Posted on January 17th, 2012
January 6, 2012
The ancient message to the children of Israel rang out in Advent: Behold, your King comes to you! The angelic message to shepherds rang out on Christmas Eve: The Christ is born in the City of David—David, the great king, whose Son would reign forever. Then on Christmas Day, we sang the prophecy: “And the government shall be upon His shoulder.” Now tonight, Epiphany, we recall with joy that this King is for all people, even us, as Gentiles come from afar, asking, “Where is He who is born King of the Jews?”
News of a new king is, to Herod, a threat. And so it was to all Jerusalem, shaken and trembling at this question, “Where is He who is born King of the Jews?” For better cruel Herod than crueler Rome. Power in this world is difficult to maintain. Someone is always threatening to take it away. The child is a threat to Herod and Jerusalem. Later, Pilate would be convinced to execute Jesus on the charge that He poses a threat to Caesar.
The first hymn we sang tonight is a good one, but I’m not sure it adequately addresses the threat the Child poses to Herod: When Christ’s appearing was made known, King Herod trembled for his throne; But he who offers heav’nly birth Seeks not the kingdoms of this earth (LW 81). Certainly Jesus says to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world,” and when after feeding the 5,000 the crowd seeks to seize Jesus to make Him king, He withdraws. Jesus did not want to take Herod’s position, or Pilate’s, or Caesar’s. In our time period, He would not be a candidate for and political office.
But Jesus does threaten the office of Herod and Pilate, Caesar and Obama. Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way: “Jesus, as the genealogy makes clear, is king in the line of David, but he is a king who will redeem kingship from its former state of exile” (Matthew, p38).
What exile? We might be tempted to think the kingship of David, which quickly lost its power two generations later. But that is not the exile of the kingship. The kingship went into exile the day Adam rebelled against the word of the Dominus, the Lord, the King of the Universe. Adam, as vice-regent of the world, sought to seize the throne for himself. “You shall be as god,” said the tempter, and he still speaks to us this way, and we still heed his voice every time we set aside God’s Word to indulge our lusts, become bitter with envy, ruminate on our discontent.
In America, religion has been privatized and forced into exile, but it has been exiled in each of our lives when our identity as human beings is wrapped up in political affiliation or ideology, sexual proclivities, collegiate or professional sporting allegiances, musical tastes, and hobbies. Religion may be a component of that identity, but it is relatively small even for the faithful.
The reign of Jesus is all-encompassing. Jesus is not a means to an end. He is the end. He is not a component of your life but the totality, goal, and meaning. The Christian Faith is not the method by which you obtain a goal, happiness now or later, like we might go through the rigors of school not for the sake of learning but to acquire credentials for a job. Jesus is Himself not only King but Kingdom.
Thus the Magi say they seek the One born King of the Jews, but by their worship at His cradle they demonstrate what that means: the true King of the Jews, the long-foretold Son of David is not King of some middle-east real estate, but King of the Universe; the birth of Jesus is the incarnation of God, the entrance of the King back into the Kingdom which He long ago presided over.
The issue of the Kingship of Jesus, and His Kingdom, is in truth the entire subject of the Gospels. The question asked by the Magi, “Where is He who is born King of the Jews,” become the sign posted on the execution-tree: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” “He came unto His own, and His own received Him not.” The world was made by Him, and yet the world did not know Him.
As Herod seeks to slaughter the Child at birth, and as Pilate finally succeeds where Herod fails, we see the conflict between these two kingdoms in full display. In the death of Jesus, you see the entire power of empire. The king, the Emperor of Rome, has the power to take life. And so the life of the King of the Jews is cut down. But the resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate epiphany, the true manifestation of the limits of man’s rebellious, fraudulent empire. Jesus the true Emperor could not have His life taken from Him. Freely He laid it down, and freely He took it up again.
Where is He who is born King of the Jews? There, an infant in a manger, threatened by Herod. Where is He who is born King of the Jews? There, a corpse hanging on a tree. But finally, where is He who is born King of the Jews? There, a glorified man, the Godman emerging from the tomb. Death cannot hold the King; in the resurrection, the laws of the empire are revoked, declared null and void; man’s empire is ruled entirely out of order. “He who offers heav’nly birth Seeks not the kingdoms of this earth”? Hardly. He seeks them. Not the magnificent house on Palatine hill in Rome, now laying in ruins. Not the throne of the wretched Herodian dynasty. Jesus seeks—no, possesses and always has had the right to the throne to which all kings of the earth, every man and every creature, must pay homage.
What kind of Kingdom does He who is born King of the Jews possess? It is no mere spiritual kingdom; it is a kingdom of the earth. It is a material kingdom: The incarnation of Jesus, and the resurrection, demonstrate that. The Son of God takes on a body, the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us, the incarnate God rises from the tomb soul and body. It is a material kingdom, but His kingdom does not come through raising an army of tanks and helicopters, a navy with jets and aircraft carriers, submarines with nuclear missiles. The kingdom does not come through success in the next election or getting better justices on the Supreme Court. The kingdom of God comes now, wherever you are, when we believe God’s Holy Word and lead godly lives according to it. And it shall come in glory at the return of Christ, when all the kingdoms of the earth shall be made Christ’s footstool.
Yet even now that kingdom breaks in on us when we heed the words of John the Baptist, herald of the King: “Repent, for the reign of heaven is at hand.”
So what does this mean for us now? We live our lives in this world, submitting to and supporting temporal authority as best we are able. But that are not our identity, and even as we seek to be good citizens, there is one sense in which we never can be. For our deepest and truest allegiance is not to the Constitution but to the Scriptures, not to the District of Columbia but the District of David’s Son, New Jerusalem. We know who our King is, the one born in Bethlehem, adored by Magi, crucified by Pilate, seen risen from the dead by Mary Magdalene, witnessed to by the Holy Apostles, and delivered to us by the Church’s ministry and ministers in Christ’s sacraments and Word. This One is our King, and His Kingdom promises us a very different world. It is fundamentally in opposition to humanism and human empire and dominion apart from God. It builds a different community based not on laws but love, not on justice but forgiveness.
Soon we must leave this eucharistic cradle and make our way home. But as the Magi journeyed home by another road, we citizens of Christ’s kingdom take a new road home: the road of repentance and forgiveness, peace and joy. Christmas is over. The King is here. Happy Epiphany!