Two Steps Forward, One Back
Two Steps Forward, One Back
The visit of the Wise Ones sets us up for the beginning of Epiphany. The beginning of a new year, full of awe and wonder. What can the visit from these strangers from the East tell us?
Scripture: Matthew 2: 1-12
Two Steps Forward, One Back
We are playing with time this week. Tomorrow is Epiphany, which is when the Wise Ones arrive in Bethlehem and present their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. It is a passage that often gets lumped into Christmas story, but within the Christian year it actually represents the season after Christmas. This week also finds us going back a few verses in Matthew’s gospel from what was read last week when Mary, Joseph and Jesus need to flee to Egypt for fear that Herod is seeking to kill Jesus.
Often when we read scripture it seems we take one step forward and then two steps back. It’s a bit of a dance. The original phrase “one step forward, two steps backwards” actually came from an anecdote about a frog trying to scale a water well. This frog kept trying to climb up the wall of the well but for every two steps it climbed, it fell back by one step and the term “two steps forward and one step back” was coined. Over time the words were re-arranged and we end up with the saying we have today.
I don’t believe that we should view taking one step forward, then two steps backwards as a negative. If can often be helpful to stop and reflect, perhaps recognize that we have left things undone which require doing.
I came across a slogan the other day, it was from a crafting website but may well apply to any number of hobbies. In 2020 I plan to finish the crafts I started in 2019, with the supplies I bought in 2018 and the ideas I had in 2017.
Sometimes taking a step back is ok and that is what we are doing today. We take a moment to reflect on the events that led the Holy Family to flee to Egypt from the wrath of Herod. We sit with uncomfortable subject matter for a moment longer. However, we should note that there is wonder and joy in our passage today even though it may sit under a difficult passage.
The passage of the Wise Men always fascinated me as a child because the three visitors always seemed so strange, so outside my own experience. Who were these individuals who would travel to visit Jesus? How far did they travel, how long did it take? If I’m honest I just liked singing the hymn ‘We three kings’. It was one of my favourites growing up.
The way Matthew writes this section of his Gospel makes it seem as if the events in the first two chapters happen one right after the other. It’s only when Jesus is an adult that we understand that most of the gospel account transpires over a three year period leading up to Holy Week, with the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. Here in the early chapters everything comes in very rapid-fire delivery. When we read the Nativity accounts in Matthew and Luke it is as if the angels, shepherds and wise ones are all tripping over each other to get into that manger. Most likely, there were weeks and years between the events that occur in the first two chapters. It is doubtful that the wise one’s were present the night Jesus was born. More accurately, they arrived in the weeks and months after Jesus’ birth. The clue to this is the timing of Herod’s decree to kill the boys under the age of two. It tells us that time has passed.
We also shouldn’t take for granted that the Wise Men were men. The Greek refers to these Wise Men as Magi and they have their origin in Persia. It is likely that they were followers of Zoroastrianism, a religion which is still practiced today. While most translations tell us that these visitors from the east were Wise Men, we should note that caravans from Persia often included female practitioners of this religion. Matthew clues the readers ear to the patriarchal context of the time which privileges male voice, male characters and male presence. (reference)
I mention this because much of scripture favours the male voice and there is a legacy throughout the history of the church where the male voice has been favoured. However, in scripture we see so many examples of strong faithful women. In Paul’s letters it is evident that many of the fledgling Christian communities that are coming into existence are being led by women.
But let’s return to the Wise Ones. They are following a star, searching for a king. We know that this king is Jesus and we know where he was born, but they do not. They do what any of us might do, they visit the current king and ask, where is the king who was born under the star which has led us here? They were probably expecting to meet the current king’s heir.
Herod is very upset with this news. The NIV translation puts it as disturbed. And so was everyone else in Jerusalem.
Why is Herod afraid?
Why is all of Jerusalem afraid?
Why is Herod afraid, because he likes being king and doesn’t like this idea that a king who could trace his lineage back to King David has been born.
Why is all of Jerusalem afraid? Because their king has just been threatened and they know that this doesn’t bode well for them. These verses foreshadow the death of the male children under age two. A step forward, two steps backwards.
Herod gets crafty, he calls the Wise Ones in and says find this king so that I can worship him too! He choses to use the Wise Ones as spies, so that he can later eliminate the threat to his kingdom. Herod lies, indicating that he wants to pay homage to Jesus. When his intent all along is to eliminate him. This is what happens when we allow fear and anxiety to overtake us. We invent things.
The Wise Ones find Jesus and they pay homage to him. It is a remarkable contrast that is painted by Matthew between Herod and the Magi.
The Magi bow down, Herod sitting on his throne is afraid. The Magi are in awe, Herod is disturbed, upset. The Magi are peaceful, Herod reacts violently.
One step forward, two steps backwards. Jesus was welcomed by strangers, but his own people did not recognize him.
The Wise Ones offers their gifts of gold frankincense and myrrh. They worship a foreign king, one who is only known to them as ‘king of the Jews’ and here again Matthew is foreshadowing events. Jesus won’t be called ‘king of the Jews’ again until he hangs on the cross and Pilate writes his crude sign. The Wise Ones never indicate that they have come to worship God’s son, the Messiah, Emmanuel. They use none of those titles, they have come to worship the king.
We know who that king is. We know the values of that kingdom. Can we worship with the reverence and the awe of the Wise Ones?
As we step into the New Year, can we take two steps forward into the newness that is offered and at the same time take one step back to reflect on where we have come from? Amen.
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.