“Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another route.”
I was never keen to be a Wiseman in the Sunday School Christmas pageant. How embarrassing it was! Dressing up in an old dressing gown, with an apology of a turban on my head and a broomstick in my hand, I processed into the church singing “We three kings of Orient are,” without having a clue what the Orient was, or why there were three kings and a star that kept moving, and what this had to do with anything at all. But now that I am wiser I marvel at the story and keep on finding new clues in the text as to its meaning. So I am delighted each year when Epiphany comes round, the festival of the light of God breaking through the cracks into the darkness of the world in Christ, and the traditional time to recall the visit of the sages from the East to the Christ-child in Bethlehem.
They had come a long way, from somewhere in modern day Iran then known as Persia. They were astrologers, maybe Zoroastrians by religion, so following bright stars in search of the truth and meaning of life was familiar to them. They were already men of spiritual wisdom, mystics if you like. But their journey was about to begin in a new way. Their lives would not be the same after they had seen the child, for it was only then that the light transformed all that they had previously known, lifting it into a new dimension. What they saw in Bethlehem changed the course of their lives forever.
On their way to Bethlehem these Wisemen stopped in Jerusalem to visit king Herod. It was more than a courtesy call to Trump Towers. They wanted information about the birth of a king and Herod they presumed would be able to give it to them. Herod was frightened by their request. He knew he was not popular, he knew that there were Zealots out to get him and usurp his throne in a coup. But he was also cunning. He got his aides to Google “birth of a king,” and they informed him and the Wisemen to take the camel highway to Bethlehem. But Herod also told the Wisemen to report back when they found the new born king. So the Wisemen continued their journey. The star did not stay in Jerusalem the seat place of worldly power and authority; it only paused for a nodding moment. There is no light where the Herods of this world rule, only fear and cunning when they know that their time is up. Darkness cannot tolerate the light.
Fortunately the Wisemen trusted their dreams more than they trusted Herod. They knew that once Herod knew where the light was he would send his minions to extinguish it. It is always so. The powers of darkness want to destroy the light before it enlightens too many people. So once these wise sages found the child born to be king and presented their gifts, once they had seen the Christ-child, the light of the world, they continued their journey, returning home, but by another route. They were not going to play Herod’s game. They had paid their respects to the king, but they saw through his deceit, Herod was not to be trusted.
As Christians we respect the office of kings, presidents and prime ministers, but respect for their office is not the same as trusting their word. We may respect the office of Zuma, Trump, Putin, Mugabe and Netanyahu, but that does not mean we have to approve what they say and do, meekly bow the knee and obey their instructions. We know they survive through political cunning not godly wisdom. And in any case, they will lose their power, and like all of us they are dust and to dust they will return, even if they have state funerals and are embalmed and buried in Pyramids. They are not the Wisemen in God’s world, powerful for the moment undoubtedly, shrewd and cunning quite obviously, men who know their way around and how to influence people, of course.. But they are not wise. They could be, but it would mean leaving their palaces for a time and journeying with the Wisemen to seek the light, acknowledging the truth that was born in Bethlehem — God’s power and wisdom lying in a manger. This is what all the truly wise go in search of — a king who is humble, vulnerable, the very embodiment of the wisdom of God, The contrast between Jerusalem and Bethlehem could not have been greater then, it is still so today. Truth resides in Bethlehem’s manger, falsehood in Jerusalem’s palace; love and integrity in Bethlehem; integrity not duplicitous cunning, and false power in Jerusalem. Wisemen are always let to Bethlehem even if they visit Jerusalem on the way.
We have journeyed with the Wisemen to Bethlehem. We have celebrated Christmas, the birth of the child, the coming of the light into the darkness of the world of power and corruption. Now we are back on our journey. We don’t know where this journey will take us as a new year begins. We hope it may be better that the last year, and we eagerly grasp hold of the predictions of those who say it will be. But we don’t know yet. All we know is that there is a journey ahead of us, a journey to our ultimate home and destination. Yet we do know something else. To get home we have to bypass Herod and his headquarters in Jerusalem. We can’t depend on the Herods of this world to get us home, anymore than Americans can depend Trump or South Africans on Zuma. We may no longer have the star to guide us, but we have the light to inform our path. That light always shines in the darkness, for the darkness did not then, and cannot now, comprehend or overcome the light.
John de Gruchy
5 January 2017. Volmoed