Matthew 2:1-12: The Fragile World of Herod and the Wise Men

This morning, we celebrate Epiphany. Into our ears, Matthew paints a palette, vibrant in hue, an intricate tapestry woven together in a sacred narrative. Within a rich text, he shows us a derelict landscape fragmented by dark indiscretions yet still dappled with divinity’s life-giving light.

Let’s begin with the fragile realm inside our Gospel reading. The account directs us to a rebellious drama during King Herod’s time. A strange statement for Matthew. A chapter before, he unfolded the royal ancestry of Jesus. This genealogy of salvation’s history sang of sovereign power, naming Israel’s long-expected Messiah as a “son” descended from a particular bloodline. So, we receive our first glimpse of Christ through His family relations, of David, Abraham, and God.

This revered lineage unfurls across the ages, centering on King David and spanning three sets of 14 generations. “So the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen; from David until the exile to Babylon, fourteen; from… Babylon to the Christ, fourteen” (Matthew 1:17). Why 14?

The ancient Hebrew language used letters for numbers. Three Hebrew letters form David’s name, dalet (4), vav (6), dalet (4). These tally into a mystic quantity, 14, proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah and thrice-enthroned heavenly heir of King David. This sum is no secret sealed for ages past, but a song unveiled for our eternity to last.

Earlier, God promised David an everlasting dynasty. Your “house and kingdom will always endure before me. Your throne will continue forever” (2 Samuel 7:16). In Christ, this Davidic King will rule evermore. Nations shall bow before Him, and, in Him, God’s hand stretches out, granting us His divine blessing.

In chapter two, we learn of another king. This one ruled with an iron grip, refusing to release his sovereignty, though God wraps Himself in human flesh to save us. Those days thrum during Herod’s rule and reign when Magi entered his world.

The Old Testament book of Daniel mentioned magi when Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar dreamt a dream (2:2-10). An undecipherable mystery to everyone except Daniel, leading him to join and direct this select circle of advisors. From him, the Messianic promise continued for six centuries, speaking of a coming Savior.

The year is now three BC, and seers of truth catch sight of a star when most others don’t. Aware of divine prophecy, they embark on a journey, searching for the King prophesied of old. And they’re astute enough to discern that worshiping Him is the only proper response. These men best their Jewish counterparts, doing what Jerusalem’s religious leaders are too oblivious or unbelieving to consider.

Unaware of many Messianic prophecies, they can only progress so far. So, they journey to Jerusalem, the holy city. Into Herod’s court, they step, pursuing answers to the query inside their souls, “Where is he, born King of the Jews?” The Torah earlier echoed, “A star shall come out of Jacob, a scepter rising from Israel” (Numbers 24:17).

Despite their eloquence, these Magi mince no words. The Child they seek is born a “king,” already vested with full authority, His birth being His coronation. Unlike earthly kings, His father doesn’t need to die before He reigns. No mere momentary monarch is this Messiah, for His dominion transcends our boundaries, reaching far into the heavens.

Centuries before, David wrote, “Yahweh declares to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand… Nobility is Yours from the day of Your birth. In majestic holiness, are You, from the womb, as before the dawn’” (Psalm 109:1, 3).

Using learned language, these Magi continue, employing rhyme to tell of their travels. In recited verse with journey described, this sounds in English as “we saw… and we came.” Next, they divulge their dream—to worship this King.

The whispers of a wondrous birth, a beacon from above, echoed in the stars amid the night sky. Pitiful King Herod never lifts his gaze heavenward but fixates on his petty kingdom. Afraid of losing control, he recoils, and Jerusalem shivers in echo.

How odd. Shouldn’t Jerusalem rejoice at the coming of their prophesied King? Yes, but Jerusalem trembles only at Herod, or Caesar. Gruff and guttural in Jerusalem’s streets, apprehension hangs, heavy as fog, none daring to speak against this king.

Deep is the death haunting your night;
Such fearful dreams within you fight.
Such terror stalks and frights bemoan,
King Herod, be not so alone.

Why fear this Babe of noble birth,
Who brings you heaven’s peace on earth?
Your sinful shackles, He will take,
Your chains of death, He comes to break.

O tyrant, let your dread relent,
And in this Savior’s love be spent.
In future years, not now, He’ll die,
Our fears to wane, our joys to rise.

Obstinate, Herod abides by none of this. So, he calls the chief priests and scribes, asking where the Messiah should be born. In ignorance, they confirm Jesus’ messianic credentials through Scripture. “From you, O Bethlehem, will come a leader, a ruler.” Though they quote passage and verse, these religious leaders don’t connect the Scriptures to the Child these Magi seek.

Paranoid, Herod’s mind races, hearing of a King more significant than he. Frantic, he feigns their faith, yearning to stifle this upstart who challenges his dominion. The Ruler these scholars pursue is someone else, not him or the Roman Emperor, who secures his throne. So he tells them he, too, shares in their same pious interest, his tongue speaking of Christ as though a familiar term.

The darkness of Herod’s devious plan swells inside him, his heart beating a wicked rhythm. In false phrases of worship, he masquerades devotion while striving to destroy what his words otherwise say. In his shadows of deceit, Herod pulls these seeking men aside, learning from them when the star appeared. Onward, he sends them to find the Child and report back to him.

Every skill Herod deploys serves the ambition and anxiety gnawing at his soul. To be extra sure, he strives to eradicate this foe while still young and weak in a silent, unseen hunt, sounding no alarm. Now, he exhibits an exaggerated prudence to strike his death blow, to hasten the time when he will howl in triumph. So breakable, this world, to fool others so swathed in fraud, fear, and looming death.

On this sin-enfeebled orb, the star these men once observed shines again, advancing across the darkened sky, leading them to the Child. The original New Testament Greek, often so economical, lavishes us with 11 syllables strong to convey their state of ecstasy. Yes, God works His will, defying our fallen machinations, replacing Herod’s night of terror as they “rejoiced in boundless, extraordinary joy.”

In this creation, so fractured with sinfulness, angels must descend again. Warning men within whispered words of dreams, these messengers send the Magi home another way, assuring this heavenly King will only die in His way and time. God’s mercy still permeates the gloom and bleakness of this world.

Ponder the grace descending to us in the foretelling of Scripture. God promised a ruler from Bethlehem will shepherd His people. This needed knowledge that the Wise Men lack comes to them from the lying lips of Herod. Lies and treachery strain to cloud Christ’s kingship, yet those promises, centuries old, bounce to life as the divine Word stirs with power. Despite Herod’s deception, Gentiles still kneel before this Child.

Oh, the wonder of Epiphany. Amid our disjointed and fragile lives, God’s boundless grace breaks through bestowing consolation and hope in our hearts. Don’t we need this since our world is broken, battered, and bedraggled by sin?

Unaware, we emerge from our mother’s womb into an alien landscape with much distress and anxiety. From the humblest beginnings in an obscure corner of Judea, the same newborn Child gives us reason to rejoice! Whenever we gaze upon Jesus, where He promises to be, we behold His redeeming light radiating into our lives. Blessed, we become recipients of His abundance, pouring out for our salvation.

Find comfort in Matthew’s words, where God wends His way into our decaying existence and brings us His moments of grace. God’s mercy comes bleeding through in the spearpoint of a writer’s pen. Here, God sets the Word of His revelation in our midst. Again, He calls us to contemplate Jesus in our human frailty, His life at risk by the sharpened edges of sin.

Later, on the cross, the earthy colors of Christ’s grace will bleed through to us. Pure virgin-born mercy, for here in this world, our Epiphany Child descends, cleansing and forgiving our transgressions. Grace, full and undeserved, since He sets His table for our sustenance. Divine compassion descends, undeterred by our fears and frailties: “Fear not, for I am with you.” Today, we still revel in God revealing this to His own.

Matthew is a herald, speaking light on those enshrouded in shadows. God shows His love for everyone in Christ, abundant and never ceasing. Here, God continues to keep His people through Matthew’s inspired message.

One glorious day, Jesus will descend. The air will quiver as trumpets blast, angels sing, and the skies convulse before His throne. This cracked world will tremor and cleave as Jesus calls forth our bodies. Powers unknown will ripple through us, creating you and me anew in a dazzling wonder nothing can steal away. Joyful hosannas will echo as we join a sea of saints rising in radiance to behold our Lord.

Fragile, no more, we’ll live enfolded in God’s embrace, finding ourselves not lost but found. Upheld in His hands, we dwell with Him who loves us into life. So is Christ’s final Epiphany, binding us to His blessed grace forever. Amen.