August 12, 2020

Sermon: Three Unwise Kings

NOTE: Sometimes during and after preaching a sermon, even when it has been written out beforehand, you realize connections and nuances you had not noticed when writing it. That happened this morning as I preached this message. So I have done a bit of editing to reflect that, including a change in the title.

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Today, as we look as this familiar story about the Magi bringing their gifts to the baby Jesus, I would like to invite us to think about three kings — but they are not the three kings you might imagine.

Adoration of the Magi, Fredi

MATTHEW 2:1-15 (KNT)

When Jesus was born, in Bethlehem of Judaea, at the time when Herod was king, some wise and learned men came to Jerusalem from the east. “Where is the one,” they asked, “who has been born to be king of the Jews? We have seen his star rising in the east, and we have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this, he was very disturbed, and the whole of Jerusalem was as well. He called together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, and inquired from them where the Messiah was to be born.

“In Bethlehem of Judaea,” they replied. “That’s what it says in the prophet:

‘You, Bethlehem, in Judah’s land
Are not least of Judah’s princes;
From out of you will come the ruler
Who will shepherd Israel my people.’”

Then Herod called the wise men to him in secret. He found out from them precisely when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem. “Off you go,” he said, “and make a thorough search for the child. When you find him, report back to me, so that I can come and worship him too.”

When they heard what the king had said, they set off. There was the star, the one they had seen rising in the east, going ahead of them! It went and stood still over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were beside themselves with joy and excitement. They went into the house and saw the child, with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. They opened their treasure-chests and gave him presents: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

They were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod. So they return to their own country by a different route.

After the Magi had gone, suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “and take the child, and his mother, and hurry off to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you. Herod is going to hunt for the child, to kill him.”

So he got up and took the child and his mother by night, and went off to Egypt. He stayed there until the death of Herod. This happened to fulfill what the Lord said through the prophet:

Out of Egypt I called my son.

Change is hard. Of course, changes are happening in our lives and in our world all the time. Part of what it means to be human and to be Christian is to learn to be flexible, to adapt to change, to grow and develop in faith, hope, and love through all the different seasons and circumstances in life.

Major change is especially hard. When life itself seems to go in a different direction from the way it has been proceeding, we struggle to accept the new ways.

I often work on the east side of Indianapolis. After WWII, Indy’s east side was the place to be. Major manufacturing companies had their plants there. People moved from places where there was no work, settled there and prospered. They built houses, neighborhoods, churches, and entire communities. They raised their kids there. They had good lives.

Then, in the 1970’s and 80’s, things began to change. As our economy gradually shifted from manufacturing to an information and service economy, as deregulation broke up major businesses like the phone company, as corporations began to look for other places in the world where they could make their products using cheaper labor, life changed. Many folks on Indy’s east side relocated, workers grew older and retired, plants closed, strangers moved in to the neighborhoods — things changed. Many of the older folks I visit each day struggle with that. They lament the changes. The pictures on their mantles reflect what were to them happier, more secure days. Some of them have become bitter.

Change is hard. Major change is especially hard. And especially when it threatens our way of life.

Pharaoh's Daughter Finds Moses, Pouisson

Today, we come to the story of the Magi, or the Wise Men, and their visit to Jesus. We all remember that these are the men from the east who saw Jesus’ star in the sky and were led to Bethlehem, where they gave precious gifts to the Christ-child.

It’s also the story of King Herod, who became threatened by Jesus’ birth. He is one of the kings I want us to consider today.

Matthew has included this story about Jesus’ birth in his Gospel and shaped it to show that Jesus is the new Moses who has come to set his people free. But just as Moses had to face the wrath of angry and cruel kings in order to lead the Exodus, even so Jesus had to endure the opposition of this world’s rulers in order to set us free.

Before we talk about King Herod, let’s go back to the story of Moses and consider a ruler that Herod resembles. That would be Pharaoh. 3500 years ago in Egypt, the Pharaoh and his people faced a troubling time of change. For a long time, his country had relied upon the labor of a group of people named Hebrews. They were immigrants who had relocated to the land in a time of famine. Over the years, they had become slaves to the ruling powers. However, despite their poverty and oppression, the Hebrew people had grown in numbers and strength.

Things were changing and Pharaoh soon had a political problem on his hands. Threatened by the growing Hebrew population, he issued a decree that an entire generation of Hebrew babies should be eliminated. His soldiers carried out the genocide. Some of the children, however, survived, thanks to the faithful protection of their midwives. One of them even found his way into Pharaoh’s own house and was raised there. His name was Moses.

You know that story, don’t you? — how Moses grew up and eventually became the leader that brought the Hebrews out of Egypt, set them free from slavery and exile, established them as God’s covenant people Israel, gave them God’s Law, and led them to the Promised Land.

Now fast forward with me about 1500 years, to Jesus’ day and let’s consider a second king. King Herod was the ruler who oppressed Israel, even while they lived in their own land. Herod the Great was the king the Romans put in place to keep Israel in check. You see, in the lands they conquered, the Romans used local rulers to oversee their affairs, and in Israel Herod was their puppet king.

King Herod

Now fast forward with me about 1500 years. In Jesus’ day, King Herod was the ruler who oppressed Israel. The Jews were living in the same Promised Land. Once more they found themselves under bondage, this time it was under the Romans, the most recent nation to conquer and take charge of the region. Now, in the lands they conquered, the Romans used local rulers to oversee their affairs, and in Israel their puppet king was named Herod.

Herod was a brutal and fickle leader who ruthlessly put down opposition, even to the extent of killing members of his own family. However, Herod was also renowned as the greatest builder Israel had ever known. His crowning achievement was the Temple in Jerusalem, one of the ancient world’s wonders. But even in building the Temple, Herod’s cruelty was evident. To make sure it would be run by people loyal to him, Herod appointed his own High Priest, and put to death 46 rabbis who served in the Sanhedrin.

Herod, this wicked puppet king of Rome, was driven by the desire to stay in power. Given his character, you can imagine how he must have responded when, one day a group of foreign dignitaries came to visit and announced that a new “king of the Jews” had been born. Not happy.

That leads us to consider a third king. As we read this story of the Magi, I believe Matthew wants us to remember another story from the days of Moses.

Before we look at that, let’s ask: Who were these foreigners who came to King Herod? The Bible calls them “Magi;” we know them as the “Wise Men.” They were from lands east of Israel. They were astrologers — people who studied the stars and interpreted signs in the skies. We don’t know how many there were. We speak of the “three Wise Men” because they brought three gifts, but there is no indication in the text of their actual number. The precious gifts they brought may indicate that they were from a royal background.

Matthew includes these visitors from the east in his Gospel story because they are related to people in Moses’ day who lived in the east. When the Israelites drew near the Promised Land, they had to pass through the eastern country of Moab. Moab’s king was named Balak, and like the other kings in our story, he felt his rule threatened by what was happening with the Israelites. So he called a man called Balaam and told him to put a prophet’s curse on them.

If you remember the story, Balaam (who was quite a character, by the way!) ended up blessing Israel instead of cursing them. And in his third and final prophecy, Balaam uttered these words:

“This is the message of Balaam son of Beor,
the message of the man whose eyes see clearly,
the message of one who hears the words of God,
who has knowledge from the Most High,
who sees a vision from the Almighty,
who bows down with eyes wide open:
I see him, but not here and now.
I perceive him, but far in the distant future.
A star will rise from Jacob;
a scepter will emerge from Israel.

It will crush the foreheads of Moab’s people,
cracking the skulls of the people of Sheth.
Edom will be taken over,
and Seir, its enemy, will be conquered,
while Israel marches on in triumph.
A ruler will rise in Jacob
who will destroy the survivors of Ir.”

• Numbers 24:15-19, NLT

There, in a land east of Israel, the prophet saw a royal star rising that marked the coming of Israel’s Messiah. Balaam said that this Ruler would be the one to fulfill God’s promise to Abraham — the promise that God’s blessing will be restored to all the peoples of the world.

These Magi, these Wise Men, these astrologers and foreign dignitaries who came to Herod, were the heirs of Balaam’s prophecy. Gazing at the stars and calculating their alignments, they recognized THE star that Balaam foretold in the days of Moses. The heavens told them that the Messiah had been born, the King who had been promised, the King who would rule the world and restore God’s blessing to everyone. The greatest change in the history of the world was at hand. The Kingdom of God was being inaugurated in this world. This was good news not only for the Jewish people under Roman domination, but for all people. These Gentile, pagan astrologers — an unlikely group of people as there ever was, just like Balaam in the OT — were among the first to announce the coming of God’s King.

However, Herod’s response show us that the birth of the Messiah was not “good news” for everybody. Some saw this as a threat.

  • This kind of change was not good news for someone like Herod, who built his empire on self-preservation, cruelty, and injustice.
  • As the Gospel story tells us, it was also not good news for people like the scribes and Pharisees in Israel, who built their lives on controlling others through religious rules.
  • Nor was it good news for the Sadducees, religious leaders who thought the best way to get along was to compromise with the prevailing culture, even when it contradicted what God required of them.
  • Nor was it good news for the Zealots, those Israelites who thought the only way to overcome the Romans and the injustices of the world was through violence and revolution.
  • It was not good news for the Romans, who boasted in their own power and might.
  • In short, it was not good news for the world, the flesh, and the devil — any of the powers of this age that are aligned against God and his Kingdom — and anyone who lives by their ways.

Change is hard. And it can be extremely threatening, especially when it involves admitting I’ve been going in the wrong direction my whole life and someone comes along and tells me I need to turn around and go the other way.

King Herod, Pharaoh in Egypt, and King Balak in Moses’ day, were three unwise kings, not willing to accept the changes that God was bringing about. So, as today’s story tells us, Herod persecuted Joseph and Mary and the Child. The Holy Family fled, ironically, back to Egypt, to escape his wrath. As Pharaoh had murdered the Hebrew children, so Herod cruelly eliminated the children in the region of Bethlehem. But ultimately, just as God had brought Israel out of Egypt in the Exodus, so, Matthew says, the wicked ruler Herod died and God brought his Son out of Egypt to lead a new exodus of spiritual freedom for all people.

Adoration of the Magi, Bosch (detail)

Those who receive it will begin to experience the greatest change the world has ever known.

  • A change by which Jesus overcomes all the powers of sin, evil, and death that trouble this creation.
  • This King has come to tear down the cruel and unjust rule of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
  • This King has come to introduce a world that is based on God’s values and perspectives, not the ways that currently rule the world.
  • This Kingdom is not based on riches or wealth.
  • This Kingdom is not about climbing the ladder and getting ahead.
  • This Kingdom is not about making life comfortable and secure at the expense of others.
  • This Kingdom is not about judging others and considering them unworthy based on outward criteria.
  • This King has come to bring God to those who have nothing whatsoever to offer him.

A great change has come with the coming of Jesus the King.

  • He has come to create a community called the Church that will worship God and be nourished by the Gospel; a community that will welcome the stranger, care for the needy, visit the sick and oppressed, pray for their enemies, go the extra mile and be willing to suffer as Jesus did so that others might be saved, healed, and blessed.
  • He has come to welcome not only the Jews, his chosen people, but also Gentiles like these Magi, outcasts like the Samaritans, sinners like the woman caught in adultery, irreligious people like Matthew the tax collector who wrote this Gospel, prodigal sons who wander far from home, and elder brothers who stay close to home. He will dine with Pharisees and accept prostitutes who wash his feet. He will call ordinary fishermen and ask violent Zealots to join his band of disciples. A King has come who will instruct his followers to go into all nations everywhere and make disciples of all people for his Kingdom.

This changes everything.

  • This King who has come shows us that the only way to live is to die, the only way to be exalted is to humble yourself, the only way to prosper is to embrace poverty, the only way to be promoted is to make yourself the servant of all.
  • This King has come to bring genuine, lasting love.

This King, Jesus the Messiah, has come to bring change, great change, major change, the greatest change of all. He has come to bring forgiveness of sins. He has come to replace this old creation with a New Creation in which righteousness dwells. And he has come to welcome you and me into this New Creation and to join him in announcing this Kingdom by our words and actions.

Don’t be like Herod when you hear the news that the King has come. Don’t get threatened by the change that has arrived. Don’t resist and try to hold on to your own life, your own little kingdom.

Jesus has come to be your King and mine. He has come to change our lives. Amen.


  1. David Cornwell says

    Chaplain Mike, I really like how you have handled this text. To me this is what liturgical preaching is all about. It centers on the text, proclaims Christ, and makes contextual application. You’ve explained the background, which is so often missing in today’s preaching. People appreciate this more than you know. You make the King and His Kingdom central to the application and outcome. And it shows how it can change us. Plus it never promises us a rose garden.

    A proper understanding of the Kingdom is so often another missing element in today’s teaching and preaching.

    Keep on preaching the Word!

  2. Excellent!

  3. Kerri in AK says

    I enjoyed the original post but WOW the refined and adapted second one is amazing!

    Nice that you had a forum where you could modify an already given sermon! For another congregation!

  4. Clay Knick says

    Nicely done, Mike. I contrasted Herod & the Magi. How do we welcome the Christ Child? With hostility or with worship, love, and joy?

  5. Yes we must welcome the new king as an ongoing spiritual process. Hail Him and crown Him anew.

    • I must relinquish the outmoded image or else it becomes an object of idol worship. If I related to my parents with the same mental and emotional structures that I employed as a five year old, I would be considered immature at best and at worst, insane. My parents would be long past frustration. So it is with my heavenly Father. If I am not open to the process of pruning the old and relating to the bigger, more expansive and sometimes unsettling image, (seen through a glass) then I am found to be fighting the spirit and in fact worshipping what amounts to an idol. That previous image is no longer real in my being and doesn’t lead to the living water but to a tepid puddle. Embracing change, when necessary, is the only way to get on with things. I must leave the king who has receded into the mist (perhaps my dad who can definitely beat up your dad) and hear the voice of the new born King. The scary part is that I am not always sure I am still hearing Christ the King because the tone is a little different but sooner or later the bleating sheep hears the voice and knows Him.

  6. The RC readings for yesterday have the Pauline letter stating that the gentiles are co-heirs placed just before the reading of the Gospel that covers the visit of the Magi to Herod and then the Child.

    We spent some time looking at the Magi as the very first gentiles sent to find the Christ, long before anyone else recognized who He was. Got me to thinking about how much God can reach out to non-beleivers on His own, and that we might not have to shove the Gospel down the throats of everyone we know…especially if we can SHOW instead of TELL!