Bible: The baby who threatened a king

December 17 — Acts 14:8-11, 19-23; December 24 — Matthew 2:1-12

Dec 4, 2017 by

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Acts 14 showcases the people’s impulse to make gods of human leaders. Listening to Paul and Barnabas speak, seeing them manifest God’s power, the people mistake these men for something they’re not, something they never could be. Paul and Barnabas have their work cut out for them, convincing the people that the framework they’re trying to fit these signs and wonders into won’t hold, that something new is happening.

Meghan Florian

Florian

The people assign them names of other gods, familiar names: Zeus and Hermes. But Paul and Barnabas are here to speak of one God, to bring good news of the living God who made heaven and earth, sea and sky. The people do not understand, and perhaps because of their fears of the power Paul and Barnabas manifest, of the kinds of gods they’re used to, they attempt to sacrifice to them.

This story rings true for us as contemporary readers. We sacrifice so much to the altars of human gods, mistaking one thing for another, trying to squeeze God into the world we’ve made instead of the other way around. And do we then turn on God’s messengers as the people turn on Paul, trying to stone him to death, if it turns out they are not who we first wanted them to be?

And, flipping the perspective, when we’re in Paul’s shoes, how do we respond? After being stoned, he resumes his travels, teaching and preaching and making disciples. Together these early Christians continue to pray and fast, committed to God and one another.

Matt. 2:1-12 is the story Christians celebrate on Epiphany, a sometimes overlooked part of the liturgical calendar, given that many of us are too exhausted after Christmas and the holiday season to pay attention to another important religious day. Advent is about anticipation, and most of us enjoy seasons of anticipation, at least when the thing we’re anticipating is a source of joy, be that celebrating Christ’s birth at church or the pleasures of friends and family during festive gatherings. Afterward, there’s an emotional letdown.

Despite the fact that most nativity scenes include the Magi, or wise men, as they’re known, these visitors were not present at Jesus’ birth. They saw a star heralding his arrival and traveled many miles without clear directions, searching for the one the scriptures foretold. They go to pay homage.

Their journey has complications. In Jerusalem they inquire with King Herod, who mines them for information before sending them on their way with instructions to report back. Herod is afraid. Confronted with a heavenly message, the star that led the wise men, his response is the opposite of the Magi’s. While they are drawn to follow the star and to seek the one for whom it shines, Herod’s response is to lay plans to protect himself, to destroy any who would threaten his power.

This year, as we work our way through Advent anticipation and Christmas celebration, let us ponder what it means to pay homage to this baby who so threatened a powerful king. What does Epiphany mean in our own day? When might we need to return home by another route, refusing to aid and abet rulers intent on destroying that which is good, in order to protect systems of injustice and domination? One way of honoring Christ’s birth in the spirit of the Magi is to refuse to align ourselves with the leaders and systems that injure and kill our neighbors. Instead of letting the dominating powers take the best of our gifts, how do we bring them to Jesus, as the Magi do?

Meghan Florian, of Durham, N.C., teaches writing at William Peace University. She is a member of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship.


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