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Epiphany of Our Lord
Pastor Anke Deibler
- Isaiah 60:1-6
- Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
- Ephesians 3:1-12
- Matthew 2:1-12
Grace be to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Most people really like the wise men who come from far in the East, following the star, to search for the Christ child.
We point to their observation skills, the fact that they even noticed that there was a new star. I would never have noticed. Would you have?
We point to their willingness to take this as a sign and pack their bags and make a long, arduous journey to investigate the meaning of this new star.
We point to their faith that recognizes God’s presence in the baby Jesus.
We point to their generosity and worship, when they adore and praise the Christ child and offer their costly gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.
Yes, we love and admire these wise men from the East.
Yet this year, I came across one commentator who calls them stupid. To understand how he arrived at that sentiment, let me back up and tell you a little about King Herod.
King Herod the Great was appointed King of the Jews by the Roman senate. The Romans occupied the Holy Land and had this kind of power. Herod did not come from a royal line and was not elevated by his own people. Some of the Jewish people didn’t even consider Herod a true Jew because his family had only converted to Judaism a generation before him. In other words, Herod didn’t come to the throne on a wave of popular support.
Once King, Herod set to shaping the nation – and making a name for himself – through building projects. Most famously, Herod rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and created the huge temple platform that dominates the city scape to this day. Additionally, he built fortresses and palaces and more. All this gave him a great reputation in the Roman Empire.
All this also cost a lot of money. To raise that money, Herod increased taxes on the working population. Many of them were living close to the subsistence level already and were now driven into poverty.
Another thing about Herod: He was obsessed with power and extremely paranoid. If he smelled a whiff of insurrection or imagined a threat to his power, he reacted with immense brutality. Over the course of his reign, he killed 300 public officials, also two of his sons and one of his wives, all for suspicion of conspiracy against him.
This is the King Herod the Great into whose palace bumbles a group of foreign astrologers asking: “Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?”
Can you imagine the impact this question would have on King Herod? This power-hungry, hyper-paranoid king? These foreigners ask about the king of the Jews. That’s his title. Herod is the King of the Jews! The Bible tells us that Herod reacted with fear, and all Jerusalem with him. No wonder: When a paranoid, brutal king gets frightened, you never know what he might do.
The next paragraphs in Matthew’s gospel account tell us that the people were right to be frightened. Herod in his paranoia has all boys under two years of age in Bethlehem killed in order to eliminate the challenge to his throne. Fortunately, Joseph had been warned in a dream and had taken his wife Mary and the baby Jesus and fled with them to Egypt. Because of the power-lust and brutality of the ruler, Jesus and his family became refugees, seeking safety across the border. Like so many families we see in the news today, Jesus’ family is hoping to escape violence by travelling into a neighboring country.
The wise men from the East really unleashed something terrible. Were they to blame? Where they stupid? Could they have known how Herod would react? I don’t know.
What I do know is that they learned something important on their journey. They meet Herod, and then they meet the Christ child, and after that they decide not to go back to Herod. They go back by another road.
The wise men had seen the star and knew it mean a new king had been born among the Jews. So eager were they to see this king with their own eyes that they went on the long journey to the land of the Jews.
If you believe a new king to have been born, where would you look for him? In a palace, of course. In the capitol. In the seat of power, in the house of the king. That’s what common wisdom tells us and that’s where they go. But there they find first confusion, then fear and anxiety, and then conspiracy when Herod takes them aside and asks them to come back and tell him about the child when they find it, so he can go and pay homage. As if!
The wise men keep going. The star leads them to the house in Bethlehem where Jesus’ family is living. In that small house of average people, the wise men find something very different: overwhelming joy. Matthew is running out of superlatives when describing their joy: “They were overjoyed with exceedingly great joy.” They are bursting with joy.
Their response to this joy is worship and generosity. They kneel before Jesus and pay him homage, and they present him with gifts fit for a king: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
They had encountered the way of power and might in Herod, and they didn’t care for it. It left them without joy or hope or the desire to see more of it.
Now in Jesus they are encountering the way of humility and love, of service and welcome to all people, even these strangers from the East. This is what gives them joy. This is what makes them share what they have. This is what sends them home by another road. In Jesus, God broke into this world to change it. In the presence of Jesus, the wise men are changed and filled with joy and set on a different path.
In a way, Matthew’s Christmas story is much, much darker than the one in Luke, the one with manger and angels and shepherds. No wonder that’s the one we read on Christmas Eve. Matthew’s story with power-hungry, brutal, paranoid rulers reacting in fear and lashing out in ruthless violence against innocent families, that does not give us the warm and cozy feeling of “Silent Night”.
On the other hand, the world of Matthew’s Christmas story is much more familiar to us than Luke’s. Most of us have only rudimentary ideas about stables and shepherds, and angels filling the sky with praise is not part of the life experience of most people. Yet we only have to read or watch the news to be confronted with refugee families, with power-hungry rulers, with people driven to the edge by high taxes, with mass violence against innocent victims, with fear and paranoia shaping actions and policies. Yeah, we know that world.
Matthew told us in chapter one that God’s son would be named “Immanuel”, God with us. In the story of the wise men, Matthew assures us that, yes, it is this troubled, dark, violent world in which we live that God has decided to enter. God is with us in this life in this world in these challenging times.
The story of the wise men shows us how God is with us:
His star, his light shine into this world and guide us to the place where we meet the Christ. Here in worship, we adore Jesus Christ, just like the wise men did. We offer our gifts, just like the wise men did. We experience the new way, the new possibility, the new hope that is opened up in Jesus Christ. Experiencing that, fills us with joy.
After having met Christ, we travel by another road. We no longer embrace the road that includes violence or power struggles or fear. Instead, we travel the road shown by the star, the road of Jesus the Christ, the road of humility and service and sacrifice and love, the road leading to peace and hope and joy, the road leading to a world where nobody has to be a refugee ever again or fear for their children’s lives or worry about their grandchildren’s future.
Because Matthew describes God’s incarnation in the very real world, it is also a very political story. Jesus challenges the way power is done, and those in power, Herod and his ilk, know it. And right away try to kill it.
We live in a political world. I think today’s gospel story challenges us to pay attention to politics. Herod is frightened because he senses a threat to his way of ruling coming from Jesus Christ. Today, we are the body of Christ in the world. Today, we have to hold our rulers accountable. No matter what party we prefer or what party our elected leaders belong to, we need to evaluate them and ask ourselves: Whom do they pay homage to? Which road do they travel?
Do they travel the road of power-lust, paranoia, and violence, the road that increases and takes advantage of fear, the road that serves only themselves and their cronies? Then we need to hold them accountable, let them hear our objections, and cast our votes accordingly.
Or do they travel the road of humility and service, the road of justice for all, the road of making life better for all people, the road that seeks peace and joy? Then we need to encourage them and let them know of our approval and vote for them.
Additionally, we have to hold ourselves accountable. Whom do we page homage to? Which road do we travel? Are we letting ourselves be changed here, in the presence of Christ, so we travel home by another road, one that leaves power behind and instead embraces service and generosity and love? Good questions to ask at the beginning of a new year.
The promise of Matthew’s Christmas story is that God become ones of us and joins us in this often dark, troubled world. Here, God is with us. Here, God meets us in Jesus Christ and changes us. And here, God’s star shines and lights the way for us so we can travel on by another road, bringing God’s light and hope to ever more people and making the world a brighter place. Amen.