Two Kings

Sermon preached at St Cross Church, Appleton Thorn, and St Matthew’s Church, Stretton

On Sunday 15 January 2017 / Epiphany 2


Eternal Lord,
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.

Quiz question:

In the story, how many kings are there?

Answer: two.

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?

The Epiphany

In the west, we think of the Epiphany as being mostly about the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. But there are other associations which we are invited to make during the season of Epiphany – including the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan and his first miracle, turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee.

The word ‘epiphany’ means a manifestation or revelation. It’s sometimes used to mean a moment of inspiration: you’ve been thinking about something for days and getting nowhere. Suddenly, the thing that was hiding from you pops into your head. You’ve had an epiphany. Something that was hidden becomes clear, that’s what an epiphany is. In the Christian church we think of the mysteries of God – things long hidden – being revealed to us. Starting with the birth of Jesus where God shows himself definitively to us in the poverty and humility of the manger. Outside of the Holy Family, the first revelation is to the shepherds.

The first nowell the angels did say was to certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay…

The shepherds were humble folk, Jewish but not particularly religious. Then come the magi, the wise men. They are exotic rather than humble, and religious but not Jewish. The shepherds are familiar local figures, down from the hills. The magi are mysterious foreigners who have travelled far. Matthew (2:1-11) tells us that they follow a star to find the place where the new king has been born. First of all, in Jerusalem, they face another king, Herod, who is afraid when he hears that a new king has been born. They outwit him – well, they were wise men! – and pay homage to the new-born King in Bethlehem. These strangers are drawn in to the story of God’s dealing with his people. Right at the start of Matthew’s gospel we hear that the one who is born to be Messiah, in fulfilment of (Jewish) prophecy, is also King to the gentiles, the foreigners, strangers, outsiders. The Gospel is not just for us and people like us. It is Good News for all.

And that is the note of Epiphany: like dropping a pebble in a pond, the ripples move ever outward. From the narrow confines of the manger, the news of the birth of Jesus spreads, to Jewish shepherds, to gentile wise men. At his baptism, Jesus is revealed as God’s Son:

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

Luke 3:21, 22

In John (2:1-11) we hear of the first miracle of Jesus, turning water into wine – not just any old plonk, but good wine – and are told that ‘his disciples believed in him’. In John, miracles are ‘signs’ which point to something. They are epiphanies, moments of revelation. John will tell us of healings, feeding the 5,000, walking on water, and the raising of Lazarus. At these moments, the veil is drawn back and we see the truth about who Jesus is, and how he reveals God to us. And we are invited, like the first disciples, to respond with faith.

The pebble is dropped into the pool and the ripples reach out, from the manger, to us. We are here because the Good News has reached us. But what if the ripples stop with us? What if this is as far as they go? We are the last to be reached. The Good News comes to us, but stops with us. The season of Epiphany is a reminder to us that the revelation of God’s love to the world is not just for us. We are charged with allowing the ripples to go beyond us, into the wider world, where our families, friends and neighbours are.

At the start of this year, we might well think of how we can share the Good News of Jesus with those beyond the church. Where shall we start?

In The Bleak Midwinter

I’m sticking with the themes of the Epiphany season. On Sunday I took as my sermon topic: why I never choose ‘We Three Kings’ for carol services. Put simply, the Bible doesn’t say they were kings nor that there were three of them… There’s also no mention of camels or stables and the magi almost certainly didn’t come across the shepherds, as they do in our nativity plays. But there were three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh, and they offer fertile soil for reflection. Gold is a gift fit for a king; incense is offered to God; and myrrh speaks of both healing and anointing for death. The magi are exotic strangers who are drawn by a star to the little one who is the Light of the World, showing that God’s plan for the world isn’t limited to his people, the Jews. The magi are foreigners, gentiles. They too are brought in to the story of the incarnation.

So, today my theme is: why I almost never pick ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’, despite it being a favourite of just about everybody. It has a fabulous tune, by Gustav Holst, who was born in Cheltenham. The tune is called Cranham, which is the name of the Gloucestershire village where Holst lived when he composed it. The words are by Christina Rossetti:

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

First of all, we don’t know when Jesus was born and it is unlikely to have been during the winter, bleak or otherwise. The shepherds were out on the hills at night, which suggests that it was not winter and that it was not bleak. And if it was in the winter, how much snow do you think there was in Bethlehem? It does apparently sometimes snow in Bethlehem in winter but it’s rare. And, if it happened when Jesus was born, you would have thought that either Matthew or Luke might have mentioned it. But they didn’t. So, no ‘snow on snow’.

But I guess that Christina Rossetti knew that. What she did is what artists have always done: she transposed the story of the nativity into her own world. White Christmases were more common in the nineteenth century than they are today (because of a ‘little ice age’ that ended around the 1850s). Climate change means that our winters are increasingly likely to be warmer and wetter than they were in Rossetti’s day. There’s something about bringing the gospel into our own time and culture that makes sense: the incarnation means that God makes himself known in human flesh, in a particular place at a particular time, but in doing so, God is made known in all places and at all times.

I recently wasted a couple of minutes watching a video online in which an animated Martin Luther argues with a couple of Anglicans over writing a Christmas hymn. Luther wants to write about the doctrine of the incarnation and God’s plan to redeem humanity. The English hymn writers want to sing about snow and livestock.

But there’s theological reflection in Rossetti’s poem, as well as the description of meteorological phenomena. King Solomon, at the dedication of the Temple, asks:

‘But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!’
1 Kings 8.27

The God who cannot be contained by heaven, let alone a temple built by human hands, deigns to dwell in a mere stable-place and to be content with “a breastful of milk and a mangerful of hay”. We’ll skip over the fact that the Gospels don’t actually mention a stable, nor the “ox and ass and camel which adore”, and dwell on the humility which God shows in coming among us as that most vulnerable creature, a new born human child, born in poverty. I also love the tenderness of the description of his mother worshipping her Beloved “with a kiss”, while angels, archangels, cherubim and seraphim throng the air.

But the crunch comes with the final verse and this is what makes the hymn work in worship, despite the dubious meteorology and livestock references:

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give Him –
Give my heart.

At the epiphany we think of the magi with their gifts, honouring the new born King. With them we recognise that the greatest gift of all is the humble child in whom God is made known. And with Christina Rossetti we wonder what it is that we can give in return for such a gift. Shepherds and wise men had the opportunity to worship the infant King:

Yet what I can, I give Him –
Give my heart.

Alan Jewell