January 6, 2019
Happy Epiphany! Epiphany always falls on January 6th, no matter what. This year, January 6th happens to be a Sunday, so we get to celebrate Christ’s Epiphany – a fancy word for unveiling or revealing – on this very first Sunday of the New Year.
The gospel lesson for Epiphany is always the same, year after year. We always get the story of the wise men seeking out the infant King. It only comes to us through one author so, no matter which gospel we are following in a given year, Epiphany always brings us to the second chapter of Matthew.
Since we hear it every year, we might be lulled into ignoring this story. It’s easy to let it drift in one ear and out the other, because it’s so familiar. As you hear it this time, I invite you to listen in a new way. I invite you to engage in something that schoolteachers like to call “compare and contrast.” Pay attention to what Herod does and says, and compare that to what the wise men do and say. There will be a short quiz after the reading.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” – Matthew 2:1-12
Okay, let’s compare the wise men to Herod. What did you notice? (Encourage verbal responses from the congregation… add any of the following that don’t get mentioned.)
|Distance Traveled||Long, from East or “place of rising”||Stayed put in Jerusalem|
|Awareness of the natal star||Noticed the star and followed it||Unaware there was a star; had to ask for its meaning|
|Transparency of mission||openly asked where to find this newborn king||secretly called them to learn when the star had appeared|
|Diligence in searching||Immediately and actively involved in finding the baby||Later sends soldiers to search, but doesn’t go himself|
|Emotional Reaction||Overwhelmed with joy||Frightened, worried|
|Response||Worshiped on bended knee, brought lavishly generous gifts||Herod suggests he will come worship later, but sends soldiers with swords instead|
|Obedience to divine message (dream)||They went home by another way||Herod didn’t get the memo|
Now, it’s easy to make Herod the villain and the wise men the good guys. And we like to identify with the good guys, right? But let’s take a moment to remember who the magi were, and who Herod was.
Matthew doesn’t give us very much information about these magi. Most of what we have come to believe about them is based in tradition, not the Bible. They probably were not kings. It’s likely they were astrologers, because they studied the night skies. It’s possible they were Zoroastrian priests. They must have had some amount of wealth at their disposal, because of the gifts they brought.
We don’t know exactly how many there were. There could have been two or twelve. We don’t know exactly where they came from. Many sources think Persia makes sense. We don’t know if they really rode camels, and no one knows who decided to give them the names of Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. It certainly wasn’t Matthew. Those names don’t show up anywhere until about the 8th century.
And what do we know about Herod? Quite a bit, actually, thanks to historians of the time. We know that Herod was not of Jewish descent, but his parents had converted to the Jewish religion, so he understood and probably practiced Jewish rituals. But he was also a client king under Roman appointment, so his political loyalty was to Rome.
From all accounts, Herod was a tyrant. We know he was nervous about his throne – he had three of his own children and one of his wives killed to protect his rule. And he was quite the builder – the great second temple in Jerusalem was only one of his major construction projects.
So here we have the wise men, Gentiles representing a religion we would describe as pagan. And we have Herod, who was not a Jew by birth, but who at least gave lip service to the Jewish faith. You’d think that Herod would stand a better chance than some pagan astrologers, of recognizing and rejoicing over an ancient Jewish prophecy being fulfilled. But that isn’t the case.
Because those pagan astrologers did something Herod did not do. They not only paid attention to what they saw, they gave themselves completely to the quest. They came prepared to worship and adore. They were fully engaged.
It’s easy to paint Herod as the bad guy. We like to identify with the wise men, kneeling before the baby Jesus with their lavishly generous gifts. But if we are honest, there’s a little Herod in each of us. There’s a little fear of losing what power we think we have. There’s a tendency to protect our turf by whatever means we find necessary.
And if we’re honest, we don’t gaze on the beauty of the Lord in worship and adoration all that much. Our gifts are not lavishly generous. We aren’t as receptive to God’s voice speaking into our lives as those wise men were. We aren’t as engaged in our mission as they were.
On this first Sunday of 2019, as Christ is revealed to us once again – us Gentiles, remember – God calls us to become fully engaged in Christ’s mission to save the world from sin and death. God calls us out of complacency. God calls us out of fear and worry. God calls us out of our pre-conceived notions about faith and church and what it means to call ourselves Christians.
God calls us into full engagement. God calls us to become deeply involved with him, in a personal relationship that draws us into worship and adoration. A medieval poem puts it this way: “The knees of my heart shall I bow.” God calls us to bend the knees of our hearts.
As I watched our Christmas pageant a couple of weeks ago, and I saw all those children crowded around the manger, watching baby Gus intently, it suddenly occurred to me, this is what worship is. This is the kind of adoration God wants from us.
When God sent his son into the world, he could have appeared as a fully-grown man. But he didn’t. He came as a baby, and I have to wonder if God did this to help us know what it means to worship and adore.
Do you remember what it is like to gaze on a newborn baby? You can’t take your eyes off this miracle in your arms. You find yourself smiling uncontrollably. That’s what adoration is. That’s what God invites us into when we worship. I wonder how many of us experience that on a regular basis.
When we are fully engaged in our relationship with God, we can’t be passive spectators of a worship service. We can’t just focus on what we like, or what we can get out of worship. Worship’s primary purpose isn’t to feed us or satisfy our spiritual needs.
Worship’s primary purpose is to adore the God who creates us and loves us and desires our full attention. When we worship as the wise men did, the knees of our hearts bow down, and we find the place where we truly belong.
On this first Sunday of the new year, as we approach Christ’s Table, I invite you to commit this year to be one of full engagement with God, with each other as members of Christ’s body, and with the world Christ came to save.
I have become a huge fan of your thinking and writing. These sermons are so thought provoking and bridge any gap that may appear to divide different religious denominations. Thank you for sharing your deep insights and making them so relatable and accessible. Now, when can we sing together again? Much love in the new year and always, Tina
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I miss you, too! Thanks for your encouragement, Tina.