Epiphany 2019: Matthew 2:1-12
Legend, tradition, and hymnody aside, we don’t know if there were three wise men or many more, but I say we stick with the number three today, because although the story of the Epiphany could teach us many more things, there are three insights in particular in Matthew’s gospel that stick out to me today. First, for whom is the birth of Jesus good news? Second, for whom is the birth of Jesus not good news? And third, how can this good news call us into this new year of life in faith?
So first, this gospel passage with its few specific details paints an interesting picture of who receives the gift of Jesus as the good news of God’s reign coming into the world. Matthew was writing to Jewish Christians and throughout his narrative is careful to portray Jesus as the long awaited Messiah of Israel. That’s why Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth begins with the genealogy tracing Jesus’ lineage back beyond the Babylonian exile, to King David, and to Abraham. Matthew is an insider writing to insiders of the Jewish faith in a Jewish place. Yet in Matthew, the first people to acknowledge Jesus as the king of the Jews are three (or more) astrologers of some other religion from some other country. Some traditions even suggest that they represent what the ancients would have thought of as the three races of humanity—coming from Africa, Asia, and Europe and the Middle East—although again, from the text we don’t know that they were only three, or anything about their physical features. But we do know they aren’t expecting the Messiah because they’ve read the prophecies of Hebrew scripture; in fact, although the star gets them pretty close, they need to stop and ask the local Jewish scribes where the scriptures say the Messiah is supposed to be born. They are looking for the king of the Jews, but they aren’t from Israel and they aren’t Jewish themselves. So for Matthew and his Jewish audience living in first century Palestine, it’s probably surprising that the first thing they hear about the long-awaited Messiah is that he is celebrated not just by their own nation and religion but by people from other nations and other religions.
So for whom is God’s coming into the world good news? Not just for insiders but for outsiders. Not just for citizens of one nation but for all nations. Not just for those who look a certain way but for people of all backgrounds. Not just for adherents of one religion but for every religion. Not just for people who had read about Jesus in a book but for people who were led to find God through nature, by watching the stars in the sky. This is some far-reaching good news.
So what about the people for whom the birth of Jesus was not good news? Well, that would be King Herod. Matthew tells us that when the magi show up looking for the newborn king, Herod was frightened and all Jerusalem with him. Of course, Herod is frightened because he is the king, and there shouldn't have been a new king of the Jews until a son of his own took over after he died at a ripe old age…unless someone came along to start a war or incite a rebellion or poison his dinner or Game of Thrones him in some other way. All the rest of Jerusalem would have been frightened with him either because they were all his family and cronies who would have been deposed along with him, or because a frightened Herod is a dangerous Herod, and they didn’t know what he would do next. And although we stopped before we got to this part in the reading, we know what Herod did next: when he realized that the magi outsmarted him and snuck home without giving away Jesus’ location, he went on a killing spree and murdered all the boys in Bethlehem. Innocent children were martyred and the holy family had to hide out in Egypt until Herod died, apparently from a natural, if unpleasant illness, not from the violent overthrow of his government that he so long had feared.
For whom is God’s coming kingdom not good news? For those who will go to any lengths to protect their earthly power and privilege, and for those who benefit from their leader’s cruelty or who are complicit with it. All throughout the Old Testament, both in the Law and through the correction of the prophets, God tells the people of Israel that godly living does not look like people ascending to positions of wealth and influence by exploiting other people. So it’s no wonder that Herod the Great, who became famously wealthy by overtaxing his people and who even killed members of his own family to eliminate any threat to his power would not welcome the Messiah who was going to usher in God’s reign of mercy and save Israel from oppression. That God brings down rulers from their thrones and lifts up the humble is not good news for the guy on the throne.
But we are neither Herod nor the visitors from the East, outsiders trying to find God. God has already found us, and we are the recipients, not the givers, of God’s gifts. So how does the good news of this story call to us? We name today the Epiphany, big E, because this was the historic event of the star revealing Jesus’ whereabouts to the those who had come a long way to seek him. But epiphanies—small e—revelations of God at work—are happening all around us all the time. A star that leads you to travel for miles and then stops over the exact place that you’re looking for; that’s a big cosmic sign. But God is at work in and for and among and through us every day, with no flashy signal at all. The magi saw the sign of God and followed it; and they worshipped God and were overwhelmed with joy. Herod heard that God was doing a new thing and feared it, and tried by tricks and violence to stop it, and was overcome with rage. When we begin to see glimmers of God at work in us, of the changes God is bringing about in us, of the new challenges to which we are being called, we have the option to respond like Herod in fear and fighting, or like the magi with trust and joy.
We don’t need to seek the God who sought us before we were even born. But we are called to recognize the gifts God has given us and to find ways to return those gifts to God through loving, merciful, just, and compassionate service to others. We are called and we are gifted. So we’re going to try something today. There are two bags, one for each side of the sanctuary, and inside those bags are stars with words on them. They’re called Star Words. And you each get one, but you don’t get to choose which one. Just reach in the bag—without fearing which one you’re going to get, without checking first to make sure it’s one you want, without trading to see if you can get one you like better—and take a star and read your word. You don’t have to show the person beside you; you don’t have to show me on the way out, unless you can’t read my writing. Take your star home and put it someplace you’ll see it; on the fridge or on the bathroom mirror or in your wallet or on your dashboard. Keep it for awhile—keep it all year. And whenever you see it, take a moment, and meditate on it. Think about how it’s a gift that God has given you. Think about how it’s a hope that God has for you. Think about how it’s something you could share. It’s not a self-help thing; or maybe it is a little, but only in so much as contemplating it gives you an opportunity to see more clearly how God is helping you, how God is gifting you in your life, and how God may be calling you to use what you’ve been given. May God gift and guide you in this new year, and may you follow in faith without fear.
Posted on Sun, January 6, 2019
by Lori Tremmel