Epiphany marks the end of Christmastide – the end of the traditional 12 Days of Christmas. Now, if you’re good at math or have a calendar open on your phone, you’ll know we’re a bit early. The Feast of Epiphany is January 6 on the official liturgical calendar.
But because Epiphany is the day on which we mark the arrival of the three wise men, I don’t quite feel like we’ve finished telling the Christmas story without including this last portion in Matthew’s gospel.
Listen to the word of the Lord (Matthew 2:1-12)
In the past, I’ve used M&Ms to help children tell this part of the story. You can turn the M upside down to make a W, or left and right to make a 3 or E. So imagine spinning the m&m around to match the story…
3 Wise Men lived in the East
3 Wise Men saw a star
3 Wise Men came searching for a King
3 Wise Men found a child named Jesus
3 Wise Men gave gifts to the infant King
On Epiphany, we remember 3 Wise Men
Sadly, I don’t have any m&ms to share with you this morning, so we’ll just go on.
Now, I know the we sing about them as kings, but you probably noticed that only Herod was described as a king in the scriptures. These men were wise…
These days, we don’t place much stock in stars. We tend to mock those who spend time reading horoscopes. I mean, I’m a Libra and I like balance and all, but that’s about as far as I go into all that. We turn to scientists like Neil DeGrasse Tyson to explain unusual patterns and happenings in the night sky.
I do have friends who are star-gazers, who know where to find the constellations, and keep up with what comets will visit us and when. And I suspect that there are still people around who could, if need be, navigate using star charts… if they got far enough away from the light pollution we’ve created.
But back in the day, when these men were looking up at the night sky, astrologer-philosophers were considered mages. Not magicions, but wise men. They were familiar with the constellations and their movements, even if they hadn’t named the individual planets or stars within them and determined how many light years away they are, They understood the cycle of meteor showers. They had records of eclipses and comets.
So even if they didn’t know precisely what it was, they knew they were seeing something new in the sky, a new star at its rising.
Because they were also philosophers, they would have assigned meaning to this event. New stars did not ascend every day… they didn’t attend every event, every birth, every new season. These magi were not of Hebrew lineage, so they wouldn’t have known they were seeing a sign of the coming messiah. They did, however, know it meant something big was happening.
Something was up, so to speak.
Someone new was ascending to power
Someone worthy of proclamation in the heavens
Someone worthy of going to see.
When they arrived in Jerusalem, they found out they were right. Unfortunately, they found in Herod a king who was frightened by the prospect of a newborn king, as was all of Israel. Now, if we consider the desire of the powerful to maintain their power, perhaps his response is less surprising. Beside, Herod was decidedly NOT a model for the servant king God intended for the people.
Herod was another in a long line of kings and rulers who used their power to seek even greater power and wealth for themselves. By oppressing his own people, Herod and those in his upper echelon were able to align and ally themselves with Roman leaders. Thus, what seemed like good news to a wise man or two or three, struck fear in the hearts of those with the most to lose. The ones who were already on top and ignoring those at the bottom.
The wise men left Herod, met the child, left their gifts, and knew better than to go back to Herod’s palace. They returned home, having worshiped the one whose star announced his birth as it ascended. Because this is God’s Kingdom, the one who ascended is the one who took on flesh and humbled himself. The one who made the world, who spoke it into being, came into the world, making himself vulnerable to disease, and to the violence of which he knew humanity was capable. Violence like that which Herod perpetrated.
Listen to this next portion of Matthew’s gospel:
13Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
If not for the message in Joseph’s dream and their obedience in going, Jesus was certainly at risk of becoming one the innocents slaughtered at Herod’s command. This is another of those hard passages in scripture. The Word-Made-Flesh was not among the casualties, and so we want to skip past it, relieved, perhaps nodding at Rachel weeping for her lost children, but otherwise not assigning much meaning.
But we need to look at this truth about humanity, not turn away. We need to understand our need for Emmanuel, for redemption, for a savior, especially if we are to do as the apostle Paul exhorts us and work out our salvation with fear and trembling.
Because this is what power combined with fear and arrogance and rage looks like:
Families in and around Bethlehem, harvesting crops, cleaning their homes, making dinner, watching their sheep when the soldiers arrive and slaughter all the infants and toddlers by the order of the King
This is what power mixed with fear and rage looks like:
A twelve year old boy playing alone in a park with a toy gun when the police arrive, fatally wounding the child within seconds. With no consequences.
When power, fear and rage get twisted around in the human heart, we find ourselves mourning the slaughter of innocents in Charleston and Denver, in Newtown and Paris, in Syria and Kenya. Sadly, I could go on…
Like Rachel, the voices of their mothers and fathers, families and entire communities cry out in pain. They weep inconsolably. They ask again and again and again for justice, for peace, for some light in the darkness.
I can’t help but imagine Joseph and Mary returning from Egypt and hearing the full story of what happened as they ran to Egypt. Wondering how it could possibly be true. Joseph likely had extended family involved, given they had come to Bethlehem for the census because his family line was descended from David.
Their child – the cause of the disturbance – had been spared. Even as they understood the reasoning, their hearts must have broken. So many tears must have flowed – even delayed as they were by their travels.
That is what love mixed with sorrow and compassion looks like:
Listening to and believing the stories of those who suffer, crying for their loss, and raising your child as the promise of better days, a better kingdom to come.
This is what love mixed with sorrow and compassion looks like: Philippians 2:1-15
Taking on flesh, being obedient to death, even death on a cross, so that in being struck down, Christ might rise, ascend, shining as brightly as the star that shone at his birth
When love, compassion and sorrow take root in the human heart, we find ourselves laying down our positions of power, sharing our abundance, speaking out for the oppressed. We mourn and weep alongside those who mourn.
We look around and see that in God’s eyes we are all the same, no one above, no one below. Just beloved and beautiful children. And from that place of humility, we begin to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Then, as the Light of the World makes himself known through our love, scattered as we are in the midst of a violent, selfish, hateful, fearful generation, we begin to shine like stars.