King Herod, Herod the Great as he was called even in his own lifetime, was a man who must have thought he was in control. We I think would call him a paranoid megalomaniac; after all, he had many of his own sons put to death, as potential threats to his power, which they probably were - though that was maybe not that unusual for a king of his time, I suspect. But how in control was Herod, really? He was a client king of the Romans, part of their empire, within which he’d built up something of a power base; he was respected and feared, and had the ear of the emperor. He had rebuilt cities, and his biggest project had been the great temple in Jerusalem. But even a king as mighty as Herod was constantly looking over his shoulder, watching for the next threat.
And one day, strangers arrived from the east. They were looking for a new king, having seen something special as they studied the stars. People have always wanted to understand and explain the world, to foresee the future, to trace some sense of order and direction in what might otherwise seem to be simply chaotic. And these magi or wise men believed that patterns in the night sky might somehow chart the course of history and the direction of human lives. Many people shared their belief.
So what had they seen? A strangely bright star in the east - though the Greek of the gospel might also mean “a star at its rising” - and many modern translations take that as the better translation. A new star, to speak of a new king. Astronomers suggest it may have been a conjunction of three planets, seeming therefore to be specially bright as their lights were added together. Others suggest a supernova, a distant star exploding. Or it could have been a comet, which might provide more of a sense of movement. Maybe it was none of those things, maybe it was something completely supernatural. Was it something only seen by them? Or was it widely seen, but only they interpreted it in the way they did? In fact, what they saw doesn’t matter so much. It’s what they made of it that counts.
It sent them off to find a king. Perhaps a more careful study of the stars would have led the wise men to avoid Herod. A bit of background research might have made them more aware of what kind of man Herod was. But Jerusalem was the obvious place to go, and even wise men weren't wise enough to imagine that a child born to be king could be found anywhere but in a palace.
Herod, of course, was greatly disturbed. For all his power, he was worried. “And all Jerusalem with him,” we read in Matthew’s account, though I think Matthew would have been referring to Herod’s own court and administration, rather than the wider city. The foundations of Herod’s rule were for the most part sturdy and sure, but they contained one potentially fatal flaw: he was not descended from David. Indeed, he was of somewhat mixed descent, and not everyone accepted his credentials as a Jew, even. Now, I imagine that for many people, even the temple priests, a king in Jerusalem, however dubiously Jewish, was better than direct rule from Rome. And he had rebuilt the temple. But if a king of the line of David were to appear, Herod’s days might well be numbered. Surely the people would flock to such a king?
Herod’s people studied their books, and came up with Bethlehem as the place where a new king might be found. Herod would have been more worried still to hear that: for Bethlehem was David’s city. He tried to turn the wise men into his spies, by asking them to report back to him what they found there. He wasn’t to know that this new king was a different sort of king, whose royalty he’d never have recognised. What sort of a king starts life in a stable? Not Herod the Great, for sure. So the wise men set aside their preconceived idea of where a king might be found, and went to little Bethlehem, where they found the one they were searching for, and offered their symbolic gifts, and knelt in worship. To Herod’s annoyance, they didn’t report back, but headed straight for home, greatly changed in heart and mind - I should think - by their journey and by what they found at journey’s end.
For the king the wise men knelt to worship was nothing like King Herod or the Emperor in Rome. Herods and Caesars, and for that matter Trumps and Putins, want to impose their own order on the chaos of the world. The reason why Herod was called great was all that building he did, the temple especially, and the tough and wily way in which he controlled his unruly domain. But what greatness did he have, really? It didn’t long outlast him.
Herod’s temple and most of his city were demolished hardly more than sixty years after his death. Even before that his kingdom had been broken up and parcelled out, with Judea and Jerusalem ruled directly from Rome via governors like Pontius Pilate. Such is the fate of earthly kings and earthly kingdoms, whatever the stars or those who read them might promise.
Jesus did have a kingdom too - he spoke about it a great deal - but not the same sort of kingdom. We call Jesus the king of love, and love is the currency of his kingdom. This is a king born not in a palace but in a barn, on the edge of things; a king born not to take, or to build, or to achieve worldly greatness or power. This king is born to love and to give, to give without limit: the myrrh the kings present tells us he will give even his own life.
Our world remains a place of chaos and muddle and tragedy. But it’s in this mess of a world that we come to discover love. Love, divine love, is what the wise men encountered and worshipped in Bethlehem; they discovered there the God who does not abandon his people to the chaos, but comes to join us and to walk with us. In the birth of the Christ child God doesn’t take away the chaos of the world, he doesn’t remove pain and tragedy from human life and experience. But he enters the chaos, he takes on the pain: he is come to meet us, to claim us and to save us. He doesn’t conscript us into forced service, but, heart by heart, seeks to draw us into love.
The magi presented gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh - sacred gifts of mystic meaning, as one of the hymns of the season describes them. Gold for a king: the sign of authority and power, and there is real authority and power here, not just the show and bombast of Herod or Caesar. Incense for a priest: we see here the only priest who is worthy of the job, who is able to be the bridge between his people and their God, to remake the connection our sin has broken. And myrrh for a death: for the one true and perfect priest is also the one true sacrifice, and he will take upon himself the full weight of our sin and scorn.
Each gift from the wise men to the new king represents a gift that Christ himself will give. And we who receive are bound in turn to give: but what can we give that is worthy of him? “What can I give him, poor as I am?” as Christina Rossetti wrote, in a poem that became a carol. What gifts can we bring? Only this: our lives for his life, and our love for his love. As Rossetti went on to say - 'What I can I give him - give my heart.'