Epiphany is about Kings – but which ones? This story from Matthew seems to focus on kings– but not the ones we might think of. ‘We three Kings of orient are’ goes the carol – yet the Bible doesn’t call them kings, rather Magi, often translated wise men. Perhaps if they had been had been wiser, their gifts for a new mother might have been nappies, enough casserole to last a week, and a plentiful supply of chocolate…
So the Magi aren’t kings. What about Herod? Yes, he’s just a puppet of the Romans, yet Herod has real power over life and death. However v.1, in that little double edged phrase ‘in the time of King Herod’ hints that Herod’s time is passing away. The first readers of Matthew’s gospel would have known that Herod died soon after these events. His earthly kingdom will not last.
Really, the king here is King Jesus. Herod in his splendour, the wise men with their gifts, these are not the true kings. The baby lying in the manger will grow up to be God’s king. In Jesus, God’s promised Saviour comes to reign. He offers us the way into God’s Kingdom. How then we will we respond?
It’s worth thinking about what we mean by the Kingdom of God. God’s Kingdom does not just mean that God reigns in heaven and one day we shall go to join him there. If that was all it meant, then why did Herod feel so threatened? Why bother to kill Jesus if his purpose in life was just to sort out what happens after we die? If Jesus came preaching a privatised spirituality or a personal morality then why was he crucified?
The Christian church has often misunderstood the Kingdom of God; narrowed it down, turned it into something purely spiritual. Often we’ve focussed so much on the truth that Jesus offers us eternal life, that we’ve forgotten that this world matters to God too. Both are important. We’ve emphasised that Jesus died on the cross so our sins could be forgiven – without realising that also means that all of God’s glorious creation will be healed. He plans a total restoration.
Jesus did not just tell us how to live as we wait for heaven – he told us how God’s Kingdom begins, grows and changes this world.
The Kingdom of God breaks in whenever God’s reign is recognised. We join it when we accept Jesus as Lord – and we grow the work of the Kingdom as we live God’s way. The Kingdom of God brings justice, joy, peace, forgiveness, a new community following Jesus. It has implications for all of life: political, economic and environmental.
People sometimes say that the church is irrelevant – but look at the places where the church is making a difference today: debt cancellation; campaigning and practical steps to end modern slavery; providing food banks so families in a poverty trap can get a decent meal; inquiries like that for Hillsborough which bring truth and justice.
So when we look at our New Year’s resolutions, how does faith make a difference? Are the things we hope to do all about ourselves: lose weight, eat better, drink less, get healthier – or can we include hopes, steps towards a better world? Where can we see the Kingdom of God growing around us? Can we listen to what God is doing and join in?
For the Kingdom of God affects this world. It’s obvious in the passage we’ve just read: the Magi are Gentiles which tells us that this Jewish Messiah has come for all people. Even the natural world is affected as a star points the way to his birth. It is a Kingdom for this earth, in all its messiness, making a real change because it comes in a different way.
There was a remarkable example of the way earthly kingdoms work just this past week. Kim from North Korea had boasted about his nuclear button. Donald from the States went onto Twitter to say that his nuclear button is much bigger than Kim’s, and what’s more it works.
That’s all about power and force. But the Kingdom of God doesn’t work this way. The Kingdom of God doesn’t even move forward by the good guys being stronger, in a traditional way, than the bad guys.
The Kingdom of God is not about doing what the world does. Nor is it about doing something a little bit different, more moral, but in a bigger and better way. Its ethos is radically different.
I wonder who’s seen the new Star Wars film? I really enjoyed it – it’s a break with tradition, refreshing. And to get the best from the action, it’s really worth seeing in the cinema. I’ll try not to give too many details away – hopefully this doesn’t need a spoiler alert! There’s a bit where one character saves another – and she says: ‘that’s how we’re going to win. Not fighting what we hate, but saving what we love.’
It reminded me of the cross. Those gifts that the wise men bring are a kind of prophecy. Gold speaks of royalty; frankincense symbolises an offering; while myrrh is used at the time of death. This is a king who will bring in his kingdom in a totally new way.
The gospels point towards the cross as the place where Jesus wins his victory. They allude to it as being like a throne. Which seems a bit odd – given that to all intents and purposes death by crucifixion looks like an abject failure. Yet this is God’s way of victory. For Jesus does not defeat evil by having a larger army. He doesn’t squish empires by force of arms. What happens on the cross is that God’s Son Jesus, as a representative of humanity, allows evil to do its worst to him. He offers himself, makes himself vulnerable, and evil pours itself out in hatred upon him until it has nothing left. Jesus wins the victory by draining sin of its power, by dying our death, saving us whom he loves.
Which may help us to face the obvious objection: If you say God is the King of our world, have you looked out the window recently? Since 2018 began we’ve had stabbings, riots and threats of nuclear war. So if God’s supposed to be reigning what’s he up to?
Our reading from St Matthew is well aware that evil can still wreak horror. Immediately after this reading, Matthew tells of how Herod in his jealous rage ordered the death of every boy under the age of two in Bethlehem. Herod planned to wipe out the infant Messiah.
Yet for all his anger, Herod was unsuccessful. God’s plan was not thwarted. Today evil still rages in our world, but its ultimate defeat is guaranteed. Jesus has won the victory on the cross – and the Kingdom is growing. Small at first, like a mustard seed or a handful of yeast it will nonetheless spread through all the dough. And eventually the time will come when Jesus returns and the whole creation will be judged and renewed.
When William Wilberforce and his friends won the key vote to ban slavery in the British Empire, there were still struggles. The law had to be implemented, patches of resistance cleared up. Even in our own day, people are had up for forced labour and domestic servitude. But the passing of that law was the decisive victory.
In a similar kind of way, Christ’s victory has been won on the cross, but God’s people may still be called to follow in that way of the cross. Working for the Kingdom of God may involve sacrifice – the wise men travelled many miles, endured danger, and gave generously. Staying in God’s plan may involve us setting off into the unknown, like Mary and Joseph who fled to Egypt.
As we begin a New Year, we do not know what the future holds. We may be called to trust God in the midst of darkness. We may be asked to make sacrifices. If we do, let us remember that we do so knowing that Christ is King and that the world is his. If we face challenges, let us remember that Christ has won the victory. And may we, like the wise men, know the presence of the King and be filled with his joy.