January 7, 2018 / Epiphany / Pastor Richard Holmer
First Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6 / Second Reading: Ephesians 3:1-12 / Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12
At Epiphany we sing the familiar carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” Tradition has even added names for these three visitors from the East: Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. At countless Christmas Pageants, these three provide the final segment of the drama – arriving after the angels and shepherds, and presenting their distinctive gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. However, in his Gospel Matthew does not refer to these visitors as kings but as wise men, or magi. They were not royalty but scholars – astronomers and/or astrologers who were alert to signs and portents in the heavens. There are passages in the bible that make reference to kings paying homage and offering gifts. We heard two such texts today.
In our first Reading from Isaiah we hear:
“Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
“They shall bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord”
And in Psalm 72:
“The Kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute, and the kings of Arabia and Saba offer gifts. All kings shall bow down before him, and all the nations do his service.”
So, while Matthew makes no reference to kings coming to worship the infant Jesus, it may be that later Christians saw fit to harmonize Matthew’s account with these other passages from the Old Testament. Furthermore, Christian tradition has presumed that because there were three gifts, there must have been three wise men who brought them. Matthew makes no indication as to how many wise men showed up in Bethlehem. What is more important to Matthew, and for us, is the two kings who are central to this story: King Herod and King Jesus.
Matthew refers to Christ’s birth as occurring “in the time of King Herod.” Herod was nearing the end of his long and ruthless reign. He served at the pleasure of the rulers of the Roman Empire. King Herod was a great builder, and his accomplishments included rebuilding and expanding the temple in Jerusalem (the Western Wall). Herod was a despotic and paranoid King. He executed many whom he perceived to be rivals or threats to his throne, including wives and family members.
Thus it comes as no surprise that Herod was greatly alarmed when the wise men appeared, asking “Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?” Herod had been king for over thirty years and had no intention of being replaced by any would-be king. Matthew indicates that Herod “was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” So it was that Herod pressed the wise men for exact information about the timing of the appearance of the star which had led them to Judea. Herod instructs them “to search diligently for the child,” and to let him know when they have found him. We know that Herod was not interested in paying homage to the newborn king; he was determined to eliminate him. When the wise men did not return to Herod as he had instructed them to do, Herod was enraged. He ordered the slaughter of all the baby boys in Bethlehem under the age of two.
Jesus escaped the wrath of Herod, but this was not the last time his life would be threatened.
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Matthew relates how the birth of Jesus, the king and savior, was a cause of both great hope and great fear. Last Sunday we heard how the prophet Simeon anticipated this ambivalent response to the coming of Christ. When Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus to the temple, Simeon rejoices that he has lived long enough to witness the coming of the promised Savior, and then he adds: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed, so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed, and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
From what Simeon says and what Herod does, it is clear that Christ’s coming into this world was not experienced as good news by all. For some, Jesus embodied God’s gracious promise. For others, he presented a profound threat. In Matthew’s telling, the wise men are motivated by hope and devotion. They undertake a long and difficult journey, not in search of any personal gain, but simply to worship and pay homage to the newborn king. Herod is driven by fear and desperation. For him, Christ’s birth presents a threat to his status and power.
This divided response to Jesus was apparent throughout his ministry. Simeon was exactly right when he said that Christ’s coming would cause the inner thoughts of many to be revealed. Many responded to Jesus like the wise men; with great hope and joy. Others were greatly offended and threatened by Jesus; some so much that, like Herod, they sought to kill him.
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What about our response to Jesus? What inner thoughts does his coming reveal in us? We are quick to identify with the wise men, and to despise Herod. It’s a no-brainer; we choose King Jesus over King Herod. Yet we need to be clear about what we are choosing. It’s a choice between changing and staying the same. The wise men were right to find hope and joy in Jesus. Herod was right to see Jesus as a genuine threat to the status quo. Remember what his mother Mary said about Jesus even before he was born. As Mary sings in the Magnificat: Jesus is the one who scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; brings down the powerful from their thrones; lifts up the lowly; fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty.
Jesus doesn’t sustain the status quo, he turns things upside down. He promises that those who are last will be first, and the first last. He says “blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” And he also says, “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.” It’s not hard to welcome baby Jesus in the manger, gentle and mild, soft and cuddly. It’s another thing to embrace the Jesus who challenges the status quo, who calls us to deny ourselves and take up a cross, to lose our lives for his sake in order to find our true lives.
Jesus is our king, and kings command obedience. In order to faithfully follow Jesus, we need to recognize what is challenging as well as what is comforting and hopeful. We can’t follow Jesus unless we are willing to be changed by Jesus. Most of us are ambivalent about change; we long for it, and we dread it. I want to say to Jesus, “Change the world, but don’t change me.” Jesus says to me, “Repent and believe the good news!” “Behold I make all things new.” (even you)
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King Herod feared the change that King Jesus would bring. He was wise enough to recognize that things would not stay the same, that he would not be the same. The wise men embraced the change that Jesus embodied. They returned home by a different road. And it wasn’t only the road that was different. They also were different from whom they were when they set out; changed by the dawning reality of a new king. To this day Jesus is still turning things and people around; comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.
May you find comfort and joy in worshiping and serving the King, who truly is your Savior. May you find strength and courage to make any and all necessary changes. And may you find peace in becoming more like him, Jesus Christ our King.