“When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” Ah yes, Herod. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
When persons in power fear competition? Well, that is never a good sign. It means that they realize their power is not what it should be, it is not turning out how it was expected to be, has not measured up to set standards or professed promises. It means that they distrust their own power and agency, even though they would never admit it. It means that they question their control and are asking about their authority even though they would never fess up to such truth.
And so, Herod’s insecurity is indeed a window through which to view the state and status of power today. When persons in power perceive authority only within the construct of winners and losers, when persons in power deflect accountability and responsibility, when persons in power label truth-tellers as obstructionists or troublemakers, when persons in power systematically peripheralize or eliminate perceived opposition, these are all clear signals of a realized inadequacy and an inability to recognize that even the most effective and respected leaders have blind spots.
And so, rather than dismissing Herod for being Herod, we would do well to imagine just how much about Herod we tend to be. How much of Herod we act out. How much of Herod we live out in our own leadership.
Lest we think such authorial inclinations are attributes of the past, we need only observe current leadership around us. In my situation, as a citizen of the United States of America, we indeed have a leader who represents everything about Herod, everything that Herod is, and more so — so much more. I fully realize that this statement will elicit rejection, will accuse me of partisanship, and will indict me of bringing politics into the pulpit. So be it. But the Gospel tells the truth, as hard as it is. It’s not easy to hear. The truth will indeed set you free, as much as it will first make you so unbelievably angry. And, I perhaps naively believe that leadership in the church should be inherently and observably different than what is accepted and touted as leadership these days.
Because a story like this cannot be sentimentalized into yet another Christmas program or summarized as suggested advice to follow a star. And, I get how hard this is. As much as I want to cast the Wise Men as just innocent and uninformed responders, they are so much more. They are resisters. They insist that their witness testifies to a truth that will challenge power. That will defy authority. All because they believe in their own experience, their own encounter, their own epiphany. They get that there just might be more to the story than what they have been told. And therein lies the heart of our Christian faith.
What an appropriate Epiphany text. A story that reveals our Messiah, our Savior, as one whose very presence is a kind of power that the powerful hate. A story that exposes our innate response to that which and those who might challenge our established and wished for power. A story that invites us to wonder if we would return to Herod or go God’s way.
And so, here is a story that should ignite resistance and persistence. That should invite validation of every individual’s God experience. That should insist on the personal as a manifestation of the incarnational. Anything less relegates these star-seekers as only pawns in a narrative outside of their agency. No. The birth of Jesus says this cannot be. They are witnesses to what witness means. They demonstrate what trust looks like. And they embody holy and wholly resistance to those powers and empires that are threatened by everyone and everything that might very well call into question their carefully constructed, self-serving, and self-adulating administrations.
Beyond the season of Epiphany, what an amazing and appropriate text for a new year. For us church leaders to ask ourselves, in what ways will we resist power that has succumbed to the ways of the world and persist in pursuing power committed to the ways of the Word? In what ways will we gladly and with joy assume the stance of obstructionist, especially if it means that the truth will be told? Will we interpret these wise emissaries as happenstance, in the right place at the right time, or will we embody their gifts as what praise and wonder look like?
Following a star is never a blind endeavor. The story of these astrologists from the east reminds us that even something as simple as a star in the sky might lead us into places of risk, spaces of courage, and directions that demand trusting hearts. Let’s follow their lead.