Our familiarity with the story of the magi visiting baby Jesus makes it hard to hear the strange truth it discloses. And yet: we can sense the strangeness of this story if we retell it in a modern setting.
Imagine this headline: “Agents from Iran Sneak Past Jerusalem Authorities.” Reading the story, we would learn Mossad briefly detained the secret agents before mistakenly letting them go. Police cameras captured the men heading in the direction of Bethlehem. Rumors suggested the men wanted to bring a new king to power. Was this some new Shiite version of ISIS? Sylvia Poggioli would be on hand to cover the mood in Jerusalem: a city on edge.
Retold this way, we can understand why Matthew described King Herod and all of Jerusalem as frightened. The magi came from Persia, the rival power to the Roman Empire. King Herod stood as a first-line of defense against the Persians. And so Herod and the people in his court feared what might happen next.
What do we do with our fear? Herod’s fear led him to despotic paranoia. Just after our reading from today comes one of the most gruesome scenes in the gospels. Herod, afraid of a new king arising from Bethlehem, ordered his soldiers to kill all the young boys in the village.
Fifty years ago Richard Hofstadter wrote of “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Apparently it’s a style back in fashion these days. And it was the style of Herod’s reign, too.
Hofstadter drew a line through American history, connecting the episodes of “suspicious dissent:” McCarthy’s hunt for communists, turn of the last century concerns about bankers and European financiers, to earlier fears of Catholic conspiracies and Masonic plots. And in each of these moments, people gave voice to common fears, echoing in their own times the words of McCarthy, “How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man.”
Some threats are real: our country did face an existential threat in the Soviet Union. But paranoia doubled the danger. As Hofstadter explained, “The paranoid … is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.”
Are we seeing the paranoid style returning again? In the last decade we’ve heard warnings of a dangerous gay agenda, then of a Mexican takeover, and now a Muslim threat; paranoia searching for something to fear.
Surely we have come to a paranoid moment when Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is suspected of being under Muslim influences simply because he grew a beard.
But we’re not called to be like Herod, with fear turning us to paranoia. Our tradition teaches something other than fear. We heard it in the prophecy of Isaiah: “Arise, shine; for your light has come.”
Isaiah spoke to a city devastated by war. Jerusalem, after a long siege, fell to the Babylonians, who sacked the city, destroyed the Temple, and carted away a generation as slaves. A Psalm gave voice to the misery:
“O God, the nations have come into your inheritance;
they have defiled your holy temple;
they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.
They have given the bodies of your servants
to the birds of the air for food,
the flesh of your faithful to the wild animals of the earth.”
The people of Jerusalem - survivors in the ruins and those taken into slavery - felt as if the whole world conspired against them and even high heaven itself had turned on them. Fear, anxiety, worry and paranoia were the horsemen of this apocalypse.
Which makes Isaiah’s words all the more startling. To a people scared, he promised:
Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
To a people justifiably afraid, downcast with worry, Isaiah encouraged lifting heads to look around: see what God is doing. Those carted away will return. The city will be rebuilt. Jerusalem shall rise again. At a moment ripe for conspiracy theories, Isaiah spoke of love over fear.
This love was not just for a few, not just for Jerusalem, but for all. “Your light has come,” Isaiah promised; and as a result, “nations shall come to your light.” In other words, God will restore Jerusalem so that Jerusalem can welcome others. Which is why the words from Isaiah start with a command: “Arise! Shine!” As one scholar explained, “This is not an invitation. It is a command. The light has not come merely to rescue a chosen few from darkness. The light has come so that others will be drawn out of the darkness into the circle of light.”
Isaiah spoke at one of the most fear-inducing times in the Bible. He did not stoke the paranoia. Instead he promised God’s love would overwhelm the fear. And then he challenged people who might normally and naturally be afraid to share that love. “Arise! Shine!” doesn’t mean that God has just chosen to love us; but that God has chosen us to serve others by sharing this love with all.
Christian tradition has long linked the prophecy of Isaiah to the story of the Magi. Isaiah promised kings would come with gold and in Matthew we hear just that happening. But I’m struck by the different ways Herod and Mary responded to the Magi. Herod, as I mentioned, responded with fear and paranoia.
We don’t hear Mary’s voice in Matthew’s story, but we can imagine her telling Joseph, “Don’t be afraid.” They welcomed their strange visitors from an enemy nation into their simple home. The Magi entered and gave their gifts with joy.
Mary had all the reasons in the world to fear. This visit happened just before Mary had to flee with her child because Herod plotted to kill him. She could have worried the Magi were just the advance team for Herod’s minions. An anxious heart could devise devious conspiracies. But Mary welcomed the Magi. She practiced love over fear.
Can we live like Mary? Can we greet the Magi in our lives instead of fearing people because they are different than us?
I think about this because I found myself visited by three modern-day Magi. The first Magi invited me to dinner. This year I didn’t want to make dinner on Christmas Eve; I planned to head out for Chinese. I invited some Jewish friends to join us. They turned my invitation into plans to come to their house for a Christmas Eve dinner.
My friends Jerry and Cindy belong to Lake Park Synagogue across the street and keep kosher in their home. (The fact that they’re kosher means I don’t bring any food to share at the meal.) Cindy greeted me at the door, “We decorated the table in red and green for Christmas. It was so much fun we almost put up a tree.” And so we had a kosher Christmas feast.
It was a gift of extravagant hospitality, in which friends provided what I most needed - a good meal, great company, and no work.
The second Magi joined us for the Christmas meal at Guest House. My friend Laj heard about our project. “What can I bring?” she asked a week beforehand. I hesitated. Laj’s practice of Hinduism led her to adopt a vegetarian diet. But we really needed an extra turkey.
She took on the challenge - a vegetarian roasted turkey. A few emails and three Youtube videos later, Laj came to Guest House with a perfectly bronzed turkey, juicy meat under the crackling skin. I’m still not sure how she cooked so well a food she’d never tasted. But I knew her bird was a gift of love to the men of Guest House.
I met the third Magi in a Panera. (What does it say about me that I only meet Magi over food?) Mushir, an area doctor, takes a lead for his mosque in connecting with other faith communities. I’d reached out because of the rising tide of Islamophobia. But what he most wanted to talk about was the Black Lives Matter movement.
“After the Tamir Rice decision,” he said, “we’ve all got to work with Black Lives Matter.” I asked if he’d seen the video. “Which one? There seems to be a new one every week.” And we started talking about Ta-Nehisi Coates and James Baldwin and what we could do as a church and a mosque about racism against African-Americans.
I’d gone to Panera thinking we’d talk discrimination against Muslims in America; what I found was a man whose heart hurt for the treatment of others.
My life and my faith would be poorer if not for the gift of my Christmas Magi. Fear and paranoia don’t keep us safe; they just make our world smaller and less rich.
But we need to do more than just welcome in our occasional Magi. We need to say to those gripped by fear, “I am not afraid.”
Last year we held the “Reviving Justice” event at Plymouth - a weekend of worship and education around issues of justice that brought together a diverse group of people, inside and outside of our congregation. This year I want us to do something similar, an event I’m calling “Reviving Peace.”
Reviving Peace will bring our congregation together with Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and many other people to talk about issues that divide us, like Israel and Palestine, as well as all the things which bind us together. Through dialogue we’ll overcome fear. Through fellowship we’ll experience love. Through solidarity we’ll let our light shine.
Last month our congregation sent about thirty letters to the Islamic Society of Milwaukee as a show of support amid much of the fearful anxiety expressed about Muslims in America. I’m committed to working on our Reviving Peace event because I know we need to do more than write a letter. Let me know if it’s on your heart to do more too: we’ll need a planning committee and volunteers to make this happen.
Paranoia leads too many people to fear the other. And so I’m committed to sharing a different kind of truth: we need our Magi, we need people from other faiths, we need the gifts others bring.
Herod lived a paranoid life. It made his world incredibly small and dangerous. Mary lived with love. It made her heart incredibly large and open. This Epiphany may we live like Mary, casting out fear of the other and welcoming the Magi in our lives, wherever we meet them.
Alleluia and Amen.