St. Paul's Lutheran Church
The Epiphany of our Lord, Year C 1/6/2019
“The Tale of Two Kings”
Grace, mercy, and peace be to you, from God our Father through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our text for today’s message is the Gospel lesson, Matthew 2:1-12.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ.
Introduction: The Best of Kings and the Worst of Kings
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
It was the Year of Our Lord when the star appeared. Spiritual and astronomical revelations were conceded to some men from the east, who saw this “event”; those men of the west were less favored on the whole as to matters spiritual than their eastern neighbors. The powers of the West rolled with exceeding smoothness downhill, levying incredibly heavy taxes on the people and building magnificent buildings, even remaining in the good graces of their Roman backers.
There was a king with a large jaw ruling over the throne of Judea…and there was a king in Bethlehem, who as it so happened…was a baby.
This is a story of two kings.
It is also a story you’ve heard a dozen times. My challenge to you this day is to hear it afresh, and consider anew in detail the ways God revealed Himself in an utterly personal way, and indeed, in an utterly vulnerable way. The King Who comes to save His people comes as a human child. But also consider, how God works through means, through history, to bring His King and Kingdom to the world…even to ones not fully informed of all that was taking place.
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the King, behold! Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the One who has been born, King of the Jews?” For they had seen his star in the east and desired to pay homage to him.
The first matter concerns the visit of the magi. Often rendered “wise men”, “magi” is the plural of magus. Now, a magus is a Persian pagan priest and sorcerer. Entailed in these vocations are the tasks of dabbling in astrology, dream interpretation, and the occult. A magus, then, by any biblical standards would not be wise! Indeed, to Matthew’s hearers, the appearance of these men in the narrative would cause alarm. A group of magi from parts unknown would elicit a healthy skepticism to the ears of Matthew’s audience. The question would be raised, “These are the ones chosen to receive an epiphany?” However, God reveals a sign to these pagan foreigners that a king had indeed been born. They report to Herod that they had seen the star of the king (note the irony) and desired to bend the knee.
Here is Matthew’s lesson: the birth of this Jesus, from the line and lineage of David, who is Emmanuel (God with us), this king is first worshiped by Gentiles. It is men from the East, who are not fully informed, who first come and seek this newborn king. This signals God’s working for the salvation of all nations in that these least likeliest of devotees come to seek the King of the Jews.
One more note on verses 1-2. They do not immediately find this newborn King, nor do they find his town straightaway. They go to Jerusalem to Herod to find out where the Messiah might be born. Herod, himself is not true a king, is a puppet of the Romans, and not even ethnically a Jew. But he is wicked and powerful, and is bent on piggybacking on their pursuit, using them as his pawns.
3 And when he had heard this, King Herod was disturbed and all of Jerusalem with him; 4 and upon gathering all of the chief priests and scribes of the people, he began to learn through a questioning of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 And they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea. For thus it stands written through the prophet, 6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah. For from you shall come out one who rules, who will shepherd my people, Israel.’”
Verse three serves as a minor chord in the plot…if a wicked and cruel king is “disturbed”, one can be assured that his subjects feel the tremors! This isn’t disturbed as in I’ve lost my car keys, but Herod is troubled that there is a potential usurper to his power. However, a threatened, cruel king is not without his wits. Herod begins gathering information. He assembles the advisors from the bible college and the experts of all things cultic and begins questioning them.
Now these so-called experts weren’t fully informed either. But you must give them credit, they knew where to look. The Holy Scriptures. God’s Word in the prophecies of both Micah 5 and 2 Samuel 5 reveals the where and the what. The Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem; one who will both rule and shepherd. This citation from two different sources is an exemplar of how rich and multi-layered God’s Word is. The One who would come and save is not just a king, but a Shepherd-King. And this child, the one born in David’s hometown, will fill up all Scripture unto Himself.
7 Then Herod secretly summoning the magi, made a detailed inquiry from them the precise time of the appearing of the star, and sending them into Bethlehem, he said, “Go, and carefully inquire concerning the child. And as soon as you find him, report back to me, so that I also might go and pay homage to him.”
A further contrasting of the two kings. Herod, the KJV says, “privily” called these pagans to do his dirty work. His purpose is bent on his own self-preservation, and so he interrogates them about the star. He detects the star means something. So, he sends them into Bethlehem on reconaissance, to gather information. They are to report back to this so-called king, so that he can take appropriate measures to protect his power.
Herod works through stealth, and cunning, and is a master manipulater and murderer…a true son of “the father of lies”. By contrast, the true King of Israel is the Word of God made flesh…dwelling in the City of David, the embodiment of theTruth of God. He has come not to acquire earthly power, or to dominate others with it. He is power incarnate. But His power is made perfect in weakness, revealed in the mysterious and miraculous, but also in ways that are open and manifested. One is called to believe in this revelation. And this King, Jesus Christ, will rule, not in earthly might, but in humble service. He lays aside his rightful claim to glory in order to redeem mankind from the curse of sin.
And when they had heard the king, they went on their way, and behold! The star which they had seen in the east was leading them until it came and was standing above where the child was. And upon seeing the star, they rejoiced an exceedingly great joy. And going into the house, the saw the child with Mary his mother, and falling down, they worshipped him, and opening their treasures, they offered gifts to him, gold and frankincense and myrrh.
Now, so far, these oft-called-wise-men are ones actually lacking acuity! They are pawns of Herod’s plans, and willingly go and do what he has instructed. Yet the star appears—again! —and leads them to the abode of the true king. Matthew says it stands over where the child was. Skeptics will posit this star was simply a natural phenomenon…but this is a singular star that breaks several astronomical laws! The point—these magi needed help still, and they got it. An unlikely party receiving Divine gifts to bring them to the location of the child-King of the Universe.
And they bring earthly gifts…gifts that tell us they expect to find a legitimate earthly king. For gold and frankincense and myrrh is what you would give to a…Herod. But Herod doesn’t receive these treasures. Jesus does…perhaps Joseph uses them to underwrite a mission trip to Egypt? Gifts supporting the work of the Church! But the key is the magi’s response to the epiphany. While they might have all along sought to “bend the knee” to the king they were searching for, the picture is of pagans falling down before a child. For this is a different kind of king than they were expecting. And still they worship.
And in this way, we are not so unlike them. God comes to us, in our sin, in our darkened understanding, and somehow through His grace and mercy…and His wisdom, He penetrates our hearts and minds, and reveals to us His Son. We worship this Christ child for who He is, what He did, and what He gives. And the gifts that we offer are used by Him, not that He Himself has need, but His body the Church uses them to serve and support the work of spreading the Good News and serving the neighbor.
And being warned according to a dream not to return back to Herod, through another road they departed into their own region.
And as much as it would please me at this point to celebrate these “wise men”, it appears that God had to come to them—again—to warn them not to return to Herod. Reading between the lines…they seemed intent to go back! Wise men indeed! However, we aren’t much wiser. For God has to keep coming to us, again and again and again, in His Word and Sacrament, in absolution, in the reminder of our baptisms, because we are also dim-witted Gentile sinners who need constant reminders of the grace and mercy of God for us in His Son Christ Jesus, the true King.
All of these things, and a thousand others besides them, came to pass in the Year of Our Lord, and the years shortly after. The two kings carried their kingly rights out, one with a high, cruel hand, and the other, in anonimity and meekness and obscurity, until one day…He came on the scene…entering the Jordan River, and embarking on the road that lay before Him, annointed with the Spirit of God. But that is a story for a different day.