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The Feast of the Epiphany
Isaiah 60:1-9; Psalm 72; Ephesians 3:1-13; Matthew 2:1-12
It was November. It was cold, and dark as that time of year often is, especially in Germany. On the 9-10, 1938, German SA paramilitary forces looted, burned, and smashed 267 synagogues and 7000 businesses owned by Jews. 30k men were imprisoned, and hundreds were killed. The German authorities, and neighbors of these people, looked on, and did nothing. As the power of evil lashed out those they feared, the people either supported it, or they chose to do nothing out of fear, or complacency. This was Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, a prelude to the greater horrors committed by the German Reich a few years later. And many people, seeing the carnage before them, tried to avoid making a decision either to help or to hinder this evil. In not choosing, they chose wrongly.
I tell you this story as a more recent example of something that is also quite evident in this Gospel text. Human beings who encounter Jesus Christ are forced to make a decision, like the decision these Germans faced when confronted with evil. One chooses to acknowledge the Lord before them, and the other, violent resistance. In Herod, we see the root of sin going back to Cain which seeks to dominate and control through violence, and which rejects God as a threat to that power. It is the power of Principalities, of Empire, of the Strong over the Weak. But this evil, as fearful as it seems at times, is actually feeble, weak, and insecure. What this Gospel story ultimately proves is that God will overcome the efforts of evil to prevent his plan of salvation. And from that, nestled in this story, we can find great hope.
It begins with wise men from the East, Magi we are told, come to find the Messiah of the Jews because they saw a star in the sky. Now these men are likely some kind of astrologers, learned men of their homeland, which is probably Babylon. Reading the stars was a common practice in those days, and men of Babylon would have been familiar with Jewish lore and prophecies, as many Jews had lived there since the days of Daniel. What actual astrological sign they saw, we do not know, but whatever it was, they connected it to the Messiah spoken of in the Hebrew Prophets, and God even used their pagan practice to bring them to Jesus!
Logically, they went to Herod, the ruler of the region, and asked where to locate the child. Herod, it says, was frightened. Why? Well, Herod was a man who valued power over all else. He was an accomplished man; yes the Romans were the boss so to speak, but he had direct jurisdiction over this area. He had built great monuments. And, like so many in power, he was paranoid. He killed his wife, two of his sons, and later a third, all out of fear of losing his throne. And this child, this usurper, this Christ, was a threat to that power. Human power is fleeting, like trying to catch a mist: it seems for a moment that it is in your hand, and then it melts away.
The learned men of Jerusalem are able to determine that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, based on a prophecy in Micah 5. And the scene we all know so well then occurs: the Wise men from the east come, they bow in worship to this two-year old child, this Christ, Jesus. And they offer him gifts fitting for a king. This is a profound event, or an echo from the future to us, of what we will see when Christ returns, that Great Day when all kingdoms, all knees will bow before the Lord. It is said that the kingdoms will bring gifts to the Lord Christ, and here is the foretaste of that, the day when peace really will reign.
Do not miss the contrast: Representatives of the Kingdoms of the World are both driven to decision in this story. On one side, the Magi bow their knees and bring gifts to the Son of God. On the other, Herod plots murder to hold his power. We, too, face a decision when we encounter Christ, as every person does. We embrace him and the kingdom of God, or we reject him, and at best choose to ignore his work, and at worst, actively oppose it. Like the Germans on that fateful November night, and the years that followed, we either choose faith and life, or unbelief and darkness.
Joseph is warned after the Magi leave, it is time to go. The child is in danger, and Herod would not stop until he had found him. So they flee to Egypt, where another king ruled, and so they escaped Herod’s reach, not returning until his death, and thus fulfilling the words of Hosea 11:1, bringing Jesus’s story and Israel’s story in the Exodus, together.
The Magi chose worship, while Herod chose destruction. I want us to note the warning that is implied here; Herod was king of Judea, and the people who call for Jesus’ death at the end of the Gospel are Jews. The Magi? Gentiles, outsiders, to whom God made himself manifest in Christ: Epiphany. Each of us is given the decision to believe in the Christ who is manifested to us, and to follow him, into sacrificing and even suffering for the sake of the Kingdom. And we should never presume on our heritage, on our status, or on the things the world counts as important, to guarantee our favor with God. It is only bending the knee to God’s will, to proclaiming that Jesus is Lord. That is the decision before all people.
But, we who choose Christ must also keep before us this: Even while Evil looms and strikes, Evil does not win. God provided for the flight of the family to Egypt; God provided for their return. God the Father protected his Son, Jesus Christ, and even when Jesus was forsaken on the Cross, by divine power he rose again for our salvation. By our faith, we too will not be forsaken, but raised to new life. His Kingdom is here, and it will continue to grow, and the light will shine in the darkness. That is Epiphany.
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