Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany. St. Paul’s Ossining, NY. Jan 6, 2013
“Arise, shine; for you light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”
Today is the feast of the Epiphany when we celebrate God coming into this world and manifesting himself to all people. The twelve days of Christmas are over and it’s time to take down the tree. We read the story of the Wise Men from the East visiting the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. It is altogether a joyful feast, a feast of light.
But if we continue to read, and pay attention to scripture something else comes out: “For darkness shall cover the earth and thick darkness the peoples”; that’s how the lesson from Isaiah continues—the light of God appears in a complex world full of shadows and darkness.
If we look closely at the story of the visit of the Wise Men, the main character is really King Herod. Herod the Great was a brilliant politician and ruler. He built numerous fortresses, he rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, and most remarkably, he was able to continue in power as a client ruler in the early Roman Empire. He had supported Mark Antony, and when Augustus defeated and killed Mark Antony, Herod convinced the new emperor that he would be the most reliable ally to rule Judea for the Roman Empire. He was always ruthless and always ruled for his personal self-interest. By the time Jesus was born, he was old; and probably paranoid—although with rulers in those days, it was a bit hard to tell, since if you thought someone was plotting to kill you, you were probably right.
So these astrologers arrive from Iran and ask about a newborn king. Herod is always thinking a couple of steps ahead. It’s not his heir that they are talking about. Now maybe this powerful warlord is simply jealous of a newborn who won’t be an adult until long after Herod is dead. But there is another thing to think about—Herod wasn’t exactly a nationalist leader, he wasn’t Judean and he wasn’t even Jewish by birth. He ruled by his political wiles, force of arms and the support of the Roman legions. If people started going around talking about a divinely designated King of Judea from the house of David; that could spark a nationalist uprising, and the Romans would not be happy.
So Herod had to get to the bottom of this. When the magi gave him the slip, he didn’t give up: four verses later in the Gospel of Matthew it says, “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 darkness of this story that we call the Visit of the Wise Men is the tremendous power and rage of this one man—who could at his mere command kill all the small children of the town. Nowadays we have progressed—two thousand years ago, it took someone of great power, with soldiers at his command to accomplish such an atrocity. Now, all it takes is the tremendous fear and rage and buying or taking one of the millions of semi-automatic assault weapons laying around this country, can go in and slaughter the innocents.
I grew up in the mountain West; hunting was an important part of the way of life when I was growing up. When I was a kid people believed that they were making an important addition to the family’s food, in the fall, after harvest was over. But these assault weapons, like the AR-15 that was used in Newtown, less than fifty miles from here, these weapons are not particularly good for hunting deer, since their ammunition is specially designed to rip up flesh and ruin the meat. So mostly these guns are purchased by people who don’t have anything constructive to do with them—maybe to make themselves feel a little less afraid—though it is hard to think of a defensive use for one of these weapons outside of a military situation. So the weapons sit around until someone comes along and decides to shoot off a lot of rounds. The weapons themselves and their ammunition create the probability of the eventual slaughter of innocents. The logical thing to do is to get rid of these weapons and ammunition, which is why the Bishops of the Diocese of New York have put a petition on the Diocese of New York webpage, asking for assault weapons to be banned.
The feast of the Holy Innocents in our calendar was on December 28th and the collect for that day says this: Receive we pray into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace…
This is a complicated world that we live in, and it was equally complicated when Jesus first came among us. There was darkness then; there is darkness now. But do not fear the darkness, it is the fear, as much as anything that brings about the evil. Jesus suffered the darkness and uncertainty as much as any of us, and his love is the light of the world.
“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.
Nations shall to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”