January 6, 2019
For the last time this season, on this Epiphany Sunday, we hear one of the infancy narratives of Jesus. On one hand, it serves as a transition Sunday between the childhood Jesus and the adult Jesus and his ministry. Yet, on the other, it is so much more. Epiphany, meaning to reveal or to uncover, serves to illuminate Christ, the true King of the world.
The congregation I grew up in made a big deal about Epiphany. Every year, three of the choir
members dressed up as three magi. We sang, “We Three Kings of Orient are, bearing gifts, we traverse afar. Field and fountain, moor and Mountain following yonder star.” And they would process, one by one, on their corresponding verse, with their gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. They would process slowly, with reverence and intentionality behind each step. They followed a Bethlehem star, which was hung above a nativity set, which had been placed near the front of the church, by the baptismal font, for the Christmas season. And, they laid their gifts in front of that tiny manger scene. It was a fun reenactment of the familiar story. (Even though, as I’ve come to learn, much of that familiar story relies much more on the song than the biblical text - the visitors were not kings - they were magi - likely Zoroastrian or other Gentile priests or astrologers -, and there is no mention that there three of them. But it was fun and meaningful nonetheless).
As I think about not just this story, but Jesus’ infancy narratives, in general, I wonder if we’ve romanticized it and tamed it all a bit too much. We tend to make these stories into nice, gentle retellings, complete with sweet domesticated livestock. We tend to gloss over the politics and the messiness of these passages. Especially in today’s passage, we can’t separate the arrival of the magi from the world and its politics that Jesus was born into.
The star that appeared signaled not just the birth of Jesus but also the dawning of a new Kingdom, a new regime, one that brings forth light and life out of the darkness of the rule of Rome. The light is made known as a star illuminates the way to Jesus. These gentile magi want to find this new king of the Judeans to pay him homage. Jesus’ birth has cosmic significance, as the birth is made known in the stars. These magi give gifts that are appropriate to honor a king. The arrival of the magi puts into reality, on a small scale, God’s vision of all people - Jew and Gentile - being united and enfolded into the Kingdom of God.
And Jesus’ birth has real consequences for the world in which we live. Jesus’ is a new kind of kingdom and a new kind of kingship. It is a kingdom where the human boundaries that threaten to separate us from each other - like the distinction between Jew and Gentile - disappear, and real, true, mutual relationships can be fostered and strengthened. The Gospel - the Good News of the arrival of Jesus - is political. Not partisan, but it is political in that the love of God and the grace found in this child affects all levels of society - us as individuals, our communities, and the wider world. It reorients all to the love and life found in Christ, and the birth of the Christ child calls us to live out that love found in Christ as we go about our lives in the world.
But the star also signaled this arrival to Herod - the current King of the Judeans. What is good news for some, may seem like incredibly bad news for others. The birth of Jesus is a direct threat to his own rule. Herod is frightened. For him, the birth of Christ signals not hope but destruction and an end to all that he holds dear - his own power, his own wealth, his own safety, and his own hold on the world. Herod does everything he can to extinguish the light of Christ - including, as the Gospel of Matthew tells us, massacring all the children, age 2 or less. Any competition for the throne must be eradicated, and he must keep the light from shining. And Herod, at least in his understanding of Jesus, is right. Jesus comes to challenge and to overthrow the corrupt powers that be. While Jesus didn’t assemble an army and reestablish Israel as its own sovereign nation, Jesus’ preaching, teaching, healing, his death and resurrection all serve to challenge the status quo that keeps people in bondage to the powers that be. It has significance not just for Judea, the province over which Herod was king, but for the whole world. Matthew does not hide or shy away from this brewing conflict, rather this conflict between the Kingdom of Rome (with the powers and ruler of this world) and the Kingdom of God becomes central to the Gospel of Matthew.
Karoline Lewis, this week, makes a helpful point - when people in power fear competition, it signals that they themselves know that their power and their use of power is not what it should be. His defensiveness signals a knowledge that his leadership has not lived up to his promises and to his rhetoric. His fear of a baby (to the point that he resorts to murder) signals that he’s doing everything he can to hold onto his position and his power - and all that comes with it, wealth, honor, respect (even respect out of fear). Someone who is leading well - with integrity, with morality, with the good of all the people in mind - doesn’t fear those who might complete with him. Unlike for the Romans, for Jews, the value and quality of kingship was judged not on the wealth brought into the kingdom (as put on display by building projects), but on the treatment and protection of their people, especially the people that are most vulnerable. And Herod did not live up to the standards of being the King of the Jews. If we look at the kings, the rulers of our world, I wonder if our world isn’t so far removed from that world of Herod, as much as I might hate to admit it.
Karoline further reminds us that, while we may not want to admit it, we are a bit more like Herod than what we might like to acknowledge. Hearing the call to give up our own safety and security (whether that comes with from our money, our status in society, or the barriers - physical and metaphoric- that we put up between ourselves and our neighbors - whatever makes us feel “safe”) for the sake of doing God’s work with our own hands is not an easy call. We’re called to give up power and privilege and lift up the most vulnerable. It isn’t easy. It means putting the good of others and the wider world before my individual wants (and I’m not always good at that - it is the turned-in-on-self sinful nature that Martin Luther talks about so deeply. For him, that is the basic definition of sin. It isn’t an individual action, but rather humanity’s nature to be so inward focused. It is that piece of ourselves that puts our own joy, our own pleasure, etc. above other people’s pain, hardship, and danger).
The Good news this morning is that the light of Christ is not extinguished despite our efforts and the efforts of the world to do so. Herod’s plot to destroy Christ fails. The Magi defy Herod and turn back to their home country another way. The attempt of the Empire to destroy Christ by crucifying him fails, as we encounter the empty tomb on Easter morning. The light of Christ is persistent - nothing, not even death can extinguish it, and that light shines brighter than our sin and the sins of the world. Jesus - the God-with-us - is here and is here to stay, as the Gospel of Matthew makes clear. And that light of Christ shines on us, on our turned in on self selves. Christ loves us, grants us grace, mercy, and forgiveness - so that we are able to turn outward and participate in God’s vision for the world. In Christ, God uses us, turned-in-on self sinners, to carry the light of Christ to our neighbor, to love all people as Christ has loved us, to break down the walls that divide us from our neighbor, to forgive those who have brought us harm, to resist this world and its rulers wherever and whenever it goes astray, and to witness to the breaking in of the Kingdom of God wherever we may find it.