Gifts For A King
It is now 2020 and whether it’s through the setting of goals or resolutions, once again we’re faced with the question of what we want our lives to look like in the next year. The good news is, the Epiphany story has some suggestions.
The story begins on a happy note: the news of Jesus’ birth is spreading. Wisemen show up, having traveled from distant, exotic lands. They’ve been led by a star and are eager to find this child so they can be among the first to demonstrate their loyalty. They are filled with wonder, excitement, and awe.
And this scares Herod.
You see, as king, he’s under the impression that if anyone important is going to travel to Jerusalem it should be to see him. And certainly if anyone is going to come bearing a gift - especially an expensive gift - it had better be for him. Anxiously, he calls together the experts to double check the facts. Priests and scribes are ordered to give him some more information on this alleged Messiah.
They huddle in their offices and check, double-check, and confirm that the words of the wisemen are true. And, yes - it’s right there in Isaiah. At first they scoff because how can this be true? Bethlehem was a small town out in the sticks, nothing compared to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was where the temple was. Jerusalem was where King Herod lived. Jerusalem was where power resided. Or so they thought.
But in reality, Herod, the scribes, the priests - they were in denial, and had been for awhile. Because these prophecies had been around forever. They should not have been surprised the day those wisemen showed up on their doorstep asking, “Which way to Bethlehem?” hauling precious gifts meant not for Herod, but for the king lying in the manger. But denial is a powerful thing, and as we find out, Herod will put up quite a fight before he considers relinquishing his throne.
So what do we want our lives to look like in the new year? The Epiphany story seems to suggest two possible paths. One will lead us into new and surprising experiences of faith - just like the wisemen. But in order to take it, we have to be willing to leave a lot behind and proceed without a ton of certainty. Whatever we choose to bring with us must be precious because we’re going to have to carry it the entire way.
The other path is much easier in a way, because we don’t have to go far and all can stay the same. We can sleep in our own beds, stay in our regular routines. This is Herod’s path. And it works… for awhile. But like it or not, even if we stay committed to this easier path, there will still be wise men and women all around us who feel led to follow the star. Even if we stay home, they will pack their bags because travelers of the wise path have figured out what those of us on the Herod path have yet to learn: true joy doesn’t come from hoarding precious gifts. True joy comes when we set out on the journey to offer those gifts to God.
Cynthia Levinson is author of a children’s book titled, The Youngest Marcher, the story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, the youngest known child to be arrested for a Civil Rights protest during the Children’s Crusade in 1963. The book is told from Audrey’s point of view, about how one night at her church a family friend they called “Mike” (also known as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) spoke at a gathering in which he encouraged them to disobey unjust laws. He urged them to sit at the lunch counters they were banned from, to picket, to march, and then to get arrested and fill the jails so tight that they’d have no choice but to stop arresting people for demanding their rights.
Well Audrey thought this sounded just great. Filled with the Spirit, led by it’s star, she twisted around in her pew to see which of the grown ups was going to volunteer first to go to jail. But, and understandably I have to say, those grown ups were a bit more hesitant that Audrey. If she was the wise woman, ready to pack her bag, they were more along the lines of the scribes, doing mental calculations of risk and consequence.
“Boss man will fire me!” they said.
“Landlord will evict me!”
“Policeman will beat me!”
And they were absolutely right. You see, Audrey’s parents and their friends were stuck in Herod’s world. Only they were not among the king’s favored - they were his victims. And they weren’t sure where this other path would lead them, even if they were guided by a star.
No one leapt at the chance to go to jail that night, but not too long after that a new idea was proposed: If grown ups wouldn’t take that path then why not have the children fill the jails?
Well - and I’ll quote directly now from Levinson’s book:
Audrey leaped to her feet.
“I want to go to jail.” she declared.
Momma looked deep and saw that Audrey’s eyes begged, Please.
“OK.” Momma said.
Audrey strutted down that aisle.
She was going to j-a-a-ail!
Of course, what Audrey would soon find was that even a divinely inspired path can be a scary one. But all along the way there were signs - some figurative, like the crowds singing freedom songs - some literal, like the ones people carried saying, “Can a man love God and hate his brother?”
Audrey, and a total of 1200 other children, were arrested that day. Bull Connor and the police were dumbfounded by the sheer number of them. MLK Jr. is quoted as saying, “"I have been inspired and moved by today. I have never seen anything like it.”
We can’t miss the fact that at the center of the Epiphany story, it is a youth — an infant — who compels the fear of the king and the joy of the wise ones. It’s a child whose mere presence on this earth makes Herod frightened, irrational, and violent. It’s a baby born in a poor town that the truly wise bow down before and offer their most precious gifts. And in return, seeing that child overwhelms them with joy and convicts them enough to disobey Herod, to ignore his instructions, and to head home by another way - filled with awe and hope because of what they have encountered through Jesus.
Led by the star to the presence of Jesus, the wisemen find a new worldview, one that is pure and true. They now understand life in a new way and go forward with resolve to not let Herod’s desperate attempts to maintain his standing be their guide. They become fearless, because now their only King is Jesus and in him they see that true strength lies in vulnerability, hope, and love.
The faith of children is a recurring theme in Matthew’s gospel. Later Jesus would go on to say, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 18:3). Children are wise in ways adults sometimes struggle to be, because like the wisemen they aren’t weighed down by the norms and expectations we adults can sometimes cling to.
In a sense, that was what the star led the wise men to do - to become like children and be led to Jesus by their awe and wonder instead of their rational, good common sense. Then, having encountered him, they are led by joy and a new understanding of justice to become disobedient to the corrupt powers that be.
Stories like Audrey Faye Hendricks’ resound with us but of course hers is not the only story of a wise young person choosing the more difficult path and refusing to conform to expectations.
In 2018 after a tragic shooting at their school, students from Marjory Stonemason Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida used their eloquent voices and social media influence to organize a nation-wide walkout in order to speak their truth and raise awareness as to how gun violence had affected their lives and the lives of thousands of other young people in our country.
In 2019 Time Magazine named 16 year old Greta Thunberg their Person of the Year for her work as a climate activist, noting that she “is not a leader of any political party or advocacy group… She is not a scientist or a politician. She has no access to traditional levers of influence: she’s not a billionaire or a princess, a pop star or even an adult.” She’s an ordinary teenage girl who found courage to speak truth to power.
The faith of these children inspires us to take the difficult path, the one that leads us out of the expectations of Herod’s world, to the manger where we encounter Christ, and then home by another way. Because after we have experienced such transformative joy, there’s no way we can go back to the confines of Jerusalem.
On this journey, each of us brings precious gifts with us. Time. Energy. The privilege of being able to make choices about where we spend our money, how we vote, who we pay homage to with our loyalty. These are the gifts we are called to use for the upbuilding of Christ’s kingdom in this world, not to please the King Herods of our day. So even though Christmas is now officially over, may that star still shine brightly over our year, guiding us to new and uncertain places and calling us to use our gifts to the glory and honor of Christ the King.