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The Madness of King Herod

Stars, travelers, and a battle for power.

by MaryAnn McKibben Dana

Gospel Reading:  Matthew 2:1-12

For Sunday, January 6, 2013—Epiphany of the Lord

In contrast to our beloved manger scenes—newly put away or, perhaps, still sitting on the coffee tables of the liturgically astute—it appears that significant time has passed between Jesus’ birth and the magi’s visit. The shepherds are back to work; Mary, Joseph and Jesus are in “a house.” Besides, Herod’s paranoia will soon lead him to exterminate all Bethlehem children aged two and under—a bit of an overreaction if Jesus is still a newborn babe in arms.

It’s also worth noting that the magi are not identified as kings here. Only two people wear that title: Herod, and the newborn king of the Jews. Which king will ultimately dominate? That’s the question today’s story sets up.

Cosmic Announcements

The Advent season began some six weeks ago with Jesus’ warning of the signs of the kingdom. Sun, moon and stars would announce the reign of God (Luke 21:25). Of course, Jesus uttered these words as an adult, near the end of his ministry. I imagine he grew up hearing his parents tell the story of the star and the caravan of astrologers that showed up at their front door one day, bowing to their son and bearing gifts that would never show up on the registry at Buy Buy Baby.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before the kneeling and frankincense, the magi still have Jerusalem to navigate. Specifically, they have to get past Herod, who rose to power in the region through military conquest and with the backing of Rome. As King, Herod presided over a number of architectural and cultural achievements, including a glorious Jerusalem temple.

And yet none of these feats can quell Herod’s anxiety that a usurper is lurking. Herod’s angst is confirmed by the chief priests, the scribes and the magi themselves: a new king is teething and battling diaper rash, in Bethlehem of all places.

Jerusalem Uproar

Herod is anxious, but he’s not the only one. “All Jerusalem” is frightened by the arrival of these travelers from the East. I wonder how Jerusalem knew about the magi and their quest. Did they announce themselves with pomp and fanfare? Did news of their arrival spread like wildfire? Did Herod have a bout of anxious leadership that permeated the whole family system?

Or did the elites of Jerusalem know, deep down, that their authority was built on sand? Did they know that a power had been born that would put earthly power to shame? As my friend Joe Clifford likes to say on Christ the King Sunday, “Grace to you in the name of Christ, the leader of the free world.”

Whatever the source of their fright, they have reason to be uneasy. I want to tell them, “This tumult you’re feeling? This is nothing. You want to see uproar? Stick around Jerusalem another thirty years or so.”

About that Star

Anxious people choose strange things to fixate on. Herod, inexplicably, decides that he must know the “exact time” of the star’s appearance. (We’ve been asking similar questions since: was that star a UFO? Jupiter and Saturn in alignment? A comet? Who cares?)

Herod’s asking about the chronos, completely clueless to the fact that he’s in the thick of kairos. As if “the exact time” will illuminate anything. As if a star chart will make sense of the incarnation of God in the world.

The Hardest Question

Will we be like Herod? Will we hole up in the comfortable kingdoms we’ve built around ourselves? What fortresses do we need to demolish for the sake of the kingdom that Christ came to inaugurate?

MaryAnn McKibben Dana is pastor of Idylwood Presbyterian Church, a small and growing congregation in Falls Church, VA. She is the author of Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time (Chalice Press) and is a frequent conference and workshop leader on church transformation, faith formation and spirituality. When she’s not training to be the slowest person ever to run a half marathon, or keeping up with her three kids, she likes to blog at The Blue Room.

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