Happy New Year! Was it only five days ago that we were celebrating the New Year, full of hope for what new possibilities a new year and a new decade might bring? Our celebrations may have been tempered a bit by the realities of all that is taking place around the globe and here at home—the horrific fires in Australia that have devastated the continent, its unique flora and fauna, and led to those images of people huddled near the ocean, waiting for transport away from the devastation. Continue reading
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?
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.
Taking Another Road
Second Sunday after Christmas
January 3, 2009
Although Corrie would tell you otherwise, I’ve got a pretty good sense of direction. I was talking with someone a couple of weeks ago about having to find our way around, and he observed that there are two types of people: map people and directions people. Both he and I are map people. We have to see on a map where it is we are supposed to be going. Directions just won’t do. In my case, by the time I’ve received the third piece of information (take a left at the old Shell station), I will have forgotten the first two. But even with a map, and if I’ve made no wrong turns, it’s often the case that when I leave, retracing my steps is very difficult. Instead of turning right, you have to turn left, and what happens if there’s a one-way road? It often happens that a trip that took fifteen minutes one direction, can take a half hour the other. So finding the way to a new place can be difficult, but finding one’s way home is not always easy, either.
I was reminded of this while reading this week’s gospel—the story of the wise men and the star. We know it well, but we don’t often note that while the magi had little trouble finding their destination, thanks to the star, and a little help from Herod and his advisers, we know very little about their journey home. Matthew writes simply, “they returned home by another road.” The story ends there; the magi leave the scene, but continue to pique our curiosity.
In the reading from Jeremiah, the prophet promises that Yahweh will lead the people of God home. It’s actually not at all clear when this particular passage was written, but it seems to presuppose that the prophet is writing during the exile, when many of the people of Israel had been carried off in captivity to Babylon. God is promising them that their exile will cease, that God will bring them back to the promised land, that God will lead even the lame and the blind home. It is a powerful image and theme, common not only to the Hebrew Bible but also to the Christian New Testament, to both Judaism, and Christianity. Such imagery was also seen in our readings for Advent; with the cry of John the Baptizer: Prepare a way for the Lord.
But we often think of this imagery only in terms of God leading God’s people to a new place—the promised land, and not in terms of God leading God’s people back. The familiar story of the wise men is a good example. They followed a star from the east to Bethlehem, stopping in Jerusalem to confirm their directions. Let’s unpack this story a little bit; let’s make it strange instead of familiar.
First of all—the wise men themselves. As you know, there is no mention in the text of the number, that they were kings, and certainly not their names. All of that is later pious Christian accretion to the story. In fact, “wise men” is even something of a mistranslation. They are magi—astrologers. That they come from the east suggests that Matthew is trying to emphasize their foreign-ness, that they are exotic travelers. What’s more from the perspective of the Gospel of Matthew, to call someone a wise man is not necessarily a compliment. Matthew consistently contrasts wisdom and foolishness—the wisdom of the world is not true wisdom but folly.
To be sure, there are kings in Matthew’s story—two of them, Herod and Jesus with very different kingdoms and with different sorts of power. The magi come to Herod for directions, because Matthew wants to highlight the opposition between Herod and Jesus and because, I think, he wants to say that for all the magi’s knowledge, in fact, to call them wise is somewhat misleading. They have seen the star, and they want to follow it, but they still don’t know its meaning.
When they reach Bethlehem, they bow down and worship Jesus. And then they go home by another road. We don’t wonder what happened to them after that. Matthew isn’t interested in their journey home; just as Luke is not interested in what happened to the shepherds after their encounter with the infant Jesus.
I’m inclined to imagine that what happened to the magi and the shepherds after Christmas is very much like what happens to us, too. There’s this tremendous build-up: growing excitement, heightened activity, everyone’s just a little bit on edge with the planning, the parties, and all. And then comes Christmas, and inevitably, there’s something of a letdown.
But it’s not just Christmas that has such an effect. No doubt you’ve all experienced it—working toward some goal that was at once elusive, yet seemingly full of promise, even life-changing. Reaching that goal takes all of one’s effort, incredible psychic, spiritual, and sometimes physical energy. Then having achieved it, what’s next?
Perhaps some of you the George Clooney movie “Up in the Air.” His character lived and worked for a single goal, one that he hardly dared articulate to his friends. At the end of the movie he achieved it, but his victory seemed somewhat hollow. There was no one to share it with, no one who cared and the goal itself, 10 million frequent flyer miles, seemed hardly worth the effort.
For many of us, achieving the goals we laid out for ourselves may be something of a game, a way of challenging ourselves to improve our lot, to better our selves, and when we’ve achieved them, we set a new goal. For others, that goal may be our raison d’etre. And when we get there, we have nothing more to look forward to.
What the magi may have had in mind is quite beside the point. According to Matthew they saw the star; they followed it, and when they reached their destination, they returned home by another road. Did their long journey and the encounter at the end change them? Who knows? That’s not really the point. For Matthew, what mattered was to depict these men, come from afar, worshiping the newborn Christ, while others, most notably Herod, sought to kill him.
The magi knew to go home by a different road but what was next for them? Did they set new goals? If so, how? And we, like the magi, have encountered the incarnate Christ again at Christmas. What’s next for us? What are we looking forward to? How do we set those new goals? How do we find our bearings, when the star we were following no longer leads us, and we’ve reached our destination? Where do we go from here? Do we retrace our steps, or embark on a new journey?
These questions are especially compelling, now, with the beginning of a new year. We look forward to what might come, with some apprehension perhaps, but also with a sense that there are infinite possibilities lying ahead. We want to start over anew. We make new year’s resolutions to change our lives.
In the life of our parish, we have also reached an important milestone. After years of conflict and turmoil, uncertainty, many of us finally feel like we have achieved what we were working for the last few years. There seems to be some stability, new energy, and a new rector. Outgoing Senior Warden Sally Phelps and those vestry members who have seen us through so much in the past few years have stepped down. They may feel like they deserve a break, and indeed they do. As a parish, we need to thank them again and again for their hard work, and for having brought us to this place in our common life.
Yet all is not perfect by any means. There is work to be done and it is no time to rest on the journey. We must continue to move forward. Perhaps we do not yet have a clear goal in mind; there is no star leading us forward. The direction may not be clear.
The magi knew where they were going when they left Bethlehem, they were going home. They chose a different route for expediency’s sake. We may lack the clarity they had as they got up from the encounter with Christ but like them, we should be wise enough to choose the better road, for ourselves, and for Grace Church. Let us be like those, as the Psalmist says, whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.