Our Saviour’s Atonement Lutheran Church
Reverend John Zachary Flack
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
We are accustomed to thinking of the Gospel text today as the story of the three kings—as you know, many cultures throughout the world look forward to January 6th to celebrate the day of the three kings, and celebrate with parades and parties and holidays. I have always loved the depiction of the Magi, whether as the three kings in that song, “We Three Kings,” or as bearded old Wise Men from the East. My parents even have a nativity from Germany that has the three kings in it, depicted as the European traditions suggests: and old king, a young king, and an African king. But as much as I love the art and the pageantry of the three kings, it’s all wrong. This is the story about three kings. There aren’t even three kings in the story. This is the story about two kings, King Herod and King Jesus, and the magi that come looking for Messiah. Which King is the Messiah—the one in the palace, with the attendants and ladies and gentleman in waiting, with the stewards and the constables, the sergeants and the chefs? Or is he the one in the little town of Bethlehem, hidden away in some nondescript place—a stall, a cave, a backyard? Things in this story are not what they seem. It’s a story of two kings, and the story of looking at the reality of things, and the way God really is in this world, whether we see God or not.
And I think that’s one of the really interesting things in this story—if you read it carefully, you’ll see that nothing is clear for anyone. The Wise Men come from the East—we are not told where, although the Greek calls them Magi, which suggests that they were astrologers and magicians from Persia, men Jews of the time would have thought were dabbling in the dark arts. These Wise Men are not so wise, though, because although they have discovered the birth of a king, they have not discovered exactly where he was supposed to be born. They show up at the wrong town, looking in the wrong places, asking the wrong people.
And the learned men of Jerusalem, they seem to be lost at sea. You can just see King Herod receiving the Wise Men asking them, “So you say that there is a king born, and that this king is not me?” The Wise Men, again, not so wise, say, “Yes. Some king of the Jews,who isn’t you, is born and we want to pay him homage, not you. Your Majesty.” And you can hear Herod call his scribes, astrologers, scientists, and soothsayers and say to them, “Did you know about this?” “Well, my liege,” one of them may have said, “there has been this astrological phenomenon, a singular and most impressive and yet highly unusual star that has inexplicably appeared nine months ago and seems to be progressing steadily from the East towards Bethlehem, signifying, perhaps, the birth of a great king, or it could be a portent of war or a sign of an extremely good barley crop. We are scribes, your Majesty; astrology is not our speciality. Or it could be the wine here, your Majesty.” And King Herod could have said, “You didn’t tell me that there’s a star that says there is a king of the Jews who isn’t me?”
That man was lucky if he still had a head the next morning.
And so the wise men did not know where the child was, because they did not know the Scriptures. And the learned class of Jerusalem did not know that the star mean the Messiah was born because they didn’t know enough about the stars. And Herod, apparently, had no clue about stars or Scripture, but knew full well that if he was king, and there was another king in his kingdom, one of them was going to have to die, and by Caesar’s beard, it wasn’t going to be him. And meanwhile, over in Bethlehem, Mary was probably a lot like Clare and I are now, mystified and terrified by every little twitch and gasp of her brand new baby, and waking up every two hours so he could get something to eat, and she had no idea anyone in Jerusalem was looking for her. Everybody in this story doesn’t know enough. Everybody knows just enough for the next step. And nothing is clear until, at the moment the Wise Men who Aren’t So Wise found whichever little house in Bethlehem that held Jesus, and walked in, and knelt before him and gave him their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Only then do they have a clear picture of what was going on—or maybe not. They simply know enough to get home quietly, by another way, eluding the grasp of King Herod while grasping in their hearts the memory of the little king in the little house in the little town of Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph flee, because as soon as King Herod discovers the Wise Men have escaped, he orders the deaths of all the infant boys in Bethlehem under two years old. It’s a nasty little coda to a story that, when looked at properly, has a nasty antagonist, and lot of nasty undertones, and could have gotten a whole lot nastier if the Wise Men, say, went back and told Herod that his boys were right, the king is born in Bethlehem, and Herod should totally go to 178 Bennett Ave and pay him homage!
What a wild story, what a strange string of events! The whole Christmas story—the angels, the barn, the Wise Men, the dreams, the slaughter—it’s like a fantasy novel, and even some of the Wise Men of our day judge it to be a fantasy novel, something suitable for children, but not for adults. We know that stars are giant balls of boiling gas light years away, and that virgins don’t conceive children, and God doesn’t speak to us through dreams, and ost of all, that God does not, if God exists at all, take residence in human flesh and become part of the mess of this world.
And even in that there is some truth, if not all of it. Stars do not determine our lives—conjunctions of planets will not make us fall in love. But God does speak to us through Scripture, and teaches us how to interpret the signs of our times. God does lead us to Jesus, and we can pay Jesus homage and offer to him our most precious gifts. God does care for his children, and the Gospel, as Paul so eloquently writes, reveals the mystery of God’s will and purpose, that through Christ all people of the earth shall become brothers and sisters, and will speak of the power and glory of God to all rulers and dominions of fear, and God will cast down the tyrant and lift up the downtrodden. Those things are real and true, and because God is, there is truth and there is justice and consolation in affliction. There is a purpose, an eternal purpose, in the coming of Christ, and it is to bring all things into the glory of God, to make all Creation whole.
Paul says, “I pray therefore that you may not lose heart over my sufferings for you; they are for your glory.” I have a theory about the Wise Men, that their journey was not easy, that they had to give up their magic and their astrology when they left Bethlehem by another road. And as Herod proves, the message of peace is not always welcomed by those who hear, and the revelation of God’s mystery is not always good news for those who profit by the way things are. Many of you now, may be suffering. Many of you may wonder, in your solitary moments, what God is up to, or if God is up to anything at all.
If this story is about anything, it is about that: trust in the lodestar, Jesus Christ, as he shines forth through the witness of Scripture and the reality of this gathering of sinners, as we each and every one, are mended and made whole by the holy Word of God. Believe, and trust, knowing that not everything is revealed to us at once, but that in Christ, God gives us more than we can ever know, and everything that we need. Amen.