unwrapping God’s gift slowly: “who is this king of the Jews?”

Matthew 2:1-12

Roland Orzabal, who wrote that song, “Mad World
that the youth just sang, commented,
“Lyrically the song is pretty loose.
It throws together a lot of different images
to paint a picture without saying anything specific about the world.”
(Ian Cranna, In The Hurting: Remastered & Expanded
[CD booklet] London: Mercury Records: 1999).
In contrast, our gospel story this morning, we shall see,
while saying some of the same things—
while painting a very similar picture of a mad world,
is much more specific about hope in that mad world.

It is the first Sunday of the new year,
and tomorrow, January 6, is Epiphany—
the day in the church year we traditionally celebrate
the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem.
So, now just out of curiosity,
if I were, this morning, to say I’d had an epiphany,
would you think (a) I’d had a surgical procedure;
(b) I’d had a moment of clarity and insight?
or (c) a moment of divine revelation?

In common, everyday usage,
I think the word epiphany is most often understood
as that moment of clarity and insight.
Would you agree?
But today, on Epiphany Sunday,
I think we celebrate most appropriately
the clear insight into the presence of God.

Today is also the first Sunday in our Epiphany worship series:
unwrapping God’s gift slowly.
Through the next weeks and months,
we will watch Jesus,
go from being bathed in starlight
in a manger in a stable,
to shining like the sun
on the Mount of Transfiguration.
And we will watch together as more and more
of the truth of Jesus is illuminated
week by week, in story after story.

The narrator, in the first chapter of Matthew,
has already theologically introduced Jesus
as Messiah, as Son of God,
and as God—God-with-us, Emmanuel,
but as we begin the second chapter,
we note for the first time in the gospel,
a location in time and space.

Our story this morning is located chronologically and geographically—
both actually in the first phrase:
in the time of King Herod.
Because not only do we know Herod ruled from 37 to 4 BCE,
we also know Herod ruled Judea—
appointed king by Rome.
We know Herod was an Idumean,
from the Old Testament kingdom of Edom,
south of Judah and the Dead Sea—
an arid, desolate region, full of scorpions—
a land given to the descendants of Esau,
and a people who had recently (within the last hundred years or so)
converted to Judaism,
but who would have been viewed with suspicion
by the religious authorities in Israel—
for the recency of their conversion,
for the possibility of political reasons for their conversion,
for their lineage of the brother not chosen by God.

So right off the bat, Herod locates us,
contextually in so many ways,
but I want you to pay attention to that first sentence.
First sentences are often so important—so indicative.
And the first phrase, “in the time of King Herod,”
as important as it sounds, simply provides a context,
as the next phrase: “after Jesus was born in Bethlehem,”
which is itself followed by the actual subject and verb,
“wise men from the east came to Jerusalem.”
But do you see how Jesus being born is the key to all that unfolds?
And how Herod is just a simple way of setting the stage?

If we’ve read the first chapter,
we know to appreciate the subtlety
with which our narrator suggests we’re not to look
at all the impressive construction associated with Herod—
the second temple in Jerusalem—
the one whose western wall stands to this day,
the great port at Caesarea Maritima,
the fortresses of Herodium and Masada—
all the more impressive to those first readers and hearers
of Matthew’s gospel—not being ruins at the time!
We’re not meant to look at the construction built to impress a Caesar,
but to a simple stable in the Judean hills.
And we’re not to dwell on the appointed king,
but the baby born king.
“It is a mad world!”
(Roland Orzabal, “Mad World,” on Tears for Fears,
The Hurting [Mercury/Phonogram: 1982]
interpreted by Gary Jules
on Donnie Darko (Original Soundtrack) [Pandora Cinema: 2001])

Now I’m going to remind you of some things—
things many of you presumably know,
but things of which we nonetheless need take note
because they’re so very important,
here at the outset of Matthew’s gospel,
where a lack of detail combines with the details we have,
to have created a telling of the story that isn’t the story.
Because even here in worship,
we sang “We Three Kings ….”
We had too, didn’t we. How could we not?
And yet nowhere does it say “kings,” let alone “three kings.”
Herod and Jesus are the only two kings mentioned,
and to add more to the mix actually dilutes the message of the story!
And yet, based on some of the Old Testament prophetic texts
about nations bowing down before Israel,
the story that isn’t,
is, nonetheless, the story told.
“It’s a very, very mad world” (Orzabal).

Something else many of you know—
“wise men” is the traditional translation of the greek transliteration, “magi.”
Either way, “kings” or “wise men,” we have largely positive associations.
Raymond Brown even suggests they “represent the best of pagan lore
and religious perception, and they seek Jesus through the best of pagan science”
(quoted in David E. Garland, Reading Matthew:
A Literary and Theological Commentary on the First Gospel

[New York: Crossroad, 1993] 25).
And yet it’s fairly safe to assume that in Matthew’s context,
the better translation would have been: magicians, sorcerers,
astrologers, frauds, shams, hucksters, gentiles, idolators—
all of which would have had primarily negative associations.
And consider where were they coming from—these magi—
from the east—from the the land of the enemy—
the land where the Jews were held in bondage—in Exile.

And yet they came to ask,
“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”
because they had seen his star.
Well, what do you know?
We should pay more attention to our horoscopes!
I mean how is this not a validation of astrology
in the very books that condemn astrology as idolatry?

Unless it’s less about the magi and more about us—
less about how others live, than about our perceptions
and misperceptions of who belongs with Jesus—
who might come to find Jesus,
and so a cautionary tale, of how the story of Jesus
is a story of deep truth,
always connecting in ways we cannot fathom or even identify,
with the most unexpected (and undesirable) of people.

“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” they ask.
Born king—born to rule, but who is born king—born to rule?
You’re born prince.
Kingship is just too much authority for an infant.
Too much responsibility.
It’s the contrast again.
The stable baby compared to the builder king.
The baby born king as opposed to the outsider appointed king.
“We seek the one already who you claim to be, Herod—
who you want to be.
We have come to pay him homage—
come to pay him what you ought pay him.
You thought us to be shams from the east.
Turns out you are the sham. You and your kings.”

And king Herod, king of Israel, was frightened.
And all Jerusalem, capital city, frightened.
And it’s not just that Jerusalem was frightened
because if Herod was frightened, they needed to be!
But because the contrast between Herod and this child
was also the contrast between them and this child—
is the contrast between us and this child—
you and me and this child.
And so we’re frightened
because we too don’t exactly know—
and don’t really want to know—
what it means for our born king to be born.

Well, Herod calls in the religious authorities.
Would have been an unusual gathering—
unusual enough that most think it unlikely
since there were not only tensions between various authorities,
but also between Herod and any authorities!
According to Josephus, after Herod was named king
he had a number of the Sanhedrin put to death
(Garland, 27).
So not only is there some possibility the religious authorities
were taking no small pleasure in answering Herod,
“Where is the messiah born? In Bethlehem. Duh.
It’s clearly written in our prophecies—
in our tradition you obviously don’t know.”
But there’s also the irony of religious authorities
so proudly familiar with their scripture
and so oblivious to its fulfillment.
“Children waiting for the day they feel good” (Orzabal),
and missing it!
This is not a story for the complacent!

After consulting the religious authorities,
Herod summoned the magi in secret,
and asked them when they first saw the star—
their answer presumably how he knew to kill those up to two years old.
Another odd nod to astrology.
Subordinate to God, but still!
Unless, again, it’s less about the magi and their customs,
and more about Herod (and us)
and his (and our) inappropriate responses to God with us,
even within our traditions of faith.

Because then Herod comes up with this scheme.
It’s rather silly, actually.
“Go search diligently, and when you’ve found this king,
come back and tell me so I too may go give him homage.”
Why not, “Let me provide you with a guide? Maybe an armed escort.
The road from here to Bethlehem can be tricky.”
Why not tell a servant, “Follow them and tell me where they go”?

Maybe because within the subtlety of Matthew’s writing,
apparent power’s attempt to confront the true power of God
is always, ultimately, rather silly?
Laughable, really—
as much inconvenience and pain and tragedy as it may cause.

And then the star went on before them all the way to Bethlehem,
begging the question, why then did they go to Jerusalem?
And one scholar suggested they actually needed to hear Scripture
to unlock the last leg of the journey.
Sounds like a video game, doesn’t it?
Invasion of the Alien Sorcerers.
Unlock the last level in Jerusalem!
Most scholars though say the stopover in Jerusalem was unnecessary.

And as is often the case in Scripture, the point of the stop in Jerusalem
is not the details of the story,
but the details of the truth of the story.
And the truth of the story is that those who could
and should recognize Jesus
all too often don’t.
And that stands less as condemnation of anyone in the past
than as warning to us
who claim to be followers of God in the way of Jesus today.

For the fact of the matter is
we are all too often threatened by what can truly save us—
save us from living lives smaller than the ones we could,
save us from hiding our selves, hiding from our selves,
save us from being afraid.
We’re too often threatened by what can save us,
because what can save us has to unsettle us first,
and we’re more comfortable settled.
“I find it hard to tell you
I find it hard to take
when people run in circles” (Orzabal),
and he continues to come to his own people,
and they … we … receive him not (John 1:11).

When the magi saw that the star had stopped,
over the stable in Bethlehem,
we read, they were overwhelmed with joy!
And that was before they ever went in and saw Jesus.
They knew before they saw.
And when they did go in and see,
well, there was nothing extraordinary there to see, right?
This story describes no multitude of the heavenly host,
no glory of the Lord shining around anyone,
not one angel in the whole story.
The magi go into the stable to find just a family.
And yet they obviously did not feel
that their having been overwhelmed by joy was compromised—
and they opened their treasure chests.
Is being overwhelmed by joy that rare an experience?
Maybe in church!

Is it that their quest was finally over?
I mean if they saw that star two years before,
are they just glad to be done with the travel—
living out of a suitcase, on a camel, in hotels?
Or was there a deeper and truer sense of having arrived?
At what?

I’m not sure. It doesn’t say.
But surely we’re to notice
and wonder.

Are you saying it wasn’t Jesus, John?
No. But it wasn’t seeing Jesus in a manger.
I mean they had no clue who he was going to grow up to be,
and what he was going to grow up to say and teach and do.
They just knew they had followed the light they had—
hoping, believing, trusting.

And so, not in the face of royalty evident
(that was in Jerusalem),
and not in the presence of power
(that was in Jerusalem too),
not in the theological awareness of God-with-us
(that was in the last chapter),
but simply in the ongoing presence of hope and belief and trust
they opened their treasure chests
to offer gifts to the possibility of what might be,
and maybe, just maybe,
in taking out gold and frankincense and myrrh,
making room in their treasure chests for new treasure—
the priority of,
the commitment to,
the joy in
the possibility of what might be.

How often do we get so far—
overcome so much,
follow the light for years,
only to find in the mundane, everyday ordinary
that we’ve only just arrived at the beginning,
and then to be okay with that?

I know you’re tired.
I know you smell like camel.
I know you’re sick of traveling and following that star,
and here you are at the beginning!

Can we be overwhelmed with joy
at the possibility inherent to the truth
that, after all we’ve been through, it has all only started?

Because if we can’t, I tell you true,
“the dreams of dying may be the best we’ve ever had” (Orzabal)
amidst our “going nowhere
going nowhere” (Orzabal).

You remember that multiple choice question
at the beginning of the sermon:
if I were, this morning, to say I’d had an epiphany,
would you think I’d had (a) a surgical procedure,
(b) a moment of clarity and insight,
or (c) a moment of divine revelation?

Our story suggests, perhaps,
that if we follow the light,
for years and years,
in and through our mad world,
and can yet remain open,
despite our convictions and assurances,
our assumptions and stories—
if we can remain open to the theological procedures—
the sacred stories
that consistently remove blinders
and malignant growths,
and free us to ever more insight
into the presence of God always with us,
then the best answer may in truth be
all of the above.

May it be so.

Oh, and welcome to the beginning.


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