Sermon for Epiphany
I suspect that as children many of us here took part in some version of the classic Sunday School Christmas pageant. Most of the girls dressed in white robes and tinsel halos, playing the part of the angels (why does she get to be Mary?), most of the boys in bathrobes and beards acting the part of the shepherds. The boy cast as Joseph looking a bit distracted and maybe even a little anxious, afraid that his friends are going to tease him that he actually likes Mary…
As the pageant unfolds, the stage gets more and more full, until finally the three kings make their entrance from the back of the church. Wearing tin foil crowns, they come slowly down the aisle as everyone sings “We Three Kings.” They carefully deposit their gifts at the manger, and then back away to stand with the shepherds and the angels as everyone sings “Silent Night.” Cameras flash, grandmothers look delighted, and the Sunday School teachers look at one another with relief—“we made it.”
Well, maybe some of you grew up in churches that mounted slightly more sophisticated variations on that theme. You might have even been a part of a church in which the whole production was handed over to the adults, and mounted with theatre lights, professional sound and a full choir. Even then, chances are pretty good that the shepherds, angels, and manger scene were blended together with a Christmas star and the three kings to create a single, unified story. Funny thing, though, is it really has little to do with the shape of the narrative we just heard read aloud from the Gospel according to Matthew.
First of all, in the gospel these visitors are not kings at all, but wise men or “magi.” They are scholarly astrologers—quite probably Persian Zoroastrians—who have discovered a new star they see as heralding a royal birth. It is over the first four or five hundred years of the Christian era that the tradition develops that they were also royal figures, based largely on a verse from Psalm 72:
May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute,
may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts. (72:10)
And Matthew doesn’t say that there are three magi, but rather that they bring three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And as for a stable with a manger, this simply isn’t part of Matthew’s story. “On entering the house,” he writes, “they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.”
Seeing Matthew’s narrative as being distinct from that of Luke doesn’t make it any less significant; just different. If Luke has us focus on the night of Jesus’ birth and on the angelic announcement to peasant shepherds, Matthew tells us of the experience of these wealthy visitors from a far country who arrive once Mary and Joseph are safely settled into more permanent quarters. If you pay attention to the time-lines in Matthew’s story, you could even speculate that Jesus was closer to two years old. After all, when that madman Herod sends his death squads into Bethlehem he has them target all male children under the age of two, and this based on the information he received from the Magi as to the precise time of the appearing of the new star.
What is not speculative is that Matthew is giving us a story quite distinct from that of Luke, which is why it is traditionally told after the twelve days of Christmas, on this feast of the Epiphany. The word means literally a “manifestation,” and has tones of a sudden realization or awakening; a kind of “ah hah” moment, in which expectations and assumptions are tipped over and something new is made clear.
“The wise men,” says Walter Brueggemann, “had a long intellectual history of erudition and a long-term practice of mastery. But they had missed their goal by nine miles.” Nine miles is the literal distance from Jerusalem to Bethlehem; from the political centre of Judea to the no-count town of Bethlehem. If you’re following a star that you believe is a sign of the birth of a king, why go anywhere else but Jerusalem? Why not go knocking at the palace gates? Why not request an audience with Herod the king? Logically he would be the father of a new king, would he not?
But no. When the magi come to Herod, their suggestion that a new king has been born frightens him. He might be king of this people, but his kingship is built on tyranny. He is ultimately a pretender, who does not really know this people and their scriptures, and so he turns those who do. He summons the local religious leaders for counsel, asking where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they tell him, for they know their scriptures and can cite the prophet Micah, chapter and verse. “For from you [Bethlehem] shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
Pause there for just a minute. Herod is a tyrant, with a reputation for outrageous excess and violence. Why would those religious leaders so quickly offer him such counsel? Why not just play dumb, and keep the tyrant in the dark? Perhaps it was because their own security and comfort were entangled with the machinations of Herod’s rule. The politics of survival. Maybe it was just nine miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, but for Herod and his advisors it might as well have been a million miles. Jerusalem is what they knew and where they were secure, but if the prophet Micah was right about Bethlehem… well, who knows what that means for life as they knew it? Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t… so to speak… better the tyrant you have managed to figure out than an upheaval you can’t begin to anticipate.
It is the magi—the Gentile outsiders—who are prepared to mount up and take on that last nine miles. And I don’t think we should imagine that this was particularly easy for them either. Having traveled so far, they discover that their assumptions were wrong about where power and prestige are to be found, and now they have to head off to the sticks; to a place King Herod didn’t even really know about. And maybe as they went those final nine miles, they still harbored some image of a regal home tucked away in this Bethlehem.
Well whatever else the place might have been, the house where Joseph the carpenter and his young wife Mary were caring for their baby would not have been regal. Yet, Matthew tells us, the Magi were “overwhelmed with joy,” and “on entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.” With the old assumptions shattered, they went to their knees in front of this child. Never mind his surroundings, never mind that his parents were just ordinary folks, never mind the nine miles from the royal city to the small town. “[O]pening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Gifts fit for a king, which over the years have been variously interpreted: gold as a sign of earthly kingship, frankincense as representing worship and holiness, and the myrrh a symbol of his death and burial. But really, whatever else these gifts might symbolize, ultimately they speak of the surrender of the magi; surrender into mystery, and surrender into a new way of seeing. “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” Of course they went home by another road. They’d traveled those nine miles from Herod and Jerusalem to Jesus and Bethlehem. After what they’d experienced—after their surrender—how could it be otherwise?
“[T]he great work of Epiphany,” says Brueggemann, “is to recognize that most of us are looking for what God promises in the wrong place, wrong by nine miles.” I don’t know how it is for you, but I’ve often had the experience of reading something or of having a conversation with someone or even of being in worship and singing something, when suddenly I realize I’ve been struck by a “little epiphany.” Something opens up—I see something or hear something utterly new—and metaphorically I’m back on that nine mile road… which is where I think God often wants us to be.
In various ways, we often work with assumptions that effectively place the Christ child in Jerusalem rather than in Bethlehem. We easily assume that God will work according to our wishes and ideals and understandings. Yet as the prophet Isaiah proclaims, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.” In that lies the challenge—and the witness—of journey of the magi.