First Sunday after Christmas
1 January 2011
St. John United Church of Christ
St. Clair, MO
An Epiphany for the New Year
Based on St. Matthew 2: 1-12
By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell
Happy New Year and a Blessed Epiphany! It’s not really Epiphany yet, that comes on January 6 – 12 days after Christmas. But we commemorate it today, while still in the season of Christmastide. While most around us have moved on from their celebration of Christmas, and now focuses on their New Year’s resolutions, the Church is just in the middle of its celebration. I find it a great confluence however, that New Year’s and Epiphany come each year around the same time. Epiphany comes from a Greek word meaning manifestation or revelation. When we say we’ve had an epiphany we often say “a light bulb went on” – that we’ve had some new discovery or revelation. It’s convenient then that we review our last year at this time, and wonder what the new year might reveal, what God might bring to our lives in the coming 12 months. And we lay plans and make resolutions on how we want this New Year to go. It is good to do this at Epiphany, a season of revelation, a manifestation of the divine.
The day of Epiphany is when the Church celebrates the coming of the magi, the wise men to see the messiah. Though we often tack this story onto the end of the nativity story of Jesus being born in a manger – that story only takes place in St. Luke’s gospel, and the wise men only arrive in St. Matthew’s gospel. Both stories, I believe are true. However, scholars tell us that the magi may have taken as long as two years for them to arrive to see Jesus, then perhaps in his “terrible two’s” phase. Our passage this morning says they enter not a barn or stable, but a house – so perhaps Mary and Joseph are at home at this point. Notice too that nowhere in this morning’s passage, or even the whole of scripture, are the wise men referred to as kings. Referring to them as kings is a tradition that came far after the story of the magi was written down, along with naming them Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar. In fact, the Bible doesn’t even tell us how many wise men actually came to see Jesus. Early Christian art sometimes depicts as many as twelve, other times as few as two magi. It is because they brought three gifts that our popular telling of the story now depicts three wise men.
We know little of these men. St. Matthew tells us that “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 the king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.” The original word in the Greek for wise men, also means astronomers. So it makes sense then that they would notice a peculiar star. So we are told that astronomers from the East see the star and go to Jerusalem. But telescopes weren’t a child’s toy then and stargazing wasn’t nearly the hobby it was today. Historians and biblical scholars tell us that at the dawn of the first century A.D., or common era as it is known, the most likely candidates to be astronomers in the East were Zoroastrians in Persia, modern-day Iran. Zoroastrianism was then the predominate religion in Persia, prior to the rise of Islam. Throughout history it has had a serious decline, and they now number only around 200,000 followers. But Zoroastrians have always emphasized astronomy in their worldview, and in fact the word ‘Magi’ means a follower of that religion. While I can’t detail their beliefs for you this morning, it is worth noting that like the Jewish faith and the Christian faith thereafter, Zoroastrians believe in one Creator God, just as we do and our Jewish ancestors did. So while the Jewish people may have had some hostilities to them due to having a different faith, there was also the possibility of having allies together in their belief in the Creator, rather than the pagan beliefs of Rome and Greece. So here we have these followers of another religion, of another language, of another culture, come to Jerusalem to seek the savior. So already, shortly after Jesus’ birth, Jesus’ story is already international and interfaith.
St. Matthew is showing us that Jesus is already breaking down barriers. According to Matthew’s gospel, the first to kneel before Jesus are not his own people, but Gentiles, foreigners from a faraway land. The magi see in the star a sign of the messiah, they follow it, and become the first to pay homage to him as the messiah. We learn later in the gospels how often Jesus would be rejected by his own people, the very ones he came to save, only to be welcomed and accepted by Gentiles and others on the margins of society. This is the great irony of the whole Jesus story – that those who are known as God’s chosen people reject God in the flesh, and that those on the margins who accept Jesus are accepted too, and are themselves redeemed. This gospel passage shows us too that Jesus is worthy of worship, worthy of such gifts of incense that one would mark something holy with. St. Matthew is making a statement here not just about Jesus of Nazareth, but also the divine nature of Christ.
We also see though that as well as being worshiped, Jesus will attract hostility too, especially from those in power. The only king in this story is Herod. The only one in the story with any real sense of earthly power, is threatened by this infant in the backwater Bethlehem. Jesus hasn’t even started preaching against the powers and principalities yet – that will come some 30 years later. So why is Herod threatened? He is the one appointed by the Roman emperor to be king of the Judeans, and here come these wise men from Persia asking, “Where is the child who has been born the king of the Jews?” There is already unrest in the land over Rome’s occupation of Judea – one can imagine the Herod would want to quash any hint of competition, even an infant. He deceptively tells the wise men to go and find the child so that he may also pay homage. This part always confused me as a child in Sunday School. I knew Herod was supposed to be evil, so why would he want to worship Jesus? Obviously I didn’t know about the concept of deception and trickery at that point. The wise men do not return to Herod, and so later St. Matthew tells us that Herod orders the slaughter of all the male infants in Bethlehem, and Joseph and Mary with the baby flee to Egypt until Herod has died. Such behavior was in character for Herod, who had no qualms at other times having his own sons and rabbis killed as well.
This aspect of the story, aside from adding intrigue and danger, foreshadows the ways in which Jesus will incur the anger of the scribes and chief priests, along with the Roman rulers. Jesus’ message of the last being first, of the poor and mourning and meek receiving the kingdom of God, of powerless widows and children really understanding what God is about, of welcoming the unclean, and castigating the wealthy and powerful was offensive to those in power who had turf to protect. When we rightly understand that this is the same Christian message today, it should be just as threatening to those in the seats of power. This is important to remember in the most powerful country in the world – the gospel message reminds us that we are called to humility, as we find God in a humble stable. We are called to humility in having ears to hear the Good News from foreigners from another land who look and talk differently than we. Jesus was born on the margins and the Christian Church lived its first 300 years on the margins. In this country it is the majority religion, and even so we are reminded that we are still called to do ministry on the margins and to speak up for those who have no voice in the halls of power. We are reminded too that just as the wise men may have come from another religion, another path to God, we should find commonality with people of other faiths and live together in respect and harmony.
The message of Epiphany to each of us today is that God breaks down our barriers, that God is found in the poor and the unexpected. God’s power may be found in kings, but is more often in the marginalized. God surprises us by showing up in unexpected people and unexpected places. As we move into this season of Epiphany, let us open our eyes, our ears, our hearts, and our minds for God’s presence and God’s revelation to us in new and unexpected ways.
+Glory be to God. Amen.