Herod and the Zoroastrians

A sermon for Christmas 2

Jeremiah 31:714, Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a, or Matthew 2:1-12 Psalm 84 or 84:1-8

Imagine for the moment that you are Herod, King of Israel. You made yourself king by military conquest. You are not exactly well liked. Well may be in Rome, which is helpful, because of your many opponents. There is your tendency towards executions, like your first wife and sons, because of your fears they were involved in political intrigue; a trend that will continue as you execute your oldest son, and heir, concerned that he will take the throne before  you die; which you do ~ four days later. You have a grand vision for architecture, building, rebuilding, or expanding many of the grandest structures of the day, including the Jerusalem Temple. You’d think rebuilding the Temple would make you popular; but not so much, the taxes were strenuous. And many don’t like you because as a descendant of Esau, you aren’t really Jewish. So, you are King ~ yes; popular ~ no; secure ~ not really.

So, imagine some unexpected visitors from a foreign land show up. Are they astrologers? Perhaps, Zoroastrians are very interested in light, and the stars, and they are speaking of a star; are they priests or prophets? Are they royalty? It’s hard to tell; are they members of the royal court? Very probable, since many Zoroastrian priests and prophets are.

By the way, our traditions of Kingly visitors comes from Psalm 72

May the kings of Tarshish
and of the isles render him tribute,
may the kings of Sheba and Seba
bring gifts.

and Isaiah 60:3

Nations shall come to your light,
and kings
to the brightness of your dawn.
which are grafted into Matthew’s story. (Boring)

Back to your visitors who are Persians, from a far off land, with different religious traditions, (Epperly) who dominated Israel from 538 to 332 BCE (Orr) and are enemies of Rome. They make you uneasy; they ask about the new born King of the Jews, so they can pay homage to him. Linguistically, ‘Homage’ is similar to ‘worship’ (NI1Vol) and can imply submission to political or royal powers. (Boring) On top of all this, they ask about “the new born king” and you are not new born, but you are king!

Do these visitors frighten you? Probably not, you are king, you are powerful, and quickly and ruthlessly deal with interlopers. You are likely stirred up or troubled, (NI1Vol) the possibility that their god might be about to act in your land is very troublesome, (NI1Vol) and you don’t want trouble. Rome doesn’t like trouble and it’s your job to deal with it, if you don’t ~ Rome will, or replace you with someone who will. What will you do? Will the empire strike back? (Epperly) Will the empire make a preemptive strike? There is precedence, Pharaoh attempted to kill all the Hebrew boys in response to the perceived threat of the Hebrews living in Goshen. But where do you send your assassins? You don’t know, the visitors don’t know. So you ask your priests, prophets, & scribes, who report back, based on scripture from Numbers and Micah that the child is in Bethlehem. It makes historical sense, there was the revolutionary messianic pretender Jesus bar Kochba; Bar Kochba means “Son of the Star.” (Hare) (Boring) (NI1Vol) Well informed, you make the cautious but bold move to tell your guest where they infant king is and ask them to let you know exactly where he is, so you can also pay homage. Did I mention that you lie?

The visitors follow the star to Bethlehem, (did you ever wonder why the star didn’t just take them directly there?) all the way to Joseph’s and Mary’s home. Full of wonder, they offer Jesus: veneration, and gold, always appropriate for royalty, Myrrh, a kingly gift (1 Kings 10:25) also used in the high priest’s anointing oil (Ex. 30:23-33) and frankincense, which is exclusively used in the holy perfume used in the sanctuary. (Hare)

By the way, the bible never says how many visitors there are, someone decided, three gifts, three visitors. (Boring) And the names: Melchior, king of Persia; Gaspar, king of India; and Balthasar, king of Arabia, were later identified as descendants of Shem, Ham, and Japheth, the progenitors of the three races of humankind. (Hare)

The visitors, whoever they are, are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they go home another way; you’ve got wonder if the star leads them that other way.

From the moment the mysterious visitors spoke to Herod, he was concerned about a conflict between two Kingdoms, (Boring) Jesus’ and Rome’s; and he was concerned for his throne. (Hoffacker) The first is an underlying conflict that runs throughout Matthew’s Gospel account, the second, sets up the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt, and the slaughter of the innocent baby boys in Bethlehem.

We pay a lot of attention to details not in the story, 3 kings and 3 camels. We don’t often look for the implications; we don’t often associate this story with the slaughter of innocent boys, we don’t often explore the ramifications of foreign believers coming to acknowledge a Jewish king.

Zoroastrians had been looking for evidence that their spiritual life was part of a larger divine story. (Epperly) They received a divine vision in a star. But they did more than admire it, they acted on it; even when acting involves risk: going to hostile territory, and resisting enthroned powers. (Boring)

As did ancient Jews, we, Christians, tend to believe we are the sole recipients of divine revelation. Persian Zoroastrians could not have been more remote from Israel or Jewish traditions. Still, they did have a genuine quest for veritable spiritual life and they received a divine revelation.

Eugene Boring writes

Even this “most Jewish” of the Gospels is aware, from its first page onward, that it is not necessary first to have the biblical and Jewish hope before one can come to the Messiah and accept him as Lord. In following the light they have, the magi find the goal of their quest in bowing before the Jewish Messiah.  (Boring 46705)

Their acceptance of the new king stands in sharp contrast to: Herod, the Jewish rulers, his own people, and his own family. (Hare)

Imagine for a moment you are in: the White House, the State House, the County Court House, City Hall, or the church office, and unexpected Iranian visitors show up saying: “We’ve been given a vision; where is the risen messiah? We’ve come to pay tribute.”

Assuming the first call is not to mental health, what do you do?

O God, may we see your glory face to face,  (BCP 214) whose ever it may be.


References

Boring, M. Eugene. The New Interpreter’s Bible. Ed. Leander E Keck. Vol. Matthew. Abingdon Press, 2003.

Ellingsen, Mark. Proper 16 | OT 21 | Pentecost 11, Cycle A. 4 1 2015. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 4 12 2015. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Hare, Douglas. Interpretation A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING. Ed. Patrick D Miller, Jr. and Paul J. Achtemeier. Vol. Exodus. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoffacker, Rev. Charles. Sermons that Work. 4 1 2015. <http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2014/12/17/2-christmas-abc-2015/&gt;.

“Holman Bible Dictionary.” WORD – Quick Verse , n.d.

Orr, James, ed. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. WORDsearch, 2004.

Petersen, David and Beverly Roberts Gaventa. New Interpreters’ Bible, One Volume Commentary. Nashville TN: Abingdon Press, 2010. E-book.

The Episcopal Church. Book of Common Prayer. New York: Church Publishing, 1979.

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