We three kings of Orient are . . .
Well, there are kings in this passage, but the three Magi aren’t them.
There are two kings in Matthew’s Gospel this morning: Herod and Jesus.
But generally speaking, we’re used to approaching this passage through the characters of the Magi, aren’t we? Smart folks who travel from the East, just to lay eyes on the little baby, whom they’ve somehow gotten wind of. Quite a story of faith on the move . . . based on very little evidence that would hold up in court.
But they come. They see the star, and load up the minivan for a road trip to behold the glory of the Lord.
And it’s no small trip, either. They come from the East—which is old-timey shorthand for places like Persia and Babylon—or as we like to call them today: Iran . . . and parts of Iraq.
So, for the folks nowadays who are so afraid of . . . you know . . . those people, the ones so many are sure are hiding behind their illicit stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, the ones folks stare at on airplanes, certain that there’s a suicide vest underneath an otherwise unremarkable maroon cardigan . . . for those who live in such fear of the “other,” it must be especially irksome to realize that—at least according to Matthew—the ancestors of Ayatollah Khomeini and Saddam Hussein are the first ones to recognize Jesus for who he is. Probably a good thing to remember the next time somebody starts spouting off about how godless people from that part of the world are, and why we shouldn’t allow them into our country until they promise to believe all the same things we believe.
The Magi see the light of the star and come to behold the glory of the Lord.
It seems pretty clear that Matthew is subtly recalling our lectionary reading from Isaiah this morning:
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will raise upon you, and God’s glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn . . . A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.
In fact, Isaiah’s recounting of the kings being drawn to the brightness of God’s glory is probably where we got that whole “we three kings” stuff.
Isaiah’s announcement originally comes to a beleaguered people who’ve been released by the Persians from captivity in Babylon (yeah, the same Persia and Babylon from which the Magi are thought to have come), only to find upon their return that their homeland is wrecked worse than the family room on Christmas morning.
Isaiah offers a word of reassurance to a people who are trying to figure out why they shouldn’t just give up and move to Florida. The returning exiles felt like they’d been abandoned when they were forced into refugee camps in Babylon. Then, wonder of wonders, they got to come home to Jerusalem! But once they limped up the driveway and saw the mess, they felt abandoned all over again.
But Isaiah says, “Don’t worry. I know it looks bad right now. But things are going to change. God is going to make something of this dump once again. Just you wait. And when that happens, people will flock from all over to see the light that shines forth from you. Even kings will drop what they’re doing to behold the glory of the Lord shining on you. Jerusalem will be a beacon of hope to the world.”
All of that triumphal light-shining and glory-beholding and king-visiting and present-bearing are the backdrop for Matthew’s story about the coming of the Magi to see Jesus. The Magi apparently know this prophecy from Isaiah, the one about a light shining forth from Jerusalem—and so that’s where they go . . . to Jerusalem.
But, as Walter Breugemann has pointed out, the Magi missed by nine miles. Jesus isn’t in Jerusalem, Isaiah’s city of light; he’s in Bethlehem—a little backwater town nine miles from Jerusalem.
So, even though Matthew trades on it as a backdrop, he doesn’t explicitly mention Isaiah’s word of triumph, does he? Instead, Matthew looks to another prophet—Micah.
And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.
Bethlehem. A little nowhere place—only a truck stop/convenience store and a flea-bag motel, really.
You can understand why the Magi might make the mistake of heading first to Jerusalem, right? I mean, if you’re looking for the king, you go to the city, don’t you? You don’t waste time stomping around out in the county, where you’re more likely to see Barny Fife and Floyd the barber than anybody important. Because kings live in Mt. Pilot; they don’t hang out in barns on the edge of Mayberry, R.F.D.
So, of course the Magi bump into Herod first. He’s where you would expect to find a king—well, the first king in our story anyway.
The contrast between these two kings, between Herod and Jesus is pretty stark, just based on geography. Herod basks in the light of an important urban landscape in Jerusalem, while Jesus lies swaddled in the shadows of tiny, irrelevant Bethlehem.
But Matthew doesn’t want to stop the comparison there. He offers up a more humiliating contrast. When Herod hears about Jesus, Matthew says, Herod’s “frightened.” But not only is the king freaked out about news of this baby, Matthew tells us that all of Jerusalem is having a melt down right along with him.
Big, important king Herod, lodged comfortably in big, important Jerusalem—where, it turns out, everybody’s afraid of the little, unimportant king having his Pampers changed nine miles away in little, unimportant Bethlehem.
Interesting, isn’t it? This Jesus-story is hardly out of the introduction and already the world is being turned on its head.
Isaiah’s the way I suspect most people like to think of God’s plans unfolding—what with the light shining in the darkness and the glory appearing and kings and rulers coming to pay homage—mostly, I think, because that’s the way we’d write the story if it were given to us to write. And there’s nothing wrong with Isaiah’s words of reassurance, especially to those who’ve been downtrodden and forgotten, left rotting for so many years in refugee camps in Babylon. People in those situations need a little triumph.
But what about people like us? Sure, we’ve got problems of our own—problems that plague us in the middle of the night. But by the standards of most of the rest of the world, even at our worst, we’ve been living in glory for most of our lives. It’s difficult to convince the rest of the world that we haven’t been basking in the light all along. So, maybe Isaiah’s word isn’t as helpful for us as Micah’s.
Because Micah’s words remind us—we who’ve already seen so much of God’s glory—that more often than not God’s work is done among the weak and powerless, among those who’ve lived their lives in the “wrong” places, among the all the “wrong” people.
As Breugemann says:
[Micah] is the voice of a peasant hope for the future, a voice that is not impressed with high towers and great arenas, banks and urban achievements. It anticipates a different future, as yet unaccomplished, that will organize the peasant land in resistance to imperial threat. Micah anticipates a leader who will bring well-being to his people, not by great political ambition, but by attentiveness to the folks on the ground.
And that’s the difficult thing about this crazy story that Matthew gives us.
We’re used to kings who lay claim to rule through power, who take the world by the horns, who fashion a destiny that makes other rulers envious, stable geniuses whose arrogance is matched only by their insecurities. And that’s Herod all over. He’s ruthless, willing to strip glory from the hands of those he’s certain are undeserving and keep it for himself—even if it costs the lives of children. Herod retains control by projecting an image of competence and power—despite an obvious lack of it.
But Matthew holds up a mirror to Herod’s projection of fearlessness, and in the reflection we see him standing naked in his fear—and not fear of an invading army, not fear of some complex economic downturn . . . things all politicians fear. Instead, Herod—and those who’ve hitched their wagons to his star—is afraid of a baby . . . a baby born to a single mom in a shack out back behind the carwash who challenges every kingdom that institutionalizes injustice through violence and intimidation.
A baby. Herod’s afraid of a baby.
Because this baby’s a king.
Now, let’s just stop right there. Because I know what we tend to do with stories like this—stories about a disadvantaged child with special gifts born to poor parents, who one day rises above the odds to triumph over adversity. But this isn’t Good Will Hunting, where the kid born on the wrong side of the tracks discovers his special gifts and overcomes the lousy hand life has dealt him.
We like those kind of stories, don’t we? Rags to riches. The underdog who triumphs.
But when you stop to think about it, those stories are only a more creative way of hanging onto Isaiah’s story. The light and the glory are delayed, but they’re still there, right? There’s some initial adversity but the hero prevails in the end.
Jesus’ story, on the other hand, starts in a barn in pile of manure in Bethlehem and ends up on a pile of garbage in Jerusalem. The whole underdog trope doesn’t work in Jesus’ case, because he winds up executed by the state in the name of royal insecurities. Jesus doesn’t prevail in the end . . . at least in the way we tend to think of prevailing.
What do I mean?
Well, the way our culture views it, victory means overcoming the odds and coming out on top, where the lights shine and glory fills the air. But Jesus transforms victory; he reshapes triumph. He goes up against the kingdoms of this world; but instead of battling on the king’s violent terms, Jesus prevails by refusing to become the kind of ruler his followers misguidedly want him to be—one who needs the spotlight, who craves glory, one who needs to tell the world how smart and successful he is—and he holds out to become the king we all need—the one who’s willing to die for a peace and justice that can never be won through conventional means—soaked to the elbows as it is in the blood of children and the humiliation of the powerless.
You sit Jesus next to Herod and the way we’re socialized to see the comparison, Jesus loses every time . . . which is why it’s so baffling that “when Herod heard [of Jesus], he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.”
It’s baffling because Jesus isn’t much of a king, if you ask me. Our world, like Herod and the Magi, is looking for Isaiah, but Matthew offers up Micah.
The world we live in is busy looking for a chief executive who’s not afraid of unleashing power to retain control—even if it costs the lives of innocents, but Matthew gives us a shepherd.
But you see, that’s the good news. Because a king born in a stable understands how the world is shaped, understands what life looks like from the underside.
A king like that has earned the right to sit next to Erica Garner’s 8 year-old daughter and 4 month-old son, as they wait in vain for their mother and grandfather to come back to them.
A king like that has earned the right to take his place among those who’re afraid that their Medicaid or CHIP insurance for their kids won’t be there when they need it, among those who regularly hear how their poverty is a moral failing, the result of spectacularly but predictably bad choices, among those who live in fear that their children will only know themselves as “other”—because of the color of their skin, or because their family is Muslim, or because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, or because they were born in Syria or Mexico, or because they were born on the wrong side of town.
A king like that has earned the right sit silently beside us in the dark nights of our own grief and doubt and despair, a king who knows our failings and inadequacies, but who chooses to continue to sit beside us tonight, tomorrow morning, day after day world without end.
That’s your idea of a king?
Yes. Thank God. Yes.