wrong town at the wrong time.

Whenever the church of Jesus Christ proclaims that some political power broker who ignores the cries of the poor and turns a deaf ear to the pleas of the hungry, the orphan, and the alien, is "chosen by God," it is looking for the Messiah in the wrong town at the wrong time.

Jesus told us where he would be, among the hungry and the thirsty, among the stranger and the immigrant, among those who lack clothing or medical care, among those in prison. He said, "In so far as you care for the least of these, you care for me." Whenever we ignore these least ones and instead seek out the successful and the powerful, we are looking for the Messiah in the wrong town and at the wrong time.

Some years ago, a reporter from the BBC interviewed one of America's prosperity preachers, a preacher who preached a false gospel of power and wealth and worldly success and who had a large following. The reporter asked, "You preach a message of success and prosperity, don't you?"

The preacher replied, "Yes I do. I think Jesus helps us sail...not fail."

But the reporter was sharp, and she knew the Bible, so she asked, "But didn't Jesus die on a cross as one who was rejected and condemned as a criminal? How does that fit in with the gospel of success?"

"Oh," said the preacher, "like all great men, Jesus had his setbacks, but on Easter he put all that behind him."

No, on Easter, Jesus did not put the cross behind him, as if it were some unfortunate misstep in the otherwise successful journey of a powerful Messiah. The resurrection on Easter validates the gift of love and redemption that Jesus gave in his death on Good Friday, when he joined himself with all who suffer and who are oppressed. That prosperity preacher was looking for Jesus in Herod's palace, not in Bethlehem, and he was looking in the wrong town at the wrong time.

So, let us go with the wise men to Bethlehem. Let us go with our gifts of gold, frankincense, myrrh, devotion, commitment, passion, all that we have and all that we are. Let us go and truly worship him. He wasn't born to people of power, and he wasn't born in the king's palace, but one day the whole world will bow down in worship before this newborn king, the king of mercy, the king of grace, and the king of love.

 

Let us pray.

O God, take us to those places where we can truly encounter your Son. Do not let us be dazzled by the powers and idols and false promises of this world, but lead us instead to the Bethlehems of life, where your saving presence can be found and your loving power is truly at work to redeem us all. In the name of the newborn king, Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen.

 

 


[1] Ernesto Cardenal, The Gospel in Solentiname (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 32.

[2] Macrobius, Saturnalia II.4.11

 


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