Matthew 2:1-12

Fear or Faith

By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker

In the story we just heard,
two ways of living are set forth.
Let us consider them,
for repeatedly we must choose between them.
In the name of God:
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The story announced in today’s gospel
is familiar to many of us.
It constitutes a bridge between Christmas
and the green season of Epiphany.
Figures of wise men and even camels
are stock figures in the nativity scene.
The gifts they brought are well known:
gold and frankincense and myrrh.

But it is to a different feature
of the arrival of the wise men
that I would direct our attention.
That feature is the difference
between fear and faith.

Sometime after the birth of Jesus,
perhaps as much as two years,
wise men arrive in Jerusalem
from lands to the east, distant lands,
pagan countries.

They come in peace,
yet they come with a question.
They have seen an extraordinary star in the sky
which they take as the sign of a royal birth
in the land of Israel,
and so they ask anyone who will listen to them
to tell them where the new prince can be found.
These foreigners
want to present the child with gifts,
to pay him homage.
Perhaps his birth will bring about
a new and better relationship
between gentile and Jew.

Word of their inquiry
reaches the king who already resides in Jerusalem,
King Herod.
He is a great builder of public works,
yet remembered in history
not only for his construction projects
but for the willingness
to slay several of his own sons
in the belief that they threatened his throne.

What is Herod’s reaction
when these strangers arrive
in his capital city?
“He was frightened,” Scripture tells us,
“and all Jerusalem with him.”
This fear dominates him
and drives him to deceive and to kill.
Trembling for his throne, his identity, his life,
Herod orders babies
taken from their mothers’ arms
and slaughtered with the sword,
those little ones we call
the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem.

Fear makes a fool and a villain of Herod.
And what an opportunity he misses!
The God of all mercy arranges for his Son
to be born for us in Herod’s territory and time,
and what happens?
Herod is overtaken by fear.
God’s Son comes to Herod–
as he comes to us all–
born an innocent and defenseless child,
and Herod the King is taken captive by fear.
It’s a mistake often made
by powerful people,
but it’s a mistake
any of us can make.

Herod is ignorant of the Scriptures,
and so must ask the chief priests and scribes
where the Scriptures say
Israel’s true ruler is to come from.
Bethlehem, they tell him.
And so Herod sends the wise men to Bethlehem,
expecting that they in all innocence
will report back to him
and make his murder of the newborn king
an easy crime to commit.

Herod points the wise men on to Bethlehem,
but it is the wondrous star that leads them there,
the star that brought them far from their homes.
This extraordinary star
stops its progress across the sky
right above a most ordinary house.
It stops not above a temple or a palace,
but above a house perhaps plainer
than any habitation in our area.
It is there the star stops.

The wise men take no offense
at this ordinary house.
Certainly they are not fearful.
Listen again to what the gospel tells us:
“When they saw that the star had stopped,
they were overwhelmed with joy.”
Overwhelmed with joy!
After many a weary mile,
after many a struggling step,
their empty hearts are flooded
with a joyous light
of more-than-human origin.
Tired and footsore,
these travelers from a foreign land
recognize and rejoice
in God’s undefended appearance
there in a place they had never seen before,
there in a house in no way conspicuous,
there in a world where they knew
the God of compassion was at work.

The arrival of these visitors
startles Mary and Joseph–
after all, they were not expecting such company.
But the couple welcome in the strangers,
who present a trio of gifts,
a most remarkable baby shower.
Gold fit for a king.
Incense to burn at worship.
Myrrh for embalming the dead.
What do these wise men believe this baby is?
Royalty?  Divinity?  Sacrifice?
Yes, what do they believe this baby is?

The travelers are overwhelmed to see heaven’s joy
in the face of this little child.
Joy, overwhelming joy,
is their response.
Though some would dismiss them
as impure pagans,
these travelers are people of faith
whose joy vanquishes their fear.
Travelers from afar,
they eagerly welcome God with us,
this young Emmanuel.

Herod faces a choice,
and he chooses fear,
fear that freezes him
and prevents him from welcoming the true king.
He resorts to deception and murder
to shore himself up instead.

The wise men also face a choice.
Rather than fear, they choose faith,
faith in a God mysterious and awesome.
No longer full of themselves,
they are open to God’s own delight,
a joy that comes and never leaves.

We face the same choice.
Not in the exact way it confronted these others,
but real enough, certainly,
as we live our ordinary days
and our far from ordinary lives.
We can choose fear,
and become a threat to others
as well as ourselves.
Or we can choose faith,
we can trust in God,
and welcome a joy
that will become contagious.

These alternatives confront us constantly
in our personal lives.
We meet them as well in our families,
our communities, our nation.
Fear or faith.
Herod or the wise ones.
Destruction or joy.

In every case,
we do not choose only once.
We choose time and again.

When we choose fear,
there always remains the chance
that we can turn around
and choose faith the next time.

And when we choose faith,
then we take one more small step
to making this choice not an exception,
but a habit in our lives
so that we become people of faith,
communicators of joy.

Herod is a king
who shows himself to be a catastrophe.
He cannot salute
a royalty greater than his own.

The wise men from the East
are wise enough to travel toward a wisdom
greater than their own,
and allow that wisdom to transform them
and fill them with joy.

God appears in our lives in so many ways:
on Mary’s lap,
on Pilate’s cross,
in the faces of those we know
and those we do not yet know.

Always the question confronts each of us:
Here today
will I be a Herod,
or will I be wise enough to welcome
the wisdom and the joy of God?

Copyright 2015 Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.