Advent 2020 – The Three Kings
Pastor Marissa Jadrich Ortiz — December 20, 2020
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”
When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:
You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
because from you will come one who governs,
who will shepherd my people Israel.”[a]
Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.
In one of the coolest and weirdest parts of the Christmas Story, total strangers from another country come to visit Baby Jesus. There’s a whole lot of drama. And then they disappear, never to be seen again in the pages of scripture. This is the story of the Three Kings.
Despite their mystery, I find the magi to be very relatable characters. They’re foreigners like us. Dressed funny, maybe struggling with the language when they ask questions. They’re the perfect mix of clueless and totally focused—they got all the way from wherever they’re from to Jerusalem, and then they had the tact to tell the literal King that his usurper is around here somewhere and can he help them with directions? The magi seem wealthy and powerful in a way—they bring expensive gifts, they’ve hazarded a long trip, and no one seems to bat an eye at them walking right up to King Herod like a peer. They’ve had the benefit of education, travel, money, and social status. Maybe you relate to some of that. But they don’t let those things talk them out of going to see baby Jesus, no, they use their knowledge, their journey, their resources, and their social access as tools to get them where they are going: Jesus. They’re hearing from God in all the right ways: on top of getting to meet baby Jesus, they get a miraculous dream message to avoid Herod on the way home. But they hear from God the wrong ways too. Astrology is not our God’s main way to get a point across, but if that’s what works for this group, God is not above using it to show them the way. So when I think about the Christmas Story, the magi are the ones that make me think “I want to be like those guys.”
We often call this the story of the Three Kings, but it’s really the story of the Two Kings. And the wise men are caught right in the middle of it.
King Number One is named Herod. He’s the Rome-appointed ruler in Jerusalem. And Herod has a reputation of doing anything it takes to stay in power. Herod was known for killing anyone whose power might threaten him, including members of his own family. He was a pretty terrible person. In fact, his dying wish was that people would mourn and grieve his passing like he was a great leader…but he knew everybody hated him and couldn’t wait for him to die, so he had a plan to have his guards assassinate a bunch of other well respected leaders as soon as he himself had passed, so that at least people would properly be sorry about it. I’m pleased to report that this part of his will was not carried out. So—horrible person—and at the same time, he tried to be a good worshipper of God. He spent some of his influence and money on building an amazing new temple in Jerusalem. He was pretty devout about keeping Jewish rules. And the irony was not lost on the people of his time. One famously quipped, “you’re better off being Herod’s pig than his son,” because slaughtering a pig would break Herod’s strict rules about clean eating. But he killed several sons who he deemed too eager to replace ol dad. So that’s Herod.
King Number Two is Jesus. He’s a baby, well, maybe a toddler by now. peeing and pooping in the wrong places. Teething. Smiling. Crying. But definitely not building temples or succession planning or ordering anybody around. The only thing king-y about Jesus is that God chose him to free God’s people from evil, oppression, and death, inviting the whole world into the transformative reign of God’s peace and justice that shall have no end. But that’s really all. He doesn’t have a whole lot else going for him.
And the thing we learn in this story, is that this town aint big enough for the both of them.
Herod doesn’t know or care that Jesus is the prince of peace—Herod knows there’s only room for one King of Israel, and he is not about to hand over that crown.
Church, I gotta give it to him—Herod isn’t wrong about this. Jesus is a threat to your money. If you bow down to Jesus you don’t get to keep it. Jesus is a threat to your influence. Jesus says leadership starts with foot washing, and he’s not especially concerned about public image. Jesus is a threat to your power. Jesus promises his followers, one day someone else is going to lead you where you don’t want to go, and the power of your witness might be about the way you die. Those are the kinds of promises Jesus makes. And Herod is also right that there can only be one King. We don’t see Jesus doing the kind of ruthless ousting that Herod is known for, but he’s still pretty clear that you can’t give your allegiance to God and…anyone else.
Not only that, everybody else in Jerusalem is troubled too! It means more fear, more violence, more riots, more death. Swapping over from one king to another king never comes easy. New kings are bad news. Even though they heard rumors of the magi and their mission, even though they looked in their scriptures to find the place of his birth, they know better than to get tangled up with Herod’s enemies! No gracias.
This is why I’m really sitting with these magi this year. Because they’re the only ones in the story who have money, influence, social prestige, and who don’t see Jesus as a threat. They see Jesus as a powerful coming king but it’s still really good news.
The magi planned a whole trip for this, right? So what’s so good about Jesus being king? Honestly, we don’t know what the Magi knew. I mean their source material was stars after all. But whatever they picked up on about Jesus was worth this trip. Maybe they heard he was a wonderful counselor—a ruler who astonished people with wise decisions and just outcomes. Maybe they heard he was a prince of peace—someone who says NO to the sleazy promises of violence and makes room for his people to live well together. Maybe they knew this was a mighty God—not just directing angel armies from on high but coming all the way in to the thick of human life.
See the magi, they’re not kings, but they’re used to spending time around rulers. They get consulted by kings about making decisions and understanding the times. They know what kings are like—they have riches and power and influence, but the only thing they know how to do with them are protect what they already have and get more. They knew kings like Herod and they saw them for what they are, just another human trying to wield the power over life and death that only belongs to God. Now the magi, they find out *from the stars* that there’s a new kind of king. And they want to be a part of that kingdom. When they hear that invitation *from the stars* to give their allegiance to this kind of king, it gives purpose to their own riches, their power and influence. They’re going to use everything they have to find the baby Jesus, to take sides in the Tale of Two Kings.
For King Herod, the important thing about his money, power, and influence is just hanging on to it. So for him, King Jesus is just bad news. For the people in Jerusalem, wondering what they would lose if there was a new king in town, it’s hard to hear the good news in Jesus’ birth. But for the traveling magi, there’s never been anything better to do with your money, time, relationships, education, power, social status, career than to use those things to journey toward Jesus. Instead of protecting our sources of power from what God might ask of us, what if we offer them to God and see what God might want to give us instead. I think about the man in the parable who found a treasure in a field and all of a sudden, just like that, he knew what to do with his whole life savings. Or the parable of the sneaky manager who decides to use his accounting savvy to help people out of debt instead of cheating his boss. Or Zaccheus. He figures out that participating in God’s family means giving back the money he’d worked so hard to take from people, plus extra, and it’s a no brainer. He’s spent some time with Jesus, he has experienced belonging and he says, oh that’s easy I know a good deal when I hear it. These kinds of choices look foolish, but only if you underestimate how good it is to belong to God.
There’s so many weird stories that get told about God and money—here’s one for you to try on from the Magi. Everything you have is a gift from God. And everything you have can be a window into seeing more of God, knowing God’s love, a star pointing toward the direction to take to meet God. Everything: your money and time, education and experience, successes and failures, family and culture, power and influence, desires and fears. Those treasures have a purpose. We are on a journey toward Jesus just like the Magi. We know we’re doing it right when we’re giving those precious things to God AND receiving the gift of God through the treasures we offer to Jesus.
Hold it in your hand. What have you been given that you can give back to Jesus? What have you been given that can become part of your journey to meet Jesus and participate in the Kingdom where he is the King? How is God using these gifts to point you in the direction of Jesus. The Kingdom of God we’ve been invited into through Jesus is worth whatever it takes to get there. It’s worth the journey, worth the drama, worth the costs. If you knew all that God has to offer you, you wouldn’t ask what you have to give up on, just like the Magi you’d just go.
Church, it’s worth it. Let’s go.