Epiphany, Year A, 2008

Epiphany: it is a word that evokes inspiration! Lightbulb moments! Big breakthroughs!

Why then, was this Epiphany sermon so hard to write?  This should be an easy sermon-I could write something really poetic about how our encounters with Jesus parallel the encounters of the Magi.  I could write something about how we each bring gifts to Jesus.  I could write something about how life is a journey, but ultimately we find and are found by Jesus. 

Instead, this year, when I read the Epiphany story, the story of the wise men really bothered me.

After all, the wise men were not kings.  There were not three of them.  The wise men do not go to a stable or see Jesus in a manger. They didn’t even bring camels with them! Is nothing sacred?

Like many stories in the Bible, the Sunday School image we have of the Epiphany story does not match up with the actual text.  The story is different, and much darker, than the one we re-enact in Christmas pageants and carols.

So who were these wise men that visited Jesus? 

The Greek word for these wise men is magos, which is where we get the word Magi.  Magi were political and also religious advisors to the kings of Persia.  They were probably nothing like what would happen if Karl Rove and Billy Graham merged into one person, but that can be a starting point for us to understand their function.  In their culture and time, kings wanted to read the religious landscape as well as the political landscape and Magi were their translators.  Magi were not part of the Jewish tradition, and part of their religious practice was to read the stars for meaning and wisdom.  When we think of astrology today, we think of newspaper columns and batty old ladies, but for the magi, astrology was a way to understand the universe.

So, when the Magi read the stars and see something unusual-about a new King of the Jews in Bethlehem–they are intrigued and go on a journey to meet this new king.  They get to Jerusalem and start gabbing about this king, and soon enough word gets to Herod.  Herod was the official King of the Jews, but Herod’s appointment was purely political.  He was a Jew yes, but by all accounts a Jew in name only.  He was appointed by the Roman government and was their puppet.  In addition, Herod was not a stable person.  Herod was the kind of person who loves power, but is fundamentally insecure, so must undermine everyone around him.  You may have worked for a mini-Herod at someone point in your life.  The more power people like Herod get, the more damage they can do.  Herod considers this baby a huge threat to him, and so orders the Magi to go and search for the baby and report back to him.

Remember, the Magi aren’t even his employees.  They are just wise men, from hundreds of miles away, but since they were going to go on this journey anyway, they acquiesce and make the journey to Bethlehem. 

They see the star, just as they predicted, and find Jesus in a house, not a stable. 

And here is where the story really starts to get upsetting.  After the Magi worship Jesus, they are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so then the wise men go on their merry way, back to their riches, back to their safe life.

Have you ever wondered what happens after the Magi leave Bethlehem?  Well, in the latter part of the second chapter of Matthew, Joseph also has a dream that tells him to get out of dodge, so he, Mary and baby Jesus become refugees in Egypt.  And if that is not bad enough, Herod orders all the baby boys of Bethlehem, age two years and under to be executed.  And they are.

I don’t believe the massacre of the infants is ever mentioned in the New Testament again, but I wonder how it affected Jesus.  Did he know it happened?  Did he feel guilty?  Was that part of the reason he was so kind and welcoming to children?  Was the massacre why he was so critical of those in power?  Did he have any memories of Joseph and Mary terrified, sheltering him in Egypt, wanting desperately to go home?

Happy Epiphany, indeed.

This Epiphany, I want the Magi to be more heroic.  I want their faith and excitement about the birth of Jesus to motivate them to stop Herod’s madness.  I want them to do something about the impending massacre.  I don’t want them to run away to safety.  I want them to stand up and fight.  I want them to use their wealth and intelligence to trick Herod or have him deposed.  The Christmas story is all about people of little influence-shepherds, a carpenter, a young woman-whom God uses to bring about the salvation of the world.  The only set of characters in the story who have any power or wealth are the Magi.  And the Magi run away. 

God did not ask the Magi to stand up to Herod, so maybe hero was not their role, or maybe they understood that this Christmas story was not all shiny stars and gifts of gold. Maybe they understood that the birth of Christ has a dark side.  After all, one of the gifts they brought Jesus was myrrh-a fluid used in embalming.  Maybe their visit was both worship and a warning.  Maybe the Magi are in the story to warn Jesus and his parents that his journey will not be an easy one.  Maybe they are in the story to remind us that Christmas is followed by Good Friday.  And in this year, with only six weeks between Christmas and Lent, we will barely have put away the Christmas ornaments, before it is time to cloak ourselves in the memory of Christ’s death. 

But maybe we, as Christ’s followers–who have seen the horrors of Herod’s massacre, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, genocide in Rwanda and Sudan or this week in Kenya-maybe we who have the benefit of history-Maybe we can stand up to the Herods of this world even if the Magi were not in the position to do so.  We have the wealth. We have the power.  Heck, we even have the internet!  Maybe it is up to us, through our votes, through our charitable donations, through our advocacy to help stop future massacres, future despots.  Or, maybe we start smaller, and just deal with the mini-Herods in our workplaces or families.  Maybe we finally stand up to them knowing that we have the power of Christ-he who was born, died and rose again-behind us.  Maybe that is our gift to the Christ Child this Epiphany-that we will do all in our power to protect families like his family, and children like those who were slaughtered by a ruthless leader so many years ago.

For the power of the Herods of the world isn’t real power-it is just thuggery.  We have the real power-the power of a loving, creative, holy God who works in us and through us for good. 

And maybe that is our epiphany this Epiphany-that despite the dark underbelly of the Christian story-the Herods of the world do not win. The powerless, and those who love justice and those who practice mercy are all vindicated and redeemed by Christ’s resurrection, while the Herods of the world are left to the judgment of God. 

And that’s the good news that compelled three Magi from Persia to travel hundreds of miles to a no-count town in Israel to worship a tiny baby-A tiny baby that would change everything. 

Amen.

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