"True, Ever-Living King, Pastor Kinsey
Sometimes it’s hard to know if we should laugh, cry, or be very afraid?! He has a paranoid king complex; is worried everyone is against him; has problems trusting his closest advisors, and therefore asks them to take a pledge of loyalty, or else may fire or terminate them, or threaten them with a law suit; has gone after those that are out of his realm and control from another party or nation, whether spreading what he calls ‘fake-news’ about him, or challenging their titles, or demonizing their religion, or nationality, all the while building up his family to carry on the domination, yet pretending to be the defender of the working class.
No, I’m not talking about our current President of the U.S. – though, as they say, if the shoe fits… But I’m talking about Herod, King Herod, Herod the Great, who was nearing the end of his days when Jesus was being born. This was the Herod that the wise men, or Magi from the east, from Persia, visited, by following the star, or maybe a comet, which brought them to Jerusalem.
King Herod was crafty, in his brutal dictatorship, ruling by intimidation, favors, and fear – and even as we see in this gospel story, by knowing when to hold his tongue. And, he knew how to ingratiate himself to the ruling elite of Israel. He had the Temple in Jerusalem given a huge make-over, vastly increasing the size of the Temple Mount, and historians noted that, its magnificence was unsurpassed (Josephus), and its gold leaf reflected the sun’s rays off its elevated exterior, that could be seen for miles. Herod, rewards the rich, and commands obedience from the masses. Herod was ‘King of the Jews.’
Then one day, when the Magi from the east came asking “where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” Matthew says, King Herod himself “was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” A child king? Obviously these Magi are not very wise - losers! But Herod plays along, he’s cagey, and he doesn’t debate the Magi, but calls together the chief priests and scribes, confiding with them about where the Messiah is to be born. And then secretly, colluding with the Magi, he gives them the information they want. You’re very close, Herod tells them. Go to Bethlehem, just a few miles down the road. And when you find the child, just be sure to return and bring me word, so that I can also worship him.
And, Herod almost fooled them! They buy his story, and they go, and they do find Jesus, and fall down on their knees and worship him. They present their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But after a good night’s sleep, they are warned in a dream what Herod’s up to, and they take another, off-the-beaten-path, back to Persia.
But of course, tyrants don’t like to be fooled. And Herod, without hesitation, orders the extermination of every baby boy in Bethlehem and the surrounding region, in an attempt to kill his rival, while he’s still in the crib – a day we commemorate in the church, every December 28th, as, The Slaughter of the Innocents. But thankfully, being warned in a dream, Joseph and Mary have already escaped with the infant Jesus, down to Egypt.
Even foolish leaders can do great damage to innocent believers – which is why, politics is never completely divorced from religion. In Luke’s gospel last week, for example, we learned that the prophet Simeon, in the temple, warned Mary that Jesus was “destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed.”
So why does Matthew go there? Why connect the Jesus story, with Magi from the East, and the brutal ruler King Herod? And why does Matthew frame Jesus as a king, more than any of the other gospels?
One thing that’s crystal clear, at least for Matthew’s church, in this Epiphany story, is that Jesus is our true king, and King Herod is an impostor, who is not fit to be worshiped. Jesus’ birth and unconventional kingdom will up-end, not only Herod the Great, but also his son Herod Antipas, who was king of Israel when Jesus was crucified, and really, all kings. Jesus is the one who is worthy of worship; the one who has won our hearts; the one who rules over all, as the hymn we sing next, tells us.
But the lowly and humble Christ-child – born to poor Galileans and learned Judeans alike – does not want, and does not himself take up, the throne of Herod. In fact, his power and his reign are something completely unknown, up until that time. Jesus will be more like the shepherd-king, as Matthew predicts, quoting 1st Samuel, “…for from [Bethlehem] shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel,” referring to King David, whose humble beginnings as the youngest of 8 brothers, was also in the fields of Bethlehem, keeping watch over their flocks.
Jesus redefined royalty in ways we’re still trying to comprehend today. Jesus gathered the forgotten and downtrodden like a shepherd gathers the sheep. Matthew has Jesus comfort us with the words only he uses: that my yoke is easy, and my burden is light… but if you take it up, you will learn from me, Jesus says. And immediately after saying this, the Shepherd-Jesus gets in trouble with the Temple leaders because he lets his disciples pluck grain and eat it on the Sabbath, if they are hungry, which by law is not allowed. His defense is simple but earth-shattering: “learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’
The question of becoming the holy and worthy ruler of all, is not about controlling power for the few on top, afraid to share it or give it up. But power, even in our day-to-day relationships, is about the desire to find mercy, and the ability to show and distribute it fairly and broadly to all who will receive it, though, without needing to grasp it. For it is free but costly, it is transparent and life-giving. It is worth protecting with absolute loving-kindness, and making our own, as peace-makers, and for Jesus, even worth dying for.
How can we carry this torch, this light – our holy star? How do we find and recognize the light, and continue to track it, even in the darkness of night?
The Magi seem- unlikely role models for us, at first glance. But Magi, the wise ones from the East, are outsiders, they’re Gentiles, just like us. The Magi were believers in a supreme deity, and were both amateur scientists and religious universalists – all traits that we have in common, to some degree, even today.
And our quest, our journey to discover the Christ-child, is an equally daunting task still. The road is not well lit. Some of the nation’s rulers, are terribly unfit! And, the stakes of the game are high.
But the faith Jesus taught us, is a faith that can save the world, a faith that understands and employs power that is life-giving and freely confesses corruption, because it is a shared faith, and a faith based in love, a love that is strong in leadership, and in its servanthood to the lowly and outcast. No law can contain or compel it, no Despot can control or put out its light. The free and gracious gift of God’s love in Christ Jesus, is just and true.
And so, for us, “Jesus’ reign of justice and compassion displaces Herod’s raging fury.” (Greg Carey) And by the assurance of his shepherding care; by Completing our hope and joy; and by Reigning from a throne not of this world – He is our guiding star, our true and ever-living King.