Sermon, Epiphany, January 6, 2019

The Holy Gospel according to Matthew, the 2nd chapter.  Glory to you, O Lord.

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. 10 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.

The gospel of the Lord.  Praise to you, O Christ.  

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen. 

Christmas is finally over.  This is the season of Epiphany, and if I had to pick a favorite season in the church year, it’s probably Epiphany.  That might sound a little strange, I mean most people would probably go for the obvious choices of Christmas and Easter, but I just love Epiphany.  

Epiphany means that God is made manifest, that is, God is more easily visible to us humans.  In Epiphany, we can see more clearly that Jesus Christ is Lord.  And I like that.  I prefer good visibility to cloudiness any day.  

The story we heard today is a very familiar one. Since we only celebrate the visit of the Magi when January 6 falls on a Sunday, this story is usually included as part of the Christmas pageant.  However, it likely happened as much as two years later. The holy family is out of the stable and in a house by now and the wise men had been following the star for a couple of years.  

Our story today is a tale of two cities and a tale of two kings.  The cities are Jerusalem and Bethlehem.  The kings are Herod and Jesus.  

Jerusalem is the capital city of Judea.  Herod is the king of the Judean people. His title is “king of the Jews.”  The city of Jerusalem is the obvious place the Wise Men would have gone.  It is the center of the population, the center of commerce, the center of religion, the center of power. Even in their wisdom, the Magi made the obvious choice and went to Jerusalem.  

The Magi were not actually kings, like the rulers of countries.  They were astronomers who were followers of the Zoroastrian religion.  Their religion taught that the stars and the changes in the sky could be read as signs of change on the earth.  They believed that stars predicted the birth of new kings.  

The Magi would have been familiar with our first reading from Isaiah 60.  This is a poetry writing from the prophet known as second Isaiah. He wrote to the people who had just returned from two generations of exile in Babylon, which is modern day Iraq.  They returned to find their city of Jerusalem in ruins.  They were in despair.  Where were their beautiful buildings?  Where were their towers?  Their economy is failing and nobody knows what to do about it. 

In the midst of this despair and tragedy, the prophet invites them to look up in hope.  He paints a picture of a time when the city of Jerusalem will again be a place of glory, a shining star among the nations. Leaders of other nations will come on camels bringing expensive gifts of gold and frankincense. 

The magi would have known this poem from second Isaiah as well as Herod and his court knew it.  Herod would have expected that any new king would be born in Jerusalem. Herod would choose his own son as his successor.

King Herod was not one of the good guys in the Bible. He wasn’t just a bad king though.  He did some really evil things.  He was a career politician and did whatever he wanted to increase his power.  He was first appointed governor of Galilee, then moved up to be Tetrarch of Judea (ruler of 1/4 of the country), then finally king of Judea. 

Herod had no problem getting rid of people who interfered with his climb to political power. He had 10 wives.  He ordered multiple assassinations, including some of his own sons.  He changed his succession plan multiple times as he decided who would take his throne when he died.  It is no surprise that he would order the murder of all the babies in town when he felt his power was threatened.  

When the Magi arrived and told him the news of the star, it is no wonder he panicked.  He asked his advisors about these people who seemed to be the ones from the Isaiah 60 prophecy, the ones on the camels with the gold and frankincense.  His advisors told him that wasn’t the right prophecy for this occasion. Isaiah 60 implies that the old order will be restored.  In that scenario, Jerusalem will return to being the center of the global economy.  The rich city folks will recover their former power and prestige and nothing will really change. 

His advisors were Bible scholars.  They told him it’s important to study the scriptures in order to understand them.  They told him to read the prophet Micah. They told him the new king isn’t about the restoration of the city of Jerusalem.  They said the Messiah, the new king, would be born in Bethlehem, the city of King David.  Of course, Herod was threatened. A new king is a threat to the old king and the old order.  Herod was not descended from David.  

Surprisingly, Herod told the Magi the truth, and they went to Bethlehem.  Of course, he was expecting the wise men to come back and tell him who the child was and where to find him.  

The second city in this tale is the little town of Bethlehem.  It’s nine miles away from Jerusalem.  It was a tiny community, home to peasants, farmers, shepherds.  It is a small, unpretentious place.  It is home to people without influence, power, or importance. 

The prophet Micah tells us that the new king will be someone who cares about the people without political power.  The new king will bring shalom - health, well-being, and peace to all the people.  

The story of the Magi is a story that contrasts two cities and two kings.  Jerusalem is the place of power and the center of commerce and religion. Bethlehem is a modest little town where poor hard-working people live.  

Like the wise men, we are tempted to go to Jerusalem to look for our king.  We are attracted to power.  We are tempted by wealth.  But the real king is nine miles away.  He is in the little town.  He is living among people you wouldn’t expect.  He came to bring them shalom.  He came to bring peace, and health, and well-being to all the people, especially the ones ignored by the rest of society. 

When we make that trip to Bethlehem with the wise men, we will see the real king.  We will see King Jesus, the One who did not come for earthly power, the One who did not ask for riches, the One who did not take the lives of others, but the One who gave his life for us.  He is the One who has compassion on the lowly and the poor and preserves the lives of the needy.  He is the king who ends oppression and violence. He is the king, not just of one nation, but of all the nations.  

When we make that journey to Bethlehem with the wise men, we reject the tyrant. When we meet the real king, we are changed forever. Like the wise men, we can defy the orders of the unjust ruler and go home a different way. This epiphany, our King Jesus is the One who gives us the vision of the glory of God. Amen.