Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
January 7, 2018; an Epiphany sermon
Psalm 72:1-14; Matthew 2:1-12
“…wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking,
‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?’”
We’ve been having fun, in our house, watching season 2 of the Netflix TV series, The Crown. It’s about Queen Elizabeth II: what it was like for her to learn — as her uncle, King Edward VIII, abdicated the throne — that she was going to be Queen someday. Not so many years later, that day finally arrived, with the death of her father, King George VI. Suddenly, at the age of 25, this young wife and mother took on the responsibilities of constitutional monarchy — not just for the United Kingdom, but for Canada, Australia, New Zealand and a host of smaller countries of the British Commonwealth.
The title of the series, The Crown, is significant. More than one reviewer has pointed out that the Crown functions, in the series, as though it were a character in its own right. The Crown is a sort of hot potato King Edward passes on to his brother, King George. He talks about what a weight it had been to him, a weight he was glad to be rid of. As for Elizabeth and her husband, Philip, it was almost like a third person living within their marriage.
The weight of responsibility the young Queen was struggling to bear threatened their marriage for a time — as it would anyone, in the same situation. But through trial and error — not to mention persistent, intentional, hardworking love, they find a way to make it work.
Yesterday was Epiphany, the capstone of the Christmas season. Now, we find ourselves in Ordinary Time, but — with Epiphany so near — we’re going to linger for a moment, and examine the Gospel text appointed for that day. It, too, is the story of a crown: the story of the wise men from the East, who seek and find the Christ child.
“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” those wise men ask. They are seeking one who will, one day, wear a crown — or so they think.
They don’t know, those wise men, that the crown this child will wear is of a very different type than the one worn by King Herod. One day he will wear a crown of thorns. And then, afterwards, the crown belonging to the kingdom of God: more of a spiritual than a political reality.
We often imagine that those wise men were kings themselves. We’ve all sung the carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are” — though its title is inaccurate in two different ways.
First, Matthew says nothing about how many wise men there were. We know there were more than one, but whether it was two or twenty, we have no idea. Matthew does talk about the three gifts they brought — gold, frankincense and myrrh — which has led to speculation that there must have been three of them, one for each gift, but the Bible doesn’t actually say that.
The second inaccuracy is to call them kings. Matthew says nothing about any royal associations. There a prophecy from the book of Isaiah that says, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn,” which led some people to make the assumption that they were kings, as well as wise men — but Matthew never makes that claim himself.
So who were they, if not kings? The Bible uses the Greek word magi, which means “wise men.” Nobody knows who they were, for certain. Some say astrologers, some say magicians, some say priests of the Zoroastrian religion, come all the way from Persia. By putting these exotic foreign visitors beside the bed of the Christ child, Matthew’s making the point that this baby is born to offer salvation not only to his own people, but to all the folk of earth.
There’s something in us, though, that still wants to see kings kneeling beside Jesus’ cradle. Those three kings have populated church Christmas pageants from time immemorial, right up till our 4:00 service this past Christmas Eve. How many Coke bottles wrapped in aluminum foil have been carried down church sanctuary aisles, by beaming kids wearing dad’s silk bathrobe and mom’s rubber flip-flops?
There’s something about the sheer simplicity of Jesus’ birth that offends us, that makes us yearn for the glint of gold, and the heavy scent of exotic spices.. Sure, we know all about Mary and Joseph’s humble origins, how there was no room at the inn, and how they had to bunk with the livestock, back in the barn. We know all about the homespun swaddling clothes and the rough wood of the manger. But we just can’t resist turning those wise men into kings!
Somehow it doesn’t seem right that the birth of Jesus, son of God, should be witnessed only by a few ragged, no-account shepherds. A high-level diplomatic delegatio, armed with blue boxes from Tiffany’s, rounds out the picture nicely.
God could have chosen another way for the Messiah to be born. Jesus could have grown up in a palace. He could have been groomed to lead armies. He could have had someone like Aristotle as his tutor, as Alexander the Great did.
But that wasn’t the way God wanted to do it. Jesus may have started out a king in heaven, but he was born into this earth in the grinding poverty of the Galilean peasantry.
Rudyard Kipling wrote a famous story, The Man Who Would Be King. That, we get. Ambition is something we honor. But Jesus is The King Who Would Be Man: that’s a real head-scratcher for us. It just doesn’t seem right that a king should seek out such a humble place.
A story is told of the late King Hussein of Jordan. In the latter years of the King’s reign, there was a terrible tragedy. Two Israeli schoolgirls were playing in a park called the “Island of Peace,” located in the middle of the Jordan River, right on the border between the two countries. While they were playing, the girls were shot dead by a Jordanian soldier, for no apparent reason.
The news media flashed the story around the world with lightning speed. For a short while it seemed that the fragile peace between Israel and Jordan could be broken. But then it became clear that the soldier was no terrorist. He was suffering from an undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. He had acted alone, with no authorization from anyone.
Apologies were made in diplomatic circles, and they were accepted. The world breathed easier.
There the story could well have ended – were it not for King Hussein. Hearing what one of his soldiers had done, the King left his throne, left his palace, left even his own country, and traveled to the humble homes of the families of the two slain Israeli girls. Entering each house in turn, King Hussein — who was used to having people bow before him — fell to his knees. He bowed before the grieving parents. Then, he looked up into their eyes and said, “I beg you, forgive me, forgive me. Your daughter is like my daughter, your loss is my loss. May God help you to bear your pain.”
There’s nothing in the annals of diplomatic protocol that require a king to humble himself like that. The idea of doing so came from King Hussein himself. It was a Muslim king who gave the world, that day, a glimpse of how a truly Christlike king might behave.
No doubt, you and I still want kings at the manger — rather than wise men. We want those kings because we can’t fully digest the thought that the son of God would cast aside every shred of royal dignity and privilege and become like one of us.
We Americans pride ourselves on being a classless nation. Our government bestows no orders of knighthood. When distinguished Senators and Supreme Court Justices retire, they are not named Earl of Minneapolis or Duke of Buffalo (unless their name happens to be “Earl” or “Duke” to begin with). America’s meant to be the world’s great meritocracy: a place where — at least in theory — it’s still possible to rise from rags to riches.
At least in theory. Yet, don’t we find a way of grasping for those class distinctions, all the same? We have no royalty in this country, but haven’t we created our own: our glittering pantheon of Hollywood movie stars? We have no class distinctions, but don’t we believe, in our heart of hearts, there’s a certain nobility that comes of cruising down the Parkway in a limousine behind tinted windows, or stepping into the Platinum frequent-flyer check-in line at the airport? Privilege may not be a legally-recognized category in our constitutional democracy, but don’t we always find ways to bring it into our lives, all the same?
Jesus had nothing when we was born. His parents were nobodies. Years later, at the age of thirty, when he appeared for the first time in the Nazareth synagogue — reading aloud the scroll of the prophet Isaiah — the neighbors reacted with astonishment.
“Isn’t that Joe and Mary’s kid? Who does he think he is, sounding so high and mighty?” If there were any lingering memories of angel choirs — if there was any leftover gold, frankincense or myrrh in Mary’s cupboard — no one let on.
It’s a good thing the baby Jesus was a king without a crown. As Elizabeth and Philip discovered in their own marriage, a crown is meant to intimidate, not to endear. It’s meant to set apart, rather than unite. Literally, it is a heavy weight to bear — 2.3 pounds, to be exact, for the imperial crown of the United Kingdom. Imagine sitting with that weight on your head for several hours! It’s no wonder the diminutive Elizabeth had to practice for her role in the coronation.
For Jesus, the weight of a crown was never in question: for he was not the man who would be king, but the king who would be man. He was, of course, the son of God, but he was also human, through and through. And because his circumstances were so ordinary — because those wise men had to seek him in a stable, not a palace — he calls us to care for this world he loved so much he was willing to be born into it.
In Jesus Christ, the mighty Word that echoed through the silent stillness before creation becomes a child, cradled in his mother’s arms: a child who comes to bless us, not to hurt us; to save us, not to condemn us.
He was not what the wise men expected to find: but they got the picture, soon enough. They knelt down beside his manger. They paid him homage. They worshiped and adored him.
May you and I do the same, in our own lives: not only at Christmas, or Epiphany, but all throughout the year!
Copyright © 2018 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.