By Alex Walker
You’ve given Thanksgiving it’s proper limelight, and the time has come to lug out the Christmas decorations. If you’re anything like my family, some of these ornaments have been around for years. They’re practically heirlooms at this point.
I’m especially attached to a vintage set of the Three Wise Men. Albeit they’re included with most Nativity scenes, the Gospel of Matthew has them visit Jesus sometime within two years of his birth. As a child my family dealt with this discrepancy by placing the three travelers on the opposite side of the fireplace mantel. Because of the size of my and Hannah’s apartment now, we place them in the kitchen. They’re by the kettle with the ca-mel–mile tea.
The doodads that we’ll dust off and place around the house are sentimental because they connect us with our past and offer something that we can share with family and friends in the future. At the same time, many of them represent deep spiritual truths. Consider the story of the Three Wise Men, which serves as an effortless way for Matthewto declare that God’s kingdom had entered the world through Jesus in a fresh way.
If you’re familiar with this passage, you know that a guy named Herod played a central role. History tells us that he was a puppet king with strings leading back to Rome. Also that he was a very bad man. If Herod didn’t like you, he killed you. His wife and some of his sons even became his victims. It’s easy to imagine him as angrily ambitious, rancidly ruthless, and totally tyrannical.[i]And it comes as no surprise that ‘all of Jerusalem’ was troubled at hearing the Magi’s news that a rightful king of the Jews had been born. What would Herod do?
After realizing that he’d been outmaneuvered by the Magi (he wanted them to lead him to Jesus), Herod enacts unspeakable tragedy. To get rid of this unknown rival, he has every male child below the age of two in Bethlehem killed. Let that sink in for a moment. Every male child below the age of two murdered.One is left aghast asking Matthew, “Has the kingdom of God really broken into the world?”
Anthony Bloom, a medical doctor who became a Christian and eventually an arch-bishop for the Russian Orthodox Church, tells of an experience he had during World War II in occupied Paris:
I was walking without the permit to see a patient. While crossing a bridge, the moon was full, I was in full view. And the order for German patrols was to shoot to kill anyone who was seen in the streets during that time of the night. All of a sudden I became aware of the divine presence [of God] in such an overwhelming manner that right in the middle of this bridge I knelt down and bowed to the ground. Life in peril, I felt the greatness and beauty of God.[ii]
Bloom knew all about evil. He had escaped the Russian Revolutions that ripped apart a nation after World War I. And now he was caught in the net of arguably the greatest face of evil in recent history, the Third Reich. Here’s the crazy thing: even in the midst of such incredible darkness, Bloom says the power of God’s Kingdom broke through to him.
The same thing is happening in the story of the Three Wise Men. In the midst of darkness, rays of light begin to shine through. Matthew wants us to know something right away: Jesus’s life and on-going ministry is about facing up to darkness. And in the darkness that we face in the story of our lives, we can take heart. For even as a child, Jesus confronted Herod. He later confronted people that twisted and misused religion. Then he faced off with the behemoth Rome, where he nailed down the power of hell itself on the cross of crucifixion. And his victory is in the empty tomb and his ascension. Matthew, writing his Gospelafter Jesus’s resurrection, says loud and clear, “Fear not. The kingdom of light is shining bright, and our hope is that what God has started in Jesus cannot be overthrown. It has, is, and will be accomplished.” Let that sink in for a moment. Because of Jesus darkness is falling to never get back up again.
I have two prayers for this Christmas season. First, that we will put the three Wise Men at an appropriate distance away from Sweet Baby Jesus. Second, that even in the midst of chaos each one of us can hear Matthew’svoice. May it clearly proclaim into our lives that God’s plan in Jesus is unconquerable. And that this very plan is at work in our lives renewing us. In hearing this, may our responses be like the Magi, opening up the treasure chests of our lives let us give all that we are in worship of the unrivaled King.
[ii]Avril Pyman, Metropolitan Anthony: A Life(Cambridge, UK: Lutterworth Press, 2016). If you’ve made it this far, I’d like to tell you that Bloom’s books on prayer have impacted me greatly (The Essence of Prayer contains four of his books).