On Resisting Tyrants

Text: Matthew 2:1-23


2 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,[i] he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.[j] 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazarean.”


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On Resisting Tyrants

Migration and movement have always been a part of the story of God’s gathered people. From the movement out of the Garden of Eden to the confusing of language at Babel to Ruth following her mother-in-law to a foreign land to the Assyrian and Babylonian Exiles. Often in the story of the Bible, migration is forced. Sometimes, it is chosen. This story from Jesus’ has three interconnected parts that hinge on movement and stability— a reactionary, dangerous, ruthless stability. 

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First, we encounter the story of the magi, the “wise men” from the East. They weren’t kings and there weren’t necessarily three, but most likely they were Zoroastrian priests of Persian descent. The word “magi” elsewhere in Scripture is used to describe negatively a magician or diviner, but that’s not what’s happening here. Rather, the phrase “from the east” probably indicates a more particular reference to the understanding of the word magi in Persian culture, which is priest. Persians and Jews were influenced by one another during the diaspora (on of those forced migrations). And these Zoroastrian priests traveled an incredible distance to honor and witness to the Messiah of the Jews.


This is a chosen migration. A long journey, a movement to an unknown location in Roman-occupied Palestine. The magi crossed religious, political, and cultural boundaries to encounter and worship Jesus. They make a reasonable move after covering all this distance to go to Jerusalem. To seek out those in power and find out where the Messiah, the King of the Jews, was living. We’ll come back to Herod— but for the magi, they quickly learn that the seat of power in Jerusalem is not their destination. They continue their movement to Bethlehem and come to the home where the young Jesus is with his mother and father. They crossed miles and boundaries to arrive and pay witness to the Messiah of the Jews. But they do not stay— they go back, a different road to avoid Herod’s demands.


Jesus’ family, on the other hand, follows a different, unwelcome migratory path. And here, we come back to Herod. Herod, upon visitation from the magi is terrified. And “all Jerusalem with him.” All those at the seats of power— those who quickly come to give him information— the chief priests and the scribes—are terrified, not overjoyed, not even curious about the possible birth of the Messiah. I think, though, the religious leaders were less frightened of a toddler king than of Herod’s wrath. Herod’s unfathomable crime at the end of text was not totally out of character. Herod was a king on unstable ground. He was not considered Jewish enough by the people over whom he ruled, and his father was given the throne he now occupied by the Romans, to whom he was mostly a puppet king— in short, many Jews did not like Herod. They thought he was an illegitimate ruler. Pharisees and zealots, especially.

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Herod sought to legitimatize his position in two ways: The first was to build. He completely refurbished the Temple in Jerusalem. In our text, those religious leaders who are fearful are those whose livelihoods depend upon the Temple and Herod’s good graces. The second, is through acts of brutality. He killed members of his family who posed a threat— real or imagined. He sought for the people he ruled to know that he was to be feared, that there was not a line he would not cross. 


A toddler, who powerful religious leaders from a foreign place come to pay homage to and call the King of the Jews, was a threat to Herod. His power required stability which required that all movement cease. All possible movements be squashed. So he tries to use the magi as political pawns, to tell him where this child is that he might eliminate the threat to him. But the magi, they are warned in a dream to not return to Herod. And they disobey the king of the land they are in to protect this child. They go back another way— putting themselves in danger. Serene Jones, a theologian and the President of Union Theological Seminary, said this week, “Civil disobedience lies at the heart of the Epiphany story: The magi receive an unjust order from a vindictive tyrant. Instead, they defy him.”


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Soon after, Joseph is warned in a dream to flee with his family to Egypt. Joseph is warned that Herod is about to search for to destroy Jesus— Joseph does not need to be told twice. Knowing the king who rules the land where they leave, he packs up his family and flees in the night. And they make the long journey to Egypt. Jesus’ life to this point has been migratory. In utero, Mary carries the unborn child from Galilee to Bethlehem, forced by Imperial powers for a census. That’s about 100 miles. Then Mary and Joseph take a very young Jesus to Egypt, forced by a fearful and brutal king. That’s about 600 miles. The Holy Family crosses religious, political, and cultural boundaries as they are forced to move by the powers of the world. They stay in Egypt until Herod’s death— because Jesus could not be safe while Herod sought to stabilize his thrown through bloodshed. When they eventually return, they end up back in Galilee, avoiding Bethlehem, as Herod’s son reigns in a striking similar way to his father.


King Herod was furious when the magi didn’t return. And in his fury and insecurity, he does the unimaginable and orders that all child two years and younger in Bethlehem be executed. And Herod’s guards or army or whatever force he had do it. They do not defy him.  I didn’t quite finish Serene Jones’ quote about Epiphany, “The magi receive an unjust order from a vindictive tyrant. Instead, they defy him,” and she adds, “May we do likewise.” 

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We follow the fleeing child, not the tyrant king. The one who identifies with the slaughtered, with the refugee, with the homeless. We honor this true king like the magi— by crossing boundaries imposed by religion and politics and culture. We honor and bear witness to Jesus by resisting tyrant kings, wherever they are found. Tyrants in the way of Herod are fearful and they move others to fear. Tyrants in the way of Herod consider children, the most vulnerable among us, expendable for the sake of their power and political aims. Tyrants in the way of Herod demand that ethics bend to their will. 


We can see tyrants in power today— in the White House, on Capitol Hill, on Wall Street, in pulpits, in corporate board rooms, in small start ups, and in family homes— tyrants in the way of Herod trample on the vulnerable to accumulate and protect their power. They demand stability to keep power. So we must be a movement people. The very start of the Gospel story shows a way to resist and defy even the worst of tyrants: Follow Jesus, bear witness like the magi by crossing boundaries—religious, cultural, political. In more current vernacular: We defy tyrants by standing in solidarity. And let me add this: If you find yourself in danger of a tyrant, following Jesus can also look like fleeing to safe haven for a season. 


The hope of the way of Jesus and the way of the magi does not negate the pain of King Herod’s slaughter. Today, resisting and working for justice does not negate the pain of a migrant child held in a detention center or the pain of a child in an unsafe home or the pain of the many who have been abused by spiritual leaders. It does not negate that. But crossing boundaries to build the beloved community ruled by the refugee king Jesus, honors and bears witness to the victims of tyranny in all its forms. It creates pockets of the Kingdom of God here and now—a foretaste of the hope and justice that is to come. That is the task we have as we live in a time of tyrant kings.

May we be like magi, may we follow the path of Jesus, may we cross boundaries to confound and resist tyrants. May we do likewise. Amen.