“Where is he?” Around 3 BC, some men from the middle east, likely Babylonians, who were astrologers and magicians, saw a star and sign in the heavens that they believed indicated that a new king and ruler of the Jews had been born. The ancestors of these men would have come into contact with Jewish prophecies over 500 years earlier when the Jewish elites were hauled off into exile in Babylon after Jerusalem and its temple had been destroyed. These foreign men were deeply intrigued at the apparent fulfillment of this ancient Hebrew prophecy, because it said that one named “Immanuel,” or “god with us,” was going to be born to rescue and rule the world. At the possibility that the living god himself might be coming into the world to be tangibly present, these men headed off on a long journey to the land of the Jews to see if they could find out where he was.
Looking for a king, these men naturally headed to the seat of power in Jerusalem, the place where Herod the Great was king and ruler over the land. They went into Herod’s magnificent palace and asked, “Where is he? The one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” But Herod the Great and those in power did not know where he was. This new ruler, this “god with us,” wasn’t in their palaces and he wasn’t in their great city and capital. This troubled Herod and all those in power—a king and ruler, claiming their positions of power, had apparently been born and they didn’t know where he was.
So Herod gathered all the leaders of the priests and the scribes together and asked them, “Where is he?” Herod wanted to know where the promised ruler, the promised messiah or christ, this “god with us,” was supposed to be born. Looking to the scriptures, these scholars figured it out—it was from Bethlehem that the ruler and shepherd of god’s people was supposed to come. So Herod the Great sent these Babylonian men to Bethlehem saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. Then when you have found him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship him.” Herod wanted to know exactly where this new ruler was, he wanted to know where god was making himself present in the world.
So off these Babylonian magicians went, to find this new king. They looked to the heavens and continued to follow the star, following it to the humble and poor town of Bethlehem until it came to a standstill over the house where this child was residing. Inside they found a child and his poor, unmarried mother, who had conceived and given birth to him out of wedlock. Could this be the chosen ruler? Could this be “god with us”? Unphased by the absurdity of the picture in front of them, that god would be revealed here in this kind of place, these foreigners fell down before the child and worshiped him, showering him with their possessions.
Before they left, the Babylonian astrologers had a dream that told them to avoid Herod the Great. Heeding this advice they headed back to their own country by another route. Herod the Great, however, was furious when he realized he had been duped and avoided, and he became bound and determined to find where this child was. In his anger, he ordered that all the baby boys under two years old in Bethlehem and the surrounding areas be killed. He couldn’t allow a competing king and ruler to live, he had to strike while he had a chance to get rid of him, once and for all.
But before this happened, Joseph, the surrogate father of this child, Jesus, was told in a dream to flee as well, “Get up! Take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you. For Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.” The family was told to leave and go to the most unlikely place a Hebrew family could possibly go—Egypt. The Hebrew people had a long history of hating Egypt because the Egyptian Empire had once enslaved them for 430 years. But the ruler of the land was after this child, looking to kill him, and so the family left everything familiar behind—home, culture, and family systems—in order to escape this oppression and seek refuge in Egypt.
And there they stayed, with no one able to find out where they were for months and months, until Joseph was told in another dream, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel. For those who sought the child’s life are dead.” Herod the Great died in about 1 BC and this allowed a window of safety for the family to return to the land of Israel. So they left Egypt, just as the Hebrew people had done hundreds of years before, and headed back to the land of Israel. They tried to go home to Bethlehem, but they soon discovered that Herod Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great, was ruling and was no less of a tyrant than his father. So, after another dream, Joseph took the family up north to the rural outskirts of Galilee. There, in this poor farming region, a region of revolutionaries and outcasts, they settled in the small town of Nazareth to raise their son.
“Where is he?” As Jesus’ life began, many were trying to find him—some to worship him, some to kill him. But where would they find him? Where could they locate the one born to rule the world? Where could they locate the one who was said to be “god with us”? Where can a person find god in the world? They looked in cities of power, they looked in palaces—he wasn’t there. But a group of foreigners found him. They found a poor boy, born to an unwed mother, forced to leave his homeland as a refugee, an immigrant in a foreign land, who was hunted by those in power.
Is this the place we would look for the chosen ruler of the whole world? Is this where we would look to find god himself?
One time the disciples of Jesus were searching for god in their midst by wondering who was the greatest in god’s eyes. Jesus grabbed a random child and said to them, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not be part of the rule of god. Whoever humbles himself like this child, is the greatest in the rule of god. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Whoever welcomes a child, welcomes Jesus? What does that mean? Children were nobodies in the ancient world. They had no political, social, or economic power or worth. They were invisible and had no voice. They had no property, no possessions, no rights. They weren’t even considered to be fully human yet. And yet, the Babylonian astrologers welcomed a poor and lowly child, they were willing to see god’s presence in a human being with no political, economic, or social power.
So where is it that we can find Jesus among us today? Where is it that we can find god? “Where is he?” Jesus himself would later teach where he could be found. “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me in. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you visited me. I was in prison, and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? And when did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these lowliest brothers of mine, you did it to me.”
As we celebrate Christmas and the birth of Jesus this year, where will we go looking for him? Where do we think we will find god, who will rescue us from all the madness of our world? Will we look for him in places where he cannot be found? Will we look for him among the wealthy, the powerful, and the famous? Or will we look for him in the lowly, unlikely places of our world?
Now that Jesus has come, god is indeed with us, he is right around the corner and within our very grasp. “Where is he?” He is in the hungry. He is in the thirsty. He is in the stranger. He is in the naked. He is in the sick. He is in the prisoners. God is indeed with us in our world and he is here to rescue us, but are we looking in the right places? Amen.