Rev. Dr. Scott Herr

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Please Read:  Ephesians 3:1-6 and Matthew 2:1-12

Although we’ve reduced Epiphany into a day for eating three kings galette, chipping our enamels on the little token hidden in the cake and wearing paper crowns, today, the feast of Epiphany, is perhaps one of the most important of all holidays in the church calendar for us. It’s really our feast day. The story of the magi, with dry Jewish humor, still captivates the imagination and is worthy of our reflection. There’s the evil King Herod, getting outwitted by the outsiders, wise guys from the east. It’s a story about political intrigue and the tragic slaughter of the innocents as Herod’s rage is unleashed on the boys of Bethlehem. But it’s also a story about the first gentiles to kneel humbly at the feet of the newborn King of the Jews.

So we have this incredible drama which Matthew sets up involving King Herod and his minions the chief priests and scribes in Jerusalem, who of course are the champions of the kingdoms of this world. And there is the holy family in Bethlehem, apparently moved out of the barn and into a house. The Christ child is, of course, the champion of the Kingdom of God. And then we have these foreigners, the magi, gentle gentile seekers of something new…

The Kingdom of This World….

Herod rules Jerusalem with an iron fist. He was great in the sense that he had a great ego. He was an egomaniac. The world according to Herod was “the world revolves around Herod.” He was a puppet of the Roman Emperor, but Jewish historian Josephus Flavius notes that he was a great builder, responsible for the celebrated renovations of the Temple in Jerusalem and the construction of the port of Caesarea Maritima, the ruins of which are still included in tours of the Holy Land. Herod was paranoid, though, and known as a madman who murdered his own family and friends whenever necessary “for national security.” As we read in Matthew, Herod was linked with the religious elite. He provided a great temple for them; they tolerated his unpredictable outbursts of violence… The slaughter of the innocents (later in the story) is a foreshadowing of how the power brokers of Jerusalem would come after the innocent one, Jesus. This tension is set up early on in Matthew’s gospel because we who are the hearers of the good news must understand from the beginning that the good news requires of us a choice about which King we will bow down and serve, and to what Kingdom we are giving our lives…

 

The Wise Seekers….

Walter Brueggemann notes that for all the wisdom of the magi, who were expert astrologers from somewhere east of Israel, they were nine miles off in their calculations. Not a lot geographically, but worlds away theologically. Matthew tells us that they arrived in Jerusalem at the palace of Herod looking for the new king. That would be the natural place to look for royalty, after all. The seat of power, tradition, and… you’ve heard it said: “Follow the money.” The temple was known to be one of the most glorious/luxurious buildings in the world. But of course it was entirely the wrong place to find the new king... Herod, trying to fool the wise men, actually tells them the truth about the old stories of a king to come from Bethlehem, a village nine miles from Jerusalem. This little back-water town was where the Christ child first shows up. That’s significant. Brueggeman notes “the narrative of Epiphany is the story of these two human communities: Jerusalem, with its great pretensions, and Bethlehem, with its modest promises.”[1] The wise men had followed their understanding of the stars apparently from a long tradition and on a long journey, but had in the end missed the mark. They went for the obvious place where one would find a king: Jerusalem, but in fact, God showed up in the little town of Bethlehem…

The prophet Micah, who Matthew quotes, reminds us that God’s ways are not our ways. Bethlehem had a promise that God would keep at just the right time… Indeed Bethlehem, that forgotten village nine miles away, is where the real action is… What’s amazing is that the magi actually let go of their own assumptions and calculations to seek and find this new King where they would least expect him. As Matthew tells it, when they saw the star stopped over where the child was, “they were overwhelmed with joy!” Joy will bring you to your knees. Here’s a whole sermon of verbs: Their seeking is met with overwhelming joy. And their joy moves them to worship: they enter, they see Jesus with his mother, they kneel down and pay him homage by opening their treasure chests and offering him gifts fit for a king…

The Kingdom of God…

Mark Labberton wrote in a recent article something that I’ve been pondering for weeks: “One of the most problematical parts of ordinary discipleship is that it is more likely to be an expression of our sociology than our Christology.”[2] What he means is that too often our understanding and our living out of faith has more to do with our culture and background than our understanding of who Jesus really is. In other words, we are too often shaped more by the influences of our workplace than by the transforming work of God’s Word and Spirit. That’s not a surprise, of course, but we tend to forget just how deep and pervasive is the problem of our brokenness and the distortions sin has wrought in our world and lives. We are naïve to how deep the knife of God’s saving work must cut in order to fully free us to participate in the joy of God’s Kingdom.

Matthew is trying to communicate from the very beginning of his telling of the gospel that the Kingdom of God is revealed in that which is often ignored or overlooked by the kingdoms of this world. Bethlehem, though it sure looks like nothing, is not the least! The poor and soon-to-be refugee family from Nazareth, who accept a barn for a birthing room, is the holy family of God. It is the vulnerable and powerless baby born in the manger who is the new King of the Jews, God in a bod, full of grace and truth, who will strangely usher in a new Kingdom via the cross…

Ruth Barton wrote an essay on Epiphany a part of which I think is very important for us to hear: “The story of the wise men is a story of pilgrimage.  It is about being willing to leave that which is familiar in order to arrive at our deeper spiritual home. It is about seeking something we don’t fully understand until we stumble upon it where we least expect it and coming home changed.  If we are at all awake during this season of new beginnings, we might sense ourselves being invited to a new journey of our own—a journey that involves leaving familiar territory in order to seek and find new ways of opening ourselves to God’s presence even (and perhaps most especially) when we feel our circumstances won’t allow for it.”[3]

Taking a Different Way Home…

That Epiphany comes at the turn of the calendar year is an opportunity for us, I think. This is the time for New Year’s resolutions, after all? Turning over a new leaf? Another significant part of the story of the Wise Men is that God spoke to them in a dream and warned them about Herod. And so they took a different way home. I’ve asked this before, but ‘Do you make New Year’s resolutions?’ I have mixed feelings about them. I think some people definitely should try it. Did you read about the New Year’s tradition here in France of burning cars? I wasn’t aware of this until I read an article this past week called “France’s less joyous New Year’s tradition.” Basically Monday evening, 1,193 vehicles were set ablaze in France. I was worried about drinking and driving, but I should have been more worried about Pyros and Peugeots. I humbly offer my opinion that here’s one tradition that needs changing! But perhaps we should also be asking what’s up with that? Why are people so angry and so destructive that they want to destroy so much property?[4]

Of course we all need to consider what changes God would have us make in our lives so that we are becoming more the men and women that God created and calls us to be; so that we are living more into the Kingdom of God… I guess like you, though, I am cynical of whether another resolution is going to change much. I’ve tried to make changes plenty of times in my life, and failed miserably. But wouldn’t you agree, the question is not if change is needed, but rather how change is actually possible? The gospel asserts that change is not only possible, it is happening even now! There is a new King, and a new Kingdom of God breaking into our world. Jesus is the One who said “Behold, I am making all things new.” There’s a resolution you can bank on!

The question is, do we believe the gospel to be true for us? Harvey Cox makes an interesting distinction between living by faith in Jesus and believing tenets about Jesus… He argues that the first few centuries of Christian history was the Age of Faith; being a Christian meant “to live in Christ’s Spirit, embrace his hope, and to follow him in the work that he had begun.” From Constantine on, though, the Church replaced faith in Jesus with tenets about him.[5] You see, the good news, the reason of the overwhelming joy of the magi, is that the promises of God are true for you and me. Through faith in what Christ did for us that we could not do for ourselves, we are included in the promises of God. There is a place for us in the Kingdom of God, and this vision, this reality must be the lens through which we see our place in the kingdom of this world. Because while we live in both, we cannot serve both.

While cars were burning here in France, on New Year’s Eve we marked the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the decree by President Abraham Lincoln that stated no longer would the color of a person’s skin determine their status in society. While that proclamation freeing slaves was effective as of its signing, we all know that there is still racism, prejudice and bigotry in our world. Michelle Alexander argues in her book, The New Jim Crow, that there are more African-American adults in correctional custody today (jail, prison, probation or parole) than there were in slavery in 1850.[6] National Geographic argues that there are more slaves today than there were in four centuries of the African slave trade because of the sex industry.[7] So let’s be clear: You are either living in such a way that you are supporting or fighting freedom. You are either living toward the kingdom of this world, with Herod and the powers and principalities of this world, or you are living toward the kingdom of God, with those foreigners, the outsiders who saw the light and knelt to worship Christ as King.

So what about you? I’m not sure about making resolutions to live into the way that God is calling you, but you might start with some questions: Where am I going to seek God’s wisdom for my life this year? What does it look like for me to bow down and worship the true King? What will it mean for me to trust anew the one who is the only trustworthy promise-keeper? Who are the gentiles (the outsiders!) who yet need the light of Christ to shine in their darkness? Who are the slaves who yet need to experience the freedom that Christ desires for all people? And what am I going to do about it?

Here today we’re eating the church’s form of galette des rois. The key difference is, everyone gets a crown. Here is a feast for all of God’s children. I pray that as you receive from the table this will be an opportunity for you to repent and humbly believe in the gospel that God has sent one who can bring authentic change. God has resolved to welcome us outsiders as beloved sons and daughters, as friends. The opportunity is for you here and now. I pray that we may begin this New Year together in faith, that we may remember and live into our identity as Epiphany people, sharing with this city and the world the light of Christ’s grace, truth and love.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.



[1] This article appeared in The Christian Century, December 19-26, 2001, p. 15. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

[2] Mark Labberton, “Vision” in First Things (Micah Group curriculum), 4.

[3] Ruth Barton, http://www.transformingcenter.org/2013/01/the-epiphany-of-our-lord-a-dangerous-journey/, referenced January 4, 2013 on recommendation by the Rev. Kit Schooley.

[4] David Jolly, “France’s less joyous New Year’s tradition,” International Herald Tribune (World News, January 3, 2013), 3.

[5] Harvey Cox, Future of Faith (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 25-28.

article by Charles Blow, referenced January 6, 2013: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/05/opinion/blow-escaping-slavery.html?_r=0

[7] Referenced January 6, 2013: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0309/feature1/.