by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
Scripture: Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2: 1-18
“And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and bowing to the ground they paid him homage, and opening their treasure sacks they offered him gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh.” — Matthew 2:11
The scene has shifted from the pastoral world of shepherds to the political world of kings. Now Christ is worshiped not only by domestic peasants but also by foreign potentates. The tradition interprets this visitation by the three kings as the appearance of Christ to the nations of the world, emphasizing the foreignness of the kings from afar. Be that as it may, the scripture itself seems to me to emphasize not only the fact that they are representatives of foreign nations but also that they are political figures, that they are kings, just like Herod. We have before us, therefore, a symbolic account of the relationship between the gospel and politics, and its point / counterpoint is the Magi on the one hand and Herod on the other.
The symbolism is clear, even crudely obvious; here are the elegant worshipers, there is the arrogant blusterer, here is joy and wonder there is fear and cant, here is honest questing for truth there is dishonest craving for power, here is life and there is death. Herod and the Magi, the Magi and Herod, all are looking for the truth of God, to cherish it, or to crush.
Both these forces are present in the politics of nations, domestic and international, and the gospel wants us to take note of both and to see that Jesus is at the center of the vortex. Most preachers I hear stay away from politics because they need money to run their churches and these days politics is a “take no prisoners” war to the death. Take a side and the other side will assassinate your character, scare your family and damage your church, and the most zealous enemies will, as Jesus said, be members of your own church family. This Sunday, however, our scriptures and our theme of Epiphany, “the manifestation of Christ to the Nations” requires us to preach politics if we are not to betray the savior before he is out of the cradle.
President Obama’s speech on receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace was a model of Christian political thought measured by today’s scriptural standard. The Magi and Herod were all there. The President spoke of making peace, honoring persons and promoting wellbeing, and he spoke of waging war, detaining individuals and doing damage. (Quibblers note that I am not quoting by summarizing). He is influenced in this view by the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and especially by two of his books, “Moral Man and Immoral Society,” and “The Irony of American History.” Niebuhr was the father of “Christian realism.”
He came out of the German community of Missouri and after WWI became a pacifist, partly motivated by the horror of trench warfare and partly by the ambivalence of German Americans about the European war. When the Nazis came on the scene Niebuhr gave up pacifism and urged the necessity of defeating the Nazi horror by force of arms. It is not possible, he argued, to avoid sin in this world, especially at the macro level of government and nation. The individual may be moral in the small area of personal life, but the individual in society, in the large area of public life, cannot be, so one must eschew purity and accept the tasks that demand dirty hands and troubled dreams.
As I listened to President Obama in Oslo I could not get out of my mind President Obama at West Point the week before, announcing to those young cadets that he was sending 30,000 more of them and their comrades to face death in central Asia, our children and grand children to die for the benefit of people who hate us and will return to their chicanery the moment we leave. I am old enough to be able to compare that speech with Lyndon Johnson’s announcement that he was not going to lose the war he inherited from his predecessor and was sending several thousands more of troops to Vietnam. That move eventually pushed him into premature retirement, and I fear President Obama might have had his “Lyndon Johnson moment” last month at West Point. He thought he had no option because the mad dogs of the opposition would tear him to bits if he did not; I fear he will find those dogs fickle, unappeasable, and when the sheer idiocy of the enterprise becomes ever more evident than it is today, they will be in the much larger pack of poodles, that will hound him out of office or lick him to death. There is no more vivid a current correlative of the symbol of hate filled Herod than our democracy since the days of Ronald Reagan and Lee Atwater, his sewer master, and the architect of his “politics of personal destruction.” (Atwater died miserably from a brain tumor, and during the year he took to die he abjectly and constantly repented and apologized for what he had done to America. Not only did we not forgive him, we flattered him sincerely, we imitated him!)
So what does the baby in the manger have to do with this? Look at the gifts the Magi offer, gold, incense, and myrrh. Are they ranked in ascending or descending order of importance? I think ascending: myrrh is the most important, because myrrh is the spice of death, the sign of the Cross. The only way a Christian can participate in this world of political power is as a Cross bearer, enduring the teeth of the dogs, the maulers of reputation and the monsters of hypocrisy. As they crown him with gold and cense his person the kings of the world prepare his burial. Were the Magi hypocritical? Probably not intentionally, but inevitably, because we know that in this world power corrupts and that there is no such thing as a righteous ruler and therefore that our righteousness and our peace, and the very possibility of honesty lies only in that other world this baby attests.
Politically speaking such a view is called “realism;” theologically speaking it is called Christian realism; and the word Is well chosen because for anyone who pays attention the Magi and Herod, glory and shame are the real poles of the real world, and once again it is our Gospel that speaks the real truth about God’s grace and our violence in this fallen world. In this world we live by faith alone, by grace alone and by the hope that anchors us on the far side of myth.
‘Meanwhile nations of the world behold your only hope, this little boy named Jesus, and wise up! Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar did, why not you?’