Tuesday, January 15, 2019

What Did They Believe?

In preparation for Sunday's class on miracles, I searched the Internet for a list of all the miracles that are recorded in the Gospel. One website presumed to list all of Jesus' miracles chronologically, as if the four gospel accounts could (or should) be reconciled to a single timeline. Naturally, the miracle appointed in Sunday's lesson (John 2:1-11) was listed first since John tells us it was his first miracle: "Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee." I doubt that Matthew, Mark, or Luke, who omit the water-into-wine, would agree that this was Jesus' first feat of wonder, but I do think it's significant that John presents it as such.

In part, that's because of what comes next: "Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him." They believed in him. John links the sign, the disciples' witnessing of it, and their belief. That's how John works. Throughout his account, people see the signs, and some recognize them for what they are while others fail to make the connection. Those who make the connection believe in Jesus. The word John uses for believe is πιστεύω, which means exactly what we typically mean by believe, but John uses it in varying degrees. After the wedding in Cana, the disciples may have believed in Jesus--they may have recognized the sign for what it was--but their understanding of who he was wasn't finished.

In this way, John's signs are a lot like road signs. One need not speak a particular language to understand that the icon of a gas pump means that one can get fuel at an exit. Similarly, one can see a sign that points in the direction a particular attraction without confusing the sign for the attraction itself. Whenever talking about John's signs, I like to use the image of a group of tourists taking photographs in front of a sign that says, "Grand Canyon, 100 Miles." It's ridiculous to confuse the sign for the think the sign is pointing to, but the gospel is full of those moments--full of people who are more interested in getting their fill of the loaves than receiving the bread from heaven--and it's also easy for us to make the same mistake when we read about them.

John lets us know that, after seeing the first sign, the disciples were hooked. They believed in Jesus. Did they recognize that he was the incarnate Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son of God, who had come to redeem the world through his death and resurrection? No, of course not. But did they know Jesus was up to something bigger than producing wine at a party at which the wine had run out? Absolutely.

This was a sign of something bigger. In Jesus, God wasn't interested in making sure parties had enough wine. Nor was God interested in making sure those blind, lame, and leprous people whom Jesus touched were healed. God was interested in saving the world, and the miracle at the wedding feast is a sign of that. Through Jesus, God provides for God's people. In Christ, God is setting the great wedding banquet for God's people that is envisioned in Isaiah 62. In Jesus, God is offering a new dispensation, a new and effective way of renewing the relationship between humanity and the Creator. All of that is contained in this particular sign, and the disciples saw it. Even if they didn't understand it, they saw it, and they believed. That's an invitation to faith--not to complete understanding but to a process of connecting the dots. The disciples believed in Jesus. They believed that he was the one through whom God was revealing God's self to the world. This Sunday, don't get lost in the feat of wonder. Recognize it as a sign of something bigger and believe in the one who is the sign. Even if you don't understand it yet, believe and trust that the signs will lead you to the truth.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Graduate School Gospel

Yesterday, I taught the first in a six-week series on miracles. In the season after Epiphany, miracles come up pretty often in the lectionary, and it makes for a familiar yet challenging subject. I've divided the series up into topics, grouping the miracles into types--healings, cleansings, exorcisms, etc.. Yesterday, we focused on miracles in which Jesus restores someone's ability, and we looked at one miracle from Mark 8 and one from John 5. Right away, we could see big differences.

In Mark 8, Jesus heals a blind man in two stages. After the first step, having spit in the man's eyes, the man sees but not clearly. After the second part, in which Jesus lays hands on his eyes, the man's sight is fully granted. It's a nifty way of describing the process by which those around Jesus--disciples, the crowd, the Pharisees--either do or do not see who he is completely. When it comes to using a literary device to convey a deeper message, it's about as nifty as Mark gets. And that's what I like about Mark. It's straightforward. "Just the facts, ma'am."

In John 5, on the other hand, layer after layer of meaning is pressed onto the story. A man was an invalid for 38 years, the same length of time Israel wandered in the wilderness. He's lying in a place with 5 porches, reminiscent of the 5 Books of Moses. It all takes place during a Jewish festival, adding a layer of religious legalism to the story. The man can't get into the water, but Jesus heals him anyway. He takes up his mat and is confronted by the Pharisees, who rightly point out that carrying one's mat is forbidden on the sabbath. Jesus and the man meet again, and Jesus warns him not to sin anymore or else something worse will happen to him. Then, Jesus meets the religious leaders, and they squabble over sabbath observance and authority. John isn't interested in making a simple point but in making us question authority, Torah, temple, and Jesus' identity. With John, it's complicated.

This Sunday, we switch from Luke to John to hear the miracle at the wedding in Cana. As I read the text in John 2, I am reminded that John makes everything complicated. Yes, it's a miracle about water being turned into wine, but there's so much more than John wants us to know about Jesus. It's a wedding banquet, which is an important context for Jewish hopes. The wine "gave out." Jesus resists the prompting of his mother because his time had not yet come. The jars of water aren't just any jar but "stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification." And there happen to be six of them. When the water is changed to wine, it's not just any wine but the best wine. And, as always in John, this event isn't a miracle or feat of wonder but a "sign," which points to something else.

The preacher has an extra challenge this week of shifting the congregation's expectations into high gear. We all need to read and listen with the same intensity that a preacher must bring to a passage from John. There's too much to convey in a sermon, but the preacher can't avoid the complexity of the passage altogether. John is making a point about the nature of Jesus' ministry, and, even if we're only going to be in John for one week, it's worth hearing what John would have us know. In this season of miracles, there's a reason we start with John 2. It reminds us that the work Jesus does is not only to heal as many people as he can but to usher in a new era of hope and transformation. How we receive that news this Sunday will shape how we hear the good news for the next seven weeks.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Listening For Our Father's Voice

January 13, 2019 – The 1st Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

In Larry McMurtry’s Western epic Lonesome Dove, we make it all the way through the story—all six hours and twenty-four minutes of it if we’re watching the miniseries—without ever hearing Woodrow Call identify Newt Dobbs as his son. The audience knows that he is Woodrow’s son. We’ve seen Call overreact in anger when another man was abusing his boy. We’ve heard Augustus McCrae criticize Call to his face for not telling the boy the truth. Near the end, we even see Woodrow put Newt in charge of the cattle company and give him his own horse, a clear statement of his paternity, but the only direct communication Call can muster is a long, lingering silence before riding off with tears in his eyes.

Is there anything more important than hearing our parents say to us, “You are my beloved child; I delight in you?” Even if we are not proud of our parents or even if we never met them, to have that person who was responsible for our formation claim us as her or his own is a critical piece in the creation of our identity. It affirms that sense of belonging that is most basic, most primal. Before anything else, we are our parents’ child, and, even if we spend our adolescence or our adulthood trying to distance ourselves from that fact, that part of our identity—whether granted or denied—shapes who we are.

Today, as we celebrate the baptism of Jesus and our own baptismal identity, we hear those words proclaimed by our heavenly Father, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And, because of Jesus Christ and because of our own baptism, we know that those words are intended for us as well: “You are my beloved child, my beloved son, my beloved daughter; with you I am well pleased.” In the Incarnation, in the conception and birth of Jesus Christ, God took our nature upon God’s self so that the divine nature might be grafted onto our own. In the waters of Baptism, we are united mystically with Christ in his Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection, so that the power of Jesus’ Sonship might become our own. When we are baptized, we become God’s daughters and sons in a real and transformative way. But when was the last time you heard God speak those words to you?

As Luke recalls for us the moment of Jesus’ baptism, he wants us to celebrate the power of what happens in those waters, but he doesn’t want us to stop there. Notice how he describes the event: “…when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” For Luke, the heavens open and the Spirit descends and the voice proclaims Jesus as God’s beloved, but those things happen not when Jesus comes up from the water but when he was praying. None of the other gospel accounts give us that detail. They include all of the other aspects of the story, but Luke alone remembers that the connection between Father and Son is wrought in prayer.

That shouldn’t surprise us. Luke portrays Jesus in prayer more often than any other gospel writer, and in Acts, his account of the work of the apostles, he repeatedly shows us that prayer is how the Christian community remains united to God and to Jesus Christ. Luke is the one who introduces the Lord’s Prayer as Jesus’ response to a disciple’s request: “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.” For Luke alone, it is prayer that precedes Jesus’ calling of the disciples, prayer that precedes Peter’s confession and Jesus’ prediction of his passion and death, and prayer that precedes the Transfiguration. In Luke, we hear Jesus pray for Peter at the Last Supper, for himself on the Mount of Olives, and in agony from the cross. Luke recalls Jesus’ teaching on the importance of persistent prayer in the parable of the widow and the unjust judge and the parable of the friend at midnight. And in Luke Jesus reveals the link between our prayer life and our relationship with God in the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee. For Luke, prayer isn’t merely what we do; it is who we are. It is the lifeblood of those who follow Jesus. It is the fruit of our union with Jesus Christ. It is the image of our baptismal identity.

When Jesus went down to the river to be baptized, he already knew that he was God’s Son. Years earlier, when his parents lost track of him in Jerusalem and eventually found him in the temple, he said to them, “Didn’t you know that I would be in my Father’s house?” At his baptism, he already knew that he belonged to God as God’s beloved child, but he heard God speak those words to him in prayer. You, too, are God’s beloved child. In Christ, God has taken your nature onto God’s self, and in Baptism your union with Christ has become full and complete. Know that you belong to God and that, when God looks upon you, God does so with love and delight. But, when was the last time you heard God say to you, “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased?”

Jesus is calling us to prayer. Jesus is showing us that, as children of our heavenly Father, we belong to God in prayer. We are God’s children, but we cannot hear God say that to us unless we spend time with God in prayer. And I don’t mean the kind of prayer in which we tell God everything we need and want and tell God everything that is wrong with our lives and with the world. There’s a time for that, and our heavenly Father hears those prayers, too. But we also must make time to sit in God’s presence and give space and silence for us to hear God say what God is always saying to us: “You are my beloved child; in you I take great delight!”

Is there anything more important for us to hear than that? Is there anything more formative for our identity that hearing God speak those words to us?

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Confirmation Lesson

This week, as we prepare to celebrate The First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord, a few colleagues have noted that the reading from Acts 8 is a perfect reading...for Confirmation. I don't know where our bishop will be this Sunday, but I hope he and all the other bishops who will be confirming individuals are rejoicing that we will hear a lesson that reinforces the need for bishops and Confirmation.

In this part of Acts, the good news of Jesus Christ has spread from Jerusalem and Judea to Samaria, which represents not only a geographic expansion of the church's mission but also an ethnic development. The first believers were Jews. Then comes the Samaritans, who had Israelite roots but who were religiously and culturally and racially distinct. Then, later in Acts 8, the Ethiopian eunuch believes. Eventually, Paul's ministry to the Gentiles takes shape, and the rest is history. But on Sunday we're in Samaria. The good news has made it to Samaria. They have "accepted the word of God," we are told, so the "apostles" (important word) "sent Peter and John to them."

When the two apostles arrive, they recognize that the Samaritans are believers in Jesus and they had been baptized in Jesus' name, but something (i.e. the Holy Spirit) is missing: "for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus." And, when the apostles had laid their hands on them, "they received the Holy Spirit." It's critically important to note that the apostles did not rebaptize them even though they presumably had not been baptized in the Trinitarian formula. (One baptism, even if not orthodox, was sufficient. That tells us something about the nature of the water-bath.) Instead, they lay hands on them, and the Holy Spirit comes upon them, completing their immersion in the life of the Holy-Spirit-animated Body of Christ.

In a way, that's what the church would have us believe about Confirmation. To begin with, the church depended upon apostle-successors to baptize, and the eastern churches still do that. Bishops do baptisms and anoint with chrism at the same time. To be baptized is to be united with Christ AND receive the Holy Spirit. There are plenty of scriptural passages that bear this out. The west has separated Baptism and Confirmation, and, in the baptismal liturgy, we pray that the candidates may receive the seven-fold gifts of the Holy Spirit:
Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. (BCP, 308)
That's what happens in Baptism, so why Confirmation? As the prayer book reminds us, at Confirmation the apostle-successor in the room prays, " Defend, O Lord, your servant N. with your heavenly grace, that he may continue yours for ever, and daily increase in your Holy Spirit more and more, until he comes to your everlasting kingdom." It is the increase in the Holy Spirit that is sought in the act of Confirmation.

Confirmation has filled several roles in the church. It is a way for individuals to confirm the promises that were made on their behalf at Baptism. It is a way for the bishop to confirm the individual's place in the church catholic. It is a way for both candidate and bishop to confirm that the Holy Spirit is doing its work. It is a way for parents and congregation to confirm that an individual is passing from childhood to adulthood. This reading from Acts, however, suggests that the apostles coming and laying hands on those who had been initiated into the life of Jesus is a way of initiating that individual into the life of the Spirit, which came down and rested on the apostles at Pentecost.

I don't know what I think about Confirmation. I think it's best because it's unclear. It's multi-layered and beautifully messy. On Sunday, though, we hear of the importance of the Holy Spirit. It's also emphasized in the reading from Luke. Even if there is no Confirmation happening in your congregation, don't let the reading about the apostles distract you from the truth: participation in the redeemed and risen life of Christ is life in the Spirit. Does a bishop need to lay hands on you in order to make that happen? I hope not. But I'll accept that bishops help remind us of it. Hopefully all of our candidates for Baptism are endued with the Spirit long before the bishop shows up. If not, we all have more work to do, and that work is more than scheduling the bishop's visit.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Peoples' Epiphany

On Saturday night, I unplugged our Christmas tree for good. We had set it on a timer, and the lights had already blinked off, but I wanted to be sure that they did not come back on the next morning. Christmas was over. Epiphany had arrived. Since then, we've been taking down Christmas decorations, which is to say that Elizabeth has been taking them down whenever she has a free moment. It's always sad to pack away Christmas, especially in a family that waits until Advent is over (or almost over) to put up decorations and that leaves to go out of town on December 26. But there's one piece of the traditional Christmas decor that deserves to be left up at least through this week.

I love the nativity set. Whether it's simple wood or metal or elaborate porcelain or the child-friendly Fisher-Price set, I love the story that is told by the stable, the Holy Family, the shepherds, the sheep, the animals, the star, and, eventually, the wise men. In a family that insists we don't put Jesus in the creche until Christmas, we are also sure to leave the wise men on the other side of the room until Epiphany. This morning, as we were getting ready for school, one of our children asked where the wise men were. Another child had moved the nativity set down from the shelf to play with it, but the wise men had been left behind. Quietly but dutifully, he found the wise men and brought them back to their proper Epiphany place. It doesn't matter that Matthew tells a different story than Luke. It doesn't matter that the Bible tells us that the wise men came to a house instead of a stable. It doesn't matter that there's no stable mentioned in the Bible at all. The story comes alive in the little figures that gather to see the Christ child.

How appropriate it is that we would linger in celebration over the Epiphany since that is the part of the story that brings us into the narrative of salvation. As you probably know, in many cultures, the Feast of the Three Kings gets more attention than the Feast of the Nativity. That's not only because the wise men brought presents. The arrival of the sages from the east represents the moment when the other peoples of the earth arrive to worship the King of the Jews. This is the moment when the light that God's people Israel have been to the world shines on everyone else, bringing them into relationship with the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God of Isaac and Rebecca, the God of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel. The arrival of the three wise men is our arrival, and not just our own but the arrival of all the peoples of the earth at the feet of the King of kings.

What do the wise men in your nativity set look like? Often in contrast with the rather Anglo-appearing Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and shepherds, the wise men have dark skin tones that match their exotic near-eastern attire. In the Fisher-Price set in our house, one has pale, white skin, another looks east Asian, and the third appears to be of sub-Saharan African descent. I doubt that, when the wise men saw the star and decided to follow it, they were at some pan-national astrology conference, which would have made it reasonable for three individuals from geographically diverse origins to make the journey together. But, intentionally or not, the Fisher-Price set makes an appropriate theological point: Epiphany is, as our prayer book calls it, the "Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles." This is the moment when all the peoples of the earth discover the universal saving love of God, our Creator. But sometimes we forget what that really means.

I heard a story this week of someone who grew up decades ago with only two wise men in her nativity set. Why? Because the third one was black. Her parents didn't want a dark-skinned wise man in their nativity set. Of course, the truth of Epiphany is that God's plan of salvation meets all the peoples of the earth: Jew and Gentile, black and white, Asian and African, Pacific Islander and European, descendant of slave and descendant of slave-owner. The wise men remind us that everyone belongs in God's narrative of salvation. But, when, after generations of belonging in the story, we feel comfortable enough to change the features of the shepherds and angels and Mary and Joseph and Jesus to make them look like us, we often lose touch with the power that the wise men represent. We belong in this story not because of who we are but because of who God is. God's grace has broken down the ethnic barriers that would keep us apart. We are the peoples from afar who have come to adore the savior of God's people that he might be our savior, too.

If you haven't put your nativity set up yet, take another look at those wise men. What do they look like? What peoples do they represent? I hope you can see yourself in them, but, just as important, I hope you can see everyone else in them, too.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Post-Baptismal Transformation?

As I read Luke's account of the baptism of Jesus (Luke 3:15-17, 21-22), it occurs to me that Luke may have something quite different in mind. I've always thought of the three synoptic gospel accounts detailing the baptismal event as it unfolded, but Luke's version seems closer to that of John--to a retrospective. Notice how Luke describes it: "Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.'" The heavens opened and the spirit descended and a voice came, but does Luke intend for us to imagine that happening as Jesus came out of the water? Or might it have occurred in another place and time, perhaps even a few weeks later?

For comparison, note how Matthew recalls Jesus' baptism: "And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.'" Although it's not clear whether anyone else saw the Spirit descending on him, it is clear that it came down right as Jesus emerged from the water. Also, read Mark's version: "And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.'" Again, there's a clear connection between the water-bath and the Spirit's descent. Luke doesn't seem interested in that, and I wonder why.

Perhaps, of course, Luke meant the same thing that the other gospel writers conveyed, and I'm asking a question that doesn't have a good foundation, but the Greek doesn't bear that out. The word Luke uses suggests that he had already moved past the baptismal event. The word he uses to describe Jesus' baptism is "βαπτισθέντος." It's a participle. It's the aorist passive genitive singular masculine version of the verb that means "to baptize," and it literally means, "having been baptized." In other words, Luke wants us to know that Jesus, having been baptized, receives the Spirit in a bodily form like a dove. Verbs matter. They matter more than participles. Luke, it seems, wants us to focus on the heavens opening and the Holy Spirit descending and the voice coming. Baptism may be a prerequisite for all of that, but Luke is ready to move on to the consequences of what happened in the water.

Maybe that's a good reminder for a church that struggles with baptismal theology. What happens when we pour water on the head of an infant in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Is it merely a symbol of adoption? Is there a clear change? If the taint of original sin is washed away, what happens if the child is never brought up to know the saving power of God's love in Jesus Christ? Is baptism "fire insurance?" Does the validity of that insurance policy depend on the promises made by the sponsors? Should we refocus on confirmation as a necessary rite for full participation in the life of the church, sending our theology back several decades?

Luke's telling of the baptismal event suggests to me that, although the water-bath is essential, there's more to it. There's prayer. While Jesus was praying, the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit descended, and the voice from heaven made its proclamation. Having been baptized, Jesus prayed, and God manifested God's self to God's Son in a visible way. In lectionary Years A & B, the preacher may be able to focus on the transformation enacted by the baptism itself, but in this Year C the focus seems to be on what happens afterward. I'm not sure how that makes its way into a sermon, but, as the church struggles to make disciples for Jesus Christ beyond splashing them with water and hoping it all works out, it's an issue worth wrestling with.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Finding Our King

January 6, 2008 – The Epiphany

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.

Today, the feast of The Epiphany, is all about kings, and I want to start by reminding you of one of my favorites. Do you remember that great classic historical film Monty Python and the Holy Grail? If you haven’t seen it, it’s the parody of the Arthurian legend that came out in 1975 and starred Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, and the rest of the Monty Python comedy troupe. Ridiculous to no end, the film focuses on Arthur’s journey across England to recruit men to join his Knights of the Round Table, who later set out in search of the grail, but it’s a scene from Arthur’s original quest that I find particularly appropriate for Epiphany.

Keeping in mind that Arthur is galloping about on foot, followed by Patsy, his squire, who claps two coconut halves together in order to simulate the sound of a horse, we see Arthur stop in a field to ask a peasant worker which lord live s in the castle up ahead in the distance. He introduces himself as “Arthur, King of the Britons,” but the worker acts confused. “King of the who?” she asks. “The Britons,” Arthur replies. “Who are the Britons?” the peasant responds. “Well, we all are. We are all Britons,” Arthur explains, “and I am your king.” But the peasant refuses to acknowledge the authority of the man who has bounced his way across the countryside, pretending to ride on a horse. And that leads me to my question for Epiphany: what good is it being a king if you have to convince people to treat you like one?

The magi weren’t kings, but they were sages from the east. They were probably Persian astrologers who had seen a celestial event like an exploding star or a passing comet, and they interpreted it as a sign that a new king of the Jewish people had been born. So they set out on their long journey to find the one whom this astronomical phenomenon had signified. When they started their journey, what sort of king do you think they expected to find? Whose birth would the stars of heaven foretell?

When they arrived in the region of the Jews, they went to the first place that anyone would go to look for a king—the palace. But, instead of finding an infant ruler, they found Herod. “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” they asked. “For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” And Herod looked around nervously. “King? You’re looking for a king? I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I think you may have misread your star charts. The Jews already have a king, and I am he.”

That’s where Matthew begins his account of the good news of Jesus Christ—with a showdown between two kings—the one who lives in a palace and the one whose birth was revealed in the stars. Matthew brings us to this tension filled moment, wanting the reader to sit on the edge of her seat, desperate to find out how this exceedingly awkward moment will be resolved. Judea already had a king…sort of. Herod the Great had been proclaimed “King of Judea” by the Roman Senate. He had worked his way into a position of power by eliminating all of his rivals and buying the favor of the Empire, which made him its vassal king. Rome liked him, which meant that his own people did not. He tried to impress them by building lavish structures, including many fortresses and a huge expansion of the temple, but the taxes he needed to raise in order to fund his pet projects undermined his attempt to buy the affection of his people. Plus, it was rumored that his family had converted to Judaism a few generations back in a politically expedient move, which gave the Pharisees and Sadducees, the two leading religious groups of the day, an excuse to write him off. He may have been a king in title, but, when Matthew uses the label “king” to describe Herod, he does so with a heavy dose of irony. Everyone knew whose king Herod was, and it wasn’t the king of the Jewish people.

Meanwhile, in Bethlehem, a child was nursing at his mother’s breast. A carpenter’s son with no particular path to power or glory, the young Jesus was being raised in modest circumstances. After learning from Herod that the king was to come from Bethlehem, the wise men set out, celebrating that the star went with them. When they arrived in the small town, no one knew where to direct the strange-looking travelers who had come from afar. “King? You’ve come to Bethlehem to look for a king? I’m sorry, fellas, but you’re about a thousand years too late. We haven’t had a king in these parts since David was a boy.”

Somehow, which is to say miraculously, the star led them to an ordinary house in an ordinary part of town, and they rejoiced. When they entered the house, they found the child, lying in his mother’s lap, and they threw themselves down on the ground, worshiping the young boy. It must have been quite a sight to see these sages from the east, prostrating themselves before a baby, whom no one else except, perhaps, his parents thought of as anything special. They gave the child gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh—presents of representative value that demonstrated their admiration of the infant king. And then they left, going back home by a different road because of a terrible dream that they had had.

When the magi left their home in search of the Jewish king, they couldn’t have expected to find a child being raised in a working-class neighborhood by a carpenter and his young wife. Even from the moment of their birth, kings belong in palaces, but the palace in Jerusalem was already occupied. Instead, God’s king was born a few miles away, in a humble suburb, and God used the brightness of a star to lead the wise men to the real king’s lowly abode. The so-called king who lived in the palace was little more than the shell of a true leader for God’s people. A puppet of Rome, Herod wielded power to his own benefit and to the benefit of his higher-ups. A baby whom no one else had noticed, Jesus had no power and no claim to it, yet God would use him to bring the light of salvation not only to his people but to the whole world. And some pagan star-gazers were the only ones who knew the truth.

What sort of king are we looking for? Are we expecting God’s light to shine on one who needs power and wealth to convince us that he is a king, or will we see that God is leading us to a different sort of ruler? In God’s reign, those who wield power have it taken from them, and those who are surrounded by wealth are turned on their heads. Those who have a claim on preferential status discover that they have none, and those who think that they have been discarded by God and God’s representatives find that they are the ones who belong closest to God’s heart. God brings the light of salvation to those who see the haughty powers of this world being shaken and replaced by the humble power of God, but that’s a light that many people do not want to see. They reject it because it heralds the loss of their privilege and their grip on power. They react to it violently just as Herod did, ordering the murder of every male child in Bethlehem in an attempt to preserve his status. But those who rely on exertions of power to maintain their status in the eyes of their subjects aren’t really kings at all.

The true king is one whom God uses to bring the light of salvation to those who dwell in darkness. The true king is one who breaks into the order of this world in order to bring hope to the hopeless. If that’s the king we are willing to find, we shouldn’t look for him in a palace or in the halls of government but in those humble places where God’s saving light shines brightest. Which king is God’s light leading us toward? Where will we find our true king? At whose feet will we fall down in worship?