Preached at South Wedge Mission
Rochester, New York
Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord
6 January 2013
Day Texts: Isaiah 60.1-6
Ephesians 3.1-12Matthew 2.1-12
What a difference! The three kings had only a rumor to go by. But it moved them to make that long journey. The scribes were much better informed, much better versed. They sat and studied Scripture like so many dons, but it did not make them move. Who had the more truth? The three kings who followed a rumor, or the scribes who remained sitting with their knowledge? -Soren Kierkegaard
-Confession: something in tonight’s worship has deliberately misled you. Now I know what you’re thinking: someone being misled…by the church? Shocking I know.
-In this case, the culprint’s our opening hymn, “We Three Kings.” And I’m not talking about the part where, in a supposedly Christ-centered community, we are singing about following an astronomical entity. No, actually, it’s that title. We three “kings.” It’s just plain wrong.
-Because, as you may have noticed in the Gospel lesson, we’re never actually told that these travelers are “kings.” They really are “of Orient are.” But in the Gospel, we’re told that they are in fact “wise men.” Magi. Which is actually something more mystical, something closer to what we might call an astrologer. An alchemist. Dare I say, a magician? Or even, wizards? While in church tradition they are named Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar (hipsters looking for baby names, take note), for my money, we could just as easily dub them Gandalf, Dumbledore and Obiwan Kinobi. Those kinds of wise guys. But bearing gifts, instead of, you know, light sabers and wands.
-Now, there are kings in the story too. Just not the kind you’d enjoy singing about. Unless you also admire folks like Stalin or live in North Korea, I’m willing to bet you’ve never taken to song to celebrate King Herod. Herod the Great, who enslaved his own people to build his garish palaces and temples. Herod the Elder, who had two of his sons and one of his many wives strangled because he feared they had designs on his throne. Herod the Tyrant, who along with massacring three hundred of his servants on suspicion of conspiracy, also ordered the murder of all the infants of Bethlehem.
-To this Herod’s doorstep come the wizardly wise men, fresh on the trail of a rumor and a star. “Hey,” they exclaim, “we heard the new king has been born! Finally, we’ve arrived. Please, will you show us where he is?” Imagine the silence. Herod is not amused. In fact, we’re told that Herod is, in the original Greek, “disturbed to the core of his being.” Scared, yes. But also enraged, and envious, indignant. And, we’re told, when the tyrant is stirred, so is the rest of the city. They’ve all afraid of what comes next.
-Including Herod’s own wise guys. Scribes and priests, faithful Jews whom he consults to fill in the gaps of the pagan Gentiles’ queries. Sages who follow scrolls instead of stars. As a book nerd myself, I can’t help but feel for these guys. If the my boss came to me with news that the Messiah had been born in my own time, the one foretold in the scriptures I had spent my life studying, I like to think my first reaction would be ecstatic excitement!
-Until I remembered whose payroll I was on. And what he would do to me if I decided to drop my scrolls and join up with the Magi to go and follow the star to Bethlehem. I’d want with my whole being to go find the Liberator. But I might have just as likely stayed, for fear of the Oppressor.
-As a fearful scribe in such a kingdom, I might meet rumors of stars much like Mr. Bilbo Baggins of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. When the Magi Gandalf comes to invite him on an adventure, Bilbo promptly declares, “Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make one late for dinner! We don’t want any adventures here, thank you! You might try over the Hill.” Fearful of what others will think or what the tyrants will do to me, or simply worried about good old-fashioned failure, I often prefer to commit my gifts and talents to safer uses. I’ll go along with Herod, with Sin and Death and the stability they deceptively promise. Because adventures mean change. And change can feel more terrifying than selling my soul to Herod.
-I feel Bilbo’s trepidation, though admittedly, my own adventure is far less romantic. See, I’ve struggled with low-grade depression for a little over a decade. Friends who love me have been urging me for years to seek help, to try medication, to see if it helps me in my journey. Tomorrow, I’m finally going to see a doctor about it. And it’s scary. Scary to admit that I’ve been depressed in the first place. To have to try something I’m not sure will necessarily work. Scary to risk change. Or risk it being an utter wash. Most of all, I’m often scared of what others will think about a pastor on meds.
-But see, adventures, and rumors of change, and news of new kings and new creations, I think they should disturb us. Because they lead us into messy, dangerous places. Where commitments to people and to projects disintegrate and end. Where well-intentioned personal budgets spiral into excess and debt. Where child poverty, and homelessness, and warfare and injustice and real-life tyrants tear our world apart. Where our efforts to control the uncontrollable end up controlling us. Where change seems impossible, and Herod’s rule seems unending and inevitable.
-It is here, precisely here, into failure, brokenness, and oppression, that Christ’s star deigns to shines its light. Into the deep darkness, exposing the seams in Herod’s Lies. It bears the Good yet terrible tidings that, in fact, we are no more kings than the Magi in the carol. The hard truth that, despite all our best efforts and intentions, we are not in control.
-But see, the Good News is, neither is Herod. Because, lest we forget, there is another king in this story. The other king, the one laying in the manger. Not surrounded in power by scribes and slaves and soldiers with swords, but vulnerable, worshipped by shepherds and sheep and peasants and hay. This king is not crowned by jewels and palaces, but by a star, does not manipulate us into his kingdom with threats and skullduggery, but draws us, inspires us, calls us in the heights of the heavens and dwells in the deepest, darkest places of our hearts. Jesus Christ, the same one who one day would hang upon a cross to prove the love of God for the world, is a king who works by powerlessness. By vulnerability. By giving up control. By refusing to work with any means except beauty, and truth, and wonder.
-Herod is not the king. Jesus is.
-And this Jesus is always drawing us to himself, almost always in unexpected forms. Sometimes by the beauty of a star. Or by ordinary bread and wine made mysterious. Or by the wonder of wandering wizards and wise men. Or, most often for me, in friends, willing to disturb my fear with rumors of truth. Like in the Hobbit, where Bilbo’s own desire for safety is corroded by the songs and tales of dwarves and wizards. As he listens to their song, “Something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls…he looked out of the window. The stars were out in the dark sky above the window.” In community, we can help each other believe that another world is possible. And to risk going there together.
-Jesus, the king of the universe, calls and calls again. And, again and again, Jesus calls us through our community. And in those times where we are tempted to poo-poo the adventure, God in Christ invites us to disturb one another with rumors of the truth. To leave Herod’s court, to help one another take the risk of following the star of wonder, however crazy and unsafe it might seem. To try that new commitment that once seemed impossible. To leave that situation of abuse and oppression that seemed inevitable. To rise up against both earthly tyrants, and the tyrants of Sin, Death and Fear. We may just find ourselves, like the Magi, leaving the manger’s side, listening to our dreams, which return us to familiar places, but by a very different path. A path of freedom, and not of fear.
-So if you, like me, come to the end of this holiday season, world-weary, adventure-averse and wonder-numb, hear this: Herod is not king, and Herod’s world is not the ultimate kingdom. Let us enter each others’ courts and into the courts of the world as Magi, as wandering wizards, and not as kings, with words of wonder, invitations to risk, and rumors of glory. And let us also hear one another, as hopeful hobbits, faithful failures, vulnerable vagrants, ready to follow to where the true king calls us with his infant cry. And let us, as scribes freed from the Oppressor, sing songs of “stars of wonder,” proclaim that the rumors are true, and prepare to tell tales of adventures yet to come.