Here is Rev. Harrison’s sermon from Epiphany Sunday, which celebrates the arrival of the wise men to see the Christ child. Here is a link to the text: Matthew 2:1-12. May God bless you and yours in the new year.
The Two Kings
The story of the three wise men is one of the most familiar stories of the New Testament, but it’s missing a lot of the familiar parts. In fact, Matthew makes no mention of many of the major hallmarks of Luke’s nativity story: the census, the innkeeper, shepherds, and the manger are all absent from his narrative. Instead, Matthew’s version of the Christmas story is a dramatic comparison between two kings. Herod, whose power consists of money, rank, and privilege, and Jesus, whose power is found in vulnerability. It is a much more disturbing story than the more family-friendly one we hear on Christmas Eve, and a reminder that the arrival of Jesus into the world did not inspire goodwill in all men.
Herod the Great was the most powerful Jewish ruler that Palestine had had in more than a century. He more than doubled the size of the Temple and had used bricks for the foundation that weighed more than 500 tons. Herod had spent decades consolidating his power in Jerusalem, killing rivals, marrying shrewdly, making himself out to be Jerusalem’s savior while sucking up to Rome. He had been styling himself as King of the Jews, and encouraging Messianic prophecies to imply that he was the one to lead them. When the wise men arrived at his doorstep with news of a new king, he was anything but pleased. He was not making pilgrimage plans or looking for the right gift to bring. He was angry and afraid. The arrival of Jesus certainly did not inspire goodwill in him.
Herod was afraid that the Messiah would be the end of him and his control over the land. And he was not the only one who was afraid, but “all of Jerusalem with him.” So Herod did what powerful people do. He tried to get rid of his new rival. He plotted the death of the newborn child. Not openly of course, but secretly, his loud protestations about Messianic prophecies had painted him in a corner. On the outside, he loudly proclaimed his religious devotion. But like some politicians today, he flaunted his faith with no intention of following through on his actions. He made plans to destroy the child as soon as the wise ones returned with his location.
In the meantime, the wise men continued on to Bethlehem, where they found Mary and the child. Immediately they recognized that this was the one they had searched for. They knelt down before him, opening up their treasure chests and offering him gold, frankincense, and myrhh. On their way home the wise men all have the same dream, which warns them of Herod’s intentions. The next morning, as they awake, they have a choice to make. They can return and report Jesus’ location to Herod, saving their skins and perhaps even winning favors from a powerful man, or they can skip Jerusalem on their way home, and risk their lives to hide the baby from Herod’s murderous intentions.
They have to choose between two kings, one a king under the Roman banner, whose God is victory and whose language is violence, and another king, whose birth filled the world with light, but whose power is powerlessness and whose wisdom is folly. It is a choice between the power of man and the power of God, a choice of violence and control or love and surrender. It is the same choice we are often faced with, though we don’t always recognize it.
But we make decisions about who rules our lives. Do we insist on doing what is fair instead of doing what is right? Do we let our own ideas about success and importance interfere with treating every person with dignity and respect? Do we allow suffering we shouldn’t because resisting would be too hard, too dangerous, too different? Whenever we do we are declaring which power is the power we truly believe in.
The two kings that Matthew presents to his readers each strike a very different profile. Herod, along with the elites in Jerusalem, is powerful but afraid of his own shadow, speaks loudly of devotion while conspiring for his own gain. His power is brutal, his words insincere. On the other hand Jesus lays in the arms of Mary as a helpless babe. He does not seek to control anyone. He never worries that he will lose his power, because the goal of his life is to give it all away.
The choice the wise men made was most definitely the dangerous one. From the outside at least, making an enemy of a powerful ruler does not seem wise at all. But these wise men have the wisdom to see beyond the question of who has the most pull, the most money, or the most people following their orders. They have the wisdom to listen to their hearts for a deeper power, which extends further and lasts longer than the power of the sword. These wise men do not bow down to Herod’s power, even though it coerces, demands, and threatens.
Instead the wise men bow down to Jesus, simply because in Jesus they have found something more fulfilling than anything Herod can give them. They have found something that satisfies more than the next promotion, the next award, the next big purchase that all promise much but leave them wanting more. The wise men bow down to Jesus because in Jesus is the power of love, a power so deep the very heavens proclaim its arrival. Jesus does not force them to come, or threaten, or demand, but simply loves. The power of violence goes no further than the tip of the sword, but love, love calls for people to journey for miles and miles just to bear witness to its arrival. The wise men make this journey. They feel the calling within their own souls, the restlessness that brings their feet into movement, that calls them to follow that star in the sky, to bear witness to the fact that the light of the world has arrived. Having encountered it, they go home by another way, forever proclaiming that their King is not the king of Palestine, or Rome, but the King of Heaven and Earth, come down to live among us.
The truth which Matthew proclaims is this: light has arrived in a dark world, true love has burst forth into the world. And we, as the wise men, are called to go and see it. We are called to bear witness to the love that brings light into a dark world, that conquers the conquerors, that humbles the proud. Through love Jesus reaches out to us and calls us and makes us want to come from far away lands and bring the gifts that we have to bring, not because Jesus needs them but because we need to give them. We need to love too. On our way we will encounter powers and principalities and rulers who do not know love, but we must refuse to bow down, and we must continue on our journey. Just like the wise men, we must choose which power we believe in, the power of man or the power of God, whose power is love. We must follow the light of love to its ultimate conclusion, and when we have seen it testify to the light that we have seen, bearing witness that love has arrived to our dark world.