Sermon for Epiphany
Tonight we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, which effectively marks the end of Christmas—yesterday was the last of the 12 days— and begins to move us into a new season. The tree, the wreaths, and the garlands are still up, but by next Sunday they’ll be safely packed away for another year. Tonight we tell this infancy story from the Gospel according to Matthew, and move into the season called Epiphanytide. It is a kind of in-between season, marking the Sundays from now until Lent begins in mid-February. It is a season that has us stand for a while in the circle of light cast by these extraordinary stories of origins—Luke’s nativity, Matthew’s story of the visit of the Magi, and then next week Jesus’ baptism at the River Jordan.
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Telling Luke’s story on Christmas Eve and then Matthew’s almost two weeks later is not some sort of device created by liturgists to remind us that Christmas is a 12-day festal season. No, it is something the church has been doing for some 1500 years, and it reflects a basic insight that the story told by Matthew is different from the one told by Luke. Popular representation and religious art have tended to conflate the two, so you end up with a manger scene with shepherds, Magi, a star, and often an angel or two overlooking the whole scene. Yet a closer reading of the two stories suggests something different.
Luke’s nativity story has a manger, shepherds, and angels—a whole heavenly host of them, in fact—but no star and no wise men. Matthew’s account, on the other hand, makes no mention of a stable or shepherds; the Magi find Jesus and his parents in house in Bethlehem. And Matthew doesn’t give us images of big, bright, visible angels the way that Luke does. No, instead Matthew writes of dreams. Twice an angel appears to Joseph in a dream; once to assure him that Mary’s pregnancy is as it should be (1:20), and once to warn him to “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt” in order to escape the wrath of Herod (2:13). And as we heard in tonight’s gospel, it is in a dream that the Magi are warned not to return to Herod, but rather to go home by another road. (2:12)
Such differences shouldn’t trouble us. We tell two different stories—or better, two different parts of a larger story called the good news of Jesus Christ—and we tell them on two different feast days. More than just offering different details, these two gospel writers each offer a unique perspective on the whole. Like any great writer, artist, photographer or filmmaker, they invite us to stand with them and to see things from a very particular vantage point.
So what is it that Matthew has seen that he wants to share with us? Where has he trained his camera, and what has he brought into focus?
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.” And when King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.
Matthew sees a political story, with these travelers coming from a distant land to “pay homage” to the child born to be the new king of the Jews. Quite sensibly, the travelers have made their way to Jerusalem and go directly to the royal home of King Herod; where else would an heir to the throne be born? Yet on hearing of their quest, Herod is said to be frightened, “and all Jerusalem with him.” Herod is only King of the Jews in name; he is anything but a devout follower of the torah, and what power he does have has been given him by the Roman overlords. We know from the historical records of the day that he was unafraid to wield that power, and that to secure his position he had several members of his own family killed, including his own wife.
And what of that phrase about “all Jerusalem” being frightened with him? I suspect that what Matthew has in view are those in the Jerusalem hierarchy who had an investment in maintaining the status quo; in keeping the balance of power as it was. And apparently that circle included “the chief priests and scribes of the people”—or at least some of them—whom Herod summons for some insider information.
Bethlehem, they tell him; our scriptures say it will be in Bethlehem. And so Herod sends the magi off to the backwater town of Bethlehem, but not before setting up a bit of his customary intrigue. He asks them for the basic information of when they’d first seen that star (How old is this child…. how much damage has already been done?), and then tells them to search for the child. “[A]nd when you have found him,” Herod adds, “bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
And so it is off down the road to Bethlehem; hardly the journey they’d expected to be making, yet these travelers seem willing to go wherever needed in order to reach their goal. Matthew writes that “When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy,” and I’m not even going to begin to speculate on the mechanics of a star standing still over a particular place. Frankly, the more interesting insight here is that their way of seeing the world’s reality—through stars and astrological study—was what led them to the child.
Their response, too, is fascinating; “they were overwhelmed with joy.” Joy at having finally arrived at their destination? Or standing at the door of that home, did they already know that something unexpected was about to happen?
Matthew tells us that, “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and [that] they knelt down and paid him homage;” that they knelt before this peasant child in a posture of humility, and then offered him the regal gifts they had carried so far. For a moment, the story moves from politics to praise—from the seekers’ desire to meet a king to a deeper epiphany of what was really going on. There’s that word again: epiphany. It is not a word that actually appears in the text, though it is a word from the biblical Greek; epiphaneia. As defined in the Merriam Webster Dictionary, the word means “a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something,” and that is what these magi experience. There, in that simple place in that small town, with a young mother and her tradesman husband, they see in the face of that child something more regal and true than they could have possibly seen in the face of Herod.
And again, what had taken them out on this journey had been their own religious and philosophical system; one rooted not in the Hebrew scriptures, but in the study of the stars. Yes, there was a moment when it was the scriptures that redirected them toward Bethlehem, yet it is a reading of the star that marks both their starting point and their final destination. God, it seems, is willing to draw us forward in extraordinary and sometimes unlikely ways.
“And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” The story, you see, does move quickly back into politics. Read on through the next section, and there’s this picture of a ruthless Herod sending his death squads in to Bethlehem to kill all of the male children under the age of two. There’s the warning in the dream to Joseph, and the young family is in flight as refugees, running in fear from the soldiers.
But perhaps there’s another significance to the magi having to return “by another road.” Once they’ve experienced that epiphany—once they glimpsed the essential nature and meaning of this birth—the road home will necessarily be a different one. And even home itself will not ever be quite the same place again. Once you’ve glimpsed what is truly real and utterly true, every road is made different and every pathway made new.
And it remains so for us, even in our own oftentimes small glimpses of truth and eternity. Roads are made different, pathways are made new. Which is why year after year we tell and retell this story.