Download or listen to the Epiphany of Our Lord, “Where Are the Kings?” (Matthew 2:1-12)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If you were Jerusalem, watching and waiting as Isaiah had told you to watch and wait; lifting up your eyes to see your sons come from far away and your daughters carried on the hip; to look and be radiant, that your heart will thrill and exult; if you are Jerusalem, waiting at the door, looking out the window, checking your watch, saying “how long? How long?” like a child waiting for her grandparents to come for Christmas, like a mother waiting for her son to return from war; if you are watching and waiting, and you hear Matthew 2, you might be inclined to say, “These are not the ones we were waiting for.” Where are the kings? Where are the nations coming to our light, and the kings to the brightness of our rising? Where are the rich, and the powerful, and the celebrities, and those who know how to make things happen? All I see are magi. Really? Magi? Astrologers, two-bit magicians, the servants of pagan kings? Magi. And not very wise magi, at that. They can’t seem to do anything of their own will; they are pushed and pulled here and there by circumstances outside of their control; they seem to be driving blind through this whole story. A star appears, and somehow—Matthew doesn’t tell us—they connect that star with the birth of the King of the Jews. Yes, they do go to the logical place for a king of the Jews, Jerusalem. But when they get there, Herod (Matthew calls him “king” twice) is not very happy at the news. He is “disturbed” to find out about this new king, of whom he knew nothing. And all Jerusalem is disturbed with him, because when Herod is disturbed, bad things happen. If the magi had known anything about Herod before they came, they would have known that Herod did not take kindly to threats to his throne. He liked to eliminate any danger to his rule. He killed various relatives; he killed his own wife. His paranoia knew no bounds.
But apparently he was able to hide it well enough, because the magi have no clue. Herod calls in his experts, his interpreters of Scripture, and asks them where the Christ is to be born. They say, well, there’s this prophecy in Micah about Bethlehem of Judah, and a ruler who will come from there. (Though they leave off the part about Him being “from of old, from ancient days” [Micah 5:2b].) And there’s something in Chronicles and Samuel about a descendent of David who would shepherd God’s people Israel. So Herod sends the magi to Bethlehem, and tells them to search carefully for the king, so that he, too, can come and pay him homage. And the magi dutifully obey, being good servants of pagan kings. They go to Bethlehem and, on their way, they see the same star they saw before; now it reappears over a house. This story is so familiar to us, it doesn’t seem strange, but I’ve never seen any star so close that you could tell which house it was over. But this one is. And when the magi see it, they rejoice with an exceedingly great joy, they give Jesus their gifts, and they bend their knees. And then, they’re ready to go tell Herod what he wants to know, except for a dream telling them to go home. And they do, and we hear nothing more about them.
Jerusalem, where are the kings? The king of His people wants to murder him, and the religious leaders ignore him. The only ones who show up at the house are pagan idolaters from God knows where. But the irony is that when these magi show up, they do not only find the King of the Jews, the God of Israel who has a Hebrew Name, Yahweh. This baby, a Jew, born to Jews, in the midst of Judea, is also the God of all creation, and the King of all nations. He is their king, a light to lighten the Gentiles, as Simeon sang last week. But this is the way God reigns in this world of tyrants and murderers; this world of pagans and idolaters; this world of religious leaders who don’t even believe the words coming out of their own mouths. God reigns in weakness; He has to be defended from murderous kings, and He has to have a man named Joseph take Him safely to Egypt. He reigns in hiddenness, away from the centers of power, 9 miles outside Jerusalem. He reigns though His Kingdom appears small. He reigns in houses He has chosen, under signs He Himself gives. People are searching for God everywhere. Seeking and looking and searching frantically for God, whether they know it or not. That’s because we have a relentless desire, a relentless drive, to worship. And that’s not a good thing in sinners. It means that we will worship just about anything that comes our way. We will make idols out of every good thing God has given us. When one fails, we just find another…and another, and another, and another. We will construct idols out of the things we do with our hands, the things we earn with our work, the things we buy with our money, and the things we do with our time. We will put time, money, and energy into almost anything but God. We will look anywhere for God but where He has promised to be.
But these idols—everything we own and do and make—all turn to dust at the feet of the Child. These gods must all kneel to the God of all. These rulers must bow before the King of all. God has entered flesh to kill off our idols one by one, and to make people who will believe almost anything into believers in the one thing no one can bring themselves to believe: that this Jesus is your King and God, who has bought you out of your paganism and idolatry with His own blood and death. But where can you find this God? Under a star? In swaddling cloths? No. He has given us something even better. The star and the swaddling cloths are only signs; but Jesus has given us signs much more sure, because these signs are actually Him. He has given us His very Word that He will be found in a house of words, where He really does forgive sinners: you and me. He has given us His very Word that He will be found in a house made of water, where His death and resurretion are given freely to you, where you are buried with Him and raised to new life, where He begins the work that He will finish when He raises your body from the dead. He has given us His very Word that He will be found in Bet-lehem, the house of bread: take and eat, this is My Body. A house of wine: take and drink, this is My Blood. These are the houses, and these are the signs. You’ve heard it many times, but He still keeps repeating Himself, because in this world of murder and idolatry and religiosity, where we can hardly hold on to Him, He uses these things to hold on to us.
And, O Jerusalem, don’t worry: the kings will come. The mighty and the powerful and the rich. The Revelation to John prophecies it: the New Jerusalem will come down from heaven as a bride adorned for her husband, and all the riches and glory and power of this earth will be brought into her. Nations to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. Because in your midst is the Light of the world. There is no sun in the New Jerusalem because God and the Lamb are its light. And every knee will bow, whether here by faith or then by forced submission. These Gentile magi are only the beginning of all the disciples of Jesus Christ made by water and the Word, by baptism and teaching. And on the day you see Him face to face, on the day you enter His New Jerusalem, you will see and you will rejoice with an exceedingly great joy.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 1/5/13