In 2018, as in every year, leaders made a difference. Our country is divided in its opinion of President Trump, but we’re in agreement that, for better or for worse, he’s made a big difference in the political landscape and America’s place in the world. Companies are closely identified with their leaders. What would the world be like today if Mark Zuckerberg hadn’t invented The Facebook when he was in college? But in 2018 we discovered that Zuckerberg’s invention isn’t an unmitigated good. He had to defend himself and the company before Congress and in the court of public opinion. In sports it was obvious that it makes a difference who’s in charge. It looked like the Ravens were doomed to lousy season when Joe Flacco was injured, but up stepped Lamar Jackson and now they’re in the playoffs.
It’s an old debate among historians: Does the person shape the times or do the times make the person? Personalities aren’t the only things that shape events, but it makes a difference who’s in charge. Just look at the three kinds of kings we read about in today’s gospel lesson.
King Herod had the kind of authority we usually think of when we hear the word power. He had armies at his disposal. He could make anyone in Judea do whatever he wanted. He had wealth. He taxed at his pleasure. He was in charge. Nobody told King Herod what to do.
Power like Herod’s, power based on force and coercion, has lots of appeal. Sometimes it’s necessary to deal with threats to safety and security from those who would harm us. We always want our police officers to be better armed than the criminals. We want our armed forces to have the best equipment possible to give them an edge over our enemies. But we have to be careful about our fascination with the power of force and coercion. It can be intoxicating. There’s a certain thrill that comes with the immediate effects of being able to impose your will on someone else by force. But that kind of power doesn’t last. Smart leaders know that. One of the reasons that New York is now one of the safest cities in the nation is because of the kind of community policing that its police commissioner Bill Bratton introduced. Rather than working out of fortified bunkers like Fort Apache in the Bronx, officers walk their beats, mingle with the people, build trust, and use force only as a last resort.
The great strength of our country is that it isn’t founded on the power of coercive force. We use it for self-defense, but our nation is founded on principles of freedom and democracy. We know that coercive power, for all its immediate gratification, is limited. Those who use force in our behalf like police officers and the military are under the authority of civilians who are elected by the people. Leaders like Herod who impose their will by force, and after him dictators and tyrants throughout history, have caused immense suffering and death, but that kind of power doesn’t last. The pages of history are filled with the stories of empires that rose on the strength of their armies but fell because that kind of power has its limits.
So the first kind of king in the story we read today is the one whose authority is based on raw power. The second kind of king in the story is the magi. Matthew doesn’t really say they were kings. He doesn’t even tell us there were three; he just tells us the three kinds of gifts they brought to Bethlehem. But these men were regal. In order to afford gold, frankincense and myrrh they must have been as wealthy as kings. And they certainly knew something about leadership. They knew their own limits and realized they needed someone greater than themselves to lead them. The magi were looking for someone worthy of their obedience and praise, someone whom they could trust, a ruler who wouldn’t let them down.
The magi found that king because they studied the stars. There’s something about gazing at the stars that puts everything in a different perspective. The magi knew from spending so much of their lives looking outward into the vast reaches of the universe that there was something other than themselves at the center of creation. The magi knew which stars rose when and how they journeyed across the sky. They had studied their patterns and knew from watching the heavens that there was someone greater than they who put the galaxies in motion and ordered their movements. The magi were looking for the right kind of king. So when they saw his star, they headed for Judea.
The magi were polite to Herod. They respected his kind of power. When they passed through his capital, they stopped in and asked his help in finding the king they were looking for. But they didn’t obey him. They didn’t return to Jerusalem on their way home and tell him what he asked them to find out. They knew the limits of Herod’s kind of power.
What the magi were looking for, what made them wise men, was a third kind of king. This king was completely different from Herod. His power was a different kind, a kind that wasn’t based on the construction of alliances or the manipulation of force. It didn’t depend on the ability to impose his will on others. Jesus’ power comes from some place else. Its source is the same as the power the magi saw when they looked at the stars.
This king didn’t have any swords or riches to back him up. He didn’t need fear to make people fall at his feet. Nature worshiped him at his birth. Herod had to coerce people to honor him, but the stars changed their course for Jesus.
For this king, for Jesus, the poor and the needy weren’t helpless subjects to squeeze dry. This kind of king was the one the Psalmist described, the one who “delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.” This king “has pity on the weak and needy. He redeems their life from oppression and violence.” His power wasn’t something he seized by force; it was something given to him to spread the goodness and the love of God.
And his power isn’t limited the way Herod’s was. It is a power that lasts as long as the sun and moon endure. It is not confined to one lifetime, because he overcame death that brings an end to all human power. Death was Herod’s greatest ally. The threat of death is what tyrants like Herod use to get their way, but death couldn’t coerce Jesus. When Herod sought to kill the newborn king, God led the infant Jesus to Egypt. 33 years later when he was nailed him to a cross, Jesus conquered death once and for all on Easter morning.
Jesus was the king the wise men worshiped. They recognized him as the true king because he is the one who has true power, the power of God that made the world. Where every other kind of power has its limits, Jesus’ power does not. When he rules our lives, it changes who we are and what we do.
We’re here this morning because Jesus is the right kind of king, the ruler who reigns not through coercion but through that most powerful force in the universe, love. We are here because he is the one who presides over the course of the galaxies. He is the one who guides and directs our lives. He is the one who hosts us at his table where he feeds us with spiritual food and drink. He is the head of this church, the one who has called us together to worship him, to study him, and to serve the world on his behalf. The wise men found their way to him and laid their most precious treasures before him. We don’t have to search or take a long journey to find him. He has found us. He is here. He rules the galaxies and the course of history. Does he rule your life?