A sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2019
Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.
Our Gospel story this morning is the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. People usually call this the story of the Three Kings. The problem is that, when you look at the story in the Bible, it’s clear that these guys are not kings. It says Magi, which definitely doesn’t mean king—it probably means something like astrologer, sage, or maybe astronomer. Maybe even magician or sorcerer. And another thing is that it doesn’t say how many there were. There were three gifts named, but there could have been two or twenty Magi in this group that appeared in Jerusalem.
But the really big thing is that the main character in this story is Herod, not the Magi, or Joseph, or even Jesus. Herod was the King of Judea, but he wasn’t descended either from David or any of the Hasmonean kings who had ruled Judea in the previous century. His father was Idumean, which meant that most of the Jewish population didn’t regard him as legitimately Jewish, let alone as a real king. But Herod was a brilliant politician—he managed to be an ally and supporter of both sides in the Roman civil war that resulted in the establishment of the Roman Empire. He maintained his rule and power through wily manipulation of political factions and the backing of the Roman military. He used people’s fears and suspicions of one another to neutralize their suspicion of him. He presented himself as an alternative to Roman domination, while using Roman power and occupation to maintain his own domination of this kingdom. It was a precarious balancing act, to maintain this power. Herod was suspicious that at any turn, someone might do something to overthrow him—and he was right. Tyrants are always insecure for good reason.
So these astronomers show up, sharing their observations and their interpretations of them. Of course, Herod was frightened. They were talking about a person with legitimate claims to his office. No matter what Herod or the Romans thought about his right to reign, an heir to David could greatly increase resistance to him and undermine the Romans’ plans. Herod plots. He secretly talks with the Magi, asks them to find this infant king for him.
Today’s lectionary reading ends with the Magi finding Jesus and his mother, giving their gifts and paying him homage. But the story in the Gospel continues. These are people whose job is interpreting dreams, and their dreams tell them not to trust this Herod guy. They leave Bethlehem by an alternate route. Joseph also has a dream, and heads south with the child and his mother. But the story continues:
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the Magi, 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 Magi.
The evil and cruelty are easy enough to understand. This man had power and he wanted to keep it. Being cruel to powerless children was efficient for a ruler with no governing values except staying in power. It’s nothing new, people saw it back then, the Gospel of Matthew observed it and described it; we see it now.
The Gospel proclaims that that is NOT God’s way. The King in Bethlehem was not powerful but a helpless infant. The King in Bethlehem was not a raging narcissist, out for himself alone, but Jesus, living compassionately for others, protected by a loving and courageous mother. They were protected and brought to safety by her husband, a humble man, doing what he needed to do, and going where he needed to go for the well-being of his family. God protected that infant through those who listened to God, those who knew to follow where God was leading them.
Our world has dangerous and evil things in it, dangers and evil people, and the Bible never implies otherwise. In our lesson from Isaiah it says, “For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples.” We experience these things, and that is why the stories in the Bible are so compelling. But the message is that God does rescue us from this evil. God uses the good and compassionate Joseph to rescue the infant Jesus; God prevails upon the consciences of those astrologers from Persia to listen to their suspicions of Herod and avoid him. God enlightens us to see the light of Jesus—who lives a life of pure compassion, pure integrity, pure love. God calls us to live lives of compassion, integrity and generosity for others for the sake of the well-being of this world, and not for selfish gain, or illusory power. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that doing so will be easy—that there will be no danger, or anger, or confusion. Following Jesus includes the fear and anger of people like Herod, or those who crucified Jesus. We are blessed because we can be generous, we can be compassionate, we can live life abundantly and not be overcome by that fearful selfishness that characterizes this world.
That company of Magi brought what they could. They gave the child gold, frankincense and myrrh, all the precious things they had. They rejoiced and we rejoice because that child, the new king, the different king has come into this world where we live. Jesus is here—his light shines in the Bronx.
And our psalm for today says:
Give the King your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the King’s Son;
That he may rule your people righteously and the poor with justice;
That the mountains may bring prosperity to the people,
and the little hills bring righteousness.
He shall defend the needy among the people;
he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.
He shall live as long as the sun and moon endure, from one generation to another.
He shall come down like rain upon the mown field,
like showers that water the earth.
In his time shall the righteous flourish;
there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.