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Epiphany of Christ, January 6, 2019 | 4:00 p.m.
By Another Road
Shawn M. Fiedler
Ministerial Associate for Worship, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Have you begun to dismantle Christmas yet? Have you taken down the tree? Removed lights or other decorations? Returned to the store that which did not fit? Put away the crèche? In most homes now it has become customary on New Year’s Day to un-deck the halls. Corpses of dried Christmas trees line the streets come January 1. Twinkling lights—shut off. Carol books—stowed away. And I think that’s a bit unfair.
The Christmas season officially lasts twelve days. And quite honestly, to end it any earlier is a bit upstaging to some key figures in the Christmas drama who appear much later than Christmas Day: the magi, the kings, the wise ones.
We know very little about the magi. They never make an appearance again in the Christian story. The church has built up a tradition about these persons. Some traditions say there are three magi, three wise men; others say twelve. Matthew doesn’t quite say. We’ve given them names. Do you know them? Shout them out!
“Caspar. Melchior. Balthasar.”
Well done! Doesn’t mean you know your Bible, though. As it turns out, those names do not appear in scripture at all.
Some call the magi magicians or astronomers, scholars or exotic kings. Some say they traveled from Africa, or Asia. Others say they came from Europe. They have made their way into our Christmas pageants and nativities.
Their story is bold and wondrous enough to grant them their own festival, or special day in the life of the church. Today we celebrate the Epiphany. The word epiphany means “manifestation” or “moment of sudden insight,” to learn something, to see something for the first time and be utterly changed. We celebrate the day these mysterious visitors greet the newborn babe—and are forever changed.
We love the story of the kings. And no amount of scholarship or new insights will change our nativity pageants, our Christmas decorations, our hymns. There is a wonder and a mystery about this story of wandering magi led to Jesus from the East by a rising star.
We love this story in part because of the mystery these three (or twelve) distant and somewhat exotic guests introduce into the story. And because of the beauty and fittingness of their gifts.
But there is also another element to this story that often gets forgotten in our pageants and presents: fear.
King Herod, after all, does not greet the news of a newborn king with joy and gladness, nor does he search for a gift fit to present the messiah. Rather, he is afraid. The Gospel reads: “Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘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.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:1–3).
King Herod rose to power through military conquest with the backing of Rome—the occupying government. His reign saw many cultural and architectural achievements. And here’s the truth: Herod wasn’t necessarily evil. He was relatively popular, even with those in Jerusalem. It was during his reign that Jerusalem saw the building of the great temple so often referenced in our scriptures. He was so popular he earned the title “King of the Jews.”
One thing that’s true about this world: the one thing the powerful seek more than anything else is to remain in power.
Herod is immediately threatened by the mere mention of another—and therefore rival—king. On this Sunday of the Epiphany, we stop short in reading the rest of the story, but Matthew’s Gospel goes on:
Now after the Magi had gone, 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.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and fled to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent for and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under. (Matthew 2:13–16).
This story is sometimes referred to as the Massacre of the Holy Innocents.
Fear is a powerful, haunting thing. In response to his fear, Herod conspires to find the baby Messiah and kill him. In his fear, Herod kills an entire generation in and around Bethlehem. The threat of this newborn king—this baby—was so great that fear overcame him, and acting in that fear, he does the unimaginable.
Fear is a powerful, haunting thing.
Human behavior research has told us that the oppressed—those with their backs against the walls—respond to fear by adopting behavior, ways of life that may protect them. They begin to take caution, and fear becomes a form of life assurance. Fear becomes a way of life. Fear drives every action of the day, every thought of the night. It is a limited, crushing reality.
For the privileged and powerful—those who run the world, call the shots, those who rely on the existence of the oppressed—they respond to fear with even more power, sometimes force. Fear grabs hold to the powerful; a false reality is created, and, using their resources of plenty, they protect themselves at any cost.
Think about it. The world’s hatred and bigotry is rooted in fear. If anything, the past many years has driven home the point. What is fear doing to us?
Do we install more security systems in our homes and cars? Do we build more gates, a wall, or buy more guns? Do we sit closer to the exit at the cinema or concert hall or church? Do we think twice when boarding an airplane or train with persons who speak a different language? Do we fear certain social or institutional change because it will disrupt our own knowledge, privilege, comfort?
Perhaps that’s the most disturbing part in this whole saga. If I really stop and think about it, the person I most relate to in this drama is not Mary with her faith and obedience, not the shepherds with their awe and humility, not the kings with their adoration and devotion, but Herod, King Herod, who was strangled by his fear. I can see myself in him, and it terrifies me.
I know much of my place in the world was not earned but stolen through fear. And day after day I am faced, we are all faced, with choices. Do we fear the other? The immigrant. The Muslim. Our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. The Democrat. The Republican. As with King Herod, fear has worked its way into my psyche and dictates my reactions, my movements, my heart.
Matthew’s nativity moves quickly from the glad moment of the adoration and gifts of the magi to a darker, more ambivalent world of political intrigue, deception, and fear-induced violence.
But if Matthew’s account is more sober, it is also realistic. We live in a world riddled by fear, a world of devastating hurricanes and elementary school massacres, a world where innocents die every day to preventable illness, hunger, war. A world in which racism is so deeply rooted in our nations DNA that I wonder how we will ever find a cure.
In Matthew’s story of the visit of the magi—and in the massacre of the innocents in the verses that follow—the Gospel renders an accurate, if also difficult, picture of the world. And that is what is at the heart of Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth: the promise of God coming to a people so mastered by fear that we often do the unthinkable to each other and ourselves.
Jesus is Emmanuel, the reminder that God is with us, the living, breathing, and vulnerable promise that God chose to live among us—despite it all. A companion on the road to face fear head on—to meet fear with the promise and love of God.
That’s what the magi, be it Twelve Kings or Three Wise Men, experienced upon entering the house. They saw a baby, full of new life and plump with joy. But they didn’t just see a baby. The magi saw the promises of God being fulfilled right before their eyes.
The promise of a new kingdom, a new world being born. A world in which the last become first and the oppressed are set free. A world in which food and warmth are found in plenty and wars and strife cease. Love coming down, Light coming down, perhaps even God coming down. And fear is doomed.
Once they’ve experienced that epiphany—once they caught a glimpse of this new thing, this birth, this promise of God being brought into this world—they knew the road home would be a different one. The magi leave forever different. Altered. Changed.
So instead of going back to business and life as usual, they go home but by another road, by a different path.
Every day we, too, are invited to go by another road. Think about how you got here today—be it church or your station in life. Did you take the same path, the usual route, the comfortable highway, avoiding the unknown, the uncomfortable?
You all have a map of Chicago printed on your bulletin today. Here’s your challenge: return home by another road, a different way. Perhaps you can’t today, but maybe next week. Disrupt your route. Face the unknown head on.
Because of Epiphany we are changed. The road is new, the pathway different. And the new roads can lead us into amazing places where the possibilities of God soar. And the roads can lead us into trying places, places of newness, of discomfort, of challenge.
Once we catch a glimpse of this promise, this hope, the road home is never the same. The love and promise of God never leaves us as we once were. When we see it, when we realize it, the road is new, the pathway different.
The light has come—and we have seen that light, full of grace and truth. As with the magi, it can change us, we can be different.
With the promises and love of God to guide us, to protect us, we have little to fear. We choose to go but by another road, a different path.
Thanks be to God. Amen.