The Three Kings: Unsung Heroes of the Christmas Story

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 1/9/22, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: Isaiah 60:1-6 & Matthew 2:1-12. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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This past Thursday was the Feast of the Epiphany – the day that we remember the arrival of the three magi from the East, who came to honor the Christ child after he was born in Bethlehem. It doesn’t say how long after Jesus’ birth they arrived, but it does that these three men came to see Jesus and Mary because they were astrologers, and the heavens had revealed to them the time of the birth of the king.

This is interesting to me, because I think that Christians generally would say that we don’t believe in or practice astrology. Yet here in the story of Jesus’ infancy, we find that not only did the heavens declare the wonderful event – but studious men in the East were able to interpret the stars to locate the newborn king of the Jews.

To me, this speaks of the ways that God can make use of all sorts of people, traditions, and cultures – even practices that we consider to be wrong or in error – to show his glory. I remember how God used the Persian king Cyrus to conquer Babylon and deliver Israel from its captivity. As Christians, we are convinced that warfare is incompatible with the Spirit of Christ, yet God used the wars of King Cyrus to deliver his people.

In the same way, though we have put aside astrology in favor of modern science and astronomy, Matthew shows us that God is present in all nations, languages, cultures, and traditions, ready to reveal truth to us. This was one of the radical insights of the early Friends, who insisted that the resurrected Jesus was present and ministering among the pagan Native Americans, among the Muslim Turks, and even among Christian groups with bad theology or bad politics! We are defined and limited by culture, language, and human religion – but God is not.

So, by God’s grace, the stars lead these eastern astrologers, the three magi, to the birthplace of the Lord Jesus in Jerusalem. The baby and his mother Mary are there when the three wise men arrive, and they pay homage to the infant king. They give riches they brought with them from the East – gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

God knows that the Holy Family will need this wealth in the days ahead: In the next passage after the one that we read this morning, we learn that God will soon command Joseph to take Mary and the child to Egypt. That gold, frankincense, and myrrh may have been just the provision they needed for the costs of life in exile.

But why would Joseph, Mary, and Jesus be heading into exile? Because there is an evil man on the throne in Jerusalem. Herod the Great. He’s the man who rebuilt the Temple. He’s also a man who collaborated closely with the Roman occupiers, and whose son – also named Herod – would later imprison and murder John the Baptist. Herod the Great, we soon learn, is a man who would slaughter a whole town full of infants in order to remove a threat to his power.

But the wise men, as much as they knew about the movements of the heavens, were not up to speed on Judean politics. And so when they arrived in the Roman province of Judea, like a station wagon pulled over at a gas station to ask for directions, the three wise men made a pit stop in Jerusalem. “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” they asked, “For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

When Herod got wind of this – that there were three erudite, wealthy foreigners wandering around the capital, asking for the king of the Jews – well, he invited them to his palace immediately. If anyone was the king of the Jews, it was him!

Herod may not have been a wise man, but he was a very clever guy. When he met these foreign visitors and heard them talk about the royal child that the stars predicted, Herod didn’t freak out. Quite the opposite: He pretended to be delighted.

“A new king has been born? You don’t say! In Bethlehem? You say the star will take you right to him? Fabulous. Tell you what – why don’t you go find this child, and then come back and tell me where he is. After all, I’m just as excited as you are to meet our new little ruler.”

And so the wise men set off, probably quite glad to have the support of the local authorities. Probably intending to come back and let Herod know what they found, so that he could join in the celebration. Again, these were wise men – but it’s not hard to imagine them as also being politically naive.

But as we know, it wasn’t time for people to kill Jesus yet. He was just a baby, and he had a lot of work to do first. So God sent an angel to the wise men, to speak to them in a dream. He warned them not to return to Jerusalem. And so the three magi disobeyed Herod, and returned home by another route.

And when I was reading this passage of scripture this week, this is what really stood out to me. The magi disobeyed Herod. They broke their promise. They had said that they would return to Jerusalem and let the rulers in on the whole secret of Jesus’ birth and location. But the angel said not to, and the magi proved to be wise indeed. They obeyed the command of God rather than those of men.

The image of the three wise men presenting rich gifts to the infant Christ and his mother really steals the show in our imagination – it’s good for Christmas cards and nativity scenes. But to me the choice presented to the astrologers is even more interesting. Because it’s a story about discernment: How do we know when we should follow the rules, obey the people in charge – and how do we know when God is calling us to disobey, even breaking the law?

The answers aren’t always clear, and there is a long Christian tradition of obeying authority whenever possible. After all, Jesus himself submitted himself to the governing authorities. He could have summoned an army of ten thousand angels at any time, yet he allowed himself to be arrested, tried, beaten, and tortured to death by the religious and civil authorities of his time.

So why not Herod? Why not be submitted to him? Why not allow him to kill Jesus at birth rather than at the age of thirty three?

In some ways it’s an interesting thought experiment. But the real answer is fairly simple: Because God is the ultimate authority, and God had a plan. That plan involved Jesus not only being born, but growing into a man and having a public ministry that lasted three years. Jesus did not come to earth merely to die, but also to gather us together, teach us, and demonstrate what a human life looks like when it is fully in-breathed by God.

God’s plan for Jesus outweighed Herod’s misguided plan to hang onto power by any means necessary. God’s word to the three magi, and to Joseph, directing them to safeguard the life of Jesus, preempted the authority of Herod to threaten the child messiah.

It’s no light thing to break the law. We should obey lawful authorities whenever possible, if for no other reason than that God is a God of order. As Christians, we participate in God’s ordering action. We are agents of peace, not of chaos.

Yet, God’s peace is not peace as the world understands it. It is not a weak going along to get along, but a solid stand on principle and fidelity to the word of God. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr, “[we] come not to bring this old peace which is merely the absence of tension; [We] come to bring a positive peace which is the presence of justice and the Kingdom of God.”

There are times that we discover, like the three magi, that we must obey the voice of the angel. We find that, like the apostles preaching in Jerusalem after Pentecost, we must obey God and not men. There are times when disobedience to human authority for Christ’s sake is the only moral path, even if that means, like Jesus, suffering the undeserved but natural consequences of our actions. 

The three magi are unlikely heroes in the Christian story. Foreigners. Pagans. Astrologers. Outsiders. And yet they were instrumental in the Christmas story, in the coming of our savior into the world. They cooperated with God to bring shalom, peace with justice and reconciliation.

Where are the three magi now? Who are the unlikely heroes, the people that God is using despite their apparent lack of qualifications? Who are the people that we in the church might even look askance at, make to feel unwelcome, but who God is using to advance his purposes in the world? Let’s pray we have eyes to see, and to welcome them, whether the gifts they bring are as obvious as gold, frankincense, and myrrh, or perhaps a little bit more mysterious.