What a strange King?!
Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the LORD will arise upon you,
and his glory will be seen upon you.
And nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising.
Lift up your eyes all around, and see;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from afar,
and your daughters shall be carried on the hip.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and exult,
because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD. (Isaiah 60:1-6 ESV)
The arrival of the Magi – the Wise Men – astrologers from the East (possibly today’s Iraq or Iran) has now been observed in the Christian calendar. Another part of the Christmas chronology is in place as the Church attempts to cover 30 years of history in a few Sundays. Like pieces of a jigsaw, each event helps flesh out the picture. Whereas Gabriel’s message and the dream Joseph had look at Jesus from the perspective of God’s Son, the Messiah and of sacrifice; the Magi’s arrival is more pragmatic – realistic – drawing attention away from the ‘spiritual’ which we and all people can use to dodge our day-to-day reality and make us face the message that Jesus on earth means our lives, our daily lives, our here and now lives are challenged and affected – whether we want it or not.
See police on the road and the driver quickly checks the speedometer. The police mightn’t even be looking at the car. It is what the police represent – laws and consequences – that get to us. 2,000 years ago it was the Magi knocking on King Herod’s door quite logically, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:2) They expect the king to have a son.
Whoops! What are they now here for? What have they stumbled upon they might wonder? A coup? A change of dynasty? Have they gone and mucked up some divine plan?
No wonder they rejoice with a great joy at finding the boy in the house in Bethlehem and no wonder they don’t report back to Herod – helped undoubtedly by the dream experience. Something is going on when you say ‘King’ in someone else’s kingdom!
It is this aspect of Jesus that our sinful selves most dislikes, distrusts, and rebels against. Jesus as Lord is more God-like, far away, removed, I’ll deal with him when I die. Jesus as bread of life, water, resurrection, Immanuel – is very much helper and support for us. Jesus the Good Shepherd is there for us – getting us out of tough spots – carrying us even. But Jesus as king? Even for those who live in a democracy of some sort, the king idea cuts a bit too close to boss, the one in charge, the one who can make decisions that affect me, can make decisions about me – read history it’s happened all the time – hence all the machinations and politics to stay in the king’s ‘good books’. Herod did what our sinful selves want to do – kill the challenger. Get rid of the opposition.
Like Sauron’s blindness regarding Frodo’s intention with the ring, so human beings just can’t conceive true benevolent authority. Power corrupts is an axiom we accept at all sorts of levels – a big part because we know in ourselves what we can be like with it.
So Jesus is a challenger to our autonomy, to our life choices, to our day to day behaviour – to the patterns of our lives that might both shame and excite us – and to the relationships around us (What? You don’t expect me to care for them, do you?).
The Magi – and remember that they are Gentiles – reveal Jesus to be king, priest, and sacrifice – and they pay homage to him – also translated as ‘worship’ him, What that meant for them and how they placed Jesus in their spiritual universe we can never know but they acknowledged him in a special way. Perhaps their astrological knowledge was all about getting into Jesus’ ‘good books’ early before he became an adult and … and that’s the issue!
What are kings supposed to do? Rule. They boss and others serve. And since we’re not kings we’re going to be the servants. This is how we think. It’s logical. It’s how the world works. It’s how kings act.
But not Jesus.
The Church draws on Isaiah’s prophecy – of people waiting in the dark – waiting in destruction and ruin – waiting bereft of family – to say that a light has come. Not the torch light seeking out the guilty or the spotlight seeking to terrorise but the search light bringing hope and rescue to the trapped. The light from God – this King from God is the happy ending at the end of the war – the unexpected joy of seeing loved ones return unharmed – the joy that comes when rationing ends – the smiles that come when success and health are the order of the day. We know that the exiles did return after the destruction of Jerusalem but the people were never to be independent again as other rulers and empires had overall control over the land. Isaiah’s prophecy came to be seen in a hoped for messianic kingdom – which was attempted at various times – but they all came to an end – often a bitter defeated end.
But not so with Jesus, says his followers. He is the King who serves. God is not remote after all. He is the one person who can be trusted and for whom we can battle our sinful selves. His Word absolves and guides us. His forgiveness washes us clean. His body and blood strengthen us. He brings light to our desire to control and teaches us instead how to serve – not as a doormat – but as someone completely free. And life – abundant living – is discovered in using what we have to love – to seek the best for everyone – just as Jesus always seeks the best for us.
- Isaiah 60:1 - 6