January 5, 2020
Searching for a new king – J. Barry Vaughn – Jan. 5, 2020
When the late Ann Richards was governor of Texas, the ACLU successfully sued to have a nativity scene removed from the lawn of the State House in Austin. When asked for a comment, she said, “Well, I just hate it! That’s the closest we’ve ever come to having three wise men in this building!”
I imagine that a lot of political leaders would sympathize with her!
The wise men or magi, to give them their proper Greek name, were probably Babylonian astrologers. But it’s likely that they would have called themselves philosophers.
In the first century of our present age, there was a tremendous overlap between philosophy and what today we would call science. Aristotle both wrote some still influential books about ethics and politics and also was a close student of the natural world.
The magi were careful students of the stars. In today’s gospel reading they say, “…we have observed his star (that is, the star that indicated the birth of a new king) and have come to pay him homage.”
More than likely, they were from Babylon. The Babylonians were not only learned observers of the heavens, there was a school at Babylon that taught the science of the stars, planets, other heavenly bodies, and their movements.
They knew that the moon was responsible for the movements of the tides, and that the sun caused the seasons. By observing the relationship between the stars, moon, and earth, they made a very accurate guess about the circumference of the earth that was off by only 1000 miles.
So, it made sense for them to believe that the stars influence human behavior. If the moon can cause the seas to rise and fall, is it so farfetched to believe that other heavenly bodies can move you or me to behave in certain ways?
We know today that they were wrong, but in the ancient world astrology was regarded as a science, not a pseudo-scientific mélange of science and magic.
I’ve just been reading a novel about a visit to Babylon in the first century BCE. The narrator meets a Babylonian astrologer who denies the existence of the gods. A Greek scholar argues that, “You astrologers worship stars instead.”
The astrologer replies, “We do not worship the stars…. We study them. Unlike your so-called gods, the vast interlocking mechanisms of the firmament do not care whether mortals make supplication to them or not. They do not watch over us or concern themselves with our behavior; their action is completely impersonal as they exert their rays of invisible force upon the earth. Just as the heavenly bodies control the tides and seasons, so they control the fates of mankind and of individual men. The gods, if they exist, may be more powerful than men, but they too are controlled by the sympathies and antipathies of the stars in conjunction—” (Saylor, The Seven Wonders: A Novel of the Ancient World)
Minus the belief that the stars influence human behavior, the astrologer’s beliefs were very much like those of many modern scientists. The universe is indifferent to us. The forces that act on us are blind and unfeeling and not the work of the gods, much less of one God who loves us.
So, let’s assume that that was the position of the magi who visited the infant Jesus. They had done their calculations; they had read the ancient texts; and they had studied the heavens. A star had risen that indicated the birth of a new king, apparently a king so powerful that he merited a long and dangerous journey. He was a king who deserved to receive rare and costly gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
In searching for this king, the magi alerted Herod, the Great, Rome’s ally and the ruler of the kingdom of Judea, to the presence of a potential rival. We also know from history that Herod was a paranoid sociopath who tried to eliminate all rivals. He executed several members of his own family, including one of his wives.
Apparently, the magi believed that the new king whose star they had seen would be even more powerful than Herod. What else explains their long journey and their lavish gifts? And Herod must have been convinced by their actions that this new king would be a rival. Why else would he order the execution of all male children who might have been born then the magi observed the rising of the star?
But the magi and Herod were wrong. I don’t mean that Jesus is not a king, but he was not the kind of king that the magi sought or that Herod feared. Throughout Advent we heard of a new kind of kingdom.
On the first Sunday of Advent we heard Isaiah tell us of a ruler who
…shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2)
And the next Sunday the picture of this new kingdom became even clearer:
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11)
That was not the kind of king the magi thought they were seeking; it was certainly not the kind of king that Herod feared.
In the year to come, all of us are going to be a bit like the magi. We are looking for a new ruler to arise. We are busily reading the texts and searching for signs. We may even go on long journeys to seek this new ruler.
I sincerely hope that we are not looking for someone such as Herod, a paranoid sociopath who sees enemies on every side, who is even willing to have small children killed or at least put their lives at risk; a man who, like Herod, was put into office by another great power and owed his allegiance to them and not to the people he was supposed to serve.
I also hope we are not looking for a ruler like Augustus Caesar who sought conquests far and wide. Unlike Herod, Augustus was a wise man who genuinely tried to make his people’s lives better. He established a rule of peace, the pax Romana, wherever Rome ruled. But there was a price: Augustus expected his subjects to regard him as a god. They were all expected to offer sacrifices to him and for him.
We cannot interrogate the magi and find out what kind of king they were seeking, but it’s reasonable to think that they were looking for the kind of king who has ruled from the beginning of time: A man or woman who used power quickly, decisively, and ruthlessly and had little regard for the least among us.
Jesus, however, told us that his kingdom was not of this world. We believe that the kingdom of Jesus will have more need of plowshares than swords, that violent enemies will come together in peace, that children will be able to play and learn and grow up in peace and safety, regardless of where they have come from, what borders they have crossed, what color their skin is, and what religion they profess.
So seek your new king carefully. Read all the old and new texts you can find. Study the heavens if you believe that will help. But above all pray that the king (or queen) you seek will be wise and tolerant and patient. Above all, may he or she know that they answer to God for the way that they rule.