Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

Three “Wise Guys” from the East.

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Delivered on the Lord’s Day, December 23, 2012

Matthew 2:1-12

Carlyle Fielding Stewart, III

The story of Jesus birth is such a happy and splendid occasion filled by a backdrop of stars in the sky at night, shepherds tending their flocks and a whole host of other dazzling images, that we often forget how dangerous the events surrounding his birth really were, and how he did not always have the support that one would think given his future role in history. Some people were simply not happy that Jesus was born. One person in particular was Herod the Great who wanted to kill Jesus once he discovered his whereabouts.

Let me make a few observations about the social realities of Jesus birth to help us get a clearer picture of what the first family of the faith went through just to help the baby Jesus survive. They underwent great pains and experienced much trouble before and after his birth. What they went through to protect the Christ Child is an important lesson for America today in the wake of slaughter of innocent children in Connecticut and children and youths on the streets of Urban America.

The first problem was economic in that he was born in poverty.

Without spoiling your idyllic images of this wonderful, beautiful time, we must remember that Jesus birth occurred under harsh social conditions and had strong political implications; that his birth was not heralded and warmly welcomed by a reception committee of giddy family members eager to tend to his every need. He did not have a coronation birth as the new born king. He was not born in a palace but in a kind of pig sty. He was born in relative obscurity and his family had to struggle with real life problems when he was born.

His family had no wealth. They were poor. How do we know this? By the narrative of his birth and the story told in Luke 2:22-24 where his mother when offering him up for consecration in the temple could only afford two pigeons as a sacrifice for this occasion. God choose to have his son come humbly to the world in lowly conditions.  There were no doctors, nurse maids or midwives at his side. His mother and father were so poor that he was born in an outside stable manger where other animals resided because there was no room in the inn for Mary to have her baby. Was there no room in the inn because the inn was full or because they were of peasant stock and the inn keeper did not want poor people staying at his hotel? They were on the lower rungs of the social ladder. They would be a family today that would be called homeless, lower class or working class or part of the permanent underclass.

When Hope Church housed people without homes two weeks ago, we were housing the birth family of Jesus; we were housing people who were just like Jesus and his family with no place to go. No roof over their heads or cornflakes on the breakfast table.

So he was born a king, but he did not have the lifestyle of a King; he did not eat the king’s rich food; the king’s servants and resources that would make the kings life comfortable and easy. No he was born in indigence. He was a lowly, impoverished king who made our lives abundantly rich. This is the paradox of faith, the beginnings of the first family of faith.

The second problem was social and family related in that he was born in scandal. We must also remember that Jesus birth was mired in controversy, because Joseph in discovering that Mary was pregnant with child and he had not been with or “known” her in the biblical sense was cause for concern. There were strict rules at that time for women to be virgins before they married. Had they not kept social rules about sexual chastity and purity, they would have been ostracized, ridiculed and put out of their communities.

I preached a sermon series some months back titled “Family Matters” about how sacred a woman’s name was at that time and how important her reputation especially before marriage.

Referencing the books,“The Social World of the New Testament, edited by Jerome H. Neyrey and Eric. C. Stewart, and Marriage and Family in the Biblical World, edited by Ken M. Campbell, I mentioned that if a woman married a man and was not a virgin and her new husband discovered it, she would be put out of the marriage and the home of her spouse and her father would have to go to court to defend her reputation. A daughter being put out of a marriage brought shame and disgrace not only to her husband’s family but to her own family which often meant the loss of household income, the loss of the father’s authority both in the community and in his family and the loss of his power as a man. Because of the large economic benefits that came with marriage for a couple at that time bothfor the groom and the bride’s family, Mary having a baby out of wedlock was a bigger scandal than we can imagine. It rocked her community and probably spoiled the reputation of her father and mother. It also potentially ruined Joseph’s reputation as a man.

Today the social rules for such matters are much different and have relaxed, so back then, if a woman had a child in that manner, all hell broke loose. She was scorned and ostracized, and in some instances stoned and ridiculed.

I remember growing up not so long ago that if a girl got pregnant, her family sent her South to be with relatives to avoid the shame and disgrace for such a condition. She left the community to avoid the social stigma that came with being pregnant out of wedlock. Today it is a social rule that has been relaxed, and in the words of one pundit, “is no big deal now.”Society has changed and while there may be some stigma associated with this, it is more socially accepted than ever before.

This scandal brought potential shame and humiliation to Mary and Joseph and could have caused greater problems than we can imagine. Maybe that’s why there were few other people present to receive the Christ child at that time. People closest to the first family might have been embarrassed that Mary would be with child without having known Joseph.

The third problem was political persecution in that Herod wanted to kill the baby Jesus.

Why? Why would he do this? We have a clue in the opening sentences of Matthew 2.

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the East and have come to worship him.”

Two basic problems we have here that the average reader of this text might not understand.  Let’s explore this for a few moments.

When the three Wise guys show up to Herod the King, asking him where is born the King of the Jews we have a real combustible situation.

There is only one political authority. There is only one kingdom and that is Rome. Rome is the preeminent kingdom whose ruler ship and power over it client states and provinces is known across the globe. There is only one “king” who is in charge and that his Herod the Great. And furthermore, when those three wise Guys announced that they had come to find the King of the Jews star in the sky and had come to worship him, one could understand how Herod could be easily incensed and would want to take him out. Why then did Herod the Great have such a problem with this?

The bible study footnotes from Matthew 2 in the NIV Zondevan Study Bible, says this about Herod. “Herod was a non-Jew, an Idumean, who was appointed king of Judea by the Roman Senate in 40 BC and gained control in 37 B.C. He was a ruthless ruler, murdering his wife, three of his sons, his mother in law, his brother in law, his uncle and many others he suspected of treachery-not to mention male babies in Bethlehem. His reign was also marked by architectural splendor in the many theaters, amphitheaters, monuments, pagan altars, fortresses and other buildings he erected or refurbished.”

John Dominic Crossan tells us in his book God and Empire that Herod simultaneously undertook two of the largest construction projects in the known world at that time. Herod’s creation of the port of Caesarea on the Mediterranean and his extension of the plaza of the Temple in Jerusalem were state of the art construction projects.

“The creation of Caesarea’s harbor established Herod’s commitment to Rome’s first order of Imperial business which was an all-weather infrastructure of ports, roads and bridges for Roman imperial commerce. The Romans needed money and they needed building projects and infrastructure to make that happen.

The extension of Jerusalem’s temple established Herod’s second order of imperial business-Romanization by urbanization for commercialization. The establishment of cities through urbanization increased productivity from the countryside with more labor and more taxes and more problems caused displacement created by urbanization. These efforts were also continued by his son Antipas.

Furthermore, not only did he do great construction projects that helped Roman commerce, Herod the Great also built three temples to Rome and Augustus Caesar. As the result of his effort, he was also given favor by the Romans and named Friend of the Romans and King of the Jews.” All along he wanted that coveted title. He wanted the favor of his political sponsors and higher ups. He wanted that title because it would consolidate his political power absolutely over the Jewish people and their homelands.

Many Jews were upset with Herod because of the manner in which he conducted building projects that displaced many of the peasants in Galilee. They were upset because as a political representative of Rome who did the bidding of his Roman political sponsors, he did not seem to care about the common folk.

So it is this political context that the three wise men come to Herod the Great. He probably thought them to be wise guys not because they were part of a magi-mafia hit team that had been deployed from the East to kill Jesus but because of the casual manner they approached Herod and gave him news that rocked his world by telling him that they were looking for the King of the Jews whose star they had followed.

When the wise guys came to Herod looking for the baby Jesus and said that they were looking for the King of the Jews, Herod was not only insulted but incensed. He reeled in disbelief especially after Rome had politically conferred this hard earned title upon him.  He then wanted to kill Jesus. Why?

Again, Crossan is helpful here, “Because this meant that the three wise guys were there looking for a replacement king of the Jews who had been appointed by God and not by Rome. It meant that they had followed a new replacement star that had appeared in the sky which instead of guiding them to Rome, as the old star did, it would guide them to a new place in Bethlehem, from Persia to Jersualem.”

Instead of King of the Jews designated by Rome, this new King of the Jews was designated by God, by the stars and heavens themselves which must have shocked, socked and offended Herod the Great who himself so badly wanted and received this coveted title. He was king of the Jews. How could they be looking for a King of the Jews? He was thoroughly ticked.

We must also understand that there was continuing tension between the realities of these two kingdoms; the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar. The kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of earth. There were clashes in the understandings that came from what it meant to be part of these kingdoms and who would bear the coveted title “King of the Jews.”

They have now announced the coming of a new king, whose ruler ship would be the kingdom of God. Now they say that he has a star; his own star which means that the Gods in heaven, the Gods in the earth, wind and sky, the god of gods himself, the gods who rule providence and all of the earth and heavens cosmology have announced his coming. For Herod, this would mean the end of his rule; the end of his regency; it would mean the beginning of a new thing. Bethlehem and not Rome would be the new epicenter of this Kingdoms continuing revelaation and unfolding. A new King would come whose power lay in the providential power of the God of Abraman, Isaac and Jacob, whose cosmological power were recessed in the deepest parts of the heavens; a king coming whose convenantal power and redemptive power could initiate by God’s hand the continuing transformation of the new kingdom which would be on earth as it is in heaven.

Here the religious implications of Jesus birth and Kingship on earth and in the heavens would clash with Herod’s earthly reign as king and authority. Do you see the conflict here? Do you know see why Jesus birth created such a political problem? The wise guys did not make matters easier, especially when they were coming with gold, frankincense and myrhh to bow down to worship this new born King. Herod was probably wondering why they did not bow down to him.

You are not bowing down and worshipping me? You are not bringing me gold and you should. Go and find this king and come back and tell me where he is.

Under ordinary circumstances three strikes and you are out. Jesus first strike was his poverty. His second strike was the social and familial scandal and the third strike was political in that his being born was a threat that undermined the existing political order and threatened Herod the Great who wanted him dead.

Three strikes and you are normally out, but with God three strikes and you are still in. Three strikes and you are still in the running. Three strikes and you still have God’s favor. Three strikes and God can still use you. Three strikes and your life still prospers. Three strikes and you still have God’s favor. Three strikes and God still loves you. Three strikes and God still forgives you. Three strikes and you can still succeed. Three strikes and God still saves. Three strikes and God still sends a savior. Three strikes and God still makes a way out of no way. Three strikes and the world still is redeemed. Three strikes and you can escape, death, persecution, hardship, poverty, social ridicule and scandal because God is still in charge.  Three strikes and God can still make a way out of no way! Three strikes and God’s kingdom can still be established on earth as it is in heaven amid all the earthly kingdoms that man has established.

God sent a savior, a redeemer, a liberator because he is tired of the earthly kingdoms and their idolatrous rulers, tired of the corruption and deception and spiritual misappropriations of those who claim to call and know him by name. God is tired of the many ways that those kingdoms have trampled the poor, rejected those who lives have been riddled by scandal and those who have been politically and socially persecuted and prosecuted.

Friends, this scripture reminds us that Jesus coming is no small thing; that it is more than putting gifts around a Christmas tree, more than singing carols and shouting hallelujahs, more than going to church and worshipping God. It reminds us that God is still making a way out of no way; that the cornerstones rejected are still becoming the chief cornerstones; that the paradox of faith are the death defying, logic denying ways that God brings redemption to the world through the most unlikely, through those who not always been given favor by society, by those who are often the least likely to succeed and who have the greatest odds stacked against their success.

The three wise guys from the East brought news that the king did not want to hear; went to a place that few others wanted to go, were willing to take a risk to worship the new king whose kingdom would be on this earth as it is in heaven.

The three wise guys from the east were not bearing bullets but bearing gifts, not preaching sin but heralding, not playing safe but taking risks to see the new born king.

This is a profound message of this season; that wherever you are, God is still in charge; that God will work it all out; that God is telling us this season that hope still lives, that a comforter will come; that a counselor will come; that every valley will be lifted up and every mountain and hill made, the rough places will become smooth and the crooked places will become straight.

Only believe! Only believe in He that cometh to save the world and bring redemption in the kingdom of God which will one day override and eclipse the kingdoms of this earth. One day we will have a new heaven and a new earth where the swords shall be made into plowshares and the lion shall be in community with the lamb.

This season is a reminder of the vision and the transformative grace that God still has for his people on earth.

Amen, Amen, Amen

2 responses to “Three “Wise Guys” from the East.”

  1. Dorothy Merchant Avatar
    Dorothy Merchant

    I plan to buy DVD of this sermon being delivered . Are you the 4th wise guy? As usual, this is an inspiring heart-felt teaching of God’s word. May we all take the cotton out of our ears in order to hear the divine plan for mankind. Also, its energizing to be reminded of the things HUMC is doing that is on the right path . Must be the right shepherds leading the herd…

    1. cfstewart Avatar

      You are too funny. No I am not. LOL

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