A Tale of Three Kings

December 19, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment


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Growing up, one of my favorite yuletide carols was “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”  The lilting melody and encomium to the “star of wonder” and its “perfect light” captured my imagination.  So you can imagine my disappointment when I learned that, at least from a historical perspective, this beloved song is probably all wrong.  The men who came to visit Jesus from far away were not kings, they were astrologers.  They also were probably not from the Orient, but instead from Babylon.  And although we assume that there were three of them because of the number of gifts they brought, we do not know this for sure.  There could have been more or fewer.

Even if the the song is wrong about the astrologers who come to visit Jesus, the Christmas story nevertheless does involve three kings.   The first is a king who sits on a throne in Rome.  His name is Caesar Augustus.  He received the name Augustus as an honorary title from the Roman senate thanks to, according to his own account, his “virtue, mercy, justice, and piety.”[1]  What a king Augustus must have been.

At the first waterfall of the Nile River, there is an inscription lauding Augustus that reads:

The emperor, ruler of oceans and continents, the divine father among men, who bears the same name as his heavenly father – Liberator, the marvelous star of the Greek world, shining with the brilliance of the great heavenly Savior.[2]

As it turns out, Caesar Augustus was hailed not only as a king, but as a divinity.  And it is this king who lifts his finger to issue a decree for a census that sends the whole world, including a couple of peasants from Nazareth, scrambling:

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.  So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. (Luke 2:1, 3-5)

The second king of the Christmas story is local ruler named Herod the Great.  He too received a prestigious title from the Roman senate: “the king of the Jews.”  Though his title was more baronial than Caesar’s supernatural titles, he was also proud of his position and fiercely sought to protect it regardless of the cost.  He became exceedingly paranoid that those around him were jockeying for his throne so, one by one, he had them executed.  First it was his brother-in-law, Aristobulus III, who Herod ordered drown.  Then it was another brother-in-law, Kostobar.  He even executed two of his own sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, accusing them of high treason.  Herod’s murderous rampages became so infamous that Caesar Augustus is said to have once remarked, “I’d rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.”

Considering Herod’s insecurities, it is no surprise that when a group of astrologers from a faraway land come to Herod and ask him, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2), Herod impulsively and impetuously gives “orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi” (Matthew 2:16).

This leads us to the third king in the Christmas story – the newborn king about which the Magi ask.  When Jesus was born, He certainly didn’t look like a king.  And yet, He inaugurated a kingdom that endures to this day, as a walk inside one of what are literally millions of churches will indicate.

Whether or not you believe Him to be an eternal king, Jesus is someone with whom everyone must grapple.   Caesar Augustus grapples with Jesus by means of indifference.  He didn’t know anything of Jesus and didn’t care to.  He was, after all, a much more important figure than some impoverished infant sleeping in straw in Bethlehem.  But what Caesar couldn’t have imagined is that it wouldn’t be his kingship that would eventually be celebrated with a worldwide holiday, it would be Jesus’ birth.  It would not be Jesus who would become Caesars’ footnote in history, it would be Caesar who became Jesus’ footnote.  We would nary talk about Caesar Augustus this time of year – or any time of year – were it not for Jesus.  Caesar’s indifference falls in the face of Jesus’ kingdom.

Herod the Great grapples with Jesus in a different manner – by that of hostility.  He hates Jesus and seeks to have Him killed.  But not only does he fail, he fails miserably.  Joseph takes his family and escapes to Egypt before Herod’s executioners can get to the child.  Herod fails to end Jesus’ life as a child even as Pontius Pilate ultimately fails to finish Him off as an adult, as the story of Easter so gloriously reveals.  Herod’s hostility, then, falls in the face of Jesus’ kingdom.

Though two millennia have passed, the reactions to Jesus’ kingship have not changed.  Many people treat the celebration of Christmas – at least the part that involves Jesus’ birth – with a mild indifference, a distant secondary feature of a holiday that primarily consists of the niceties of parties, decorations, and, of course, plenty of presents.  Others treat the story of the nativity with outright hostility – incensed that a holiday that has such blatantly Christian overtones would still be embraced and thought of as Christian by what should be an enlightened secular West.  But Christmas marches on.  And the fact that it does says something about Jesus’ kingdom.  It does not and will not fail or fall because of our responses to it.  Either it will endure for us and be a solace of salvation, or it will endure in spite of us and become an edict of execration.  Which way will it endure for you?  That’s the question of Christmas.

I hope you have an answer.

_______________________________

[1] Caesar Augustus, The Deeds of the Divine Augustus, Thomas Bushnell, trans., par. 34.

[2] Ethelbert Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars (Eugene:  Wipf and Stock, 1952), 99.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Mona  |  December 19, 2016 at 12:04 pm

    In one of our devotions (from Lutheran Indian Ministries) this morning we read that the Magi were: Magicians, Sorcerers, Astrologists and practitioners of black arts who relied on demonic their skills. We’d never heard this about “The Three Wise Men” before and it gave us pause for thought. Would you have described them in this way? The writer was: Rev. Robert Gebel from Milwaukee WI.

    Reply

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