Sage Singing (January 4, 2015)

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, 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, 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.

The King Sings (December 14, 2014)

Advent Candles
Advent Candles

A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA,

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Texts: Matthew 2:1-12, 16

Jesus, I am overjoyed
To meet you face to face
You’ve been getting quite a name
All around the place
Healing cripples
Raising from the dead
Now I understand you’re God
At least that’s what you’ve said
So you are the Christ
You’re the great Jesus Christ
Prove to me that you’re divine-
Change my water into wine
That’s all you need do
Then I’ll know it’s all true
C’mon King of the Jews

Jesus you just won’t believe
The hit you’ve made around here
You are all we talk about
You’re the wonder of the year
Oh what a pity
If it’s all a lie
Still I’m sure
That you can rock the cynics if you try
So if you are the Christ
Yes the great Jesus Christ
Prove to me that you’re no fool-
Walk across my swimming pool
If you do that for me
Then I’ll let you go free
C’mon King of the Jews

I only ask what I’d ask any superstar
What is it that you have got
That puts you where you are? (Oh, ho ho)
I am waiting
Yes I’m a captive fan
I’m dying to be shown
That you are not just any man
So if you are the Christ
Yes the great Jesus Christ
Feed my household with this bread
You can do it on your head
Or has something gone wrong?
Jesus, why do you take so long?
Aw, c’mon King of the Jews

Hey! Aren’t you scared of me Christ?
Mister Wonderful Christ!
You’re a joke, you’re not the Lord
You are nothing but a fraud
Take him away
He’s got nothing to say!
Get out you King of the
Get out you King of the,
Get out you King of the Jews!
Get out of here, you, you!
Get out of here, you!
Get out of my life

 “Herod’s Song,” Jesus Christ Superstar
Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber

What’s that you say? I’ve got the wrong song? The wrong season? The wrong Herod? Well, alright you have a point. The Herod of Jesus Christ Superstar is not the Herod of today’s text. He’s a descendant, ruling some thirty years later. And yes this song is sung to the captive Jesus during the Passion when he is dragged in for judgment. But is the song really wrong? The slimy despot from the musical is just as troubled with Jesus as his father was. Uneasy is the head that wears the crown. The fear of anything that threatens power and control is palpable in the murderous acts of these paranoid rulers and in the mocking words of the song.

If you recall the scene from the musical or the movie, Herod, the son, begins his song, sarcasm dripping from his every word and ends the song enraged at the refusal of Jesus to respond, let alone give him what he demands. Does Jesus see the rule of Herod as illegitimate, one which he will not acknowledge? He has cast his lot with God above all others. Alright then, “Get out you king of the Jews. Get out of here. Get out of my life.” Ah, if it was only that simple to rid one’s self of those convicting eyes. Like it or not, something of Christ’s silent but powerful presence would haunt Herod for the rest of his life.

Herod Antipas wasn’t so different from his despotic father except that he ruled only a quarter of the kingdom his father did. His power and control had already begun to dissipate. The Romans trusted him even less than they did Herod, the Great, who ruled over all of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth. Brian McLaren writes that the older Herod, even in his token Judaism, would have heard the prophecy of the one born king of the Jews. He suggests that, in this particular time of ferment, Herod may have been overly sensitive to rumors of the Messiah coming soon (Brian D. McLaren, “Keep Herod in Christmas” in We Make the Road by Walking, pp. 71-74).

Not trusting completely the counsel of his own religious advisors, he calls in some Zoroastrian astrologers from northeast of Judea to consult their magic as well. Everything seems to point to Bethlehem – both ancient texts and guiding star. For whatever reasons, these foreign operatives leave Bethlehem by a different route, heading home without disclosing to Herod the whereabouts of this baby who is supposedly born “king of the Jews.” Perhaps they sensed Herod’s murderous intent – he was no different than other despot they had encountered – and perhaps they had seen some of that same powerful, convicting presence in the infant’s barely opened eyes.

This leads to Herod’s enraged “slaughter of the innocents.” Just to be on the safe side, he orders his henchman to murder all the babies in Bethlehem two years and under. “A voice [is] heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refuse[s] to be consoled, because they are no more.” It would be nice to write this story off as an ancient myth and to claim that we are beyond such horror, but we know that would be untrue. We hear today mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers crying out in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City, in Cleveland and Oakland, in Syria and Burma, in Uganda and Mexico, in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Children of all ages are being victimized, abused, uprooted, oppressed and executed all over this world. There is wailing and loud lamentation, protest and rioting. Consolation is not the order of the day. This is why McLaren and others insist that we “keep Herod in Christmas.”

I realize that we have not taken the regular route through Advent this year. Instead, we have considered challenging texts for difficult times. Perhaps that’s as it should be. Though today’s text is more typically a Christmas or Epiphany reading, I think McLaren offers it as an Advent text so that we understand the sort of world into which the Christ child comes. True we do not live in an occupied state or in ancient times. We’ve made so many advancements over the centuries that our difficulties are different ones. Still they are no less real and no less challenging. We have not yet fully occupied the commonwealth of God and sometimes we even have trouble seeing it.

We tend to sentimentalize this season. We paint only warm, peaceful, blessed scenes on the front of our Christmas cards. We take the chill and the smell and distress from the stable. We forget that, in addition to the crowds in town, Mary and Joseph could not find a place because Joseph’s hometown relatives and friends shunned him and the unwed teen aged mother who was his traveling companion. No room in the inn. No room in Joseph’s family. No room in Herod’s Judea. “Get out you king of the Jews. Get out of here. Get out of my life.”

I wonder how often such a scene is played out in the world around us. No room for justice. No room for even a fair trial. No room for color.   No room for difference. No room for refugees. No room for children living in poverty and terror. No room. Get out of here. Get out of our neatly ordered lives. As Thomas Merton has written, “Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it—because he is out of place in it, and yet must be in it—his place is with those others who do not belong, who are rejected because they are regarded as weak; and with those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, and are tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in the world” (Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable.)

As I have mentioned before, I first encountered these words, ironically, on a Christmas card. The cover of the card showed a small, dark child sitting naked on the barren earth, weeping. Not much blessing, peace or warmth here – except, perhaps, in the possibilities the Christ child brings to the least and the lost and the last. No sentimentality, to be sure.

It is precisely for the uninvited, the rejected, the weak, the discredited, the dehumanized, the tortured and exterminated that we must keep Herod in Christmas. It is essential to remember the kind of world into which the Christ child is born – a world not so unlike our own in many painful ways. It is vital that we see and understand so that we might stand alongside Christ, offering hospitality to all – even against the Herods of this world.

Joy Caroll Wallis says that “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. Jesus was born an outcast, a homeless person, a refugee, and finally he becomes a victim to the powers that be. Jesus is the perfect savior for outcasts, refugees, and nobodies. That’s how the church is described in scripture time and time again – not as the best and the brightest – but those who in their weakness become a sign for the world of the wisdom and power of God” (Joy Caroll Wallis, “Putting Herod into Christmas,” adapted from a sermon delivered at Cedar Ridge Community Church on December 5, 2004,

It is into this real world that God comes. It is in this distressed world the Word is made flesh. It is this challenging world to which the King of Glory descends. In Advent, we celebrate hope, peace, joy and love for this very world in which we live day to day. In spite of every obstacle, we affirm and re-affirm, year-after-year that the Herods of the world will not triumph in the end. Fear will not dictate our lives. We will take the hands of sisters and brothers everywhere and walk together in peace and harmony, light and love. We will identify with those who in their weakness become a sign for the world of the wisdom and power of God. While we recognize and refuse to back away from harsh reality, we will cast our lot with the king who sings salvation, who brings hope and peace, joy and love to the most impossible places and the most improbable people, even us. Amen.