(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on January 3, 2016)
Just a couple of years ago I learned for the first time that the 12 days of Christmas aren’t the ones leading up to Christmas. Instead, day one is Christmas day, and the verses of the song lead us forward from there.
It surprised me, because we tend to celebrate so much differently. We much prefer the lead up, and then when Christmas is done, we tend to be done, ready to clean up and move on. New Year’s day is often the very end in many of our minds…but the song and the tradition of the church carries the Christmas tradition 12 days past Christmas, to January 6…a day known as Epiphany, which this year will be celebrated on Wednesday.
Epiphany is a celebration of the manifestation of Christ; we might say, it is the celebration of Jesus “going public”. Churches in the Western tradition (Roman Catholics and all us Protestants) emphasize the coming of the Magi during Epiphany, while churches in the Eastern Orthodox tradition also add a celebration of Jesus’ baptism to Epiphany.
Epiphany is a celebration of the shining forth and revelation of Jesus Christ as the second person of the Trinity. In a way, you could say the seasons of the church are like this: Christmas celebrates the incarnation, the humanity of Jesus, and is captured with the private intimacy of Mary “treasuring all these things in her heart.” With Epiphany, both the coming of the Magi to honor Jesus as King, and also the remembrance of Jesus’ baptism are the public announcements to the world that God has come in fullness and power.
Listen to Matthew 2, the description of the Magi coming to Jesus.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’…
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. (TNIV, Matthew 2:1-2, 9-11)
So much in this account nods toward royalty.
And, we should be clear about WHO is royalty. Despite the familiar song “We Three Kings”, we have no idea how many came to visit Jesus, and nothing in Matthew’s description indicates the Magi were kings. Instead, Jesus is the royal one. Jesus is named “king of the Jews.” The gifts given to Jesus are the same ones history tells us all kinds of queens and kings received in the ancient world.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this through the Christmas season, thinking about the many implications of God becoming flesh in Jesus. I’ve always loved thinking about and talking about the humanity of Jesus…how amazing it is that God became like us, loved us so much to become one of us and be close to us.
But the royalty and power of Epiphany are just as real! Jesus as God in the flesh is a true monarch, royalty with power who by his very nature demands our obedience and allegiance. Epiphany this week pushes us Americans to open our eyes to an aspect of God that we find difficult. Royalty is truly other, higher, deserving of honor, praise, and deference.
How would King Jesus fare in our less hierarchical democracy? Or more challenging: how do I respond to a God who is truly other, a monarch who deserves and demands my obedience? That’s what I’ve been wrestling with this week.
I’m curious if we have anyone here who has met actual royalty.
You know, something more than a homecoming princess. Has anyone here been in the presence of some other nation’s royalty? What was it like? [ASK]
Most of us think of English royalty and society when we think of kings and queens. America has a bit of a fascination with England, even though the monarchy there is just a figurehead now. For people my age, we remember Princess Diana. I will even admit that as a kid I stayed up into the wee hours of the night to watch the royal wedding of Charles and Diana.
These days, Downton Abbey has captured that longing for the “high life” of being waited on by servants. It’s a show that in some ways is more popular here in the United States than in England itself. We’re intrigued by the stratification of society, the upstairs/downstairs tensions.
But I don’t think any of us really want to live it. We Americans have at our core the words “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal.” Even though we can’t seem to make a society that truly IS equal, we also strongly rebel at the notion that some “class” of people should always be in charge. We’re in love with the myth and the hope of being self-made people, of all being equal.
Early Quakers were absolutely obnoxious about this. More than 100 years before the American Revolution, English Quakers were thrown in prison left and right because they refused to give nobility the honor the rest of society did. They wouldn’t remove their hats. They wouldn’t bow. They wouldn’t use the customary plural “you” to address royalty, but instead rebelliously “thee’d” kings and queens, giving testimony with their actions and words that even royalty are just the same as all the rest of us before God.
This is not at all surprising to us today in America. But it was radical, shocking, disruptive and dangerous then. You didn’t mess with royalty. They ruled absolutely. And they kept their superiority with a brutal strength, leading to prison and death for many of those protesting Quakers.
If we take a larger view, a birds eye view of history, we are reminded that it is really only a small part of the very recent history of the Christian church that has this view of equality.
Most of Christian history, and all of Jewish history, understood the higher nature and value of royalty. Unlike us cheeky Americans today, they would naturally gravitate not to Jesus demonstrating the closeness of God, but rather Jesus demonstrating the majesty and power of God.
So we have a bit of work to do, I think! We need help to recapture the beauty, not the revulsion, of a monarch who is better than us, different from us, higher than us. We need help to understand how bowing a knee to another can be hopeful victory, not defeat. Turn with me to Psalm 72. Here in this Psalm, we see the joy and trust and goodness of people trusting in royalty, to save and to make things right. Listen to these words as a demonstration of how most Christians throughout history would have understood Jesus as the rightful King.
Endow the king with your justice, O God,
the royal son with your righteousness.
May he judge your people in righteousness,
your afflicted ones with justice.
May the mountains bring prosperity to the people,
the hills the fruit of righteousness.
May he defend the afflicted among the people
and save the children of the needy;
may he crush the oppressor.
May he endure as long as the sun,
as long as the moon, through all generations.
May he be like rain falling on a mown field,
like showers watering the earth.
In his days may the righteous flourish
and prosperity abound till the moon is no more.
May he rule from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
May the desert tribes bow before him
and his enemies lick the dust.
May the kings of Tarshish and of distant shores
bring tribute to him.
May the kings of Sheba and Seba
present him gifts.
May all kings bow down to him
and all nations serve him.
For he will deliver the needy who cry out,
the afflicted who have no one to help.
He will take pity on the weak and the needy
and save the needy from death.
He will rescue them from oppression and violence,
for precious is their blood in his sight. (TNIV, Psalm 72:1-14)
This is a worldview that is quite different from ours and a bit difficult for us. It’s difficult in two ways: one, to imagine giving one person that kind of power, that kind of authority is scary to us. And two, having language that is solely male in regard to this kind of authority is difficult. That’s one of the reasons I’m being intentional today about using “monarch” or “ruler” unless I am specifically talking about Jesus as king, so we don’t transfer the male language to God. God is neither male nor female.
Psalm 72 IS a picture of a “right” ruler…what it could look like if the power and “highness” of royalty acted for the good of the ones ruled over. Jesus is the perfect embodiment of this kind of royalty. Look at the many words here that describe the ideal rule: filled with justice, righteousness, defender of the afflicted, deliverer, helper, one who pities the weak and saves the needy, rescuer from oppression.
Jesus is all these things! And, for those trampled on, oppressed, powerless…for those who live lives different than the American dream, for those around the world AND here in America who don’t feel equal or able…Jesus as rightful King is someone with the power to make a difference, to rescue and deliver and save from other unjust rulers.
Here is the good side of royalty!
But don’t miss the parts that stretch us equality lovers. There is no way to miss the otherness, the “highness” here: this monarch rules, and conquers enemies. Others bow and bring tribute and serve. We live in a world where we can’t imagine someone NOT abusing the power given them if they are set up higher than the rest of us, so we constantly work to level the playing field.
But I’ve been stretched this week to try and wrap my mind around God as truly higher than me, better than me, powerful but not selfish, ruling unquestionably but working for the good of all. I want to embrace Jesus both as a human like me, and as God who is not; as a humble child drawing close to us in a manger, and as the Word who spoke all of creation into being and deserves my worship and adoration.
This is the wonder of incarnation! Today, we sit between the humanity of Christmas and the divinity of Epiphany. Both are true, neither can be shoved aside. The creeds of the church embrace this Jesus, fully God and fully human, and call us to remember them both. I want to do it!
And like so many things, it’s easier said than done.
For example…you all should know I am totally on a roll this year. I have eaten less junk, exercised more, read my bible, and met my goal of writing something EVERY SINGLE DAY THIS YEAR! I am a beautiful example of health and spiritual discipline! God sure is lucky to have someone as dedicated as me!
I’m exaggerating of course. But I have been reminded how easy it is for me to think of myself on the same level as God, as if my choices to do what God asks of me are somehow something that God should be pleased with, as if I’m giving God a gift with my good actions. Even though I believe I am God’s servant, even though I sing it in worship, the truth is I have to make a conscious effort to remember God as my Creator, to remember that Jesus as my Lord and Savior has a claim on my life.
I have surrendered myself and my will to God. But obedience is not easy when I think of God’s perspective as suggestions from an equal. Our democratic principles are so ingrained, it is challenging to truly see Jesus as king.
So on this Sunday before Epiphany, my challenge to us is to live into Jesus as divine, Jesus as Lord.
My challenge to us is to join the church around the world and make a public celebration of the power and even the royalty of God. Because the truth is we need rescuing from a world that is far less equal than we sometimes believe it to be. The truth is we cannot keep ourselves safe, or bring justice on our own.
Our best hope is our Lord Jesus Christ. Not in a passive way, either. But rather, fully trusting that Jesus uses his authority and power for righteousness and justice and our good, we demonstrate our trust by our unwavering obedience to God’s call. We offer our lives to be used for God’s purposes, not to pursue the “high life” where others serve us.
Our best hope is rooted in the Light of Jesus Christ! Our light HAS come. Come close to us as fully human, and remains high and lifted up as fully God. I’ll close with words from Isaiah 60.
‘Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the LORD rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.’ (TNIV, Isaiah 60:1-3)