It’s Right in Front of You
January 28, 2019 by Lee Hinson-Hasty
Editor’s note: Lee Hinson-Hasty preached on Jan. 6 to his lectionary group in Estes Park, Colorado, at Presbyterian Community Church of the Rockies. His sermon was delivered on Epiphany and was on Matthew 2:1-12, the coming of the magi. What follows is an excerpt of that sermon.
Do you know someone who often fails to see what is directly in front of them? If you don’t, now you do!
I am one of those people. It could be my car keys, the salt and pepper shakers, my cell phone… whatever. After nearly 25 years of marriage I have learned to ask myself what my family members often ask when I am looking for something, “Lee, Is it right in front of you?”
Hoon Choi, a Korean-American theologian and friend, made me feel better when he taught me this Korean proverb: “The light is darkest underneath a lamp.”
In other words, people tend to pay more attention to things that happen far away than close at hand. It is a reminder that our answers may be in plain sight, so don’t disregard what’s obvious too quickly.
You see, what was obvious to the magi, the rising of a new star, was in plain sight to Herod as well as the people, priests, and scribes of their day. In other words, what the magi saw could have been seen by anyone if they were paying attention. During the time of Jesus’ birth most believed that a star would brighten when someone was born and dim when they died. The magi were observant enough to see the obvious, motivated enough to follow up on what they saw, and discerning enough to know that worship was the appropriate response.
The word for “worship/ honor” in this reading is proskynesis. It expresses allegiance; it is a political but not a partisan term. It is about honoring one with authority. Notice, the magi did not bow to nor worship Herod. They made a different choice; they bowed to a different king, enthroned on a manger.
I wonder who in the world sees some guiding lights that others don’t notice? I wonder how what they are noticing is motivating them in a particular direction? I wonder if those keen observers and followers might be one or more of you?
Astrologers, Star-followers, that’s what the Magi were. No wonder Magi were considered then, and maybe now, as a bit out of step with reality. Ancient texts call Magi absurd, laughable, and nonsensical. According to most biblical scholars today, our Christmas carols and nativity stories mistakenly call them wise ones or kings from the East. Instead, they were likely members of the Persian priestly class.
And we cannot even be sure there were three, or that they were all men. A close reading of the Greek grammar reveals there were more than one and at least one of them was male. They did have regular access to powerful people like kings, but they were not the centers of that power. Instead, magi were known as predictors of threats to the powerful. It’s no wonder that Herod was frightened by them enough to gather together all the religious and legal leaders to ask about the “newborn king of the Jews” that they sought. The priests and scribes, you see, were known defenders of the status quo closely linked with Jerusalem. They were complacent and complicit with the political leaders of their day.
By gathering the scribes and chief priest, Herod was reminding them who was in charge. He, of course, thought of himself as “King of the Jews” and everyone else in the kingdom. The word for “assembling” or “gathering” of the scribes and chief priests in verse four is the verb form of synagogue. He “synagogued” them, foreshadowing yet another center of power that Jesus will challenge later in the Gospel.
The Chief Priests and Scribes were able to provide the magi with the rest of the navigational information needed. Bethlehem was a three- or four-day journey from Jerusalem. Bethlehem, notice, is a marginal location compared to Jerusalem, the presumed center of religious and legal power. Bethlehem, which means “house of bread” in Hebrew, is where they find a new king, a worship worthy authority, the body of Christ born signaling a world order with policies counter to Jerusalem. No longer could Herod presume leadership because of his political position.
If Herod was not frightened enough by the star, the magi, and the location of the birth denoted from prophetic scripture, he must have been angry about the style of leadership of this new supposed king of the Jews, “a shepherd” that guides and protects life not a tyrant, like him, that kills to maintain power.
According to New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine, Matthew’s Gospel issues a political challenge to the “kings of the earth” (17:25) including Herod and Pilate, by challenging the status quo and the complacent, both inside and outside the church.
Political, you see, is about who is the ruler in the land, but politics at its core, is about policy. It is about WHAT we believe, not so much WHO we believe.
I wonder what we believe? Are we willing to follow what we believe? What are our core policies and ruling authorities? Are we ready to make the tough choices that honor Christ our Lord before any other authorities in the world…. Economic authorities, political authorities, authorities of the status quo, any others above Christ?