King of the Raft, by Rev Fred Kinsey
As a teenager, we used to play King of the Raft at our lake cottage, with my Texas cousins. You know, last one standing on the raft wins. It was all in fun, but my cousin Mark had a distinct advantage. Not only was he two years older than me, but he was about twice my size. He, was always the king. Me and my younger brother Dave tried to dethrone him. We knew neither of us could do it alone, and even together it was near impossible. So when our friend Bobby Anderson came over, then we had a fighting chance. And still, sometimes all four of us ended up in the water, with no one king!
Jesus, the new born king, had his own conflicts. He came as the Prince of Peace, into Herod’s world. And born of Mary and Joseph, he came to bring salvation, which was the meaning of his name. And to fulfill the prophet Isaiah’s words, that he would be called Emmanuel, or “God is with us.”
But apparently, no one clued the Wise Men in on the story. They roll into Jerusalem from the east and, none too subtly, knock on King Herod’s door, asking, where is the new-born king, King Herod?! Nothing wakes up a king as fast as news that there is a rival! And nothing snaps him to attention to defend his particular raft quicker than hearing others were circling like sharks to try and take his place! You do not ask the king, “where’s the king?” If you do, he will throw you off the raft so fast your head will spin, and your nose will fill with water!
So when the wise men show up, Herod thinks fast, and plays along with them, hoping to use this information, and the wise men, to his advantage. ‘When you locate this child’ says Herod, ‘let me know where he hangs out so I can bring my greetings as well.’ But the wise men changed their plans, after being warned in a dream what Herod’s intentions were, and left for their own country by another road. So, as Matthew says, Herod feels mocked, and tricked, by the wise men, and his anger burns hot.
Meanwhile, Joseph is having dreams with divine warnings too, and, as instructed, he gathers up the holy family and takes them, all the way down to Egypt. Herod is so jealous, and so threatened, that he orders all the male babies under two years old in Bethlehem to be killed, in a desperate attempt to eliminate his rival. Ironically, the God With Us Christ-Child, is now far away in a foreign land!
Do you remember that story about how Moses was saved as a child, that other leader when God’s people needed salvation and someone to be with them? King Pharaoh became so afraid of how the Israelite slaves were multiplying in Egypt, that – like Herod – he decreed that all the new-born males should be killed, and only the females would live. So to save the new-born Moses, his sister Miriam puts him in a little ark-like basket and floats him on the Nile River. While all the other boys drowned in the river, Moses was saved. And when Moses came of age, he understood that God had saved him to lead his people, through the Red Sea and out of Egypt to the Promised Land.
Jesus comes up out of Egypt to lead his people too. After Herod dies, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph and told him the coast was clear. And Joseph, the child and his mother, come back to live in Nazareth.
The good news is, Jesus was saved. But the horrible outcome is that many innocent children are not. As Episcopal Scholar Angela Bauer-Levesque has said, “I don’t hear the good news in the story of discriminate killing found in the gospel lesson this week – where one is saved at the expense of the many (my italics). The silence of the bystanders reminds me of so many of us today. I hope we learn to speak up and to stop looking in the wrong places for the good news for LGBT and other marginalized people.”
This is an insight that I don’t think I’ve heard before. Usually we hear how Jesus, the one, died for the many. But as Bauer-Levesque says, in this gospel reading, Jesus, the one, is saved at the expense of the many! This raises troubling questions about evil in the world and the goodness of God. And what about the saving power of Jesus?
It still holds true, that God was able to guide and direct the innocent new-born Jesus, and keep him from destruction, even from the clever and dangerous Herod. But it is different than the final revelation in Jesus, the unveiling of God’s truth in the cross, that Jesus, the innocent victim, the crucified king, the righteous one, dies for us all, showing how all innocent victims, all the marginalized, as Bauer-Levesque says, are too often scape-goated, and made to pay the price. “At Jesus' birth, it is King Herod who seeks to destroy Jesus. At his crucifixion,” says Pastor Brian Stoffregen, “other Jewish and Roman authorities seek to destroy Jesus. So, in both cases, they are unsuccessful. Jesus is taken away for a time, and then he is brought back.”
Much like Moses, Jesus will be called to gather followers from the people of faith – 12 disciples, and countless apostles, who then are organized by Jesus to go to every town and village in Israel-Palestine to lift up the lowly, to heal the sick, and bring good news to the poor.
Jesus by himself, just like us by ourselves, is not able to inaugurate the realm of God on earth. He would be a great man, and well known prophet, even by himself. But he wouldn’t be a Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God, anointed to pass on his spirit to the church, without the people of God.
As Lutheran teacher Fred Craddock says, “This event is told in the manner of an antiestablishment story, a peasant-versus-king story, a story protesting abuses by the powerful against the powerless.” Jesus is more than a political king, of course. But, we are more than just individual believers. We are a collective of praying believers who, in following Jesus, wade deeply into the waters of baptism, and come out newly anointed, to be the church. Having been saved, we are now joined to Jesus’ mission to the marginalized. We don’t throw people off the raft into the water, but we willingly immerse ourselves in the cleansing waters of new life.
As the many, we join with all those who would organize and speak up for the marginalized, on behalf of the one. The healing power of Jesus and the realm of God, is us, in the power of the Holy Spirit, who stand up against the Herod’s of this world, as when they slaughter the children in wars like in Syria, or abandon them here in underfunded neighborhoods of our own city.
The Herod’s, who play king of the Raft, will not be brought down by one or two, but only by the witness of the many who act together as the Children of God, the followers of Jesus, both tender and vulnerable, but strong and confident enough to bear the life of this infant savior. Jesus went to the cross to show us that there is another way, than the ways of Herod, in this world. Let us rise up from the waters of baptism, to be that healing and saving presence for our neighbors.