Ps. 72:1-7,10-14; Mt. 2:1-12
“In the time of King Herod.” Jesus was born in the time of King Herod. The Scriptures do not tell us much about Herod, probably because they assume the original readers of the gospel already knew all about King Herod. So let me fill you in a little. King Herod was not born king of the Jews. He had been a moderately successful military general at the head of an army of mercenaries that had been hired by the Roman Empire, and so one day the Roman Senate, as a reward for services rendered, made him king of Judea.
By the time Jesus was born, Herod was about seventy years old. The surviving accounts tell us that he was deeply insecure and paranoid. That he was unpopular because it was perceived that he had been placed in office by a foreign power to serve foreign interests, and that he was being supported by a corrupt religious establishment. I know it’s hard for some of you to imagine that there could be a ruler like this. Oh, and he built what is now known as the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.
I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist having some fun there. But I really don’t mean to comment on any particular individual. This is not the time or place for that. It’s just that, for most of human history, this is what powerful people have been like. Fawning and accomodating to those above them in the food chain, ruthless and suspicious towards they perceive as weak, measuring accomplishments in the building of monuments and not in personal character or improving people’s lives. I think it’s safe to say that most human beings have lived “in the time of King Herod,” or someone more or less just like him.
And so, in the time of King Herod, there arrived in Jerusalem some Magi from the East. The term Magi has been translated as “wise men” or as “kings,” but it doesn’t really mean either of those things. “Wizards” might be the best word we have to describe them. Experts in ancient and mysterious knowledge, who read the stars for signs of the spiritual forces that hold mastery over the lives of mortals. Pagans, really – people who do not know the God of Israel nor are expected to know the living God. Pagans, who naturally think of the gods as being something like King Herod and his clones everywhere in the world, except perhaps a bit more powerful. And yet, the foreign religious practices of these wizards yield some information that is in fact true: that the King of the Jews has been born.
And so, they set out to see King Herod to pledge their submission to this newborn king, whose divine power and majesty they have discerned in the skies. Being pagans, of course, they assume that this king will desire the kinds of gifts that would impress someone like King Herod. Gold, for starters. And exotic and expensive fragrances like myrrh and frankincense. Gifts fit for a king accustomed to grabbing whatever (and whomever) he wants, gifts fit for a king accustomed to displaying his wealth and celebrating his power.
And so the Magi head directly to the palace of King Herod, where things turn bad very quickly. Because Herod, of course, is unaware that any of his descendants have had recent offspring that would have prompted this visit. And this is where Herod’s insecurity and his ruthlessness combine to produce one of Bible’s great crimes, the sending of death squads to kill the children of Bethlehem. It’s because of this event that Jesus and his family become refugees. It’s shocking, when maintaining power is at stake, how easily we can justify anything, even the death of children. Or, these days, maybe it’s not that shocking.
But first Herod summons his court prophets. People who claimed to be religious authorities but in reality had sold their souls to serve the murderous Roman puppet king. And yet, when they search the Scriptures, they also find information that is, in fact, true. In the Scriptures that forsee the day when there will be another king who is not like King Herod, but a king like the one described in today’s psalm. A king who will give justice to the poor, who will govern with compassion and peace, a king who will be worthy of the gifts of all the nations because he will teach the whole world the ways that lead to justice and peace. That king, the prophets say, will be a true offspring of David, the righteous king of ancient times, and so it is fitting that he will come from the city where David was born, from Bethlehem.
And with this knowledge from Scripture, combined with their pagan reading of the skies, the Magi take their leave from Herod and head to Bethlehem. Where they enter a small house, very unlike the palace of King Herod, to find not a king in splendor with a whole court of servants and sycophants, but only the baby Jesus and his mother. You have to wonder if at first they thought perhaps they had the wrong house. After all, navigation by the stars does not exactly provide GPS-like precision. If it did the Magi would have gone directly to Bethlehem without stopping to see Herod first. No, it takes discernment for the Magi to know whether they have actually found the king they seek.
So there is something about the baby Jesus and his mother that convinces the Magi that they have come to the right place, that they have found the one they were looking for. What convinced them? Certainly it wasn’t the words of the baby Jesus, who – as far as we know – was just like any other human baby when it comes to not being able to speak. And there was only one other person there. So it must have been his mother – a true daughter of Israel formed by the Scriptures and the stories and hopes of the Jewish people – who perhaps told them of the king long before foretold in the psalm, who would “defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.” Perhaps Mary sang her song that is recorded elsewhere in the gospels: “God who is mighty has done great things for me. … God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. God has fulfilled the promises made to Abraham and his descendents forever.”
However it happened, something happened to the Magi there in that house with the baby Jesus and his mother. There they met the true and living God made flesh, and they came to understand something about this God they had not understood before – in short, they had an epiphany. That this God whose presence they had seen in the stars was in fact different from all the gods and all the kings that they had known. And this epiphany changed them. We know this, because they did not return to Herod as they had been told to do. Magi, welcome to the resistance.
And what does this mean for us, who are called the church of the Epiphany? Let me briefly suggest three things.
One, I think this story confirms that we are on the right track as a congregation that welcomes and affirms everyone. Everyone in this story has something of the truth – even the people who are very different and had confused ideas about God, even people who were morally compromised and flawed. Everybody had a unique aspect of the truth that only they perceived, and the story doesn’t come together unless everyone’s truth is heard and valued. That is what we aspire to do as a congregation, and we should – that is how epiphanies happen.
Second, the Magi had an epiphany of what God is really like, and the living God is not like what they had imagined God to be. The living God is not interested in gold, frankincense, or myrrh. The living God is not interested in the kind of power that the King Herods of the world enjoy. The living God is interested in lifting up people, especially the people who are on the receiving end of King Herod’s power, the poor, the children, the migrants, the powerless. Just as Jesus himself would 30 or so years later end up on the receiving end of the power of Rome, King Herod’s protector, and King Herod’s own grandson. Because that is where God is to be found, then and now. That’s what the God we worship is like. And that is always a challenge for us, to keep discerning where this God is to be found today, and to go there even when it’s challenging and confusing and perhaps unpleasant. Because that’s where we can continue to have epiphanies – where the living God is present in the least of our brothers and sisters.
And finally, the Epiphany happens in a house where the God made flesh dwells among us. The house where God is revealed physically in the body of Jesus, and where God is revealed in the Word spoken by Mary, she in whom the body of Jesus first dwelled. This house, where we the body of Christ called Epiphany Lutheran Church come together, to receive the body of Christ broken for us, to become the body of Christ for the world. The houses where we go after our meeting today, where we the body of Christ speak the Word that reveals to us today what God is really like. This is where epiphanies happen.