The Tar of Bethlehem, Pastor Fred
When our tour bus rolled into Bethlehem after dark, we looked for our motel that we were assigned to: The Star of Bethlehem. It was January of 2005, and the dust of the 2nd Intifada was still settling, and they were in recovery mode, like after a devastating hurricane, and not everything was up and running yet, like it had been before.
We loved, that the name of our motel was called, The Star of Bethlehem, and we felt like we were traveling wise men and women, magi who were arriving from afar. But when we looked up that evening, to see the sign all lit up in the night, it said – The Tar of Bethlehem – because the neon S that was burned out, had not yet been repaired!
The Intifada – a kind of civil war between Israel’s Defense Force and a coalition of Palestinian organizations – had taken a toll on Bethlehem. And the partially burned out sign, was also a sign of the shape, that our motel rooms were in – disrepair, at least by American standards. What did this mean, we wondered, for the city of David where Jesus was born, and where magi had come, following the king of the Jews’ star, to bring their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh?
As I reread the birth story of Jesus in Matthew this week, I wondered, for the first time – what if the magi had just been a little more accurate in their celestial calculations? Maybe they could have avoided all the conflict when they stopped in Jerusalem, and met with King Herod, who was so jealous of Jesus?
What if they had been able to follow the star all the way to Bethlehem, without stopping in Jerusalem? They had come all that way from the east, from Persia – which is present day Iran – and Bethlehem was just a few miles SE of Jerusalem. They probably passed very near it. But maybe the bright lights of Jerusalem, the capital city, attracted them? Or, maybe they figured, the birth of the King of the Jews, must have to take place in the largest city of Israel, the seat of its financial, social and political life, where all the leaders resided? It would be, an understandable mistake.
The magi, who made the long trip, who we often call kings, were really not kings or wise men, like we think of them. Magi, were priests of Zorastrianism, an ancient religion, still practiced today. They were scholars of astrology, and they believed in what we call horoscopes, and that reading the signs in the sky, in the stars, could tell them about important events, about to come to pass.
The primary prophet for Zoroastrianism is Zoroaster (makes sense!). But it’s interesting for Christians, that the Zoroastrian faith story, is also about how a 15-year-old Persian girl, who was a virgin, miraculously conceived and gave birth to Zoraster. And, also just like the story of Jesus, Zoroaster later started his ministry, at the age of 30, a ministry that began after he took on and defeated all of Satan’s temptations. And furthermore, like the Jews of Jesus time, Zoroastrian priests, like the magi in our story, were anticipating the birth of the true Savior.
But, for some reason, their astrological skills didn’t lead them directly to Bethlehem. For some reason, they stop first in Jerusalem and meet, Herod the Great. Herod had already earlier declared himself, King of the Jews, with the blessing of Emperor Augustus. But being born in neighboring Idumea, the Jews of Israel never really accepted Herod, even though he married into the ruling Jewish family. So when the magi come asking, ‘where is the child who has been born king of the Jews, for we observed his star at its rising, and have come to worship him?’ That really throws Herod the Great off, who’s already insecure, about that title! Matthew tells us, that when he heard the question from the magi, ‘he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him!’
So immediately, Herod asks the Jewish priests in Jerusalem, where the Messiah was to be born. And the priests and scribes look it up in the books of their prophets and historians, in Micah and Samuel, and let Herod know, it has been foretold, a Messiah will be born ‘In Bethlehem of Judea.’ And so Herod, always scheming – after all, he didn’t last 33 years as a local Roman king without a ruthless nature! – Herod huddled up with the magi, and on the one hand, encourages them to go to Bethlehem and worship the child, but he also makes sure, the magi promise to bring him word, back, so that he, Herod, may then go and pay Jesus homage too! You can trust me, he says in his most charming voice!
The star leads the magi, not only to Bethlehem, but right to the very doorstep of the holy family, where they knelt down to worship, and offered their gifts fit for a king, gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And that’s the kind of pinpoint accuracy of the star, that made me wonder, if they had only followed it all the way to Bethlehem in the first place, without being distracted by all the glittery lights in Jerusalem – if they would have avoided contact with Herod – then, maybe, all those innocent children, may not have been slaughtered, soon afterward.
Because, when the magi were warned in a dream not to go back through Jerusalem, and tell Herod where to find the baby Jesus, that’s what really enrages Herod, and pushes him over the edge! That’s when he ordered all the children, 2 years and younger, in Bethlehem, and even the surrounding neighborhoods, to be killed, in a mad attempt to “off” the one child, Jesus, who Herod was so afraid of.
But, all that wondering on my part, I think, misses the point of Matthew’s story anyway. Matthew wants to show, the reality of the human and divine intersection – he wants to reveal on this Day of Epiphany, that the new born king, Jesus, was indeed a threat to the kingship of Herod, and that Herod knew it. The miraculous star, is meant to point to Jesus’ divine birth, a revelation, which breaks through the corrupt and failing leadership of the Empire’s King Herod, and all human kingdoms, and shines a light for us on what true leadership is, in Jesus, a king who will ride a donkey, a king who will heal the sick and liberate the oppressed, and a king who will serve his own followers. God anoints a shepherd-king, in the spiritual line of David, who rules in our hearts and minds, so that we can learn to live by the peace and justice of God’s kingdom and realm, with faith and courage.
And also in Matthew’s story, the magi, had to go to Jerusalem, to find out that the king of the Jews, the Messiah, was promised to God’s chosen people in the scriptures, in Micah and Samuel – as well as being searched for, by foreigners from afar. In Matthew’s birth story, the birth of Jesus, the Messiah and king, is that he is looked forward to, by both the Jews, and the Gentiles.
The birth of Jesus, is the story of the fulfillment of God’s promises, and the fulfillment of the longing of all human hopes and dreams, for salvation. God had always wanted the Jews to be a light for the world, that all peoples and nations might come to the light of the one God. And that’s literally, what the magi do, in following the star. They are us, the Gentile believers, who come looking for light and life. The magi found it at Jesus’ birth, but the rest of us need the whole story of the gospel, to see it in his saving grace, in the cross. They followed the Star of Bethlehem. We often take a little longer, to see the light, which is probably more realistic.
So the task, for us, the followers of Jesus, is often to discern and articulate how the quest of following the star, is done, in human ways, and not necessarily with theological or even biblical words – but is made understandable by us, and digestible for those who know little or nothing of Jesus, and whose own quest, none-the-less, can be fulfilled in God’s anointed one, the Messiah.
We, the followers of the Star of Bethlehem, lodging in subpar motels along the way – may only see “the Tar of Bethlehem,” but we are still on the right road!