January 3, 2020
Although officially this coming Wednesday, today we celebrate Epiphany with the reading of the story of the Magi from Matthew’s gospel chapter two. Listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you today.
READ Matthew 2:1-12
Every year we celebrate Epiphany as part of our annual journey through the Christian liturgical year.. Every year we read this story about the Magi and Herod’s evil intentions that come after being surprised at their arrival. Every year I feel the pressure to talk about the star that gets followed… or at least possible meanings behind the gifts that get brought as though they are the most important pieces to this story in Matthew. And yet, every year I am hooked by the last verse of the passage… how these Wise Men return home by another road. I can’t seem to get away from it. The idea of returning by another road… that has come to symbolize Epiphany for me.
At the beginning of the story, these Wise Men travel… following a star with a certain set of expectations of where that star will lead them and what they will find… and by the end of the story, those expectations are gone… their wisdom did not lead them to the expected results, but something very different… and so now changed by their experience… now having gained a different wisdom by their experience… they return home by a different road.
Whether they misinterpret or simply assume where this star in their astrological charts is supposed to lead them… the Magi first travel to Jerusalem… right into the buzzsaw that is the machinations of Herod’s politics. All those pictures of the Magi going straight to the manger in Luke’s gospels and presenting their gifts there… that’s not how the story goes. That story of the Magi showing up and gathering with the shepherds around the manger… that is a nicer story to tell at Christmas time… and I can understand why we’ve made that scene a mainstay of our Christmas iconography… but it is not the story Matthew is telling. Matthew tells a much darker tale. These Wise Men are not prepared for such darkness… they are not prepared for what they find in Jerusalem… what to them is the logical place to find a newly born king of the Jews. Their star charts and astrological wisdom doesn’t prepare them for the total lack of decency in Herod’s palace. The lack of moral standards and evil being worked. The officials and enablers of Herod’s court are taken by surprise by the arrival of the Magi… wrapped up as they are in their own plans and schemes. Not one is there to do anything else but support Herod. So talk of a Messiah… the idea of anyone who is not connected to the name Herod filling the throne… is so outside of their field of vision… their sycophantic range of knowledge and expertise… that the chief priests and scribes need to be consulted… the chief priests and scribes must bring them the knowledge of God… a knowledge that has no place within the reign of Herod.
And then the message of that knowledge is ignored. The information about the Messiah… about what God may be doing in their midst… that information gets ignored and cast aside because it is not useful to the glorification of Herod. What is useful to them is the information about when and where… information that they can use to thwart the coming Messiah of God. I mean you’ve got to love the underlying sinful human arrogance that makes this story work. The chief priests and the scribes tell the court God’s intentions. Speak the words of the prophet Micah… and you know, Micah had good words… words that this court really needed to hear and abide by… words that would take them towards God and perhaps even open them to transformation through the Spirit… but instead the court of Herod says to themselves… yeah, what God has planned… what God is doing… that’s not going to work for us.
Herod takes the information about where the Messiah is to be born and then lies easily to the Magi. Lies to use them for his own ends. Lies to cover what is his true murderous intentions concerning this newborn Messiah. The idea of Herod paying homage to anyone but himself is ridiculous. The news of a Messiah doesn’t change him in the least… dangerous narcissist that he is. Where’s the need for a Messiah when Herod is there to rule and reign… to be adored and worshipped. God either needs to get with the plan… or God needs to get out of the way. The fear that arises in Jerusalem is not the fear of the Lord… not the respect and awe of witnessing God at work in the world at the moment… the fear that arises is the fear of the loss of power and influence and all the perks that come along with that. Maybe… just maybe buried somewhere deep within those on the court of Herod is the knowledge that they are standing on the wrong side of God. Maybe.
When I think about these Wise Men… they seem so ill equipped for their encounter with Herod… standing around with their silly gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These gifts mean nothing to the people who have the keys to the treasury. Still… I will admit I did look again for the line in Matthew’s story that had Herod wanting to take their gifts anyway… not that he needed them… or that they would enrich him in anyway… but simply because it was something he didn’t have but felt he deserved as his greed would kick in. But that line still wasn’t there in the story this year. Maybe some year it will show up.
But I digress.
I was talking about the Wise Men and how ill equipped they are for their encounter with Herod… how unwise they actually are in most of this story. The assumption behind their whole trip… the assumption… I mean, what was it again that they expected to find in Jerusalem? The newborn king of the Jews? Celebration? Their assumed norms for Jerusalem don’t hold against a character like Herod… their wisdom hasn’t prepared them for anything that he brings into the world. That’s the other underlying element to this story… the naivety of these wise and learned Magi. Again… not only do they go to the wrong location to begin with… but they are completely duped by Herod. They’re not savvy enough to see that they are being manipulated when he points them toward Bethlehem so that he can also go and pay homage once they find the child for him. If not for the warning that comes to them in a dream… they would have gone back to Jerusalem… they would have stayed in their naivety… they would not be able to tell light from dark. Which is a bit ironic, don’t you think… since we always put that bright shining star there at the middle of this story… since, again in all our Christmas iconography, that star is clear and unmistakable… a sign of light leading to the light of the world. In this dark story of Matthew’s, the star doesn’t seem to have that kind of characteristic. The star isn’t like the choir of angels that appear to the shepherds… giving information about what has occurred. The star is a sign that the Magi interpret through their astrological wisdom… a wisdom that is woefully inadequate.
But… something happens to them there in that house in Bethlehem. Something happens that opens their eyes so that the warning from the dream has the chance to take hold. Something happens so that the Magi go home by another road… instead of getting back on the road that would take them to Herod. Matthew never says what that something is for the Magi… he never tells us directly about the epiphany of the Magi. We never hear them give testimony to how this child they find… how this child subverted their previous Jerusalem expectations that came to them through the wisdom they used to interpret the meaning of the star. They never even show up again in the gospel story. Still… something happened to them in Bethlehem.
And maybe that’s the point that we come to every year with this Epiphany story. Something happened to the Magi at Bethlehem… not as they followed the star… but when they encountered the Christ child in Bethlehem… something happened to them in that encounter in Bethlehem that caused them to return home by a different road. What about us? What happened to us at Bethlehem this year as we now undecorate from Christmas and either box up the tree or drag it out to the curb to be picked up? What happened to us on our journey to Bethlehem this year as we tried to follow that star the last few steps to the house with our songs of peace among people of goodwill? Where we heard the prophets proclaim the coming Messiah? Did we only hear the where and when information… but miss that meaning behind the message? I mean… come on… this is the year where every expectation and norm was thrown out the window… so how did that effect your epiphany at Bethlehem? Did you find that your wisdom was inadequate? This was the year where we witnessed the fruits of self-centeredness and egotism as people chose again and again a divisive form of individualism over the needs of neighbor and community. The voices of Herod’s court have been loud and demanding… and many many have followed without a second thought… without regard to the message of the prophets… or the possibility of being transformed by the Spirit at work among us. It takes a certain level of indifference to human life to murder all the children in Bethlehem under the age of two for the purpose of keeping power and privilege. I know I’ve witnessed such indifference this year where it has been easy to cast aside death because I can’t get outside of myself enough to see the value of those who have died. Saints, it has been a hard year, and I can’t say that humanity rose to the challenge with the best of what God has so graciously given to us. It seems fitting that Herod eventually dies by being eaten from the inside by worms. His whole way of being leads to being eaten up from the inside… dying from the inside out.
Yet, still… in the midst of it all… the Christ child came into the world this year. Still… in the midst of it all… we came again to the door of that house in Bethlehem and were invited inside. The question is… the question is… did something happen when we entered in… did we witness something that will get us to heed the warning and not return on the road back to Herod… but to go into this new year by traveling down another road. Amen.