"Which King?" Sermon by Rev Fred Kinsey
It’s surprising, in a way, that this Epiphany story of the Magi, is the text that was chosen for this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity! The wise men, or Magi, are foreigners, Astrologers, from a non-Jewish religion, in a distant Gentile country, most likely, Persia. So, the ‘unity’ implied in this astounding story is, far greater, than just our Christian circles, and implies a kind of United-Nations-world-wide reach and universal scope.
It’s a universality that stems from our human longing, and quest for, the One who is the light of the whole world, this king of Israel. It’s the desire for a king who is a descendant of the One Creator-God. And the Magi, therefore, are perhaps the perfect representatives of this universal quest for salvation from the beginning of creation, because they are masters of the ‘signs’ in the stars of the sky, or what the ancient world knew as, the heavens.
The birth of the savior of the whole world, is who the Magi came to worship, and offer their kingly gifts, of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Came to kneel in homage to this Mighty Counselor, this Prince of Peace, and ruler who will administer justice and peace, according to Isaiah (Is. 9.6). They weren’t Christian. They weren’t Jewish. But they recognized a king when they saw one! And this One, was born under the Star of Bethlehem, a cosmic event that led them from the eastern edge of the world, to Palestine, in Roman territory. This biblical story, about the birth of Jesus in Matthew – the scripture underlying, the Eastern, and oldest, Church celebration of Christmas – is the tale of unity, for all the nations, all the peoples.
Welcome, to the service, for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity!
On the other hand, though, isn’t this the very kind of unity, we as Christians pray for, as well?! “That we may become completely One,” as Jesus himself prayed according to the gospel of John? (John 17:23) We petition for, “the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband,” that, “the nations will walk by [the light of the Lamb], and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it,” as John of Patmos envisioned in Revelation.
It seems that, our Middle East Council of Church, hosts, want to welcome us, not only to ground-zero, of the birth of the Christ-Child, in Bethlehem of Judea, but also, they want to draw us into the spiritual and theological question of: Who do we worship as king? Isn’t the unspoken question raised by Matthew’s Epiphany story: Do we worship the king in Jerusalem? Or the king born in Bethlehem?
Again, the Magi show us the way, who, “…having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road,” says Matthew. The Magi, having found the king they were looking for, the new-born ‘child, with Mary his mother,’ in Bethlehem, disobey Herod’s request to report back to him, in Jerusalem.
?Had the Magi been left with a kind of ‘yukky feeling’ after meeting with Herod, I wonder? Was their ‘creepy-radar,’ sending off alarm bells? I would think so! But in any case, it was divine will, according to Matthew, that the Magi, not return to Jerusalem and bring Herod word, so that Herod may – what did he say, ‘also go and worship him’ – worship his rival? Pay homage to the king, that so frightened his kingdom?
Herod, of course, was jealous of any pretensions to his throne, a throne that was based on authoritative, despotic, and absolute control. A ruler that was answerable to no one, save the Emperor. Herod, tolerated no rival! And we know this by the very next story in Matthew, the slaughter of the innocents, where Herod orders the killing of every boy under the age of two, ‘in and around Bethlehem,’ in a ruthless attempt to eliminate king-Jesus.
Who do we worship as our king?
I don’t remember where I learned it, exactly, anymore. But it was somewhere on our study tour to Israel-Palestine in the spring of 1978. We toured as much as we could, from the cosmopolitan city of Haifa, north to Galilee and the Golan Heights, down through the West Bank and the Jordan Valley to Jericho below sea level, and up to Jerusalem, literally, up into the hills, to Zion, the city of Peace. Tiny Israel-Palestine on the shores of the Mediterranean, I learned, was the fulcrum point, between east and west, north and south. Between, Near-East and far-east Asia, Europe and Africa. The land of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. And Jerusalem is like a canary in a coal mine, an early warning sign for the fate of the world – spinning around it. And at the time of the birth of Jesus, a pretender was on the throne. Foreigners occupied the land. But in the new-born Savior, hope had arrived.
And, just like there were tensions over which king the world would worship, then, so in modern times, have tensions been growing steadily there, again. If we want to pray for Christian unity, we need look no further than Israel-Palestine. For, while money from pulpits in America, have been pouring into Israel since the 1980’s from leaders who are, you might say, wolves in sheep’s clothing – at the same time, the historic Palestinian Christians, have been intimidated and feeling pressure to leave, as a result.
An investigation by Haaretz/(Israeli newspaper in English) reveals that extremist Christian groups have invested up to $65 million in projects in the ‘Biblical Heartland’ just in the past decade. Meanwhile, as recently as December, “Christian leaders in the Holy Land,” the same leaders who are members of this, Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, “have warned that their communities are under threat of being driven from the region by extremist [radical Settler] groups, and called for dialogue on preserving their presence.”
Or as Fr. Francesco Patton, the Catholic Church’s guardian of the Christian holy places in the Holy Land has said, “It seems that [the aim of these extremists] is to [push out the historic Christian presence from] the Old City of Jerusalem, even the Christian quarter.”
The outsized economic and political support of certain extremist American church groups is a key factor in the decline of the Palestinian Christian population. Who are these churches? It’s organizations, like Christians United for Israel (CUFI), for example, led by prominent megachurch preacher John Hagee. If you don’t know Hagee, his latest book title pretty much says it all: Earth’s Final Moments. “Coming soon,” the book jacket says, “Earth’s final cataclysmic moment! Hagee reveals the shock and awe of God’s coming judgment in the Middle East, you can’t afford to miss what comes next.” End quote.
This errant Christian interpretation might be funny, if it weren’t so dangerous. Based on the writings of 19th century British churchman John Darby, his theology never really was, defensible. But astonishingly, opinion pollsters find that, 40-60% of Americans embrace Darby’s end-times belief. Think - the popular Left Behind book and movie series. So, we’ve got some work to do, here.
Darby, Hagee, and others, have created an alternative reality to the biblical narrative, as most Christians have come to know it – espousing a king who is a kind of natural born killer, who has no compassion for the poor, or desire for healing the blind, and proclaiming the year of Jubilee. This is not the King we learn about in the Gospels, who shows us the way of hospitality, loving your neighbor as yourself, and God’s power, emptied on the cross, for the life of the world. Darby’s Jesus, is calculating and exclusivist, a kind of, wild-west-Cowboy-Jesus.
Another thing I learned in Israel-Palestine, while I was there, is that Israel is happy to take Hagee’s money. But that doesn’t mean they believe in the end-of-the-world-Left-Behind-theology, which necessitates God’s violent destruction of Israel, and all Jews who don’t convert.
The king that Hagee and his crowd worship, is not the boy-child of Bethlehem, the teacher of the Beatitudes, and the servant who washes our feet. His king is more like a conquering, compassionless, well – King Herod. A despot and danger to the kingdom and will of God, that we, here, pray for, ‘to come on earth as it is in heaven.’ Unfortunately, I’m sure we can all think of leaders like this in our world today. Those who envision themselves as the next King – like Herod.
But the king we seek is born under the Bethlehem star, born humbly to unite all under a banner of justice and peace. A Shepherd-king, who prioritizes care for those in need, grants us rest in green pastures, who turns fear into goodness and mercy. A universal king, who is not limited to one place, but is the living Body of Christ in the world, and available through the Holy Spirit everywhere, and at every time, to all, who desire salvation.
What king do we seek!? Herod, or, Jesus?
The choice is easy. But the journey is life-long, winding, and a road less-traveled. Let us be prepared to say NO to the demands of Herod. And let us stand with our Christian siblings who today are under threat in Palestine and the Middle East, for our fate is tied to theirs. Let us join the Magi caravan, eyes fixed on the Bethlehem Star, bodies engaged in the work of God’s justice, hearts transformed so that we may ever pay him homage – and with overwhelming joy, let us gather our prayers together boldly, as the Body of Christ, and the people of God.