Sermon preached at St Cross Church, Appleton Thorn, and St Matthew’s Church, Stretton
On Sunday 15 January 2017 / Epiphany 2
our beginning and our end:
bring us with the whole creation
to your glory, hidden through past ages
and made known
in Jesus Christ our Lord.
We start the season of Epiphany with the story of the wise men (‘Magi’) who visit Jesus.
In the story, how many kings are there?
If you said ‘three’, and this were QI, the klaxons would sound and lights flash signifying an obvious but wrong answer. You thought there were three kings in the story? You’ve been misled by the carol, ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are’ and by every nativity play ever performed. In Matthew’s account of the visit of the magi, there’s no reference to them being kings – something you might have thought to mention if it were the case. Luke tells of the shepherds but makes no reference to magi. Mark and John have no nativity story, so that leaves us with Matthew, and Matthew does not say that any kings came to visit the infant Jesus. The visitors are ‘magi’, possibly followers of the eastern religion Zoroastrianism. They are scholars, in the sense that they study the stars. But they are not kings.
Nor does Matthew say that there were three of them. There were three gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – so maybe they brought one each. In some traditions, there were 12 of them, so maybe they clubbed together to buy those expensive gifts.
And, just to clear things up, they come to the house to find Jesus and his mother, not a stable, and they don’t bump into any shepherds. In fact, given that Herod gave the order to have children up to two years old killed, their visit might have been a couple of years after that of the shepherds.
So, how many kings are there in the story?
If you are wise to my trickery, you might have answered ‘none’ but that’s not right either.
There are two. The first is King Herod – Herod the Great, a puppet of the Roman empire but given the title ‘King of the Jews’. And the second, of course, is Jesus. The Magi come asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” They have seen a star that augurs the birth of a new king. This is why Herod is afraid: as far as he is concerned, he, Herod, is king. The last thing he needs is the news that another king has been born. It’s a threat to his job security and he does what dictators and despots have done throughout the ages: he orders the slaughter of his potential rivals.
So, you can read this story as the account of two kings. One has political power and will do anything to hold on to it. The other has no earthly power and will spend his life giving away what he does have. One will stop at nothing to preserve his own interests. The other will stop at nothing out of love for others. The first will kill in order to protect his livelihood. The second lays down his life out of love for others.
And so, a good question for Epiphany, at the start of a new year, is: which is your king? The king of self-preservation, self-interest? Or the king of love, who gives away all that he has and all that he is? The king who gives orders to others? Or the king who becomes the servant to all?
One kills in order to save his own skin; the other lays down his life in order to save those he loves.
Which is your king? And what does it mean to follow such a king?