Sunday’s sermon: A Seedy Kingdom Comes

pando forest

Text used – Mark 4:1-34





  • I want you to picture a scene with me this morning. So close your eyes, and be ready to be transported.
    • Ground beneath you: rough and uneven → gravel, dirt, covered in scrubby undergrowth → large rocks poke out of the ground here and there as the ground gently slopes away from you
    • Surrounded by tall, slender white tree trunks reaching for the sky
    • Feel a gentle breeze blow across your face → breeze sets the delicate saw-toothed leaves all around you quivering and shaking, producing a pleasant, insistent, delightfully unmistakable rustling sound → As you look around you, it looks like the whole forest is shivering – like it’s quaking.

    • This forest that you’ve been temporarily transported to this morning is no ordinary forest. It’s a place called the Pando Forest. And apart from being a vast and beautiful grove of trees, the Pando Forest is special for another reason: in terms of mass, it is the largest single organism on the planet because all the trees are, in fact, one.[1]
      • Spans 107 acres in Fishlake National Forest (central Utah)
      • All 47,000 trees are genetically identical → natural clones from one single, male aspen tree
      • All share one single root system → Quaking aspen trees can reproduce by sending out seeds, but more frequently, they reproduce by sending up little shoots from the central root system.
      • Weigh an estimated 13 million pounds
      • Trees that have been reproducing in this way for more than 80,000 years
        • Means this particular organism probably started growing sometime around the end of the last ice age
        • Oldest currently living trees = 120-150 yrs. old
      • A beautiful, giant, tranquil forest – a family of trees that spans not only acres but also millennia … all interconnected through one, central, sustaining, life-giving source. Hmmmm … what could that possibly have to do with our faith, friends? 😊 Let’s take a look at our Scripture reading this morning and see if we can figure it out.
  • Today’s passage from Mark = admittedly a fairly large chunk of text – It actually encompasses all but the last seven verses of chapter four. But as we continue to work our way through the Narrative Lectionary together, it’s interesting to take a broader look at some of these stories that we’ve studied in a closer, more chopped up manner before. Reading a large portion of text like this gives us the opportunity to look for the wider themes that Jesus keeps returning to throughout his ministry. It gives us a chance to look at the forest instead of the trees, if you will. → theme for today’s section of text = Kingdom of God and … seeds
    • First time in Mk’s gospel that Jesus really talks about the Kingdom of God
      • Brief mention in passing just after Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan – text: Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”[2]
      • But this is the first time in Mark’s gospel that Jesus really gets down to the nitty gritty and starts talking and teaching about and trying explain the nature and the significance of the Kingdom of God to the crowds and the disciples.
    • Got a lot to work with within these parables all about seeds and kingdoms, so let’s examine them a little more closely individually
  • 1st parable = parable of the sower
    • Basic breakdown
      • Jesus tells of a farmer who went out to scatter seed → seed falls in four different places
        • Path → eaten by birds
        • Rocky ground → shallow soil = no roots
        • Among the weeds → choked out by weeds = wither
        • Good soil → grow and produce anywhere from 30-100 fold
      • Later (away from the crowds) Jesus explains parable to disciples
        • Path/birds = those who hear God’s word but then Satan comes and steals the word right away
        • Rocky ground = people who hear God’s word joyfully at first but have no depth in their spirits for that word to take root → first hardship makes them lose faith
        • Among the weeds = those who hear God’s word but let the trappings and distractions and worries of this life overwhelm and ultimately swallow up their faith
        • Good soil = those who hear God’s word and embrace it → let it take root and grow in their hearts and lives
    • Now, we’re going to come back to that idea in a minute, but first have to address a challenging couple of verses in this text.: When they were alone, the people around Jesus, along with the Twelve, asked him about the parables. He said to them, “The secret of God’s kingdom has been given to you, but to those who are outside everything comes in parables. This is so that they can look and see but have no insight, and they can hear but not understand. Otherwise, they might turn their lives around and be forgiven.”[3] → It’s a bit of a thorny passage (pun intended), right? It seems like Jesus is drawing a line in the sand here. Some are in. Some are out. And that’s not only “just the way it is,” that’s actually the intention. To be honest, friends, this is one of those passages that scholars have wrestled with and tried to pick apart and parse out for centuries – from Paul in Romans to Augustine to modern-day theologians and biblical scholars. Some talk about free will. Some talk about things like predestination and divine foreknowledge. And basically, it’s still one sticky, tangled mess. So unfortunately, I’m not going to have some silver bullet answer to make the uncomfortableness of these few verses magically disappear this morning.
      • Concurrence = Jesus is loosely quoting the prophet Isaiah here → As part of his call story, Isaiah hears God say, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah says, “I’m here; send me.” And God’s command is, “Go and say to this people: Listen intently, but don’t understand; look carefully, but don’t comprehend. Make the minds of this people dull. Make their ears deaf and their eyes blind, so they can’t see with their eyes or heart with their ears, or understand with their minds, and turn, and be healed.”[4]
        • Scholar: Drawing from [Isaiah], Jesus describes the human state of affairs: some have been given the mysteries of the kingdom of God and some are still in the dark. Those who are not within the kingdom of God simply cannot see and hear. Jesus is not blaming. He is not even explaining. He is stating. This is the way it works – some believe because they have been given the mysteries of the kingdom. Some do not believe.[5] → And we certainly could leave it there. It’s short and sweet. Jesus is being practical – citing the words of one of the Jews’ greatest prophets. End of story.
      • Certainly possible … but let me leave you with two interesting bits to ponder from the Greek this morning
        • First: word translated as “given” (“The secret of God’s kingdom has been given to you”[6]) has this connotation of giving up … of sacrifice → So maybe Jesus is hinting to the disciples that this Kingdom path is one that is both a gift and a sacrifice at the same time – something that will bring them abundant blessings and abundant hardship, something that may even require sacrifice in return.
        • Second: most disturbing bit in v. 12 (“Otherwise, they might turn their lives around and be forgiven”[7]) sounds like a warning – like Jesus trying to withhold forgiveness from those who don’t understand BUT Gr. “forgiven” can also mean “turn away” or “abandon” → So what if Jesus is giving them plausible deniability? They didn’t see or hear or perceive or understand before, so when they decide to turn around, they are hearing for the first time?
    • This seedy kingdom parable certain teaches us about the fragile nature of the Kingdom of God in our midst. There are lots of things around us that can inhibit the growth of that Kingdom, both inside us and in the world around us.
      • Ties in with the parable that Jesus tells right after this (the only part of our Scripture this morning that doesn’t contain a seed/plant reference) = parable of the lamp → basic idea: BE ALERT! PAY ATTENTION! Let the light of God’s Kingdom shine in you and through you so that you are reminded of its strength and presence and so others are reminded of it as well – so it can shine in the darkness of what is around us and be our beacon of hope.
  • 2nd parable = parable of the farmer – text: Then Jesus said, “This is what God’s kingdom is like. It’s as though someone scatters seed on the ground, then sleeps and wakes night and day. The seed sprouts and grows, but the farmer doesn’t know how. The earth produces crops all by itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full head of grain. Whenever the crop is ready, the farmer goes to cut the grain because it’s harvesttime.”[8]
    • Parable = reminder to us that while we may do the tending and the watching and some of the minor nurturing and maintaining work for God’s Kingdom, the truth growth of the Kingdom comes from God alone → We are stewards in this work. We are hired hands. We can tend and water, feed and fertilize, and we can sit and watch those fields all we want, we cannot truly control the growing. We cannot control the weather. We cannot ultimately control the rate of growth or the yields that will eventually come from the harvest.
      • Story of Luke and Andrea moving to Nepal – conversation at presbytery yesterday → They are moving to a country in which only 1.4% of the population is Christian. But they are not moving there to work tirelessly day in and day out to convert the locals for the sake of their salvation. Because that work is God’s Kingdom work to do. They are going to be God’s hired hands – to work and strive and hope and live and love alongside the people in Nepal and the student volunteers they’ll be overseeing. There are going to be a ministry of presence and attentiveness and learning. Because that is our work in God’s Kingdom, friends – to share our faith the way farmers share their crops: by attending to their own growth and their own yields and giving of their abundance after the harvest has come in.
  • Final parable = mustard seed – text (Jesus): Consider a mustard seed. When scattered on the ground, it’s the smallest of all the seeds on the earth; but when its planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all vegetable plants. It produces such large branches that the birds in the sky are able to nest in its shade.”[9]
    • Parable = reminder that our faith and that the Kingdom of God are a work in progress → It is no secret, friends, that we are living through difficult times: political divisiveness; blatant hate crimes committed against all sorts of people based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion are higher than they’ve been in a decade; devastation caused by one natural disaster after another which point to the damage being done to our planet every minute of every day (sometimes damage that is unquestionably irreversible); gun violence and mass shootings are at an all-time high … the list goes on and on. And it’s a list that can sometimes feel so big, so overwhelming, so dark and traumatic and insurmountable that everything – EVERYTHING – pales in comparison … even God’s Kingdom and the work that God is doing among us. But then we are reminded that even the smallest scrap of life – the smallest spark, the smallest promise, the smallest seed – has the potential to grow into something big and lush and extravagant, something the provides shelter and food for all those creature who come seeking … even we creatures who sometimes don’t even know that we’re seeking. That is how big God’s Kingdom is. That is how abundant God’s Kingdom is. That is how generous God’s Kingdom is. And that is the Kingdom that is already at work – growing and nurturing and thriving in our world, even when we don’t see it or hear it or feel it. That is the good news in this text, friends. Hallelujah. Amen.



“If the Kingdom of God is in you, you should leave a little bit of heaven wherever you go.” – American philosopher and political activist Cornel West → So as you go from this place this morning, friends, go with those little bits of heaven, those little seeds of the kingdom. Plant them. Sprinkle them wherever you go, especially in the places in this world that need them the most. 

[1] Brigit Katz. “Pando, One of the World’s Largest Organisms, Is Dying” from Smithsonian Magazine, Written Oct. 18, 2018, accessed Jan. 25, 2020.

[2] Mk 1:14-15.

[3] Mk 4:10-12.

[4] Is 6:8-10.

[5] Leanne Van Dyk. “Mark 4:10-20 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 118.

[6] Mk 4:11.

[7] Mk 4:12.

[8] Mk 4:26-28.

[9] Mk 4:31-32.

Sunday’s sermon: Tearing the Roof Off

hole in the roof

Text used – Mark 2:1-22





  • “Would you like green eggs and ham?” “I do not like them, Sam-I-Am. I do not like green eggs and ham.” “Would you like them here or there?” “I would not like them here or there. I would not like them anywhere. I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-Am.” “Would you like them in a house? Would like them with a mouse?” “I do not like them in a house. I do not like them with a mouse. I do not like them here or there. I do not like them anywhere. I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-Am.”[1] → “I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-Am.” Probably one of the most recognizable protestations in all of literature, don’t you think? The poor main character of Doctor Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham (who, you may have noticed, never actually gets a name himself) spends page after page trying to rebuff Sam-I-Am’s doggedly persistent attempts to get him to try green eggs and ham.
    • Sam-I-Am asks → main character refuses
    • Sam-I-Am asks in a different location → main character refuses
    • Sam-I-Am asks with a different dining partner → main character refuses
    • Sam-I-Am asks in various forms of transportation → main character still refuses
    • Sam-I-Am asks so persistently so many times that the main character is finally worn down and responds the way many of us probably would. “Fine! If I try your blasted green eggs and ham, will you finally leave me alone?!”
    • Main character finally tries this new and crazy thing – these green eggs and ham – and he finds them … delicious! → He spent all this energy trying to avoid this new and frankly slightly disturbing thing (I mean, really … green eggs … and green ham? UGH!), and yet, when he finally gives the new things a chance, his whole perspective changes.
      • “Say! I like green eggs and ham! I do! I like them, Sam-I-Am! And I would eat them in a boat. And I would eat them with a goat. And I will eat them in the rain. And in the dark. And on a train. And in a car. And in a tree. They are so good, so good, you see! So I will eat them in a box. And I will eat them with a fox. And I will eat them in a house. And I will eat them with a mouse. And I will eat them here and there. Say! I will eat them anywhere! I do so like green eggs and ham! Thank you! Thank you, Sam I Am.”[2]
    • How many parents have used these words to urge their children to try new things, I wonder. How many grandparents, teachers, daycare providers, and others who care for little kids have tried to use Seuss’ words to coax and cajole, encourage and inspire kids to step out into the unknown? To try something new? And an even better question: how many of you have used these words on yourself – to try to get yourself to try new things? Because really, let’s be honest … it’s not just kids who are hesitant to try new things, is it?
      • “New” is the theme that threads our three micro-parables from Mark’s gospel together this morning, too → Jesus has a lot to say about “the new”
  • It was a lot to read this morning, so let’s take these micro-parables one by one. → start with the story about Jesus healing the man who was paralyzed
    • Basically, at this point in Mark’s gospel, word is starting to get out about this Jesus guy and the amazing things that he’s doing … which is why, in today’s text, Jesus finds his home suddenly engulfed by this crowd.
      • In that crowd = paralyzed man and his four buddies → buddies want to help him be healed but because there are so many people packed around Jesus’ home, they can’t get their paralyzed friend anywhere near the door
    • Friends decide to take matters into their own hands … literally! – text: They couldn’t carry him through the crowd, so they tore off part of the roof above where Jesus was. When they had made an opening, they lowered the mat on which the paralyzed man was lying.[3] → “They tore off part of the roof above where Jesus was. They tore off part of the roof.
      • Closer look: This is not one of those ambiguous Gr. words fraught with obscure meanings and multiple layers and contextual depth. – Gr. = very specific word with only one meaning (and only used in this one place in the entire Bible): “unroofed” → literally “removed the roof”
    • Change (Almost) Everything conference back in Nov. – preacher for worship was Rev. Kelly Chatman (senior pastor at Redeemer Lutheran Church and director of Redeemer’s non-profit, Redeemer Center for Life, also serves as advisor to Bishop of the Minneapolis Area Synod of the ELCA) and preached on this text: pointed out that those friends who lowered the paralyzed man down into Jesus’ presence were bold enough to alter the structure of the actual house → Y’all, these are the kinds of friends we all need, right?! This man’s friends will literally stop at nothing to get their friend the healing he needs. They didn’t just awkwardly squeeze their way through the crowd. They didn’t go knock on the back door or slip through an open window. They didn’t wait around for the crowds to disperse so they could catch Jesus at a better, more convenient time. They literally unroofed the house … Jesus’ house! They altered the physical structure of the building! As Rev. Chatman pointed out, that is not an “almost” faith. This paralyzed man’s friends unroofed Jesus’ house in order to get their friend to the one man they believed could help him … the one man they believed could help him … and that made all the difference.
      • Text: When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven!” → also a new thing: This is not the first time Jesus has healed someone in Mark’s gospel, but it is the first time he’s connected physical healing with spiritual healing … with the forgiveness of sins.
    • Pharisees in the crowd pick up on this immediately – text: Some legal experts were sitting there, muttering among themselves, “Why does he speak this way? He’s insulting God. Only the one God can forgive sins.”[4] → We said that each of these micro-parables include the theme of newness, but they all share another element as well: the Pharisees and legal experts asking a very pointed “Why” question. → Pharisees/religious authorities knee-jerk reaction to that new = BAD
      • Reveals their discomfort
      • Reveals their suspicion
      • Reveals their flat-out resistance to anything new when it comes to their culture and their faith
    • Jesus, being Jesus, never fails to call them on it, either – text: Jesus immediately recognized what [the Pharisees] were discussing, and he said to them, “Why do you fill your minds with these questions? Which is easier – to say to a paralyzed person, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take up your bed, and walk’? But so you will know that the Human One has authority on earth to forgive sins” – he said to the man who was paralyzed, “Get up, take your mat, and go home.” Jesus raised him up, and right away he picked up his man and walked out in front of everybody.[5] → I love Mark’s Jesus because he’s a very straightforward, no-time-wasted, no-words-minced, to-the-point version of Jesus.
      • REMINDER: all the gospels were written with different purposes and different audiences in mind → Mark’s gospel = gospel of immediacy
        • Shortest
        • Uses Gr. “immediately” more than 40 times (which is more than half the times it shows up in the entire NT)
      • So if this new thing that Jesus is doing here – this forgiveness of sins – isn’t amazing enough for the doubting, nitpicking Pharisees, he says, “Which is harder, saying your sins are forgiven or physically healing this man? Well, let me do both.” Mark’s Jesus is a bit of a “mic drop Jesus.” Boom. Done. God is amazing, and you don’t get it.
  • 2nd micro-parable of newness = Jesus calling another disciple
    • Idea of disciples is not new (Jesus has already called Simon, Andrew, James, and John) BUT this disciple is new not because of who he will be to Jesus but because of who he is. – text: [Jesus] saw Levi, Alphaeus’ son, sitting at a kiosk for collecting taxes. Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” Levi got up and followed him.
      • REMINDER: tax collectors were despised
        • Jews employed by the Roman empire (the conquerors/oppressors) à made them traitors to their people
        • Very often corrupt à took more money than the taxes actually were and pocketed some for themselves
      • And yet here Jesus is … calling one of Those People.
    • But because he’s Jesus, he doesn’t even stop there! – text: Jesus sat down to eat at Levi’s house. Many tax collectors and sinners were eating with Jesus and his disciples. Indeed, many of them had become his followers.[6] → So not only is Jesus accepting these scorned people as his followers, he’s actually going to their houses. He’s eating with them. He’s accepting their hospitality.
    • Pharisees’ “why” in this portion = straight and to the point – text: [The Pharisees] asked his disciples, “Why is he eating with sinners and tax collectors?”[7]
      • Jesus response speaks to a new idea as well – text: When Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners.” → This idea of the Human One (the Messiah, the Son of God, the Christ … all basically interchangeable titles) coming not for the righteous but for the unrighteous is huge.
        • Jewish idea of the Messiah at the time = warrior who would come and deliver them from the oppression of their conquerors once and for all → And clearly, such a rebellion would have to be made up of righteous people … not those despicable, two-faced, imperfect tax collectors and sinners. And yet that’s exactly who Jesus tells the Pharisees he came for: not the people who think they don’t need him but the people who know they do. Jesus makes it clear that these people are not just an afterthought but the reason for his coming in the first place.
  • 3rd newness micro-parable = probably the most complicated
    • Flips the established pattern and begins with the Pharisees’ “why” – text: “Why do John’s disciples and the Pharisees’ disciples fast, but yours don’t?”[8] → This is sort of a valid question. Fasting is an important part of many religious rituals around the world and across different faith, and Judaism is no exception. Fasting was supposed to be an act of spiritual submission and repentance. And here’s Jesus, this budding religious leader and teacher, and his disciples aren’t fasting? What gives?
    • Jesus’ response is a bit cryptic, especially for those of us so far removed from his 1st context → response comes in 3 parts
      • Metaphor of the bridegroom
      • Metaphor of the piece of new, unshrunk cloth on the old cloak
      • Metaphor of the new wine in old wineskins
      • Basically, Jesus is speaking about things coming in their own time and place. When the bridegroom is present for the wedding feast, that’s not the time to fast. When you try to add a piece of new, unshrunk cloth to an old cloak, the new piece will shrink and tear away from the old cloth. When you try to put new wine in old wineskins, the new wine wants to expand as it ferments but the old wineskins have long since lost their ability to expand. This is probably Jesus’ most profound statement on new because it makes space for the old.
        • Angela Dienhart Hancock (Assoc. Professor of Homiletics and Worship at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary): Notice: the little parables about the holey cloak and the seasoned wineskin do not make value judgments. They do not suggest that old things are bad and new things are good, and that the bad old things … ought to be scrapped in favor of the shiny new things.[9] → In using these illustrations, Jesus speaks to the ultimate purpose and intention of all this newness. He hasn’t come to do a new thing just for the heck of it. He hasn’t come to shake things up just because God was feeling bored with the world. Jesus has come to show the people a new way – a way that is broad and wide and open to so many more than the established religious leaders had ever imagined. Yes, he’s doing all these new things because they’re important. They have value and worth and significance. But they are not meant to entirely usurp the place of the old things – the old customs, the old practices, the old beliefs. They are meant to work with them … through them.
          • Harkens to Jesus’ words in Matthew’s gospel: Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them.”[10]
  • Friends, we find ourselves in this “new” time of year. There is newness all around us – a new year to remember to write on our checks and documents, new model years rolling out on car lots, new resolutions, new habits we want to adopt … you know, that whole idea of “a new year, a new you.” And anything that makes you healthier – in body, in mind, in spirit – is certainly worthwhile. Some of it might even be powerful enough to change the whole structure of your being – to tear the roof off your old habits and patterns! And of course, we cannot move forward without some “new,” right? As a culture, as a church, as individuals. But in the midst of all that newness, don’t forget to give thanks for what has been. To honor it. To make space for it. To be thankful for it. Because we cannot tear the roof of if it was never built in the first place. Amen.



May all that is unlived in you blossom into a future graced with love.
– Irish poet John O’Donohue


[1] Doctor Seuss. Green Eggs and Ham. (New York, NY: Random House Publishing), 1960.

[2] Seuss (emphasis added).

[3] Mk 2:4.

[4] Mk 2:6-7.

[5] Mk 2:8-12a.

[6] Mk 2:15 (emphasis added).

[7] Mk 2:16.

[8] Mk 2:18.

[9] Angela Dienhart Hancock. “Commentary on Mark 2:1-22” from Working Preacher, Accessed Jan. 12, 2020.

[10] Mt 5:17.

Sunday’s sermon: A Light in the Darkness

Magi - Catacombs of Priscilla

Text used – Matthew 2:1-12 (embedded within text this week)





  • Every good story starts with “once upon a time …”, even stories we’ve heard a hundred times before. And in that vein: Once upon a time, there was a corrupt and evil king, a group of wise astronomers, a vulnerable new family, and God. It’s a quest story. It’s a story of discovery and revelation. It’s a story of intrigue and deceit. It’s a story of God breaking in.
    • Literal definition of Epiphany: an appearance or manifestation of a divine being → That is what we celebrating: God appearing, God manifesting in human flesh – in the form of that tiny child in the manger that we sang about just 11 short days ago. That is what the magi came seeking: an unexplained, unexplainable manifestation of the divine that started in the appearance of that bright and unanticipated star in the heavens but led them to so much more.
    • So I want to dig into this story a little bit more this morning – this cast of characters and what they bring to the story, how they can bring an element of unexpectedness.
      • Particular lens through which we’re going to read our story this morning → I’ve been listening to a podcast recently called “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text.”[1]
        • Started by a ministry fellow and a research assistant at Harvard Divinity School
        • General idea (from the website): “explore a central theme through which to explore the characters and context, always grounding ourselves in the text” → So every week, they read discuss a chapter of one of the Harry Potter novels (and, of course, they’ve gone in order), and each weekly discussion revolves around a particular theme. They read the chapter with that theme in mind. They search out ways that the characters and plot developments embody that theme. They unearth allegories and metaphors that speak to that theme.
          • Really interesting way to encounter a familiar text with fresh eyes
      • Theme/lens through which we’re going to examine today’s familiar Scripture story = theme of homage
        • Definition of homage: respect or reverence paid or rendered; special honor or respect shown publicly something done or given in acknowledgment or consideration of the worth of another → most important elements of those definitions:
          • Paid/rendered (requires something of us → not free)
          • Publicly (not a secret, not something to be hidden/concealed)
          • Phrase “acknowledgment or consideration of the worth of another” (forces us to see something outside ourselves as having value and significance)
          • So with those ideas in mind – the idea that homage is paid, that it is public, that it names and claims the worth of another … with that lens firmly in place, let us hear the story. [READ TEXT]
  • Okay, so let’s explore these characters a bit.
    • First = magi → Interestingly enough, the magi are defined more by what we don’t know about them than what we do.
      • What Scripture doesn’t say
        • Where they’re from – only vague references that they’re “from the east” → could be Babylon, Persia, or Arabia
          • WHAT WE’VE PROJECTED ONTO IT: “We three kings of Orient are bearing gifts; we traverse afar …”
          • That being said, what the magi very certainly are are Gentiles. They are definitely not part of the people of Israel. They are “the other,” and yet in Matthew’s gospel (a gospel that, if you remember, was written specifically to speak to Jews), these Gentiles are the first to recognize and pay homage to this newborn King of Kings, this infant Prince of Peace.
            • Scholar: [What is particularly crucial … is that] Matthew begins and ends this text with strangers, that is, with Gentiles. … It means that Matthew’s [emergent] Christology affirms that fact that the Messiah’s coming is an arrival that has meaning for all people! The entry of the wise men into the sacred texts, places, and actions of the Jewish faith are for Matthew the sign that the Messiah has indeed arrived in the person of the child. God, in the child, has breached the boundaries of traditional faith, and the nations are now entering to witness this Messiah, and doing so with joy![2]
        • How many there were → Matthew never actually says how many magi traveled. – text: “Magi came from the east to Jerusalem.”[3] Because of the three gifts given, it’s been assumed throughout the centuries that there were three magi, but there certainly could have been more.
        • That they were kings → This one likely isn’t actually true.
          • Gr. “magi” = wise men, astrologers, magicians, possibly a Shaman caste of ancient Medes or Zoroastrian priests from modern-day India[4] → These would have been court scholars and advisors to kings, not the actual kings themselves.
      • What Scripture does say = they brought gifts – text: They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.[5] → interesting thing is what these gifts say, especially when we read about them through the lens of homage
        • Gold = gift for royalty, something only the wealthiest nobles would have in their possession → recognizes the Christ child as a newborn king
        • Frankincense = dried sap of the olibanum tree (native to Arabian Peninsula – Oman, Yemen, and the Horn of Africa incl. Somalia and Ethiopia)[6] and most often used as an incense during worship → recognizes the Christ child as worthy of worship and homage (yup … there’s that word again)
        • Myrrh = another resin from a plant of the same name (grown in roughly the same regions as the olibanum tree) used both as a sacred anointing oil and an oil that was used to prepare bodies for burial → hints at the sacrifice that will be required of this Christ child
    • Other major player in today’s text = King Herod → again, not a whole lot that the Bible tells us about this Herod (Herod Antipas)
      • What we do know[7]
        • Son of Herod the Great
        • Appointed by Emperor Augustus to rule over ¼ of his father’s kingdom after his father’s death → ruled over Galilee
        • Challenging family dynamics involved in this → rivalry between brothers (Herod Antipas and Herod the Great’s other sons who were also appointed regional rulers by Emperor Augustus)
          • Rivalry for territory
          • Rivalry for living up to their father’s legacy → You don’t become known as Herod the Great for no reason, so the sons had some pretty big shoes to fill in terms of building – building structures, building the country (i.e. – acquiring territory), building culture, and most importantly, building up the nation’s coffers.
        • Reign: 4 B.C.E. to 39 C.E. (almost exactly Jesus’ own lifetime)
      • Ordered the death of John the Baptist at the behest of his 2nd wife and her daughter, Salome[8]
    • What we can infer from Herod’s reaction to the magi’s visit in the text = Herod is insecure in his role and in his rule
      • Part 1 – see this in his reaction to their arrival: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.” When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him.[9]
        • Scholar pinpoints Herod’s discomfort: Herod’s title was “king of the Jews.” The simple statement by the magi seems to bring another will into play: this child is “born” to be king of the Jews, and that means Herod was not.[10]
          • Gr. speaks to that discomfort, too – “troubled” = stirred up, disturbed, thrown into confusion → Remember, Herod didn’t call the magi to him. They just showed up on his doorstep. They knew the star that had appeared heralded the birth of a new king, so of course, their first destination is the home of the current king. But Herod knew nothing about this new baby king, and it turned his whole world topsy turvy.
      • Part 2 – see this in his plotting and scheming – text: He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. … Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.”[11] → There’s that word again – honor … homage. But the “homage” that Herod wants to pay is nowhere near the homage that the magi have in mind.
        • Magis’ homage = genuine, full-bodied, and wholehearted
        • Herod’s homage = false, menacing, manipulative
          • Get a hint of this at the end of today’s text: Because [the magi] were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.[12]
          • Full impact of just how dangerous and deceitful Herod’s “homage” is in the text following today’s passage – section heading: “Murder of the Bethlehem children” (NRSV: “The Massacre of the Infants”) → Basically, Herod takes a page out of Pharaoh’s book and, in an attempt to stamp out the existence and threat of this newborn king, he orders his soldiers to kill all the male children in Bethlehem under the age of two. Unbeknownst to Herod, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph have already escaped Bethlehem for Egypt by the time this happens … but the damage is still done.
            • Scholar speaks to the heart of this reality: Matthew prepares us for a narrative to come that helps us see this Jesus in all his paradox. He is the child of promise, yet bears this promise in the midst of threat. That is not just who he is or where he is from, but where is he going.[13]
  • And this is the truth, friends. This is both the challenge and the blessing exposed by the light of this star: that the baby born, the little king heralded by its bright and brilliant presence, is indeed ono who comes to save … to bring peace … to make all things new. But the journey that lies ahead of that Christ child will not be an easy one. The magi recognized it. Herod foreshadowed it. And being on this side of the story, we know it, too. And even before the angel Gabriel visited Mary to announce the coming of this Christ child, God knew it to. God knew about the promise. And God knew about the threat. God knew who this Christ child would be and where he was from, but God also knew where he would be going. [POINT TO THE CROSS] And God came anyway. And that, friends, is truly the good news. Alleluia. Amen.




Scholar: The wisdom of the wise men was a wondering, wandering kind of wisdom that ended up in worship, in their offering homage to the wider and more wonderful Wisdom of God.[14] → And that is my hope and my prayer for you all as you go from this place today: that you go with a wondering, wandering kind of wisdom that ends in worship. So go with the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the companionship of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


[2] Susan Hedahl. “Epiphany of the Lord – Matthew 2:1-12, Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 216.

[3] Mt 2:1.

[4] “Magi” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 3. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1962), 221.

[5] Mt 2:11.

[6] Douglas Main. “What Is Frankincense?” from Life Science, Posted Dec. 24, 2012, accessed Jan. 5, 2020.

[7] “Herod Antipas in the Bible and Beyond: The rule of Galilee in Jesus’ time” from Biblical Archaeology Society, Posted June 3, 2017, accessed Jan. 5, 2020.

[8] Mk 6:14-29.

[9] Mt 2:1-3.

[10] David Schnasa Jacobsen. “Matthew 2:1-12, Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospel: Matthew, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 17.

[11] Mt 2:4, 7-8.

[12] Mt 2:12.

[13] Jacobsen, 19.

[14] Andrews, 16.