Isaiah 60:1-6Matthew 2:1-12
The house Elizabeth and I bought in Chamblee is a pretty standard brick frame single-story ranch dating back to the 1950s. Moving into a place like that is always interesting, because as much as you make the house your own, you are always aware that others have lived there before.
The other day I began cleaning out the dirt-floor basement. We’ve been dumping our extra stuff there since we moved in, and it’s clear that we weren’t the only ones to do so. Old dryers, broken clay pots, discarded “for sale” signs litter the place. As I began to remove the detritus of forgotten generations, I noticed a piece of paper, a parchment, half-buried in the red Georgia clay. I pulled it out and wiped off the mud, discovering an ancient fairy tale neglected by time and history. Here it is, quickly translated from the original Esperanto:
“Once upon a time, in a desert land far, far away, there lived a good king. This king was kind to his subjects. He gave them a surplus of government holidays to celebrate with their families. But the people were disloyal. They complained a lot. ‘We’re hungry! This desert’s too hot!’ The king didn’t know what to do. He walked the kingdom up and down, muttering to himself. One day, he happened upon a fortuneteller, who told him that some day the king would have a son. That son would be named Jerry, and Jerry would rule the people. And when Jerry was born, musicians would come from the South bearing gifts of silver, and blankets, and onesies. The king was elated, as were the people. Eventually, everyone forgot about the fortuneteller. But one day, the king had a son. And a few days after he was born, musicians arrived from the South, just as the fortuneteller had said, and they brought silver, blankets, onesies, just as the fortuneteller had said! And after the musicians played a couple of weddings in town, they departed for Branson to open a dinner theater. And everyone lived happily ever after. The end.”
I was stunned, particularly given how much different parts of that fairy tale sound like our lesson from Matthew this morning. The birth of a son is foretold. Gift bearers come to visit the promised child. But that’s about where the comparisons end. And what the fairy tale is lacking is crucial to our story.
Where is Herod, the cruel king? He’s a puppet ruler, conspiring with Roman authorities against his own people, a comfortable man in a comfortable position. At least, economically and politically he’s comfortable, and maybe only for the time being. His future, and that of his sons, remains certain as long as his people don’t stir up any trouble. There’s no Herod in the fairy tale. No paranoid ruler with a violent temper.
Visitors have a prominent place in both: the fairy tale’s musicians, and Matthew’s Magi, a word that means “astrologers,” who enter the picture. When these three Gentiles enter Jerusalem, leaving their native lands following a westbound star, they create quite a scene. Mind you, these ancient astrologers bear little resemblance to the likes of our modern-day star-gazers, gracing the covers of checkout lane magazines, making predictions for the new year, like: “Elvis will be spotted at a mall opening in Alpharetta.” These ancient astrologers, these magi, were part of a learned class, well-respected for their ability to discern the heavenly signs. So their presence in Jerusalem and their quest are enough to cause Herod to gather his advisors together so that they can discuss how best to respond to the rumors accompanying these visitors from the East.
Suddenly, Herod’s future is called darkly into question. “A child who is born King of the Jews? Can there be any validity to this kind of nonsense?” “Well, King Herod,” says one advisor, “There is a passage in Micah which talks about Bethlehem being the birthplace of the Messiah. But here’s my concern: This sounds an awful lot like what the prophet Isaiah said! I mean, these men, they’re carrying gold and frankincense! It couldn’t be more clear!”
Surely these advisors were familiar with our first lesson this morning. The great prophet Isaiah was speaking to his people facing life after captivity from Babylon, returning to the land of their ancestors, beginning the hard work of building a nation. And Isaiah tells them of a hope, of a time to come, saying, “They will all gather together, they will come to you; your sons will come from far away, and your daughters will be carried on their nurses’ arms.” Those lost in the Diaspora shall return. And in that gathering, the other nations shall come “to your light, rulers will come to the brightness of your dawn.” And these nations will bring their tributes, their payment, their offerings of praise. So numerous shall these be, these riches of gold and frankincense, that the camels used to bear the gifts will fill the town, covering the land!
This utopia that Isaiah saw, which the advisors described to Herod, is exactly what Herod feared. If this is what awaited his people, if this is what the arrival of these foreign Magi promised, then Herod knew that he would not be a part of it. He and his kind would be run out of town with the Romans for their years of betrayal. If this prophecy were to come true literally, as it did in our half-buried, half-baked fairy tale, then Herod would lose power. And he could not risk that. And so he seeks to eliminate this child foretold in prophecy, lest it happen.
But the story told in Matthew turns out differently from the story in Isaiah. The gift bearers were not kings, as Isaiah said, but astrologers. There were only three of them, hardly a land covered with animals carrying tribute. The wealth Isaiah promised, of loaded camels and nations bearing gifts, could never be expected of this infant child born to peasant parents. Herod was in no political danger. He remained on the throne, his sons ruled after him. This child did not pose a threat to Herod’s safety, as he understood it. And the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, which in Isaiah are signs of the devotion of foreign nations, in Matthew they become gifts of God’s provision for a poor family forced to flee into Egypt.
If we return to that unearthed fairy tale for a moment, our fortuneteller has an obvious role to play. She predicts the future, reading tealeaves, examining the zodiac chart for the benefit of foreshadowing and dramatic effect. In our lesson from Matthew, Herod fears this prophecy of Isaiah, and how advisors understood it, and later in the story he sends out his paranoid destruction on the land, slaughtering the innocents. But unlike the fairy tale, our gospel does not follow letter by letter from its prophecy.
Biblical prophecy has a very different purpose. It is not meant to be a detailed predictor of future history. It is not a stand-in for Nostradamus or Jeanne Dixon. When Scripture is used this way, the results can be as violent as Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. Charles Manson understood prophecy this way. So did David Koresh and Jim Jones. So do many today. Just seven years ago, at the time of the much-anticipated Y2K computer glitch that failed to materialize, a Pennsylvania preacher named James Wickstrom was convinced that the technological failure would touch off a millenial race war. He urged his congregation to “get out of the way for a while and then go hunting, O Israel!” We must “fill our shoes with the blood of our enemies.”
The danger of this kind of interpretation is that we are liable to get it wrong, to miss the spirit of it, and do grievous harm in the process. Biblical prophecy is not a magic key to unfurl the future before our eyes. It is a word of hope and correction spoken to a particular people at a particular time. Prophecy often tells us more about the past than it does about the future, at least in pure historical terms. Isaiah’s prophecy, unlike fairy tale promises, does not come true word for word.
And yet, this doesn’t mean that it is any less true. What endures, what makes it all more than mere historical curiosity, is that at its heart is gospel. Isaiah’s prophecy becomes Matthew’s gospel.
Isaiah’s prophecy is Matthew’s gospel of God’s deliverance to a people in captivity. Whether the ancient Israelites in Babylon, or a world awaiting a Messiah, or a people trapped in their own sin, humanity groans in need of salvation. And God’s word comes as a humble infant lying in a manger.
Isaiah’s prophecy is Matthew’s gospel of God’s provision to a people in need. To an ancient people attempting to rebuild after captivity, to a peasant couple and their newborn on the run from a violent pogrom, or to a world that has needs too deep to name, God’s word comes as three foreigners bearing gifts.
Isaiah’s prophecy is Matthew’s gospel of God’s restoration to a people dispersed and disjointed. To an ancient Jewish Diaspora, or to a world divided into Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, black and white, God’s word comes to reconcile us through this child, through his birth, his life, his death, and his resurrection.
Isaiah’s prophecy is Matthew’s gospel that the work is not finished in one quick sweep. The people may be free from Babylon, but there is still a nation to rebuild. The child may be born, but there is still tribute to pay. There is still a ministry to be lived, a world to be redeemed. God’s word comes, not in the form of “happily ever after,” but in lives lived in reality and perseverance and grace.
This morning, we do not have a fairy tale invented by house-cleaning, sleep-deprived cabin fever. We have a story of faith and truth forged by divine promises in the midst of human history. So here is the question meant to ring in our ears today: Will we be swallowed in darkness, predicting doom and destruction, acting out of fear? Or will we hear Isaiah’s call that our light has already come, that our victory has been won, living into the promises of hope and faith that lie before us?
Merry Christmas and Happy Epiphany. Amen.