A Disturbing Epiphany

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.” When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. 4 He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:
You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
        by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
            because from you will come one who governs,
            who will shepherd my people Israel.”
Matthew 2:1-6 CEB

I had just sat down at my desk with a personally-crafted double shot, non-fat latte in my hand. My desk was finally free from holiday clutter. My Hearth and Hand Leather and Tobacco candle had filled my office with its glorious scent. I was enjoying some delicious silence as I sermonized for Epiphany Sunday when it happened. My iPhone, iPad and iMac began to vibrate, buzz and ring as a call came across wifi to all three devices simultaneously. It was a cacophony of noise – evil enough on its own – made worse by being from an unfamiliar number. I quickly muted each device and turned my attention back to my studies. A minute later, all three devices again began to vibrate, buzz and ring again and from the identical unfamiliar number. I muted them again, put my phone in do-not-disturb mode but by then, it was too late. I had been disturbed and I don’t like being disturbed, especially when I have created an environment perfectly suited for quiet sermonizing.

It was at that precise moment that my eyes focused on the third verse of the appointed Gospel text for Epiphany, quoted above: When King Herod heard this, he was troubled/disturbed and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled/disturbed with him.

Why exactly, was Herod disturbed? I mean I get it, Herod was a deeply suspicious, troubled and fatally-flawed man, but what was it about these Magi and their search for the newborn king of the Jews along with his chief priests’ and legal experts’ quotation from the prophet Micah, that caused him to be disturbed enough to seek a second, secret meeting with these exotic Easterners? Some further reflection on a passing exegetic comment in my notes led to an epiphany of my own.

I believe that Herod’s original troubled spirit was further agitated by the quotation, or shall I say partial quotation of the prophet Micah, by his chief priests and legal experts. I am convinced that Herod was deeply familiar with that Messianic prophecy. After all, by all accounts, he was obsessed with any and all, real or perceived threats to his throne. In fact, he curated the fanciful idea that he, Herod, was the fulfillment of that Messianic prophecy despite his ignoble heritage. Any challenge to that notion was quickly quelled. Their quotation of the first three lines of Micah 5:2 is nearly verbatim with the subtle exception of the the final line. The chief priests and legal experts substituted Micah’s phrase “his origin is from remote times from ancient days”, with “who will shepherd my people Israel.” Shepherding is not associated with political power because shepherding implies compassion, courage and self-sacrificing care, all things that Herod and most other powerful people despise. Herod could not think of his kingship in those terms. I suspect that what appears at first blush to be a simple misquotation of Micah, was in reality a not-so-subtle challenge to his Messianic complex. Herod knew that this was not how he came to power, and this was certainly not how he was going to stay in power. The agitation of the not-so-subtle challenge of his religious leaders, combined with the Magi “returning home by a different route, erupted into the mass-murder of all male babies in Bethlehem and the surrounding area. Herod is forever remembered as The Butcher of the Bethlehem Innocents.

Tending His Flock

“Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock; he will gather lambs in his arms and lift them onto his lap. He will gently guide the nursing ewes.” – Isaiah 40:11

Some people say that the God of the First Testament is not as loving as the God of the Second Testament and I can understand why. Yet I think Isaiah’s picture of a loving shepherd describes God in both powerful and yet loving terms. God is like a shepherd who gathers lambs in his arms and holds them close to his heart. Jesus later said he is the kind of shepherd who will not only care for this sheep, he also will give up his life for them. And that’s exactly what he did by dying on the cross in our place. In the greatest transaction in all of human history, Jesus, the shepherd foretold by Isaiah, took all our sins on himself so that we can be made right with God.

Like sheep, we have to recognize that we have gone astray and continue to do so. The Bible calls this straying sin. Kierkegaard defined sin this way: Sin is not simply doing bad things, but putting good things in the place of God. He goes on to suggest that the only solution is not to change our behavior but to reorient our hearts and life around God.

Take a few moments today to reorient yourself around the God who “like a shepherd, will tend the flock” and “gather lambs in his arms and lift them onto his lap.”

A Shepherd King

“The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing. He lets me rest in grassy meadows; he leads me to restful waters; he keeps me alive. He guides me in proper paths for the sake of his good name.” – Psalm 23:1-3 CEB

Psalm 23 is the best known and perhaps the best-known passage in all of Holy Scripture. Take a moment and read this short Psalm twice through, perhaps in the Common English Bible translation quoted above. Now that you have read and re-read the Psalm, why do you think it is so well known and universally loved? Think about David’s experience as a shepherd and how that may have impacted the words he put to paper. What, if any, comfort do you find in these words?

As this season of Advent draws to a close, what needs do you have? Are you in need of some “grassy meadows” or “restful waters”? From what “enemies” do you need protection and deliverance? Use the inspired words of King David to help you journal and to provide spiritual refreshment and comfort to your soul.

After you journal and talk about these things to God, ask Him to empower you by his Spirit so that you can look back at them without fear and see His hand at work in your life this Advent season.