For many of us, what you see in front of you today is a familiar addition to our Christmas decorations. A Crèche and Nativity scene. As is our ritual, shortly after Thanksgiving, we hauled a box down from the attic, or unburied that box from the closet that holds those precious figurines. And we would open that box and unroll the tissue paper or bubble wrap from around each member of that famous cast of characters and lovingly set them on the mantel, or a coffee table in the corner of the living room. Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, a few wise men, an angel… and perhaps a donkey and sheep or two. Together they all look adoringly down at the rosy-cheeked little baby Jesus. They make a serene – quiet – picture of the night of Christ’s birth. Perfect.
In case you haven’t had an opportunity to notice, we have four nativity scenes within fifty feet of us right now!
We love a good nativity display!
Throughout our community countless church Sunday school programs offered children’s Christmas pageants featuring kid’s costumes made out of bed sheet and old towels as they reenact the night of Christ’s Birth… And there was even a church in our community that offered a drive through Nativity adventure featuring live camels! Hot chocolate included!
Christians have been celebrating, reenacting and creating nativities for 800 years.
The first nativity display is credited to St. Francis of Assisi … in 1223. St. Francis got permission from Pope Honorious III to set up a manger with hay and two live animals- an Ox and a donkey- in a little cave outside the Italian village of Grecio. Then he invited all the villagers to come and look at the scene while he preached about “the babe of Bethlehem.” The monk that wrote St. Francis’s biography following his death… when he recounted the story, he said that Francis was so overcome with emotion that he couldn’t say “Jesus.” The author monk also claims that the hay used in the manger miraculously acquired the power to cure local cattle of diseases and pestilence.
As I’m sure you could imagine… in a culture were all the church services were done in Latin and no one really spoke Latin… the act of going to a cave, seeing a manger, and hearing about the Babe of Bethlehem… would have been very powerful. To be able to hear and experience the story like that.
In the centuries that followed… the nativity display grew to become what we see in front of us. The happy couple- the holy family, the shepherds, wise men, angles, and assorted farm animals.
But, I hate to break it to you, this familiar cast of characters isn’t exactly biblically accurate.
This nativity scene is a compellation of the Gospel of Luke and Matthew’s accounts of the Birth of Christ, as well as having the timeline of visitors sort of squished together.
But if Matthew, and Matthew alone had his way… there would be no host of angles, no shepherds, no cattle a lowing…
Rather we would have: Mary, Joseph, the Wise Men, and one very important character that we have left out of all peaceful nativity scenes… and that is Herod. Oddly enough I couldn’t find any Herod figurines… So I’ve made one for our purposes today….
And today, being Epiphany Sunday… this is our Nativity scene. This is the cast that we celebrate today.
I’m going to read to you from the Gospel of Matthew and I’d like if you could, just for now, adjust your mental image of the Nativity to resemble something a bit more like this…
Read Matthew 2:1-12
Whether we like it or not…
Herod is a vital character in the story of Christ’s birth… but rarely do we talk about him, for he is unpleasant to say the least… let alone do we incorporate him in our tidy nativity scenes.
But, nevertheless the Prince of Eternity (Jesus Christ), was born under the rule of a tyrannical earthly ruler. And Matthew the author of our text today… saw Herod’s significance in the tale… and he sought to tell us that it is through understanding King Herod’s lowness… can we understand Jesus’ greatness…
Herod was known as Herod the Great, King of Judea. He was appointed to his lofty position by the Roman Senate. By the time he was in his mid-thirties he had crushed all opposition to his rule. He was wealthy, politically gifted, intensely loyal, an excellent administrator, and clever enough to remain in good graces with successive Roman emperors. But he loved power, inflicted incredibly heavy taxes on the people, and in his later years he suffered an illness that made him incredibly paranoid. Which turned him towards cruelty…. In fits of rage and jealousy he killed those closest to him including his wife and at least two of his sons. … This is the ruler of the day. The great authority of Herod was tyrannical, harsh, and extremely volatile…
It is no mistake that Christ was born under this man’s rule. On one hand you have the cruel Herod the Great who would go on to slaughter infants as an attempt to protect his throne… and on the other hand Jesus Christ.
Everything that Herod stands for… his lust for power, his wealth and position, his ability to bring about evil works… Jesus with his every breath and very existence said, “I am not that. God is not that.”
In Jesus Christ we have a whole different kind or King… one born into poverty and humility, seeking to redeem rather than destroy, teaching about love and mercy and justice- not exploitation or tyranny.
Even in the story of Christ’s birth- the very beginning…. Matthew was seeking to tell us about the greatness of God. And he used the lowness the evilness of Herod as a contrasting figure. God is not that… but God is great…
Now there is another set of characters in this story that help to teach us another important lesson. And those are the wise men or magi or magician- whatever translation you would like to use. The Magi (which is what I prefer to call them) refers to a wide verity of people interested in dreams, astrology, magic, alchemy, prophetic books. They dealt with all things unexplainable. Many in this group were rogues and charlatans… But others…. were after truth They were a mysterious and complex group.
Matthew tells us that these men where studying the stars and came across an anomaly… And with something like the stars that are traceable and constant… an anomaly in the sky would have indicated a message. And it was the business of the Magi to know about prophecy, they would have read the Hebrew Scripture and had an in depth understanding of the Prophet Isaiah’s words. … so they would have been on the lookout for signs of the promised Messiah, even though it was unlikely that they were Jews themselves.
So upon seeing the star, they traveled from the East, seeking after the message in the sky that called out to them. We don’t know exactly where from… but it is likely that they came from Babylon or possibly Persia or the Arabian desert because those were the areas of the world that were most excepting to their quest for knowledge and truth through their unusual arts and practices.
Now Matthew was a very smart writer. He was very careful about the characters that he highlighted in the birth narrative. And Matthew was a scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures as well… he is constantly referencing them in his Gospel… So, Matthew would have know that the Old Testament mocks astrologers and forbids astrology… We see this throughout the Books of Isaiah and Daniel. Yet. It is the Magi that acknowledge the arrival of the Messiah.
If you can remember back to the Scripture lesson… Matthew tells us that when the Magi arrived in Jerusalem, King Herod and all the people were “disturbed or troubled” at the news that they were seeking out the newborn King of the Jews.
So, while the Jews were troubled at the coming of their expectant Messiah… it was the non-Jews (those where were mocked and condemned for their craft) that traveled to pay homage and bring gifts to the infant Messiah…
How incredible is that!? And when you think about it… isn’t that exactly what our Lord would do? Isn’t that exactly what our Father in Heaven would bring about down here on Earth? Our God has always used the little guy in God’s plans! Always used the belittled, those who were pushed aside, those who wouldn’t have been accepted. Those are the ones that Lord uses for divine Kingdom Work in this world!
So when we step back and look at the whole of Matthew’s Nativity scene. We have: Herod- cruel, merciless, greedy Herod; The infant Messiah- Jesus Christ, who is everything opposite of Herod, humble, good, divine son of God; We have the Magi- outcast travelers, magicians, mysterious seekers of truth; and of course we have Mary and Joseph – who were faithful Jews, from humble roots, obedient. We might call them “salt of the earth” type people.
It is quite a cast of characters isn’t it! From the evil to the divine- from the mysterious to the righteous!
And it was these people… that witnessed the great light entering the world.
I’d like to read to you from the Prophet Isaiah. Because it is though his writing that we can see that God has been at work setting up this complex scene for a very long time.
Read Isaiah 60:1-6
The world that Christ was born into was a dark place. With rulers and authorities like Herod. And although we don’t know that kind of tyranny today… we do know darkness. We know what it is to feel our health fail in our weak and temporary bodies, we know what it is to watch out friends/ family/ children become bruised or broken by the world. We know what it is to experience and struggle with being lost… confused. We know what darkness is.
It was this kind of world that Christ was born into, and born for.
Isaiah tells us that our light has come! “See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you!” Our great light has come! Isaiah describes it like the rising sun who’s light grow over us and glows through us! This is what we celebrate today! The great glory of Epiphany! The light of Christ that has come to weaken and overcome the darkness.
This world knew the physical presence of the light of Christ for only about 33 years. But through Christ’s death and resurrection God has put into play other ways for the Light to be known in this world. Through the work and inspiration of the Holy Spirit… we see God’s light known in the church… in our acts of reaching out as Christians… The Light of Christ is known when we carry the love and compassion of Christ into our homes, and workplace, into our neighborhoods. We are the bearers of Christ’s light.
That is a big responsibility!
The book of Ephesians talks about our responsibility as light carriers.
Read Ephesians 3: 7-9
We are to make know the boundless riches of Christ. That is our task. That is why Christ was born and lived, and died, and rose again… in order to give us those boundless riches. That gift of salvation.
Now… I mentioned at the beginning of the service today that the church is looking at setting some goals and looking ahead to our work and ministry in the future. And I invited you to speak into that goal setting process.
And I want to issue that invitation again to you. How can this church bear the light of Christ for our world? That is the big question! That is the question of our very purpose. As those that bear Christ’s light, that have seen the light overcome darkness… How can we spread that message and that mission into our world?
Is it though giving and outreach? Is it by preaching the Gospel and spreading the Good News? Is it through hospitality and throwing wide the doors of the church for the community? Is it by visiting the sick and lonely? What is our mission?
How is God moving this congregation of light bearers?
When the Magi looked to the sky, they saw the light of Christ calling out to them and they went after it! We have the task as a church to breath more light into the world. To invite people towards it. Invite people towards the truth of our Savior…
Think about it. Think about our task as light bearers. Pray about it! And let me know. Amen.