II Samuel 5.1-4

Matthew 2.1-12

The Other Three Kings

First Sunday after Epiphany

We’re going to be doing things in threes this morning, in honor of the story Claudia just finished reading, and we begin with my three least favorite Christmas songs, which means I’ll probably offend at least three of you whose favorites I am about to diss.  Let me say first how much I admired your enthusiastic rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” during last week’s coffee hour.  You almost removed it from my list of least favorites - almost.  Sorry about that Claudia.  (See?  I offended this morning’s Deacon in only my third sentence.)  It’s like the song that goes on forever, and I can never keep track of all those Lords a-Leaping and Ladies Dancing.  That said, there is one version of the song I enjoy; it’s sung by the a capella group Straight No Chaser, and I like it because it manages to mash “The Twelve Days of Christmas” up with the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, the Dreidel Song and Toto’s “Africa.”  If you want a good laugh, look up “The 12 Days of Christmas” by Straight No Chaser on YouTube.  The second hymn on my list is The First Nowell, which not only goes on for verse after verse after verse, but each verse consists of the exact same melody three times apiece, eight bars of the same thing over and over again, which means that after six verses you’ve sung the same tune eighteen times.  Boring!  And finally the third of my least favorite Christmas songs, though technically an Epiphany song, is the one we just sang, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”  It’s another hymn that seems to go on and on ad infinitum.  I understand that it took at least two weeks, and by some estimates several months, for the magi to reach the manger, but do we really have to sing about it in real time?  It seems like the hymn is longer than the journey itself.

There.  I’m glad I got that off my musical chest.

So here’s another three things.  Before we can get to the heart of today’s New Testament lesson, we need to peel away three layers of tradition and understand first what it does not say.  First of all, as we heard, Matthew does not call them kings.  When Claudia read the gospel she called them “wise men,” but if you were following along in your Pew Bible, you might have noticed the footnote that says the Greek word is magi.  It’s the same Greek word that gives us our word “magic,” though this is not to say they were magicians in our sense of the word, but rather they were astrologers, they were seers.  The magi read the stars.  This is why they asked the question, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?  For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”  They saw the star, they knew it meant something, and they went to Bethlehem to divine its meaning.  This is what magi did.

The second layer to peel back is their number.  Matthew never tells us how many magi there were.  Tradition has the number at three – it has even given them names, as we heard during the Children’s Message:  Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar.  The reason we assume there were three of them is because there were three gifts, of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Most likely there were more than three, since travelers such as they from the regions of Persia and Babylon traveled in caravans – hence the camels of our nativity scenes – and typically there were multiple attendants traveling with them.

And the third layer to pull back is the classic tableau of the nativity itself, and we saw a good illustration of this last week when our children put the magi into the manger.  You’ll remember how we mentioned that the shepherds had already departed, and that was a good thing, because otherwise we couldn’t have fit everyone into the manger.  There simply isn’t room in the manger for Joseph and Mary and the baby and the shepherds and the sheep and the magi and the camels and the gifts.  Which is only fitting, since the shepherds are not part of the magi story and the magi are not part of the shepherds’ story.  The magi belong to Matthew’s story, and the shepherds belong to Luke’s story. They never appear in the same place.  Still, after watching generations of Sunday School pageants we may be forgiven if we think otherwise, but it’s more like the magi get photoshopped into Luke’s Christmas story.  Different stories, different characters, different messages.

Now.  None of this is to say there are not three kings in the gospel of Matthew.  In fact here are three kings, and possibly a fourth; it’s just that these kings aren’t the ones who brought the gold, the frankincense and the myrrh.

            The first two kings are easy to find; they’re both right there in the first two verses of Matthew 2.  (Did anyone notice who the first two kings are?)  “In the time of King Herod” – there’s King number One – “after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” – and there’s King number Two.  Herod is the first king and Jesus is the second – two very different types of king to be certain, but this is Matthew’s story and this is how he’s telling it.

            The next king is a little more challenging to locate, but he’s in there.  One of the things Matthew does consistently throughout his gospel is to quote the Hebrew scriptures because Matthew wrote primarily from and to a Jewish perspective.  And right there in the center of the story of the magi is a combination of two Old Testament references, one of them taken from the II Samuel passage I read.  “The Lord said to David, ‘from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”  Matthew quotes this passage from II Samuel to be sure we get the connection between King David and King Jesus.  Jesus the king of the Jews is descended from David the King of Israel and Judah.  There is the third king.

            But Matthew isn’t done, and this is where it gets interesting, because Matthew sneaks a fourth king into the story that actually leads us back to the magi.  The first half of Matthew’s reference, “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah,” is an allusion to a story in the book of Numbers about the prophet Balaam.  If Balaam’s name sounds familiar from the old cobwebs of our Sunday School memories, it is probably because Balaam’s donkey spoke to him on the road to Moab.  It’s a long story, but here’s the gist (minus the donkey):  King Balak of Moab – the fourth King, if you will, and an evil one - called on Balaam, a local prophet, to prophecy a curse on the people Israel, who were making their way through Moab to the Promised Land.  Four times Balaam went out to curse them, but each time he tried, God put words of blessing into his mouth instead, and Balaam wound up conferring favor and approval on the Hebrew people, contravening the command of the ruler of Moab.  You might call this a divinely inspired act of civil disobedience, sanctioned and directed by God.

            What does this have to do with the magi, we might ask Matthew.  Why would Matthew put this obscure reference to the book of Numbers into his nativity story?  Well, you tell me: “Then Herod secretly called for the magi and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.  He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’”  But after they saw the child and presented their gifts to him, what did the magi do?  “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”  Something – or someone – told them that what Herod had commanded them was not right; in fact it was immoral, a crime against humanity.  History has come to call it the slaughter of the innocents, and the magi, like the prophet Balaam, in an act of divinely directed disobedience, refused to go along.

            And so the fourth king is like the first, Balak and Herod.  Part of this story is about the magi paying homage to King Jesus, descendant of King David.  And part of this story is about refusing to obey a ruler whose edicts are capricious and criminal.  Let’s be clear:  Herod lied: “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”  Rubbish.  Herod’s motives were as transparent as they were sinister.  And so it was planted in the magi’s hearts to disobey him, to resist his order and to walk away.

            Balak and Herod, civil leaders who would rather curse than bless, whose decrees were directed against the most vulnerable members of society, the oppressed, the defenseless, the marginalized.  Balaam and the magi, reading both the angels and the stars, not only refused to cooperate, they did their best to confound and contravene because this is what was planted in their heart and soul by God.  Throughout history God has stood with the poor, the outcast, the migrant – and remember, this is exactly what the Israelites were as they crossed Moab, a band of homeless, migrant people.

            As Jesus would say repeatedly throughout his ministry:  let those who have ears to hear, hear – and understand.

            Amen.

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