I preached tonight at my home congregation. You can listen to the audio here.
Grace, peace and mercy are yours from the triune God. Amen
I was in the grocery store this week and was dismayed to discover that candy and decorations for Valentine’s Day and even EASTER have begun to litter the shelves. Like the discarded wrapping paper and the Christmas tree that is dropping its needles all over the house, we are so quick to sweep up the Christmas story into storage for next year. Today we celebrate the holiday in the church year known as Epiphany. Epiphany is the culmination of the twelve days of Christmas, which contrary to what our consumer culture would have us believe, actually begin AFTER Christmas day. We kind of lump Epiphany together with the Christmas story, in the same way that we put the shepherds and wise men together at the manger on the night of Christ’s birth. But Epiphany is something different.
Epiphany is the celebration of three visitors coming from a land in the East, following a star pointing the way to where Christ has been born. These wise men from the east are not Jewish priests or average religious folk. They are the first people, outsiders nonetheless, to acknowledge the new thing that God is doing in the little town of Bethlehem, and bear witness to the power of what has occurred with the incarnation of Christ and what is to come. I believe that we would all like to think, that given the opportunity, we would respond to the birth of Christ like the wise men in today’s gospel. We would like to think that even on orders from a powerful and tyrannical king we would recognize the greatness of God in the birth of Jesus. In proper awe, we would not be afraid to defy earthly structures of power and might, and just like the wise men, we would return home by “another way.” However, brothers and sisters, while we are a little bit like the wise men, I think that we all have more than a little bit of King Herod in us too.
The wise men come to Jerusalem, the seat of power and influence at this time, and say to King Herod, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” Matthew goes on to note, “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” Why would a powerful King such as Herod be frightened of an infant born in a dingy stable in Bethlehem?
I think we get a clue when we look at who is called a king in this gospel text. Matthew sets up the conflict to come by placing the birth of Jesus in the reign of King Herod, and then proceeds to set up the threat to Herod’s supremacy, stating that a CHILD has been born who is also a KING. Herod perceives a threat to his position of authority. This new infant king is a threat to the worldly order. And that is the point. The Epiphany represents God doing a new thing. The Word made flesh in a way so out of the ordinary, so unexpected, that we simply must pay attention.
These wise men are bearing witness to the event of the Epiphany. They bring gifts, not for an earthly king bloated with his own authority and comfortable in his kingdom, but rather, these foreign men are compelled on a journey to pay homage to an infant. An infant born in a shed to an unwed teenage mother, with an earthly father who was a laborer and a heavenly father who was bound and determined to break through the walls we have constructed around our hearts and in our world. God came into the world and turned it upside down. But along with that comes the fear that not only are we not in control now, but the deep fear of knowing that we have never been.
We too, like Herod, have built comfortable kingdoms around our lives, insulating ourselves from the unexpected epiphanies of God in the world. We might live quietly on a secluded street and not know any of our neighbors, hiding behind a tall fence and locked door. We might refuse to make eye contact with the man or woman standing on the corner of Colfax with a cardboard sign, for fear they ask us yet again for spare change. We might even do this in this church community of House, feeling so comfortable here that we believe that God cannot possibly work anywhere else.
We tend to think that we know best what we need in our own kingdoms and that generally comes down to what we want at any given point in time. I am leaving tomorrow for St. Paul, Minnesota. I am one of the Rocky Mountain Synod’s candidates for ordination and a part of my education requires that I take some classes at a Lutheran Seminary. I have gotten really comfortable in Colorado in the last 7 ½ years that I have lived here. I feel safe and loved. Tomorrow’s move away from my home and the people that I consider to be my family has caused me fear ever since I started listening to God’s call for my life, to use me in the ministry of Word and Sacrament. I have shed many, many tears over the last month as I have come to realize that this calling out by God, out of my comfortable life here in Denver and into the next step of my vocation, is real. I wish that I could say that I am joyfully following a star on a magnificent pilgrimage, but truthfully, today I’m struggling to trust the promise of the Epiphany. The promise that God has come into the world in an unexpected way and is already transforming the kingdoms I have built and is using me for something beyond myself. I find myself wanting to adopt a posture of defensiveness and a desire to control the situation because I am afraid, just like Herod in today’s gospel. Just like all of us when we are in fear. MY world is changing, I feel out of control, and there is not a damn thing that I can do about it.
We all want to control our destinies, like Herod tried to do, yet it can be difficult to admit this, and we far too often attempt to make it look otherwise because it is really scary to admit we are not in control. Many of us are hoping with the start of the New Year that we will be able to change our lives for the better, with working out or finding a fulfilling new job, or any job at all for that matter. Or hoping that this is the year that we might be able to finally stop drinking or getting involved in destructive relationships or doing the same things over and over again, hoping that they will make us happy one day, despite the fact they haven’t done so yet. But the fact of the matter is that we are not capable of transforming ourselves. God alone has the ability to break into our lives and transform us. And that is exactly what happened with the birth of Jesus Christ in the world. Our fear is pointless in the face of a God who moves through the world and through our lives in an Epiphany way.
Herod is not a lovable character, and appears in the birth narratives as a villain, but God became manifest in Christ for people like him too. And for all of us. God in Christ broke into our world with the birth of an infant on a dark night in Bethlehem. As the cry of a newborn shattered the silence of that night, the Word became flesh and lived among us. Herod realized the precarious kingdom of authority that he had built around himself was threatened and he was afraid. When we attempt to control the kingdoms that we have built around ourselves that allow us to feel safe, we miss where God is showing up in unexpected ways. And besides, we just can’t control God.
But we have a God who refuses to be boxed in by human attempts to control Him. This is a God who breaks into our darkest nights and arrives to the most unlikely of earthly parents, a peasant girl and a carpenter. A God who came not to challenge the worldly order, but to transform it. A God who continues to work in and in spite of us, and in spite of our earthly struggles to arrange our lives to suit ourselves, and that is what we celebrate with the Epiphany. And today I continue to cling to that promise. Amen.