The Rev. Paul J Cain, Jr.
St. Matthew 2:1-12
The King of the Jews
The Epiphany of Our Lord, 6 January 2012
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’”
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.
My name does not matter. What matters is my message. I am one of the Magi, men who try to explain the Unseen with words—like the Star. I have a story to tell you, a marvelous, true story about royalty, a great journey, and amazing events. It happened over three decades before a more important second story of the King of the Jews.
Forgive me for giving so much background information, but it is the only way the whole story makes sense. The term “wise men” refers to Eastern sages like myself with knowledge of religion and the sciences. We were astrologers. Astronomers. Scientists. But we weren’t kings ourselves. The closest we got to royalty was being an advisor in the court of our monarch. In the story I’m about to tell you, we could be called royal ambassadors. My colleagues and I were strangers from a far country on an extraordinary mission: Magi who searched for a king.
Your twenty-first century scholars have some interesting ideas about us. A tiny few think we were Jews who remained in Babylon after the exile and knew the Old Testament predictions of the Messiah’s coming. Others think it is more likely that we were merely gentile astrologers who studied ancient manuscripts from around the world who knew of the Old Testament prophecies because of the exile centuries before. What I can tell you, is that we knew the King of the Jews had been born and we were willing to go to any length to find him.
As Magi, we spent a lot of time staring up at the night sky. The Star that heralded the King’s birth was magnificent! Again, your modern “wise men” are divided on how this miracle star appeared. Sure, it could have been a rare astronomical conjunction of what you would call Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn, but what would prevent the Lord of Heaven from using a totally different, supernatural phenomenon? Regardless, the Star was a symbol of faith leading gentiles, non-Jews, to the discovery of the king and savior.
Now that you know something about us, I can begin to tell you about Him. Our journey following the star took many, many, months of travel. We could have gotten there much faster by plane, train, or automobile, but those types of transportation didn’t exist yet. We had our feet and beasts of burden: camels, horses, donkeys, and the like. We had a long trip of hundreds of miles from home. I will spare you other details about the trip because it would bore you.
The most fascinating part was the time we spent on the road in conversation. At first, we found ourselves discussing the gift of Myrrh and its propriety as a gift for a young child. ‘Burial perfume? How odd!’ “How costly!’ ‘What would his parents think?’ But that topic was just to distract us from what we knew of the danger ahead. We knew of the current king of the Jews and that his word couldn’t be trusted, and that his power was frightfully displayed. Imagine! Blood flowing from even the palace of the crown!
Finally, after traveling over field, past fountain, through moor, and around mountains, we arrived. We went, of course, to the seat of government, the throne of the Jewish nation, Jerusalem. Back then, Herod the Great was king in Judea. Since we had traveled so far from the east, our first question was straight to the point. We asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
We fully expected King Herod to take us to the royal nursery and show us his newborn son. It would only make sense that the heir to the throne would be born to the current ruler. But he just sat there. Silent. Shocked, I guess. With a….strange look on his face. I never expected that kind of reaction from the great Herod.
King Herod the Great was ruthless, an effective ruler whose great jealousy caused those around him to tremble in fear. He wasn’t fully Jewish himself, yet sponsored a great variety of large building projects, including renovation of the temple. He claimed to have become Jewish, though he was still involved with pagan religion, and was therefore never really accepted by Jewish people. These events took place during what would be his last troubled years on the throne.
“Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this, he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. Our arrival caused a popular uproar. If they had cable TV back then, FOXNEWS would have had 24-hour coverage of “the crisis in Jerusalem.” Herod called an emergency religious summit.
It wasn’t a whole Sanhedrin, but smaller council, in reality, a political move to shore up his tottering prestige. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means the least among the rulers of Judah; / for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’” They quoted from their sacred scriptures two prophecies-one from the book of Samuel and one by Micah.
Convinced he had reliable information, Herod called us to a secret meeting. Behind closed doors, he found out from us the exact time the star had appeared. I thought it odd for Herod to talk with us privately, without a public press conference. We were sent on to Bethlehem. He said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
We thought they were odd words, considering his initial reaction. It appeared to us that the one who was born was a rival, a threat. His people were expecting a Jewish leader, a messiah, a savior. Perhaps Herod was guilty since he had no bloodline connecting him to their great King David.
Another journey. As if we weren’t saddle sore enough! The star moved from north to south until it stopped over the place where the child was. When we saw the star we were overjoyed. Joy bubbled up from inside us. Our long journey was finally successful. The arduous quest had ended. It was the most intense gladness I had ever experienced until I saw the child with my own eyes.
On coming to the house, we saw the child with his mother Mary, and bowed down and worshiped him. I saw with own eyes He who I had longed to behold, the Child, the Messiah, the King of the Jews. I fell on my knees in traditional surrender to worship Him.
We then opened our treasures and presented Him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. They are the traditional treasures of the east, you know, customary gifts given as signs of homage.
Gold is a gift fit for a king. Myrrh, [costly aromatic gums distilled from trees,] was used a lot in religious ceremonies, especially by priests. It was also used as a perfume, as an ingredient of holy anointing oil, and most commonly for embalming the dead. Think about what a shock it would be for someone to give formaldehyde at a baby shower! Incense came from [another] resin with a pungent odor. When burned, incense reminded the Lord’s people of His filling presence at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple and also prayer because of Psalm 141: Let my prayer rise before you as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice. Three gifts for a king, a prophet, a priest. [One who was born to die.]
But were there three of us? Were we kings? You may have heard that our names were Kaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, that one of us was white, the second black, and the third Asian. That comes from legend, several centuries after my time, not Scripture. In fact, your tradition once thought there were as many as twelve of us. And no, we weren’t kings, but wise men. The number three probably comes from us bringing three gifts. That makes sense, but I can’t tell you our names or how many of us there were-it’s a matter of national security, you understand. The historical account by Matthew only says we were from the east, there were more than one of us, and we brought three gifts. We came to find Him who was the King of the Jews and we did. And then we had to return to our own country.
God spoke to us in a dream not to go back to Herod, so we returned home by another caravan route. We did not totally mistrust Herod, but he had a reputation beyond his borders. We did not want to take any chances. But sadly, based on our information all the boys two and under around Bethlehem were killed on Herod’s orders. But Herod got his—he died soon after.
All that happened nearly thirty years before [John 19:19-22] another government official in Judea referred to this same Jesus as King of the Jews, He for whom we searched and found. You can read about it in a historical account by your St. John: [The Roman governor,] Pilate, had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews. Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. The chief priests of the Jews protested to Pilate, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews’ but that his man claimed to be king of the Jews.” Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.”
The King of the Jews was crucified. He did what no other king I have ever heard of / had ever done before. He reigned from the throne of the cross. He died for subjects that didn’t want him as their king. People like us. To forgive us for our sins. But he didn’t stay dead. Three days later he rose again from the dead in royal triumph.
And He shall reign forever and ever! Hallelujah! The King of the Jews is our King. He saves us from sin’s rule, from the kingdom of death, and from the reign of Satan.
“Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” He is Jesus, who forgives our sins, and we have come to worship him. Wise men and women still seek and worship Him today. Amen.