January 5, 2020
Not surprisingly on this Epiphany Sunday our second reading is the story of the Magi from Matthew’s gospel. Last Sunday we heard the second half of this story… how the Magi’s visit results in the infuriated Herod’s order to murder all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under. Warned in a dream, Joseph flees Bethlehem ahead of time… taking his wife and young child to Egypt to stay there until Herod dies.
This morning we hear how the story begins with the Magi first arriving in the wrong place. Listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you from the gospel according to Matthew.
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To borrow the words from our denominational website… “Epiphany is the celebration of God’s manifestation or self-revelation to the world in Jesus Christ. In particular, we celebrate the revelation of God’s promise and purpose to the nations of the world, as the magi came from the East to worship the Christ child, and God’s covenant of grace is extended to all who believe the good news of Christ Jesus. The symbolism of light is important: not only because of the star that guided the magi, but as it relates to the bright dawning of God’s self-revelation in Christ.”
This story clearly begins with everyone being in the dark. The Wise Men go to Jerusalem assuming that would be the place where this newly born king would be found. They were astrologers after all… and there’s only so much that the stars can tell you. Herod and his advisers are taken by surprise by the news… none of them aware of any divine revelation… none of them are likely seeking a divine revelation. There is the resulting fear… but not the sort of respectful fear… the kind of awareness that should come with the idea that God is active… that God is in your midst. The fear of Herod’s court is the usual run of the mill fear. Fear that something is going to take away their place of power and privilege. That’s what fuels Herod’s scheme to lie to the Wise Men… an interesting sentence to say… to lie to the Wise Men… and try to trick them into revealing the child so that it can be easily eliminated… God’s active Emanuel self-revelation or not.
At its most basic… this story is about having an epiphany that leads to some manner of faith. Having an epiphany in the general sense of the word… having that sudden realization… that sudden intuitive leap of understanding that… as the story puts its… sends you off down another road. That’s always my favorite line in this story there at the end… they left for their own country by another road. The Magi come to the wrong place by the wrong road… but after finding the child and delivering their gifts… they leave for their own country by another road. There’s a nice poetry to it… a poetry that encourages the hope of some manner of epiphany between their arriving and their returning home. The Magi got wise so to speak… and didn’t blindly fall for Herod’s dishonesty. Hopefully there was something there before the dream warning them about what was going on. I have to hope that the Magi weren’t so blind that they would have gone back to Herod had it not been for this dream.
So, of course, I’d like to say more about the Magi and what may have been their epiphany in visiting the holy family in Bethlehem… but the story doesn’t give us much in the way of narrative details. They may have gotten wise and did not return to Herod… but, in the story, they don’t warn Joseph about the intrigue happening in Jerusalem. The Magi don’t tell him anything about the fear they encountered at Herod’s court in Jerusalem or their suspicions. An angel in a dream tells Joseph to flee in the night. Truthfully, we know nothing more about the Magi once they leave. We never hear from them again in Matthew’s gospel story. It’s interesting to me that we have a special day on our liturgical calendar to celebrate the gospel going out among the Gentiles… and there is no real idea of what gospel message the Wise Men may have encountered there in Bethlehem.
Now Herod… we know much more about him. A quick trip to the Encyclopedia Britannica tells us how it was Herod’s father who placed him on the throne. We can read about his backing from the powers in Rome. I thought it was interesting how the Encyclopedia talked about how Herod built many fortresses, aqueducts, and other public buildings during his time and generally raised the level of prosperity in the land. He was behind the building of great cities in the area such as the port city of Caesarea. He rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem… expanding the outside courtyard area to cover 35 acres of land… making the Temple a site to behold… which I’m sure solidified his place among the Sadducees and priests whose power and authority was based around the Temple. So some of the religious authorities likely backed Herod because he was good for them. Herod in his time was a real power broker… getting things done as we would expect from a ruler.
But… Herod is not remembered for any of that outside of his entries in encyclopedias or other history books. Herod is generally remembered as a tyrant. He is remembered as the person whose paranoia grew to the point that he assassinated his wife and members of his and her family. He is remembered as a man of low moral character with the kind of principles that while perhaps working in the short-term… leave a long-term stain on humanity. Herod is the darkness that the light of Christ shines against. Herod is the real contrast here to the self-revelation of God… and what God would promise and purpose for the nations of the world.
What dulls our epiphany of faith is that while we can agree that Herod is morally corrupt… while his actions of assassination and the killing of children show the true nature of his character… Herod gets things done. Herod lifts the economy of the region. Herod puts people to work with many public works. Herod is able to use his connections to the powers in Rome in a way that make life around us a little better. Is the trading of our principles for the benefits that come with the darkness… is that worth it? There’s the question that makes us wonder about God’s promise and purpose. Which is more important to us? Ought we not seek some manner of balance between our principles and what we can gain by turning away from those principles? At what point does our gain become so distasteful that we need to move the pendulum back toward our principles… or is there ever a moment when gain actually becomes distasteful? Principles will say there are times when gain is not the greatest good. Maybe it’s only when the darkness arrives at our door do principles become more important than gain.
What the Magi encountered at the home of Joseph and Mary is left to our imaginations. How we might tell that story ourselves reveals so much. We know they didn’t encounter a grandly built palace like the one in Jerusalem where they first assumed they would find a newly born king. The home of a working tradesman was much more modest. There may have been the story Joseph shared with the Magi… the story of another dream where he was told this child would one day save his people from their sins. Did Joseph tell them the story of why he named the child Jesus… why he dared to oppose the convention of the law to name and claim this child as his own? Again… on the other hand Herod was a successful and sinful king. The contrast couldn’t be more clear. Whatever happened in that home… the Magi listened to the dream that told them to reject Herod… chose what God was doing through that child… and went home by another road.
On this day when we celebrate Epiphany in the year 2020… what choices will be make in the coming days? What road will we choose? And how will God’s promise and purpose for the nations reveal itself? Amen.