A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon,
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA,
Sunday, January 4, 2015
Text: Matthew 2:1-12
Today’s story is one of rich and significant contrasts. It has characters whose hearts are both large and small, whose gifts are generous and deceptive, whose intent is worshipful and murderous. We have already heard about Herod and his song. Remember how Joy Caroll Wallis told us “Herod represents the dark side of the gospel. He reminds us that Jesus didn’t enter a world of sparkly Christmas cards or a world of warm spiritual sentiment. Jesus enters a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression” (Joy Caroll Wallis, “Putting Herod into Christmas,” adapted from a sermon delivered at Cedar Ridge Community Church on December 5, 2004, bigforums.com). This is Herod’s world and the only song he knows.
Then there are these “three kings of Orient are” who, “bearing gifts, traverse afar.” We sing about them every year and their wondrous guiding star. Just this morning we sang, “As with gladness sages bold did the guiding star behold…” Sages, wise men, from distant lands are a key element to the Christmas story. But have we ever listened for the song they sing? If we are very still, we might hear some sage singing as they come closer to the place where the baby was born.
Their hearts sing as they cover the miles between Persia and Judea, ambling along on the rhythmic ride of their steady camels. These scientists, cosmologists of their day, spend their time studying the stars in hope of discovering clues to the mysteries of the universe. They have seen a wondrous star rising in the southeast. They believe with all their hearts that it signifies something wonderful about to happen in the world. Without hesitation but with careful preparation they set out to follow the star. In part their heart song is for a great king who is to be born, one who will have a transforming affect on the world as they know it. Their song is one of devotion and worship.
They also bring appropriate gifts for such a king. “Gold is a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense (used for incense) is a symbol of deity, and myrrh (an embalming oil) is a symbol of death” (Alyce M. McKenzie, “Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh: Reflections on Matthew 2:1-12, “ Edgy Exegesis, January 6, 2013, patheos.com). Gold such as would be a fit for a king, incense for worship of a holy one and anointing oil in recognition of one who would lay down his life in service of the truth as he would come to know it. Gifts borne of insight, wisdom and understanding.
Sage singing comes from big-hearted believers. These sages, magi, priests of the Zoroastrian religion, throw open their hearts to welcome a king who promises to transform life radically. It does not restrict their hope and faith that this one who is to be born comes from a different religion. They are open to whatever way God chooses to work in the world; they will follow with their sage singing – “O come, let us adore him!”
On the other hand Herod and his company remind me of the Grinch. Their hearts have shrunk two sizes too small. Those whose hearts are full of fear and greed, of hate and anger have no room for hope or sage singing of any sort. If they sing at all, their songs are vicious, hateful and dishonest. Herod sounds sweet as honey when he oozes out instructions for the wise ones to “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.” We know he has no such intentions. His fearful, shrunken heart only wants to do away with the competition. He has no vision of what the baby brings to the world. He just wants to be rid of it before it exposes him for the despot that he really is.
As we’ve noted, these sages come with gifts that burst forth from their singing hearts and are fit gifts for one born to be king, but a unique king who will eventually be murdered because he insists on being a different kind of king. Alyce McKenzie tells us that today “we need an ever-fresh supply of these three gifts to offer this child as he grows and becomes strong. We need gold to value his identity as a king over our lives. We need frankincense to affirm his identity as the Son of God. We need myrrh to remind ourselves of his identity as a crucified messiah, to prevent our forgetting the forces within ourselves and our world that threaten this precious life in our midst” (McKenzie, op. cit).
Herod, the master of deceit and ill will, promises no gift for the child except his malevolent presence. What he has to offer is a sword that will strike the baby dead before he ever has the chance to speak God’s truth and bring God’s way to life on earth. Of course, this is no gift at all. In fact, the taking of life is the very antithesis of gift giving.
These singing sages have traveled a long way – o’er “field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star.” Why have they embarked on this arduous journey? They come before Herod asking, “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” – to pay homage, to bow down and worship the holy one. They recognize that God has come near in this little child and they want to pay due respect.
Herod professes the desire to worship him, too. But there is no room in Herod’s heart for worship. He is so self-absorbed, so determined to maintain his power that he cannot begin to fathom God’s open-hearted, self-giving way for the world. Herod’s point of view is to maintain power and domination, to exercise cruelty and violence. He can tolerate no threat to his narrow way. His rageful rule is murderous.
Hearts large and small. Gifts generous and murderous. Worship of God and self – these are some of the significant contrasts in this ancient tale. It comes down to us with questions about which singing we will listen for and which road we will travel. Will our hearts grow three sizes through this Christmas season or will they shrink to something tiny and poisonous? Will we give gifts that are appropriate and generous, that come from hearts large and open or will we give little, withholding the best for ourselves, giving only when it will net a good return? Will we fall down and worship God who comes near to us, year after after year, offering hope, peace, joy and love or will we be so self-absorbed that we hear neither angels nor sages singing the wonders of God’s creation?
Sages, leave your contemplations brighter visions beam afar.
Seek the great Desire of nations, you have seen the natal star:
Come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ, the newborn king.