Yes they were.
“Who are you taking about?” you may ask.
The wise men from Matthew’s Gospel. (Though we know so little about them Obi-Wan Kenobi, Gandalf and Dumbledore will do for illustrative purposes.)
I am writing this on the Sunday after the Epiphany. The thoughts contained inside are plagiarised from an interview on BBC Radio Leeds this morning shortly after 8am and the sermon at Holy Trinity Huddersfield, also this morning. What little is original thoughts of mine is in compiling.
They were right to do what hey did, these wise men,
To go to see Herod in Jerusalem.
That is where kings lived, so if you wanted to find the child born King of the Jews you would be wise if the first place you went was to the palace of the capital of Judea, where the King of the Jews lived.
Even if the King of the Jews was someone like Herod.
At least Herod was someone who they could agree on. Herod was not one of the good guys.
Herod was the king who had his own son and wife executed on a rumour that they may be plotting to take over his throne. Not that they’d be able to take the throne, not without the permission of Rome, the real government. Herod may have been called the King of the Jews, but he was an appointed King of the Jews, not born into royal lines.
So these foreign tourists turn up unexpectedly in Jerusalem and ask the King of the Jews who was not born King of the Jews where to find the child who was born King of the Jews.
No one born King of the Jews was there.
“How did you find out about this?” asked the King of the Jews who was not born King of the Jews.
“We saw his star in the east.”
Anyone who had read the Jewish scriptures, those books we now have as the Old Testament, will know that astrology, divination through the stars, was seen as a very bad thing. Something the Jews were explicitly forbidden to do. Herod, as King of the Jews , even as an appointed King of the Jews, should have known that. But he makes enquiries about where the child born to be King of the Jews would be born.
Now imagine one of those dark stories where something has gone wrong and you think it can’t set any worse — then it gets worse.
That is what happens here.
The whole story gets darker when the reply comes back. The answer couldn’t be worse.
(Imagine a drum roll and clap of thunder at this point for dramatic effect.)
Herod knew all about Bethlehem.
Bethlehem was a small town 9 miles or so south of Jerusalem. The Bible calls it David’s city, but it was not a city as we would know it. Not much more than a village really, there was no reason at all why these wise men, there foreigners would have heard about Bethlehem. But Bethlehem had a secret. In the hills above the little town, as well as shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night there was a fort.
Herod knew all about the fort. Herod had built the fort as a place to flee to if Jerusalem was threatened. Herod had named the fort after himself. Herodion (Or Herodium, depending on the translation.)
To an unstable, paranoid, despotic leader, this was a major threat. There was no better place from which to mount a rebellion. Unstable, paranoid, despotic. Three good words to describe Herod.
But you would not want to have a major international incident. Not with dignitaries from the east, outside the Roman Empire, the empire that gave Herod his crown and could take it away. Better let them get out of the way before you do anything.
But before I continue, what about the star?
There are several things the star could be. Astronomers on Persia and China, have kefrt records from the period.
It could have been a comet, visible for a a few days.
It could have been a supernova. Supernovae are very bright and occur when a star dies. They a visible for a short time.
It could have been a conjunction of planets. When two or more planets line up they appear extra bright. There was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn at that time.
Or it could have been a spiritual sign. Something revealed to the wise men that no one else saw.
Two things: They saw the star in the east and went west, the opposite direction: Astrology was frowned on by the Jews. Matthew, writing for a Jewish audience, would not have included this if he was making it up. Really. You do not want to antagonise your audience if it is a fiction, even if it was written for effect. But Matthew was not writing history, or biography. There is no reason for details about this star. It gets two very brief mentions.
But back to the wise men.
They came to find the child born a king, and they did what wise men do. They went to a palace.
You would not expect to find a king, even as an infant, in a cattle feed trough.
You would not expect a king to be in an obscure rural village instead of the capital city.
You would not expect to find a king conceived outside wedlock to a young teenage woman.
That is the thing about Jesus, turning up where you do not expect:
As a child born in a stable.
As an asylum seeker, a migrant fleeing a despotic ruler.
As a person totally humiliated, stripped naked, executed on a cross.
You expect to see a king in a palace. But that is not God’s kind of Kingship. God wins his kingdom back not by might, not by power but in the humility of the stable and the cross.
Do you know God as this kind of king?