Shall I play for you?

News 2 reported on Thursday that the extreme cold has killed 10 people in Nashville within the last month. According to Dr. Li, the Chief Medical Examiner for Nashville, that number could grow because 15 people were found dead outside in the cold, and they are still investigating 5 of those cases. The majority of the people he has examined are homeless.[1]

I’m sharing this sad statistic because no other news outlet in our city has reported it. I’m also sharing it to remind us again that opening the doors to our Fellowship Hall on a cold night is a life-saving ministry. On behalf of the whole congregation, I thank those of you who gave of your time to host a group of fourteen Room in the Inn guests on Wednesday. The most precious gifts we have to offer are our time and attention, and I’m grateful for each of you. Hosting fourteen guests for one night may feel insignificant in a city where thousands of men, women, and children are homeless but it matters greatly to those fourteen and to each of you who prepared meals, made beds, and created a place of warm welcome for them. Yes, we need more affordable housing options in Nashville, and they will only be built when more of us understand how great the need truly is. But it’s not just a matter of civic responsibility; it’s about worship.

A few years ago, a man was found dead early one morning in East Nashville. Temperatures that night had dipped into the mid 20s, and police said he most likely died from hypothermia. His name was James Fulmer, and he was 50 years old. The man who notified police of his death, was also homeless and had just met him the night before. “He had no blanket, no nothing,” he said. “I went … to the Family Dollar store to buy a blanket to cover him up with, cause that’s what the good Lord says to do, you know.”[2] His name was Wilford Gold. Wilford went to the Family Dollar store to buy a blanket for James, something to cover him up with. Cause that’s what the good Lord says to do. With that simple, beautiful gesture, Wilford Gold extended the kingdom of the good Lord.

There’s a song we hear in the malls during the weeks before Christmas, the song of the little drummer boy. We hum along as he sings, “I have no gift to bring, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum, that’s fit to give the king, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum…” And eventually the boy asks, “Shall I play for you?” And of course it’s all about for whom we choose to play. It’s all about which king we honor with our song and our time and attention, and whose kingdom we choose to serve with our gifts.

A long, long time ago, in the days of king Solomon, Jerusalem was the capital of a great kingdom. Solomon’s fame had spread far and wide, even to the coasts of Africa. The Queen of Sheba came to Jerusalem with caravans of camels bearing spices, gold, and precious stones. And not just her, traders and merchants, all the kings of Arabia and the governors of the land brought gifts and tribute to Solomon, the great king who excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom.[3]

Generation after generation, Israel’s children sat in the laps of their parents and grandparents, begging them to tell them stories about good king Solomon, the wise king. And for hundreds of years, the stories became richer in detail and fuller in color, because wise kings were rare, and because for centuries the kings of the nations didn’t come to Jerusalem to bring treasure, but to carry it away.

And then came the day, when there was nothing left to take away. The king of Babylon and his armies looted and destroyed the city, and took many of the people into exile. For two generations in exile, Jerusalem was only a memory. Then the first groups began to return, after the king of Persia had conquered the Babylonian empire. But it wasn’t the great homecoming they had envisioned.

The once proud nation was now but a tiny province on the fringe of yet another empire, this time Persia, and many of its people still lived far away by the rivers of Babylon. Most buildings in the city were destroyed, the economy was in a shambles, the temple lay in ruins, and the community was divided. Who would repair the city walls? Who would rebuild the temple? And who would pay for it? The initial excitement about the possibilities of a new beginning soon wore off, but then the words of the prophet summoned them from despair to hope:

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. … Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. … the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. … they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.[4]

There are two quite distinct ways to hear these lines from Isaiah. One way is to hear that the tables are finally starting to turn: Jerusalem had been small, weak, and poor for so long, but now, now they would be great, they would be strong, they would be rich they would be greater, stronger and richer than all the other nations. Now their city would be a hub of the global economy; sky-high office towers, business headquarters, and hotels would line the streets of downtown, and wealth would flow to the city from the ends of the earth: the whole world would be centered in Jerusalem.

The other way to hear the prophet’s words follows the same script, but with a different voice and a different hope: Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. Let your life together reflect this glory. Shine with hope, and the nations will be drawn to your light  the whole world will gather to be part of God’s future.

It matters greatly how we envision a kingdom of peace and prosperity. Matthew tells us that in the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem. We don’t know much about them, these visitors from far away lands who came to Jerusalem to pay homage to the newborn king of the Jews. And because we know almost nothing about them, we have long let our imaginations take wing.

Matthew gave us an almost blank canvas, and we gladly filled it with rich, colorful detail. First we looked at the map, and we listed all the lands East of Jerusalem – Arabia, Babylon, Persia, India, China – from how far East did they come, these wise ones? Then we looked at the gifts they brought – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Very expensive gifts, not the kind of stuff you can pick up at the market on your way but didn’t Isaiah sing about gold and frankincense, and didn’t he sing about kings? That was when, in our imagination, they began to look like kings, royal visitors bearing royal gifts, and because three gifts are mentioned, we determined that there must have been three of them. That was when we started singing songs like We Three Kings From Orient Are, but our hunger for detail wasn’t satisfied yet. How did they get from the East to Jerusalem? Certainly they did not walk all the way but wait, didn’t Isaiah sing of a multitude of camels? Sometime in the Middle Ages, we named the three Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, and we saw them riding high on their camels, with more camels carrying their treasure chests. With passing centuries, the stories of the wise men from the East became ever more colorful and elaborate – and all because of the child whose star they had observed and followed. This child arouses in us a holy extravagance of story, image, song, and gift. The nations are coming to the light that has dawned, and the travelers from the East represent all of them we come from Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, and the Americas: the whole world is gathering to pay homage to the newborn king. Matthew gives us but a hint or two, and we let our imagination run and leap, because this child is the good Lord, born to bring us all together in the kingdom of God, in a city where no man, woman, or child is left outside.

What about the other king? Imagine King Herod’s face when his staff informed him that visitors of considerable wealth and status were entering the city. He already liked hearing his underlings refer to him as Herod the Great, but imagine the satisfaction in his eyes and the regal pace with which he made his way to the palace window to see his own majesty and greatness reflected in the very important visitors from far away. They had come from distant lands to meet him and pay homage, to admire the magnificent building projects under way in the city he was Herod the Great, King of the Jews, the most important person in the realm, the greatest of kings since Solomon, was he not? Imagine his face when they asked him where they might find the newborn king of the Jews. To say it fell would be a gross understatement. The glory of God had risen, not upon Herod’s palace, but a little ways to the south, upon a dusty little hill town called Bethlehem.

You see, the story is not about three kings, but about two, Herod and Jesus. The contrast between their kingdoms runs through the whole gospel, all the way to this year and this city and our life in it. It matters greatly which king we honor with our song and our time and attention. It matters greatly whose kingdom we choose to serve with our gifts. Wilford Gold brought a blanket to honor the good Lord. The gospel is all about which king you will ask, with reverence and hope, “Shall I play for you?”




[3] See 1 Kings 10:1-25

[4] Isaiah 60:1-6

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