It was the best of kings, it was the worst of kings…or something like that. Yesterday was the Day of Epiphany, January 6th, where we celebrate the arrival of the Wise Men at the home of the child Jesus. Read the story in Matthew 2. Did you notice anything you weren’t expecting? We often call this the story of the Three Kings, but it never actually calls them kings, or says how many there were (there were three gifts, and somewhere along the way we assumed one gift per king). It’s generally thought that these were priests of the neighboring religion Zoroastrianism–in some ways the first Gentile followers of Jesus. So while there aren’t really three kings in this story, two kings do feature quite prominently: King Herod and Jesus. Our reading stopped at verse 12, but in the link to Matthew 2 above, I included the whole chapter, because it’s where I focused with my preaching. As always, let me know what you think in the comments!
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“The wise men left for their own country by different road.” Such a small detail at the end of this story of the visit of the Magi to the child Jesus, but a very important one. For the wise men were right to go home by a different road, to not heed Herod’s command and return to Jerusalem to tell him where the child Jesus was.
For Herod does not seek to pay homage to the child as he says. He seeks to destroy the child. And when the wise men do not return to provide details, King Herod orders the massacre of all boys under the age of two in Bethlehem. The Massacre of the Innocents, the church has called it.
Jesus escapes this massacre only because Joseph received a warning in a dream. He flees with his family, running from violence and death, to take refuge in Egypt. They only return once Herod himself dies.
This isn’t part of the story that we read on Christmas Eve, or even on Epiphany. We stop reading before we get to the horrible events that come after Jesus’ birth. But as horrible as these events are, we can’t just stop reading. This might not be the Christmas story we most like to hear, but it is a part of the story that is deeply important, and relevant to our lives today.
We, too, have too many families on the run from their homes for fear for their lives. We, too, have too many innocents being slaughtered, whether by violence or treatable disease or preventable starvation. We, too, have more than enough leaders terrified by the prospect of losing power and willing to do almost anything to keep it. This probably will never be the Christmas story we prefer reading, but it is one that we need to read.
We call this the story of the Three Kings, but it’s really more a tale of two kings: Herod and Jesus. The wise men come to Herod looking for the king whose star they observed. Of course, they started their search in Jerusalem, in the stately palace. This is, after all, where you would find a king. And there they find King Herod, with political and social power, surrounded by the finery of the palace.
But this is not the king they seek. The one they are looking for is to be found in Bethlehem, say the scribes and chief priests, a backwater town in the middle of nowhere. One of the smaller tribes. When they find the child, he’s not in a palace or a place of honor, but in a simple house.
King Herod is powerful and rich, but his position is not secure. His family was chosen by the Roman government to rule, and he has no legitimate claim to power. He is paranoid and brutal. He had two of his own sons killed. Everything he does seeks to preserve his own power by any means necessary.
Jesus, on the other hand, is not powerful at all. He’s a child, a baby. Vulnerable and poor. And yet this baby is enough of a threat to Herod’s power that he orders the slaughter of thousands of children.
When Herod hears that these wise men from afar are looking for the child who has been born king of the Jews, Matthew tells us that “he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” He was afraid. He was afraid to lose power. He was afraid of what these signs in the heavens might mean. He was afraid because this small child threatened everything he stood on.
Fear is what lead to those thousands of small children dying. Fear is what lead to Joseph and Mary and Jesus needing to flee their home, hoping for safe refuge in a foreign country. Fear is what still leads to these things today. When fear rules in our hearts, we don’t look to share, we don’t look to love, we don’t look to be open to others. Instead we worry, and we hoard, and we close ourselves off.
Herod is right to be afraid of Jesus, not just because there is now a new king in town, but because Jesus offers for us, models for us, an entirely different way of being a king. Where Herod ruled in power and status, Jesus rules in weakness and servanthood. Where Herod only sought to get more and more control, God in Jesus gives up control, becomes vulnerable for the sake of others. And where Herod’s actions were ruled by fear, Jesus’ are ruled by love.
That love makes it possible for us to heed the prophet Isaiah’s command to rise up and shine. Arise! Shine! For you light has come, declares the prophet. The light of God’s love revealed in Jesus changes everything. For King Herod, that change was reason to fear. If we’re willing to be honest, sometimes God’s love makes us afraid, too. Afraid of what might change in our lives. Afraid of being more open, of maybe losing something important to us.
But even when the darkness of our fear covers us, God’s light shines into that darkness to bring about the dawn. There are always going to be Herod’s in the world, ruling in fear and paranoia. There are always going to be moments when we, too, embody that fear. But the Lord will continue to shine upon us. And God’s light will call us to a different way.
It’s a tale of two kings. Jesus’ new way of kingship reveals to us the heart of God: God’s love come to us to teach us this new way of life. And when that love takes hold of us—it is stronger than our fears, stronger than our doubts, stronger than our insecurities. All there is for us to do is to shine, to be beacons of that light and love in a world ruled by fear and darkness. To offer another way: a way of service, a way of hope, and a way of love. Arise! Shine! For your light has come. God has come to us, to lead us forth in sharing that light with all. Amen.