What if…it happened this way?
Herod sat in his throne room, considering his next steps.
All of Jerusalem was a buzz of excitement and energy, but also anxiety and fear. Visitors had come from Persia, asking for information, and their questions made the whole city afraid. Now their leader, Herod, had to figure out what to do with these outsiders.
His track record made it clear which way he was leaning. Herod was a charismatic leader, energetic, and a man of quick and decisive action. When a group of bandits was causing trouble in Galilee, he moved swiftly to capture the leader, kill him, and execute all of his followers. When religious leaders pushed back against his power, he squashed them like bugs: a high priest who crossed him was dismissed and Pharisees and Essenes who disagreed with him were burned alive. When he suspected even his own children of treason, he arrested them and executed them. No one was safe.
And now, these visitors, these scholars, these Magi, had arrived, with their questions and their outsider ideas. They went around town, asking everyone they could find if they knew about a baby who was, as they said, “born King of the Jews.” Didn’t they know that he, Herod, was king of the Jews!? Didn’t they understand how dangerous it was to imply anything to the contrary? When he first heard about these outsiders, his first inclination was to have them arrested and killed, sight unseen!
But then the fear crept in. His insecurities reared their ugly heads. What if they knew something that he didn’t know? The fear that the city of Jerusalem had mirrored his own fear. What if there was someone out there who could threaten him or his dynasty? He had to confront these scholars and find out what he could, what they knew. Then, he could have them killed.
But then, something happened.
They appeared before him, and told him about their quest. At first, they seemed naïve, silly to share so much information before a king who could have them dispatched with a word. And yet, there was something about the Magi. Something about their genuineness. They had this look on their faces, a look that Herod had never seen before. Herod could only describe it as…joy. They honestly and fervently sought this baby, and didn’t care who knew about their quest. They believed that God was leading them to this child, and that God would provide the information they sought, and the protection that they needed.
This confidence took Herod completely off guard. He was used to people sniveling, and begging for mercy, and crying out to be saved. He was even used to that look of arrogance that some people brought with them. But this was different. These Magi cared so much for their quest that they didn’t care what Herod had the power to do. It was as if their joy made them…invincible. So, Herod followed his plan and deceived them into thinking that he was interested in worshipping their child. He gathered his own scholars, discerned that he would be in Bethlehem, and told them to let him know when they found him. They went on their way, even as Herod’s courtiers wondered why he would let them go.
And now, he sat in his throne room, wondering what to do next. Of course, the most obvious answer would be violence. To the Magi. To the baby. To anyone who stood in his way. Fear begets violence. Rinse and repeat.
But what if he surprised everyone? What if he actually went to worship the baby? Herod yearned for the kind of joy that those Magi had. He yearned for something real and genuine and meaningful. Not just the power to kill. Not just the ability to end a life. But the passion and joy that those scholars had, enough joy to leave their homes and their families and travel across the dangerous desert, weighed down with expensive gifts, just to worship this child. What if there was something to their story? What if he could find that same joy? What if they had found this profound secret, that worshipping true greatness is the secret to true joy? What if Herod gave up his fear and his murder and his insecurity and his hatred of all those who were different than him, and instead followed after the way that these Magi had found?
Before he had time to think about the repercussions, he was out of the throne room, yelling directions at all he saw: “Make ready my fastest camel!” “Prepare the entourage!” “You, gather up half of my prized jewels into chests and load them for travel within the hour!” And it was done, within an hour, he and his travel entourage were en route to Bethlehem. There were questions, of course, but Herod ignored them all. He had to see what made the Magi so joyous. And while he failed to catch them before they arrived, he caught up with them as they entered the house where the child lay. And Herod, heart open in new ways, found himself bowing beside them at the feet of the baby.
Alas, we know what actually happened. We know the rest of the story. We know that Herod did not choose the joy of the Magi. We know that Herod’s fear and insecurity lead to the same thing that fear and insecurity usually lead to: death, destruction, and violence. As those of you who heard Angie’s powerful and beautiful sermon last week remember, Herod doubled down on fear and violence. In the killing of the infants of Bethlehem, he showed his true colors, and showed what is always the end result of fear. It is an interesting thought experiment, though, isn’t it? What if what Herod wanted most was not the violence that he espoused, but the joy of the Magi? What if his failure was the failure to grasp what is real and genuine in this world, and instead lived in the emptiness of his own perceived inferiority? We cannot know what really went on in the mind of Herod. But we know what happened: he faced a choice between joy and fear and he chose fear. And fear begat violence, of the most horrific order.
But here is the good news in the story, even if it takes a while to find: we have that same choice today!
We begin a new year today, celebrating Epiphany Sunday with light and life and hope. And the choice that faces us is this: Will we choose the fear of Herod, or the joy of the Magi? Will 2020 be a year in which we allow the demons of fear and insecurity and perceived inferiority lead us to violence? Will we react and overreact like the Herods of this world, who are so afraid that someone will look better than us that we creep around looking for someone to put down, someone to defeat, someone to best? Or will we walk into the throne rooms of power of our world with hearts of joy? Will we resist the fear and the violence around us, with light and life and hope? The Magi didn’t care about the greatness that “Herod the Great” thought he had, because they knew real greatness. They knew that God was up to something new and amazing, and with abandon and joy they sought that greatness. That is our choice today: will we choose the fear and violence of this world’s Herods, or will we live 2020 with the joy and abandon of the Magi? I love the translation that David Jacobsen uses when they actually found the baby, “they rejoiced a great joy very much.” The Greek makes it clear that their joy was exponential, stacked on top of itself! Will we live with that joy in 2020 and beyond?
This choice of joy reminds me of one of my favorite Christmas carols. It is actually an Epiphany hymn. Star in the East, or sometimes called Brightest and Best. It was written by Reginald Heber, the same man who wrote Holy, Holy, Holy. Leave it to this man who wrote one of the best hymns of worship to uncover the worship of the Magi. It tells how even these extravagant gifts that they brought were not enough; the best that we can offer is a joyful heart of worship. We don’t have it in our hymnal, but let me read a portion of the words:
Say, shall we yield him, in costly devotion,
Odors of Eden and offerings divine,
Gems from the mountain and pearls from the ocean,
Myrrh from the forest and gold from the mine?
Vainly we offer each ample oblation,
Vainly with gifts we his favor secure;
Richer by far is the heart’s adoration,
Nearer to God are the prayers of the poor.
Brightest and best of the stars of the morning,
Dawn on our darkness and lend us thy aid.
Star in the east, our horizon adorning,
Guide where our infant redeemer was laid.
We have a choice this morning, and this year. Will we follow the path of fear, or the path of joy? Will we give God our heart’s adoration? Will we follow the star? Will we live a life of worship? May it be so.