There were two kings, not three: A Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany, 2018

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany. While it is a major feast day of the Church, unless it falls on a Sunday, as it does this year, most Christians, most Episcopalians, don’t really observe it. Epiphany marks the end of Christmastide in our calendar, so while the church is still decorated for Christmas today, the decorations will be removed after today’s service. There’s a bit of confusion or controversy there, because many people take down their Christmas trees and other decorations on 12th night, which occurred yesterday, the 12th day of Christmas. We keep our decorations up largely because we want to retain the crèche and enjoy seeing the magi and their entourage worshiping the christchild at the crèche. If you weren’t here for Christmas, they spent the entirety of Christmas season on the table in the rear of the nave.

Our focus may be on the star and the magi or wise men on Epiphany, but it’s a feast that has other connections in the larger Christian tradition. It is also associated with Jesus’ Baptism and with Jesus’ first miracle recorded in John, the turning of water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana.

Both of those stories point to the deeper meaning of the feast of the Epiphany. The word Epiphany comes from the Greek word that means “appearance,” or “manifestation”—especially of the divine or of God. It was used in the Hellenistic world of Jesus’ day to describe those appearances of the divine to humans, moments when the gods seemed especially near. It was also used often as a title for rulers and became associated with the imperial cult, as emperors came to be understood as manifestations of the divine.

We see elements of that notion in our familiar gospel story, the story of the coming of the wise men following the star. It’s a lovely story, but one that’s been very much domesticated by the Christian tradition, so that we miss the deeper meaning and power of Matthew’s larger purposes in telling it. First of all, the wise men, or kings. Well, they’re not kings, are they? Associating them with kings derives from other scriptural references such as those from today’s reading from Isaiah and from the Psalm. When we call them “magi” we’re getting closer to what Matthew had in mind, astrologers from the East, very likely Zoroastrian priests from Iran—who were astrologers, using the movements of the constellations and planets to predict the future.

Their very exoticism, their “otherness” is part of Matthew’s point. Coming from the east, they had no knowledge of Jewish scriptures or traditions; they were Gentiles. In part, Matthew wants us to see them as part of the larger mission of sharing the good news—to all the world, as he has Jesus command his disciples in the last verses of his gospel. But he also wants us to understand that even apart from scripture, Gentiles can come to some understanding of God and of God’s saving work—all it took for the magi to begin their quest was to see a new star rising in the East.

The magi’s intuition of God’s new actions in the world provide a sharp contrast with that of Herod who had know clue about the birth of the “king of the Jews” and was terrified when he heard of it. He had to bring in scripture experts to answer the question the magi posed to him.

Let me tell you a little bit about Herod the Great. Herod’s father and grandfather had been supporters of Rome and rulers of provinces in Palestine. Herod’s father appointed him Governor of Judea. Eventually, in the midst of conflict over succession to Julius Caesar, Herod fled to Rome and succeeded in getting declared King of Judea by the Senate; returning to Palestine, he also gained control over Galilee, and eventually, by marrying the daughter of his chief rival, became de facto King of the Jews. He was a ruthless ruler, known for his excessive taxation. He built Roman style cities such as Caesarea Maritima and began the rebuilding and expansion of the Jerusalem Temple. He also had considerable conflict within his domestic life—he had five wives, one of whom he had executed, and killed two of his sons when he feared conspiring against him, and just days before his death, had a third son executed.

All of this is backdrop to Matthew’s story and while we didn’t hear the next episode of this story—the flight to Egypt and the execution of all boys in Bethlehem under the age of two, and while there’s no independent evidence to support this episode, it’s entirely in keeping with what we know about Herod historically. If he killed his own sons because of their efforts to wrest power from him, it’s likely he would have had no qualms with large-scale executions of whole demographic groups.

Matthew is drawing a sharp distinction between Herod, King of the Jews, and Jesus, King of the Jews. He is also drawing a sharp distinction between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. When Herod heard the news of these visitors from the East in search the child born “king of the Jews” Herod was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him. The magi say their intent is to go to the newborn child and pay him homage—we should have in mind a formal act of obeisance a subject might offer to a king or ruler.

So there are two kings in this story, not three. The two kings are rivals—both King of the Jews, one is Jesus, one is Herod. Herod represents the power and ruthlessness of the world, willing to take any action to gain and consolidate power, and once in power to use everything and everyone at his disposal to display and project his wealth and power.

On the other hand, the king of the Jews, born in Bethlehem, born to ordinary, poor, people who are at the mercy of the other king—whose experience of his kingship is terror and fear, who flee their home for another country in search of safety. That king of the Jews will grow up to proclaim the coming of God’s reign, a reign not of power and fear, maintained by bloodshed, but a reign of peace and justice. Jesus’ life will end as he is proclaimed “King of the Jews” by the charges leveled against him by the Roman Empire, a revolutionary, a rabble-rouser.

Like the magi, we stand between these two kings, these two kingdoms. Our journey in search of Jesus has brought us to this place, to this crossroads. We may want to make homage to the king of the Jews, but do we know what that truly means? Are we able to make that journey? Herod’s kingdom may beckon to us with its power and wealth, even with its ruthlessness, but the kingdom of the one who was born in Bethlehem, whose parents fled with him toEgypt, who preached mercy and peace, and whose life ended on the cross in Herod’s city of Jerusalem, beckons to us as well. To whom will we pay homage, before whom will we offer our gifts?

 

 

A Poem for Epiphany: The Magi by William Butler Yeats

The Magi

W. B. Yeats, 18651939

Now as at all times I can see in the mind’s eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.

Source: poets.org

Being disciples, staying with Jesus: A Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, 2017

We are in the season after the Epiphany. It varies in length depending on when the date of Easter, (and hence Ash Wednesday) falls. This year is relatively lengthy as Easter falls on April 16. The word epiphany comes from the Greek and roughly means manifestation, revealing, or showing. Usually it is connected with an appearance or manifestation, presence if you will, of the divine. In the Christian context, the feast of the Epiphany is the celebration of the magi coming to worship the newborn Christ at Bethlehem, although in ancient and Eastern Christianity, the Epiphany also connects with Jesus’ baptism, which is in part why we commemorated his baptism last Sunday, and with other miracles, like the Wedding at Cana, when Jesus turned water into wine, and as the gospel of John says, “revealed his glory.”

This season is a time when we celebrate and reflect all of the ways God is present in the world, in the glory and goodness of creation, but especially in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. And although this is the year in the lectionary cycle when we read the Gospel of Matthew, on this Sunday, as in every year on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, we read from the Gospel of John. That makes sense in a way, because the themes of John connect very well with the themes of Epiphany, and nowhere is that more true than in this first chapter—the first 18 verses of which we heard on Christmas Day.

In today’s reading, we get John’s interpretation of the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, as well as the story of the call of the first disciples. Coincidentally, this past week I was reading two books that I purchased as possible subjects for Lenten study this year. Both of them began with a discussion of this encounter between Jesus, Andrew, and the other disciple as a way of getting at the meaning of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

You may recall the story of Jesus calling the first disciples from the synoptic gospels, especially Mark. Jesus is walking along the shore of the sea of Galilee. He sees Peter and Andrew, James and John repairing the nets on their fathers’ fishing boats. Jesus says to them, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.” The four get up, leave the nets, the boats, and their fathers behind, and follow Jesus.

There’s a completely different dynamic here in John’s gospel. In the first place, Andrew and the other disciple (We never learn his name, by the way) are already disciples, but of John the Baptist. John and his followers come across Jesus in their wanderings, and John points Jesus out to them, saying, “Look, there’s the Lamb of God who will take away the sin of the world!” The next day, the same thing happens, and two of his disciples, follow Jesus. Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for?” And they respond oddly, by asking “Where are you staying?” To that question, Jesus answers, “Come and see.”

“Where are you staying?” What kind of question is that? What might the disciples learn about Jesus by staying with him for the day? To understand what’s going on we need to put this question, and the event itself, in the context of John’s gospel. Staying… to use the traditional language of the Authorized Version, to abide… is one of those themes that is repeated throughout the gospel. In fact, we heard the theme sounded already in John’s testimony about Jesus. When he reports that he saw the Holy Spirit come down like a dove, he says that “it remained on him.” In today’s gospel the words is used at least four times in quick succession. Much later in the gospel, in the lengthy farewell discourse that John puts in Jesus’ mouth at the Last Supper, he says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”

These two questions, “What are you looking for?” and “Where are you staying?” get at the heart of what the Gospel of John understands by discipleship and the nature of faith. More than that, these two questions, and the understanding of discipleship they open up, invite us to a new understanding of what it means to follow Jesus in our present day.

Discipleship is a word we use a great deal in the church but is easily misunderstood or distorted. Indeed, to the extent that it is a grounding metaphor for the Christian life, it can be as misleading as it is helpful. For one thing, we often think that faith, our Christian life, is primarily concerned with knowing a certain set of ideas, or holding a certain set of beliefs. But note that Jesus did not ask Andrew and the other disciple, “What do you know or want to know?”, or “What do you believe? He asked them, “What are you looking for?” Or perhaps, “What do you want?”

Posed in those terms, Jesus’ question gets at the very core of our being, our deepest desires and hopes, who we are and what we want to be. It’s a question of identity

And the question Andrew poses to Jesus in response, while seemingly unrelated to Jesus’ question, is very much of the same nature. “Where are you staying?”

Andrew’s question is an expression not of a desire to receive a set of instructions, or learn a set of doctrines. Andrew wants to be with Jesus. He wants to stay with Jesus so that he can experience the relationship that Jesus offers him. By abiding with Jesus, by staying with Jesus, Andrew will begin to experience the abundant life that Jesus talks about throughout the gospel.

Thus for John, discipleship is about relationship, not right doctrine or the transmission of a body of knowledge. Discipleship is about being in community with Jesus, and with others who seek to follow Jesus. And there can be nothing more important than that, being in community in these uncertain and frightening times.

We have been experiencing a great number of shocks to our worldview over the last months. Many of us are confronting the fact that we are living in a very different nation than the one we thought we were living in. Institutions that used to function and create stability seem to be out of whack—like the news media. Old alliances are collapsing and being reshaped. We are afraid of what might happen to our healthcare and our planet. Many of us wonder whether we will lose basic rights that we hold dear or for which we or our parents or grandparents struggled mightily. Christianity itself seems to be on the brink of collapse in the US, and with so many conservative Christian leaders preaching a message of hate, we may not even want to be called Christian anymore.

In all of this disruption and disorientation, negotiating a path forward is perilous. We’re not quite sure what to do, how to act, how to be in the world. Here’s where this gospel reading offers a model. Relationship—abiding with Jesus. In the first place, we are called to open our hearts and our lives to deepening relationship with Jesus Christ, and through that relationship begin to experience and to live in the presence of God’s love for us. To open our hearts to Christ’s love is to begin to know the love of the God who became one of us and loved us and the world so much that he gave his life for the world.

And as we open ourselves to Christ’s love, experience Christ’s love, abide in Christ’s love, we also will begin to open ourselves to those around us, to others who experience that love of Christ and abide in that love.

All of this is quite abstract and you may think it has little to do with our daily lives. But I wonder. In the midst of all that we have to do, do we take time to be with Jesus? Do we take time to be fully present to our loved ones? Do we really know our fellow members of the Body of Christ in this place? What might it be like for us to nurture deeper relationships with each other and with Jesus Christ in the coming months? What might it be like for us to take the time to get to know one another better, to listen to each others’ stories, to their hopes and fears? By nurturing those relationships, with Christ and with each other, not only would we be strengthened for the journey but the world around would catch a glimpse of the possibilities of new life in Christ’s love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the Third Day… A Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, 2016

 

On the third day, there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee…

On the third day…

The gospel today begins with a phrase that is so familiar to anyone who regularly attends a church like ours where the creed is recited every week in the liturgy. If we pause for a moment to think about it when we hear it, we will immediately think of the rest of the clause “On the third day, he was raised from the dead.” Continue reading

Preaching the Epiphany in the Twenty-First Century

Second, and more important, at this late date A.D. the church is hardly in the position of muscling the culture away from its calendars toward those of Christendom. Instead, we are in an urgently evangelistic and missional posture, continually negotiating a hearing, proclaiming the good news to a society no longer automatically interested in our pronouncements, under the terrible and exhilarating obligation of winning the right to be heard—for our faith, our convictions, our gospel, and our ways of marking time. In other words, our job is not to blow the whistle on the culture and put them in the penalty box until they learn how to count the Sundays to Lent. Our job, instead, is to walk that pathway ourselves, to move with Christ from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, and to announce with joy to all who will listen — even those who haven’t the foggiest notion of epiphany or transfiguration or baptism of the Lord, what good news and trustworthy promises are meant for them.

 

Tom Long (professor of preaching at Candler School of Theology) wrote this words in 2000. They are still true

The Pilgrim Way: A Sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas

Corrie and I watched much of the PBS series Sacred Journeys  that aired recently. Hosted by Bruce Feiler who has written several books chronicling his own spiritual journey and exploring relationships among the Abrahamic religions, the series followed American devotees and seekers as they made their way to famous pilgrimage sites of the world’s religions. Feiler accompanied American veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as they sought physical and spiritual healing at Lourdes in Southern France. He went to Jerusalem, where he spoke with Christians, Muslims, and Jews. He also followed Buddhist pilgrims as they visited a series of temples in Japan and his cameras were taken by Muslims from the Boston area as they made the Hajj. Continue reading

Matthew, Herod, Magi, Disciples: A sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas

I’ve done something for this Sunday that I don’t think I’ve ever done before as a preacher. I’ve significantly altered the appointed Gospel reading for the day. Instead of choosing between either Mt. 2:1-12 (the story of the Magi) or Mt. 2:13-15, 19-23 (the story of the Flight into Egypt), we’ve read them both. Truthfully, it’s not all that radical. It’s always an option to lengthen the lectionary readings. So today, we heard the gospel appointed for 2 Christmas, the second half of chapter 2, and the gospel appointed for the Feast of the Epiphany which is tomorrow, vss. 1-12. What’s left out is the story of the slaughter of the innocents—Herod’s decision to have all of the children of Bethlehem, age 2 or under, killed.

What I would like to do today is something a little different than my custom. We are in year A of the three-year lectionary cycle. It’s the year we will spend our time hearing from the Gospel of Matthew. Last year was year C, the year of Luke, and next year will be the year of the Gospel of Mark. The gospel of John doesn’t have a year of its own. It’s interspersed throughout the three year cycle, especially during Lent and Easter. So this year is Matthew and I would like to take some time to focus on some of the central themes and concerns of Matthew, using chapter 2 as a starting point.

One of the distinctive characteristics of Matthew is his use of “fulfillment quotations.” We see several of them in this chapter. In fact, they are rather curious. If you go back to the original references in Hebrew scripture, it’s usually not at all clear what the connection is with the gospel of Matthew. They are not simply predictions. Rather, they are resonances, echoes that Matthew uses to make connections between Hebrew scripture and the story he’s telling.

Matthew shapes his story in this chapter around a biblical story from the books of Genesis and Exodus—the story of the enslavement of the Hebrew people and their miraculous deliverance by acts of Yahweh. Is it coincidence that Jesus’ father is named Joseph, just as it was Joseph in Genesis who dreamed, believed in God, and did as God told? In response to a word from an angel in a dream, Joseph took his family out of harm’s way into exile in Egypt; just as Jacob and his family went to Egypt to seek refuge from a famine. In the earlier story, it was Pharaoh who sought to kill all male Hebrew children under age two because of fear. In Matthew, Herod is indiscriminate, killing all of Bethlehem’s children under two.

Those are two examples—the fulfillment citations and the echoes of Genesis and Exodus—of one of Matthew’s overarching interests or concerns: to make a connection between the story he is telling, the story of Jesus the Messiah, with the Hebrew Bible and its long story of the relationship between God and God’s chosen people. Those echoes and resonances fill Matthew’s gospel. Jesus appears as the new Moses, reinterpreting the law; Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy, the Messiah hoped for by the Jewish people of first-century Palestine.

There’s another deep connection between the Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth and the Genesis/Exodus story. Matthew depicts Herod as an arbitrary, fearful, and vindictive tyrant. He is an almost perfect replica of Pharaoh in Exodus who is shown to be equally arbitrary and vindictive. Indeed, one of the key themes in this story is the contrast between the two kings: Herod on the one hand, and Jesus on the other.

Although a convert to Judaism, Herod was hated by most Jews as the king of Judea, in part because they thought he was Jew in name only and in part because of his pro-Roman leanings. He became king by submitting to Roman authority. He lavished his territory with building projects, including a renovation and expansion of the temple in Jerusalem. Known for his ruthlessness, Herod executed at least three of his sons for conspiring against him. Herod’s lavish spending and propensity to violence are a sharp contrast to the powerless and impoverished infant Jesus.

Jesus seems to be powerless. In fact, throughout this chapter he is acted upon. The magi see him and worship him; Joseph takes him and Mary to Egypt, and then takes them both back to Galilee. Jesus’ family flee Herod’s wrath, so the contrast between the two kings is drawn especially dramatically. Yet in the narrative itself there are hints of a different reality—the power of the reign being ushered in with the birth of Jesus Christ and the threat it poses to the powers of the world. The text says that Herod was terrified at the news of the birth of a king. It also alludes to his death at least three times. And at the end of the chapter, it is Jesus who is alive and well, while Herod is dead.

There’s another important theme in this chapter that carries throughout Matthew’s gospel. We see in the first few verses the response of Jerusalem’s religious and political leadership to news of Jesus’ birth. No one in Jerusalem has any idea what is happening in Bethlehem, even though the “chief priests and scribes” seem to know where to look. Instead of the religious experts looking for the birth of the Messiah, it is outsiders, wise men from the east who are eager to pay homage to Jesus.

These Magi are probably meant to be Zoroastrian astrologers, adherents of another religion. They were about as exotic as a gospel writer could imagine in the first century, completely outside one’s ordinary experience in Palestine. The magi paid close attention to the skies, charting the movements of the planets in an effort to understand the relationship between the skies and life on earth. They discerned in those skies evidence of something new and came in search of it.

We don’t know what happens to the magi after they return home. We don’t know what precisely they thought, how they responded to their encounter with Jesus Christ. It’s not clear that they came to any conventional sort of faith. They came to Bethlehem to pay him homage; they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and then they returned home by another route.

But their presence here in the story is not simply an excuse for us to add figures of the magi to the crèche, or to explain why we exchange gifts at Christmas. Their presence here is evidence of the power of God to work outside of ordinary channels—the religious elite, the insiders, those who should have known who the Messiah was, where he was going to be born, and what sort of Messiah he would be—the religious elite consistently rejected Jesus. The political elite, the powerful finally killed him. The magi are a reminder that we can see signs of God’s presence and activity in nature and in the world around us, and some people can come to know God through such signs and experiences.

But there’s something else. At the very end of the gospel, just before Jesus departs from the disciples, he tells them: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” In the beginning of the gospel, the nations come to pay him homage, worship him. At the end of the gospel, as the disciples are bowing down and worshiping him, Jesus tells them to go out to the nations to make disciples.

We know which king is more powerful—Herod goes down in history as a petty tyrant while billions across the world worship Jesus Christ. But the story of Jesus’ birth in Matthew stands to us as a stark reminder that the powers of the world are in conflict with the power of Bethlehem and of the cross; a warning to us too that our religious certainties may mislead us to side with the powers of this world and that Jesus is present in all sorts of ways we don’t know and can’t understand, present among the victims of suffering, present with political refugees, present with the weak and powerless. We should seek him there to pay him homage, not in palaces or halls of power.