"Who is the Real King?"
Matthew 2:1-12
Sermon preached by Gregory Knox Jones
January 6, 2013

I absolutely love Christmas and I try to hold on to it as long as possible. Time to put away the Christmas lights and stockings? Not yet. In fact, I'd probably leave all of my gifts strewn across the floor and furniture for weeks, if someone didn't gently remind me that my new jacket cannot remain draped over the chair forever and the new after shave will be much more accessible if it finds its home under the bathroom sink.

My resistance to putting things away may appear to the untrained eye as laziness. I assure you that is not the case. It's my way of trying to hold onto Christmas, because once all the stuff is put away, it feels as if we're saying, "Time to get back to the old routine."

I'm not alone in wanting to hold onto Christmas. Many cherish the change of pace, the special time with family and friends, the festive meals and the joyful worship services with "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "Silent Night."

I hope that wherever you were on Christmas Eve, you worshiped the new born King and got a taste of the love, joy, peace and hope that are ushered in with His birth.

I love all four of our Christmas Eve services because each has a distinctive flavor. The most memorable is often the first service with its miniscule shepherds jabbing at each other with their crooks, the kings tripping over their bathrobes and the Lilliputian angels looking like innocent cherubs rather than little sisters who punched their brothers in the car on the way to the service.

At our four o'clock service this Christmas Eve just past, it so happens that both the five-month old infant who played the baby Jesus and his big sister starred in the production. His 2 ½ year-old sister was one of the angels who traipsed forward with the other little girls in their white sheets and gold halos as the congregation sang "Angels We Have Heard on High."

But rather than stopping at the top of the chancel steps and standing with the other members of the Heavenly Host, the baby Jesus' sister walked up to her little brother and gently kissed him. You could hear the oohs and aahs ripple through the sanctuary. For those of us who get sentimental at Christmas - and I'm at the head of the line - it was a magic moment.

On Epiphany, the lectionary passage from the Gospel of Matthew gives us the opportunity to linger at least one more day on the blissful scene of the birth of Jesus. However, it also delivers something we would prefer to ignore. The reminder that the birth of Jesus was not all beauty and sentimentality. There was also darkness and ruthlessness.

On Christmas Eve, we conflate the stories of the birth of Jesus into one day. That allows us to imagine the perfect scene of Mary and Joseph hovering over Jesus lying in a manger. The shepherds, angels, wise men and animals are all snuggled in around them.

However, Matthew's story reminds us that the magi were latecomers to the scene and it was NOT a Hallmark moment. While we focus our attention on the exotic kings from the East bearing gifts to the newborn king, there is another figure in the story who casts a long, ominous shadow. You will not find this character in anyone's nativity scene, but he was a major player when Jesus was born: King Herod, the reigning King of the Jews, an arm of the Roman occupiers.

In the ancient world, it was widely believed that uncommon happenings in the heavens signaled extraordinary events on earth. Matthew declares that the birth of Jesus is marked by an extraordinary celestial body, a bright star that grabs the attention of Zoroastrians from Persia. These star-gazers from the East know how to read the night skies, and the brilliant star trumpets the birth of a new king.

They set out on a long journey with the star as their guide and eventually land in Jerusalem. On arrival, they begin asking people "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? We saw the star and we have come to pay him homage."

The residents of Jerusalem become frightened. The magi have come to worship not Herod, but a new king? Ruthless Herod will not stand for it. The people shudder, knowing something dreadful is on the horizon.

Within no time word gets to Herod, and he feels the tectonic plates shifting. Panicked, he summons the chief priests and scribes quizzing them about where the Messiah is supposed to be born. They tell him that the prophet Micah names Bethlehem, a town just a few miles south of Jerusalem.

Herod has the magi brought to him. It's likely that he sits down for tea with them, puts on his widest grin and pulls out his folksy demeanor. "You boys are pretty far from home. What brings you to these parts?"

"It was the star," they say, "It seems to signal a special birth."

"Well, you may be right," Herod says. "My team of experts tells me that someone great may have been born around Bethlehem. That's not far from here. Why don't you head over there, survey the situation and come back and tell me. If it's true, I'd like to go and pay my respects."

"Certainly," they assure the king, "We'll be right back."

Once the thinly veiled interrogation is over, the magi head to Bethlehem where they find the newborn king and present him with their gifts.

The wise men came by their title honestly. They're bright enough to know that King Herod is not about to worship someone else as king, so they swing wide of Jerusalem and take a different route home. Eventually Herod figures out that he's been duped and he is infuriated. He orders the killing of all children in and around Bethlehem who are two years old and under hoping to eliminate Jesus. But warned in a dream, Joseph whisks Mary and Jesus off to Egypt until it's safe to return.

Although we love some of the sentimentality that surrounds the birth of Jesus, Matthew reminds us that Jesus was born in a time and place that was far from an idyllic situation. The Hebrew people lived under a harsh occupation and a king who was not hesitant to take the lives of innocent children.

Matthew's story reminds us that we never celebrate the birth of Jesus by escaping into a make-believe world. Jesus was born into the same world we inhabit. A world of both good and evil, triumph and tragedy.

I can't read about Herod killing these children without thinking of the shooting in Newtown or the many children dying in the war in Syria or the cruel treatment of young girls in Afghanistan.

Yet, despite the suffering in our world, the birth of Jesus marks a turning point. First, it declares that we are not alone. God is with us. God is with us when life is all beauty and blessing, and God is with us in the direst situation. God knows the suffering of the world but never shies away from sharing our pain and sending us agents of love to support us.

And, second, the birth of Jesus marks the dawning of a new age. The old world of dead-ends is surpassed by a new world of possibilities. God seeks to lead us to new situations and new ways of living we can scarcely imagine.

Physician Rachel Naomi Remen treated a patient with bone cancer whose leg was removed at the hip to save his life. He was 24 years old when she began working with him and he was filled with bitterness over suffering such a loss so early in life.

Dr. Remen used painting and psychotherapy to help him deal with his grief and rage. It was a long, slow process, but after two years she observed a shift in him. He began to visit others who had suffered severe physical losses.

Once he visited a young woman who was his age. It was a very hot day and he was in shorts so his artificial leg was obvious when he entered her hospital room. This young woman was so depressed about the loss of both her breasts that she would not even look at him. However, the nurses had left her radio playing. So the young man, desperate to get her attention, unstrapped his leg and began dancing around the room on his one good leg, snapping his fingers to the music. She looked at him in disbelief, and then burst out laughing and said, "Man, if you can dance, I can sing."

A year later, he sat down with Dr. Remen to check his progress. As they were reviewing their work together, she opened his file and discovered several drawings he had made in his first few months. She handed them to him. He shuffled through them and said, "Oh, look at this." He held up one of his earliest drawings.

She had suggested that he draw a picture of his body. He had drawn a picture of a vase, and running through the vase was a deep black crack. This was the image he had of his body. She remembered that when he drew it, he was grinding his teeth. It was a very painful time for him because he felt as if the vase could never function as a vase again.

Now, two years later, he looked at the picture and said, "This one isn't finished."

She extended a box of crayons to him and said, "Why don't you finish it?"

He chose a yellow crayon and putting his finger on the crack he said, "You see, here where it is broken? This is where the light comes through." And with the yellow crayon he drew light streaming through the crack in his body. He had the dawning awareness that he had found strength at the very place he had been broken.1

The birth of Jesus marks a new day for the world. God is revealed as a compassionate Creator who envisions a better future and seeks to lead us into it.

We still suffer blows in life because God does not micromanage the world and we often fail to use our freedom wisely, but Christ's birth declares that there is a light that will never be extinguished because God will never stop encouraging us, never stop inspiring us and never stop guiding us to a better day.

Someone said, "Hope is the ability to hear the melody of the future and faith is the courage to dance to its tune today."2

Never give in to cynicism or despair because we simply do not know what God will reveal tomorrow. Remain alert for the divine light that, like a bright star pierces the darkness and signals the birth of something new.


  1. Jack Kornfield and Christina Feldman, Soul Food: Stories to Nourish the Spirit and the Heart, (San Francisco; HarperSanFrancisco, 1996, p. 28-29)
  2. Wayne Weissenbuler, "The Courage of Faith," The Protestant Hour, December 19, 1999.