01/05/20 – A Conflict Between Two Kings


January 5, 2020
Sermon: Isaiah 60:1-9; Psalm 72, Matt. 2:1-12
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

Have you ever returned from a vacation more tired than before you left home? The older I get, the more travel takes out of my energy supply. Our gospel reading today records the travels of some wise men from a distant land, who followed a star to Bethlehem to pay homage to the infant king of the Jews. The word in the original Greek text is “magoi” from which we get the word, “magic” and “magician.” These men, we do not know exactly how many, were most likely Zoroastrians from the land which is now Iraq, a country on the front pages of American newspapers today. The history of the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam has many intersections. This famous visitation is the first interfaith event reported in the New Testament. These Magi were astrologers who observed the stars and interpreted the meaning of their positions and movements. The magi traveled quite a distance and I imagine by the time they returned home they were pretty weary. Yet, spiritually they must have been energized from the revelation. This is what Epiphany is all about – a revelation from God that altered the world in a most profound way.


I am feeling tired from my travels over the holidays. Tom and I left our house in Peoria at 11 am on Christmas Day. We arrived in Binghamton, New York after 10 pm after flying from Peoria with a 3 hour layover at O’Hare in Chicago to the Wilkes-Barre-Scranton airport in Pennsylvania, then traveling about an hour to our final destination. On our return trip on Dec.30, we left our hotel at 4:30 in the morning, had a 5-hour layover at O’Hare before arriving in Peoria at 1 pm. With one day at work to catch up, we drove to St. Louis on New Year’s Day to celebrate with the grandkids and their parents. Friday afternoon, we thought we were heading home, but a higher power, in the form of our car’s alternator had a different plan. Like the traveling magi of our gospel reading for today, we took a detour because we thought we might need some help. After pulling into a rest area in Coalfield, Illinois about 30 minutes south of Springfield, the car stopped. Our advisor to tell us where we needed to go was a nice young man from AAA.  We got a tow into Springfield, which had a garage, still open after 5 pm. I remember reading a children’s book that described the magi’s trip to see the Christ child from the perspective of their camels. Tom and I wondered what our two dogs thought about riding inside the car with no people. They had to stay in the car, which was secured atop a flatbed truck because there was no room for them in the cab. We left the car in Springfield, transferred our luggage and two dogs into a rental car and returned to Peoria Saturday night. When one leaves home on a journey, one can expect the unexpected.

Matthew tells us that magi from the East trekked through the desert to Bethlehem without a known destination. They didn’t know where they were going, but they believed they knew what they would find there. They trusted that star and whatever power placed that star in the sky to guide them. These foreign gentiles, who may have never read the Hebrew Scriptures or attended worship in a synagogue, received a divine epiphany that led them to the Christ child. Matthew doesn’t tell us how many magi there were. Traditional lore supposes there were three because they brought three gifts. We don’t know their names because names were not important to the story Matthew told. What was important for Matthew to convey to his audience was not scientific or historical, his message was theological.

Each of the four gospel writers had particular theological points that influenced how they told the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. For Mark and John, Jesus’ birth was not important to their message. Matthew only tells us these traveling magi had a revelation from God. A light shown in the darkness and they interpreted that this star’s light would lead them to a new king destined to fulfill the hopes and dreams of a people who yearned for a savior king. The only detail of the path the magi took Matthew tells us is that they briefly left the path to seek directions from a different kind of king. Why did they stop following the star and veer off its trajectory? Matthew seems to be telling us, the magi succumbed to their worldly assumption that a king would be found in a palace. They made the same mistake we do when we are lured off the path Jesus has shown us by worldly powers and temptations.

In Matthew’s gospel, the side trip to King Herod’s palace set up a critical dichotomy between the earthly king and the divine king. The magi’s encounter with Herod at his palace revealed God’s plan that ran counter to Herod’s. Herod’s rule was supported by a small elite group of Judeans who were given money and privileges to serve the Roman Empire first over the tenets of the Jewish faith. Herod’s reign was reinforced by a great disparity between the wealth and power of a few and the poverty and powerlessness of the rest of the population. Herod understood the fragility of his position. He ruled by inciting fear because he was fearful himself.98

Matthew used the description of a divinely appointed king from Psalm 72 as a thread that links the Old Testament with the infant king of the gospel. Psalm 72 is a royal psalm, written on the occasion of a new king’s coronation. The ascription is to King David, the greatest king in Israel’s history and Jesus’ ancestor. As with any new national leader, there is a hopeful tone that a new order will bring peace and prosperity, and all the ills of society will be rectified. The psalmist declares that the new king will bring about social justice for the most vulnerable – the poor and the needy. The new king will rule with righteousness, meaning he will rule according to God’s priorities, not his own. He will be a king who serves all of his people, not one who forces his people to serve him. The hope for the new king is that he will be a model of justice and righteousness that will inspire the kings of all nations to emulate his leadership, thereby bringing the same blessing to their people. Kings of other nations will honor him with gifts as Matthew’s magi bring gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant king Jesus. The psalmist expresses this hope with the words: May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts. 11May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service. (Ps. 72:10)

Again, the psalmist emphasizes the reason a king would be so honored. It is not because of his military military might, his ability to instill fear, or his great wealth. This king is worthy of respect and praise: “For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.”  (Ps. 72:12) The Psalmist affirms that God judges a ruler by how well he treats the most needy and vulnerable in society. Following the model of the psalmist, Matthew tells us what kind of king Jesus will be. He will not be king of a province or even a nation. He will be the king for all people, who brings God’s kingdom to earth. Matthew brings the flaws and limitations of King Herod to light and contrasts him to King Jesus.

Herod was taken by surprise that a threat to his power would come from outside of the great city of Jerusalem and in the person of one without political connections or great resources of wealth. He did not read or study the Holy Scriptures. The advisors with whom he surrounded himself knew about the prophetic scriptures that promised a new king for the Jews, but they had become distracted from their study of sacred texts. They were busy placating their insecure king and ingratiating themselves for the favors he might bestow on them. They retained the power given them by telling Herod what he wanted to hear. When Herod learned that the Hebrew Scriptures contained a prophecy that the new king was to be born in the small backwater town of Bethlehem, he saw his chance to remove this threat to his power and position. Herod was a king whose only concern was for himself. He had no interest in the people other than as means to gaining more power, enhancing his reputation as a strongman, and lining his own pockets. Herod had no qualms about harming innocent children – even murdering them — to deal with a possible threat to his own power.

I recently read an article in a newspaper about the results of a recent poll of American voters. The results indicated that the majority of those polled reported they voted for leaders who supported policies that profited themselves even when they acknowledged these policies hurt others, particularly the poor and the most vulnerable members of their community. This attitude may make us in the middle or most affluent classes more comfortable, but it is certainly not biblical. It is, without question, not the way of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Informed by Matthew’s story of King Herod and the Magi from the East, it appears we have become more like the king’s men that enabled him to continue his dark reign of injustice and unrighteousness than the magi who followed God’s self-revelation in Christ.

Matthew saw a pattern in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures that God uses strangers to deliver messages. God has shown a preference for using “outsiders” to reveal God’s desires and intentions rather than “insiders.” Paul’s letter to the Ephesian congregation confirms God’s gracious inclusiveness, writing:He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ.” (Eph.1:5)

With the magi, Matthew has given us a model of faith, which is active in God’s world. This faith is characterized by paying attention, obedience and showing up when led to the places we will find Christ. With Christ as our king, we will be led to the poor, the needy, and the oppressed. The magi paid attention to God’s presence in the world and showed up to receive the revelation of the new king created to lead God’s people into God’s ways of righteousness and justice. When faced with the decision to go back and report what they had seen to King Herod or heed God’s instructions to travel on a different road away from the glittering palace the magi made the righteous choice. Everyday we are faced with the same choice – do we take the road God has revealed to us in Jesus Christ or do we return to the palaces of worldly kings?

In our worship we are led to the table. With the celebration of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper we engage in a dress rehearsal for the main event, which is giving thanks for our blessings by sharing God’s blessings with all people and putting food on the empty tables of the world. The world is crying out for justice, righteousness and freedom from oppression in all its despicable forms. In this season of Epiphany, we are to pay attention to what Christ has revealed to us, leave our comfort zones to places where we will find Christ waiting for us, and avoid the worldly palaces and kings that dazzle us with wealth and power that dies like a shooting star. Come and eat. Christ, whose post-resurrection presence was revealed to his disciples in the breaking of bread, invites you to His Table.




© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2020, All Rights Reserved
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