The Feast of the Epiphany, Year C
The Rev. R. Bingham Powell
The way we celebrate Christmas can end up being a bit like gorging ourselves on a rich meal. You know the kind of meal that I’m talking about, right? With appetizers so delicious that you might be full before the meal comes. And there are multiples courses to the meal like a creamy soup, and a salad, and lots of bread and butter, and an entrée, so that by the time the richest-dessert-you-have-ever-seen-in-your-life comes along, you are so full, so grossly full, that you cannot comprehend how your body can handle a bite. So, that’s all you do, a few bites. Or maybe you finish it, and then you find yourself stopping by the store on the way home for a packet of Tums. Now, it can be a lot of fun to have a meal like that from time to time, but it has its downsides, like we usually don’t get to enjoy the individual courses as much when we do, and sometimes we are sick of the richness before the final, and usually, richest course of all comes along.
The Epiphany story is like the final, rich dessert in this over-the-top meal. Having gorged ourselves on the whole theological meal of the Christmas story that by the time we get to this story we hear in our Gospel today, we’re pretty full and it ends up as little more than three men and some camels who bring some gifts to Jesus, potentially expendable if we are too full by the time we get there. It becomes part of the backdrop of the larger Christmas scene, and the individual richness of this story often goes underappreciated.
And this is a rich, rich story: not just of three kings, some gifts and a baby, but a story of political intrigue, mystery, power, and danger. Let’s take a closer look at this story.
It begins - In the time of King Herod…
We have our setting, and that setting is defined politically, defined by who is the king. You know from any good story – whether Shakespeare, the Bible, or Steven Spielberg - that when you get kings – the powers and principalities of this world - involved, it is probably going somewhere pretty exciting.
Look at the next line - After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea…
So, this does not happen on Christmas night; the wise men and the shepherds probably should not be seen in the crèche scene together.
Wise Men from the East came to Jerusalem…
Note that it doesn’t that there three of them came. There are going to be three gifts, but the story doesn’t say how many came. And the Greek here is magi, which doesn’t necessary mean king or wise men. They were probably some kind of religious leaders, but we really don’t know details. Also, we don’t know that they were all men. It may have included some women, too. All we can say for certain is that, linguistically, there had to be more than one, and one had to be a man. We also know that they come from the East. They are not Jewish. They are not of this land. They are foreigners. They are the other.
They asked Herod, “Where is this child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
The magi, through knowledge in accordance with their own faith tradition, which is not Judaism, have come to worship a new king. Reasonably, they presume that the current king must know. They probably think it’s his son - the future king is nearly always the king’s son, after all - but little do they know what kind of king this is going to be.
The news scares Herod. He finds out the answer from his own religious advisors, and quoting the Prophet Micah, they let him know that it would happen in Bethlehem:
`And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"
Herod asks the magi for more information, then send them off, now as his envoys gathering more information for him:
when you have found him, he says, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.
How utterly reasonable the magi must assume. They don’t grasp that Herod sees this new king as a threat. A threat to his political power. And a threat to the peace Herod keeps with the Romans. He knows enough of his own faith that the king that they are referring to might just be the Messiah that so many are hoping will break the rule of the Roman Empire. Allowing this Messiah to come to power might lead to war. And for Herod, a little political oppression of his people is better than war with the Romans. Herod likes the peace that allows him to live comfortably, even if others are oppressed in the process.
And, so unwittingly, they follow the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.
This star is their ancient GPS system; a mysterious star that leads them to where they are going, stopping right over the place where Jesus was.
And they are overwhelmed with joy.
Their journey has reached its conclusion. How joyful that must have been! They have come a long way. And they have come based on a star and some sort of prophecy that told them that following this star would lead them to a newborn king. They had stepped out on a dangerous journey, across many lands, going into the unknown. They didn’t know that they would make it. They had taken that proverbial leap of faith. And that faith is confirmed. Here they find the child, the newborn Christ. It is a joy-filled moment.
Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Three gifts fit for a king. What a striking image. These great foreigners at the end of a long journey giving the best gifts that they can to a little child. This is, of course, our crèche scene. We usually stop here, but, this is not the end of the story. Look at the next line that we are given:
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
The danger is not over. Herod does not want to pay homage, but rather to kill the child, and the magi will not become a part of that plot. And that’s where our story ends today. We end on a cliffhanger. What is going to happen to this child? Will Herod find him? How will they escape? Find out next week on the Bold and the Beau…. Nevermind…
The answer is: I’m not going to tell you. To find out, you’ll have to go home and find a Bible and start reading verse thirteen. Today, we are ending with the cliffhanger, ending with the danger, mystery, and intrigue.
Yes, this is not the friendly, domesticated Christmas story we heard thirteen days ago. And I’m not trying to be critical of that story, it is without a doubt one of my favorite stories of all time, only rivaled by the Resurrection. It is the main entrée of this theological meal, but I hope you saved a little bit of room for the rich dessert of Epiphany.
For in this Epiphany story, we are reminded that this little child is, in the words of Simeon in the temple in the second chapter of Luke, going to be responsible for the falling and the rising of many.
In this Epiphany story, we are reminded that this little child is going to challenge us, and is going to transform us. For once we have encountered Jesus, nothing is ever the same again.
In this Epiphany story, we are reminded that the life of faith requires a little bit of danger, and requires taking a few leaps of faith, and trusting that the ground will hold because God will be there with us.
In this Epiphany story, we are reminded to follow the star with the magi, uncertain of where exactly it will go, but knowing that the star will eventually stop, and we will be in Jesus’ presence, and we will see God face to face. Amen.