desire of nations

Sermon: Matthew 2:1-12

January 6, 2019: Epiphany!

During Advent, our Sunday school class has been paying a lot of attention to a single hymn: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

This familiar hymn has its roots in an ancient prayer practice called the O Antiphons. In traditions that hold to what’s called the “liturgy of the hours” or “fixed hour prayers,” the O Antiphons are special additions to Vespers, or the evening prayers for the seven days leading up to Christmas Eve. They date to the 6th century, and each antiphon is a name of the Messiah, taken from prophecies in the book of Isaiah.

You know all the names, because you know the hymn:

O Wisdom, O Lord, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Dayspring, O King of the Nations, O Emmanuel.

For folks who pray the O Antiphons daily during the week leading up to Christmas, they are calling on the name of the Lord in a different way every evening.

Some of the names are familiar – Emmanuel means, of course, God-with-us. Some are a little more obscure: the Root of Jesse comes from Isaiah’s prophecy about the coming Messiah in chapter 11: “In that day the Root of Jesse will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.” Isaiah was prophesying that the Messiah would come from the lineage of King David – Jesse, remember, was David’s father, and also the grandson of Ruth and Boaz.

Each antiphon, each name of the Messiah, is connected to a passage from Isaiah, and each name illuminates a different part of Jesus’ identity, as the gospel writers and early Christians understood it.

This tiny baby, the Messiah, came to be understood as the fulfillment of prophecy, God incarnate, such a complicated mystery that it takes multiple names with multiple histories to even begin to try to understand who Jesus was, and is.

Jesus is the personification of Wisdom.

Jesus is the promised Messiah who will come from the lineage of David, and Jesse.

Jesus is the Light that dawns in the East, shining on all those who have sat in deep darkness.

Jesus is the one who will unlock the doors to heaven, unbind the slave and set the captives free.

Jesus is God, come to be WITH us.

Jesus is ALL of these – and more.

One of the antiphons that we didn’t get to study in Sunday school is, in our hymn, the verse that goes:

O come, Desire of Nations, bind

in one the hearts of all mankind;

bid every strife and quarrel cease

and fill the world with heaven’s peace.

This is the Desire of Nations, or the King of Nations, or, in Latin, Rex Gentium.

This antiphon comes from Isaiah’s prophecy in chapter 2:

In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
3     Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
4 He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

This particular identity of Jesus was – is? – the one that made people mad. In today’s text, King Herod was especially resistant to welcoming a new King, especially one who would judge all the nations and put an end to war.

King Herod was appointed, not elected, to rule over Galilee as the representative of Rome, and his reign was violent. He was an insecure leader, and the first thing he did was to execute Hyrcanus. Herod took all kinds of security measures to ensure his rule: he used secret police to monitor the opinions of his subjects; he tried to prohibit protests of his policies; he had his opponents removed by force. He maintained a bodyguard of 2,000 personal soldiers.

Herod was a big-time builder. During his reign, he spent millions on building the Temple Mount, a huge harbor at Caesarea, and massive fortresses. The money to build all this came from heavy taxation.

Herod was the king of Judea, a region filled with Jewish people, but he had a lot of trouble understanding the Jewish way of life. He was loyal not to the people, but to Rome: when he built the huge new Temple, he put a giant golden eagle at the entrance, refused to listen to the Pharisees when they explained how it needed to be built – to scripture’s specifications, and replaced the high priests with outsiders from Babylonia.

When Herod died, violent riots consumed Jerusalem – all the dissatisfaction of the oppressed boiling over.

This was the King who received strange visitors from the East one day, visitors who confessed to him that they had seen a new star rising that indicated a child had been born, destined to be King of the Jews.

Herod was not respectful of Jewish law and scripture, so there’s no telling whether or not he knew about Isaiah’s prophecy that this King was not only King of the Jews but actually the King of Kings, the one who would judge between nations, bring justice and righteousness to all people, the one who would cause all wars and all oppression to cease. IF he HAD read that passage, I suspect Herod would have been INCENSED and foregone his rather measured response to the magi in favor of one of our modern, presidential rage-filled tweet storms.

Really, can’t you just see the Twitter feed?

The Jews have a CHILD for a king? SAD!

I am the only KING in this country. For “wise” men, those guys sure are DUMB.


Melchoir is a FAKE. His last astronomy prediction was TOTAL BUNK. Heard he can’t tell a star from a moon.

Only HEROD could have built that beautiful TEMPLE. Don’t tell me some other BABY KING is going to do THAT.

Herod was right to be mad. All the prophecies pointed to a Messiah who would rule over every earthly king and kingdom, a Messiah whose power would be not only the kind of divinity that humans created and bestowed upon their royalty, but actual, heavenly divinity – god incarnate.

heqi magi

He Qi, The Magi

And the kind of King that Jesus was – is – would be VERY different than the kind of King that Herod was. Herod ruled as a pawn of the Roman Empire – everything he did was specifically calibrated so that he could continue to rule over the Jews in Judea – cruel enough but not so cruel that revolution fomented – while remaining in the good graces of Rome.

His thirst for power kept him constantly on the lookout for anyone who might challenge his reign. That’s why Matthew tells us that after the magi went home without telling Herod where this new king was, he instigated what we call the “Slaughter of the Innocents,” commanding that all children in and around Bethlehem who were under the age of two be killed.

I read this text last year, and Herod sounded really familiar. I read it again this year, and even more of that time felt like this time. We also live in a time when rulers are mad for power, when poor people are taxed beyond their livelihood, when strongmen build impossible structures just to have their names on them, when leaders are in thrall to Empire and responsive to money instead of people.

We live in a time when children are being sacrificed in order for leaders to retain their power – in the last several weeks, as we prepared for Christmas, two children died while in custody of the US Customs and Border Patrol: 7 year old Jakelin Caal Maquin died on December 8 and 8 year old Felipe Alonzo-Gomez died on Christmas Eve.

Sometimes, reading the news in America in 2019 feels hopeless. The horrors just keep coming. But reading the story of Jesus’ birth is hopeful in more ways than one. All those names of the Messiah – all those different, mysterious identities of Jesus – they become even more relevant.

In an article last month, Rev. William Barber wrote about Herod:

The spirit of Herod still lives…And yet, it was in the time of Herod that God began preparing the way for Jesus and for deliverance. This is the good news of Christmas in the time of Herod. In the face of our enemies and in the midst of our problems, God shows up to set us free. There is no “peace on earth and good will to all people” apart from the angels who showed up to tell migrant farm workers that their Savior had been born. There is no “joy to the world” apart from the message that politics of Herod’s are numbered and a new politics is getting born. We who would celebrate the new born King should consider what it means that we wait to hear the angels sing in the time of Herod. In fact, maybe the point of the text is that we must choose love, truth, mercy, and justice. We must embrace the politics of God and reject the politics of Herod.1


What does it mean for us, today, to embrace the politics of God and reject the politics of Herod? What does it mean for us to follow the Prince of Peace, to live as his disciples, the ones who

beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;

the ones who believe that

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.


Herod did not win. Oh, yes, he reigned on for a few more years after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and his sons divided his territory. But Herod’s reign was not powerful enough to stop the coming of the Messiah, the King of Kings, the Desire of Nations. Even Herod’s paranoia, violence and oppression did not stop God’s plan to arrive on earth, to offer deliverance. “Even,” Barber says, “int eh face of our enemies and in the midst of our problems, God shows up to set us free.”

I am always struck by the magi’s decision to go home by another way – to refuse to return to Herod, to resist the Empire’s consuming power and worship, instead, this baby in a barn.

This is the call for those of us who have promised to follow Jesus today: we cannot ignore the Herods, but we need not bow to them. We cannot pretend that the terror of Herods’ reigns does not exist, but we need not participate in them.


Herod is not our King. Jesus is. Praise God.


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