SJF • Christmas 2 2008 • Tobias Haller BSG
Herod secretly called for the wise men…and sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage…”
In the dark early days of World War II, in the midst of the blitz and the Battle of Britain, leading politicians in England wanted to send the royal family away somewhere safe, away from London, which was well within the range of German bombers and the even more frightening terror-weapons. Some suggested they go to the country, to Windsor, or even further North to Scotland, others argued they would really be safest in Canada. The Royals refused, however, and the Queen — whom most of us would later know as the “Queen Mum” — won the hearts of the Eastenders when, after Buckingham Palace was bombed, she said that she finally could say in all truth that she was a Londoner, and look the East End in the face.
And look she and her husband the king did. Not only did King George VI and his Queen stay in London, but they went to the East End and the docklands to inspect the damage done by the bombs and rockets that had ravaged the heart of London’s port and center of trade. One day when King George was inspecting a bombed-out building, sympathizing with the survivors and mourning their losses with them, a frail old man came up to him, and after looking carefully into his face for a long while, pronounced his judgment: “You are a good King.”
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Today’s gospel tells us of several kings of different sorts, but only one of them is truly a Good King. We have “five kings” in our gospel today. King Herod the Great, the tyrant sitting uneasily on his throne in the very last years of his long and terrible reign; the so-called “Three Kings,” the wise men — who really are not kings at all, and the Scripture doesn’t even actually say there were three of them — and finally the newborn King, Jesus the Christ Child. And although only he deserves the title of Good King — since he is truly a king and truly good — we can learn something from all of the characters in our gospel story today.
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First the King who isn’t good: Herod the Great, he was called, and I guess he’s a fine example of how one can become great without being good. He ruled his land with an iron fist; he reconstructed Palestine along the model of a Graeco-Roman imperial state. He rebuilt the Temple in all its glory. He built mighty fortresses and palaces up and down the length of the country — including the great palace fortress at Masada that many years later would become the last holdout of Jewish rebellion against Rome.
But alongside all of these great works, you have to set the character of the man who worked them: and this is where all question of goodness evaporates. Herod the Great was a heartless murderer: so paranoid about his throne that he killed his own son when he thought he posed a threat. The Roman emperor Augustus, contrasting Herod’s murderous capacity with his surmised observance of Jewish food laws, said, “I’d rather be Herod’s pig than his son!” And we know from our own Scripture the terrible story of what Herod did when the Wise Men didn’t come back to give him the precise identity of the Christ Child: he murdered all the little boys of Bethlehem, horribly slaughtering the innocents to protect the throne he was so fearful of leaving, the throne where he died. He was a king, all right, but very far from being a good one.
The lesson for us in this, is always to keep clear in our minds the terrible difference between being great and being good — that fame and power gained at the expense of others will bring only grief and pain in the end.
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Then come these wise men — these magi who are clearly good, but who definitely aren’t kings. First of all, note that unlike Herod, who is so jealous of his throne that he won’t leave it, and sends out agents to do his dirty work — the wise men travel: they move. They’ve got the virtue of get up and go! When they see the sign of the star, they follow it; and they only rejoice when they reach their goal, when the star finally stops over the house where the child is found.
So the first part of their goodness is reflected in their willingness to change, their willingness to move, and their unwillingness to stop until they reach the goal, until they come to the feet of the one before whom they kneel in adoration and homage. The second part of their goodness is shown in what they give up: unlike Herod who didn’t want to give up anything, they freely offer their precious gifts to the Christ Child, they open their treasures and offer them, freely and without compulsion. Finally, the third part of their goodness is shown in how they keep the secret. Contrary to Herod’s explicit instructions, they do not return to him, but go back to their homes by another way, rejoicing they have been blessed, and unwilling to collaborate with evil against good.
The lesson for us in this is plain: God wants three kinds of freedom for us: freedom from being so attached to things that we cannot move where he calls us, freedom to give up our treasures for his use, and freedom to disobey the evil powers of this world when they seek to co-opt us to their ends.
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Finally the Christ Child, the center around whom this whole story revolves: he is the one who is both a King and Good. And I want to relate his goodness back to the king with which I started this sermon: King George VI, who remained in London through the blitz, and visited the East End to be with his people. Jesus the King of Heaven came to us his people in the midst of the war of sin, he came to be with us at our lowest and our worst, came to us bombed out and injured, wounded and incapacitated by sin, came to be with us and to lift us up out of the disaster into which we’d gotten ourselves.
He did not remain isolated from us, in glory at the right hand of the Father, dwelling in light inaccessible; but he came to us, the wisdom and revelation of God, to enlighten the eyes of our hearts. He did not leave us as orphans, but came to us to be our brother, so that we too could be adopted children of his Father in heaven, the one he taught us to call “Our Father” too. And as heirs with him of eternal life, he endowed us with the riches of his glorious inheritance.
The Good King came to us in our need, when we were beset by sin and troubled by the tyranny of evil; the Good King came to us as a child, as a brother, came to our rescue and our aid. Let us give thanks to him this Christmastide, and through the whole year long, praising his holy Name, now and forever, even Jesus Christ, our Lord.+