Sermon: Camels and Kings and Pharaoh

Audio is available here: Camels and Kings and Pharaoh

Have you ever wondered why we put the Magi on camels and call them kings? There’s nothing explicit in Matthew’s text that suggests their mode of transport—perhaps they walked or rode horses or came in a wagon train with other travelling merchants. And there is certainly nothing about them being kings. On the contrary, they are called magi, or wise men. A term roughly meaning astrologers. And indeed, their actions throughout our Gospel lesson this morning mark them as star-gazers of the first order.

The answer lies in the way Matthew unfolds his Gospel. For him, the Good News of Jesus—from Chapter 1 to Chapter 28—is the re-telling of God’s great dealings with Israel, where the destiny of Israel is boiled down into the Son of Joseph and the Heir of David, the one born King of the Jews. What does that mean?

It means, first, that Jesus does not break us away from the story of Israel. However much we might want it to do so, the Gospel does not wrench its adherents into another story. We Gentile followers of Jesus are, to use the language of Paul in our epistle, are a deep mystery to be sure, but one that is embedded in the story of Israel from the beginning.

It means, second, that Jesus is not merely a new chapter on the story of Israel, as though Jesus is the last and greatest of the messengers God had sent to his people. That is true, to be sure, but it is at best a partial truth. A truth, which left on its own, reduces Jesus to a sage, a good man, a teacher of morals. And ultimately, if I might be frank, a waste of your time and my time.

Rather than a break in the story, or the simple next stage of the story, Matthew wants us to grasp that Jesus is the Story come off the text and into history. Jesus is both the Covenant God of Israel come to rescue his people and Jesus is Israel, the righteous servant at last obedient to God’s commission to throw open the doors of God’s blessing to us, the Gentiles. That is the mystery to which Paul speaks in our Epistle this morning. The mystery that has been disclosed in the Gospel, is announced every time the Gospel is read and proclaimed, but especially this morning, on Epiphany Sunday.

This is why Matthew tells the story he does, in the way he does. His story is full of “this was that” statements that lead into a citation from the Old Testament whose meaning is disclosed fully and finally in Jesus, not in the sense of a magical prediction being brought to reality, but in the sense of the great events of Israel coming to pass again in the life of Jesus, who is, in himself, Israel no longer rebellious, but obedient, who is even more than that, the Covenant God who keeps faith with rebellious Israel, doing for her what she cannot do for herself.

More subtly, moreover, Matthew also weaves Old Testament themes into the telling of his story without citation, leaving them for us, his readers, to figure out. Which is a grand way to tell a story provided readers are all familiar with the primary text that is being drawn upon. And Matthew’s first readers, who were likely Jewish followers of Jesus, would have been steeped in the story of God’s dealings with Israel and would have seen in his retelling all the allusions—the direct, the indirect, the straightforward and the subtle.

As a result, it would have been obvious to them that the Magi must have come on camels, for they were the fulfilment of the song sung about the descendants of David, the song we know as Psalm 72—the Psalm sung by the choir this morning. And it would have been just as clear that the camel riding Magi were really kings for they were the fulfilment of Isaiah chapter 60, which speaks of kings bringing their wealth to Israel.  And how would they have known all this? Because Matthew tells us they came from the East bringing gifts of gold and frankincense. The very gifts mentioned by the Psalmist and the prophet. So it is that the Magi are not come-true predictions as much as they are pointers to the fact that in Jesus, the great story of Israel is being re-told. He is the crucible in which the covenant promise to Abraham of numberless descendants and the covenant command to bless the whole world will at last be realized.

But, of course, the Magi who fulfil the pilgrimage of the Gentile Kings to Israel, are not the only “kings” in Matthew’s re-telling of Israel’s story. There is one more. And his name is Herod.

Unlike the Magi, Herod was a king, kind of. Ethnically Nabatean (meaning, for us, simply not Jewish), Herod was actually elected “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate, and served as one of their client “kings,” under the watchful eye of various Roman government officials. So you can imagine that he was frightened when someone who was born to be “King of the Jews,” was announced by portents in the heavens and by predictions in the Scriptures. Herod’s reign was very clearly under threat.

And so how does Herod act? Herod becomes in Matthew’s telling of the story, Pharaoh. We did not read this part of the story today. But we might have read it on Dec. 28, Holy Innocents Day. On that day, we recall how Herod became Pharaoh, the king of Egypt who attempted to exterminate the deliverer of God’s people by ordering the murder of all boys aged 2 and under. But just as old Pharaoh was defeated so would new Pharaoh be. Joseph would, as he did in Genesis, lead Israel into Egypt to be delivered, and Israel would once more be called from Egypt when Old Pharaoh died. As it was written in the prophet, out of Egypt, I have called my son.

Historians are quick and right to point out that there is no evidence of such a massacre ever having happened in Bethlehem. They are also quick and right to point out that such a horrific order was indeed well within the realm of possibility for a man who killed both wife and son when he imagined them to be threats to his power; and further, that the murder of a half-dozen children in a backwater village would likely never have been documented anyway.

Both sets of historians miss Matthew’s literary point: Jesus is Israel, Jesus’ story is the re-telling of Israel’s story, and as a result, the kings who do not bow the knee to Israel’s (and indeed the world’s) king, who refuse to worship Israel’s God, will be exposed as the murderous tyrants which they actually are. They will turn their wrath upon the innocent, they will—to use the graphic image of the Revelation—get drunk on the blood of God’s saints. And once drunk, they will fall down. They will by their own bloodthirstiness, be undone.

When Jesus enters our history as Israel, everything changes. Kings come from the East to worship him. And Kings who are challenged by his claim to rule are exposed and undone by their own rage.

How, finally, do we see ourselves in this story, this story of Israel, Israel’s God, and of the covenant between them?

On the one hand, we might see ourselves as standing with the Magi, the kings of the East, come to offer their gifts to Jesus, the one who will by his life, death, and resurrection, incorporate them into the covenant people of God. The One, whom Paul describes as he who broke down the dividing wall between Gentile and Jew, making one people of God.

That will of course, make demands upon us. It will demand of us to live as faithful Israel, to live as the Covenant People of God for this time and age, until the ages are fulfilled. To be marked out by our lifestyles as indeed the pagans of Antioch marked out the followers of Jesus in the book of Acts. To be, in their words, “Little Messiahs” or Christians. In our time and place, such intentionality with respect to discipleship might lead to an awkward conversation. A sneer. Or some such. We are blessed.

But throughout our world, there are still Herods who would with Pharaoh turn their wrath upon the innocents, and fill their cups with the blood of God’s holy ones—Copts in Egypt, Orthodox, Catholics and Anglicans elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa. Followers of Jesus around the world who know by experience the deep truth of Matthew’s Gospel, that the One born king of the Jews will overturn everything.

On the other, we might come to see ourselves with Herod. With Pharaoh. Oh certainly not to the same degree as those modern Herods who burn churches in Nigeria or blow up Christians on their way home from Christmas Mass in Baghdad. But the mindset may not, in the end be all that different. We may choose to do whatever we have to do to make sure that we remain in control, to make sure that nothing whatever will change against our wishes because of the coming of Jesus of Nazareth.

We will not visit violence upon Christ or his followers. No, we might instead sneer or scoff at those Christians who, for all their evident hypocrisy, still think that pursuing holiness is part and parcel of the Christian life Monday through Sunday. We might stop our ears whenever we fear that the Gospel might make a demand on how or where we use our credit cards. Far simpler, safer sins. But sins that still mark us as Herods, as Kings who will not bow the knee.

So it is that the light that shines in the Gospel, and especially in the Epiphany season, the light that is Jesus, the true Israel, does what light always does. It illuminates. It exposes. It makes plain both good and evil in such a way that neutrality is no longer an option. Will we give him, with the Magi, our best, or with Herod, will we give him our backs?

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

 

 

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