Guide us, God of love, by your Word and Holy Spirit, that in your light, we may see light, in your truth, find freedom, and in you, discover peace. Through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Today we celebrate Epiphany Sunday – the feast day which celebrates that God the Son appeared as a human being in Jesus Christ. Epiphany comes from the Greek verb epiphano, which means to show or to appear. And showing and appearing are interesting ways to describe today, because we might have expected the Lord’s appearance to have already been taken care of. We might have imagined the day of the Lord’s showing to be Christmas.
Indeed, that is what Luke, the other evangelist who begins Jesus’ story with his birth, does. In Luke, Christmas is the climax of a long period of waiting and expectation. There, Jesus’ birth is preceded by Zechariah’s muteness, by Elizabeth’s conception, by the annunciation, by the Magnificat, and then by Mary and Joseph’s long journey to Bethlehem. For Luke, as for many of us, everything leads up to and converges upon Christmas – when we hear the long prelude to his gospel break out in full orchestration, concluding only with the heavenly host’s announcement of Christ’s birth to the shepherds, as they sing: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom favor rests.” Christmas, for Luke, is Christ’s showing. Christmas is Jesus’ epiphany. And we celebrated that nine days ago. What is the deal with this day? Why do we celebrate it too?
Perhaps we might begin to see the point of epiphany, if we look to our text in Matthew’s gospel, where things appear quite differently than they do in Luke. Matthew keeps Christmas blanketed in mystery. No shepherds, no angels, no inn, no manger, no songs. In short, all those trappings which we associate with Christmas are absent. Instead Matthew jumps straight from Joseph’s dream, where God assures him that Mary’s child is of the Holy Spirit, to our text which begins: “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea …” That Jesus was born is a given for Matthew. In fact, you could say that Matthew doesn’t even find it interesting. It hardly needs to be discussed. The birth itself plays on a minor point in the plot. However, in terms of the story’s mood, in terms of the imaginative setting, in terms of the scope of possibilities it opens up, Christ’s birth – this point Matthew barely mentions – is all important.
An illustration might help fill out what I mean by a shift in mood. I bet that virtually all of you have seen the movie version of The Wizard of Oz. Recall that it begins with Dorothy and Toto running home from school in Kansas. Now, I don’t want to offend those of you who love Kansas, but we can probably all agree that Kansas isn’t the most exciting place in the world. The movie makes that point in several ways, but the most striking is that it was filmed in sepia-washed black and white. The browns and the grays, the conspicuous lack of color, creates the mood: Kansas is about as humdrum as it gets.
When the twister hits and Dorothy and Toto are plunked down in the land of Oz, the movie’s mood changes dramatically. Dorothy opens the door of her transplanted black and white house onto the technicolor gardenscape of Oz. The contrast could hardly have been greater. The reds, the greens, all the colors of the rainbow mingle and dance together, engulfing Dorothy. Instantaneously we know that Oz is a very different place from Kansas. The film’s mood has changed to one of excitement, and with the change in mood comes a change in the scope of possibilities for the plot, for how the story can progress. What we have now is a story of adventure and discovery.
Something similar to this shift from black and white to vibrant color goes on with Jesus’ birth in Matthew’s Gospel. Christmas really isn’t an event, so much as it is a radical change in the mood of the story. Jesus’ birth means that from now on things will happen differently. The real question is how will things be different? The feast of Epiphany is meant to answer that question.
We can make a number of points about what is entailed in this shift in mood, but the most remarkable thing in Matthew 2 is how quickly this becomes an overtly political story. Consider the vocabulary: “king,” “magi,” “Messiah,” “rulers,” and “the shepherd of my people” leap to the eye; paying homage, a rising star, religious leaders, and gifts fit for a king quickly follow. The general mood is political, quite clearly: magi search for one king and find another; that other king is frightened, perceiving a threat to the stability of his reign; the rising star is accompanied by words of prophecy, declaring that Israel’s hope in restoration is being accomplished in a new way. Yet, this all belongs not within the usual sphere of earthly politics, but in the backwoods town of Bethlehem. And, as one author has noted, in the center of this picture is the strikingly unpolitical image of a child with his mother.
The main question before us might be put this way: “What is Matthew trying to achieve by recycling and shuffling traditional political imagery, so that a child sits at the center while the king broods on the periphery? How for Matthew, does this image fill out the meaning of Christ’s birth? How is this the showing of Jesus, the epiphany of the Lord?” To answer these questions, we must take seriously Matthew’s interest in fulfilling the prophecy and promises of Israel’s Scriptures. That task naturally leads us into the lectionary texts from the Old Testament.
In Isaiah 60, we read of two things – first, the restoration of the Jews who have been dispersed from their homeland; second, the nations gathering around, bringing their abundance to a restored Israel. We know something of the historical context for these verses. They arise out of the experience of Israel in Babylon after the Babylonian army had sacked Jerusalem and sent its people into exile. For these exiled, dispersed Jews, even the liberation some fifty years later was inconclusive. For although Jerusalem and the temple were rebuilt, the Jews were still scattered in far-flung places and the rulers of Jerusalem were still subject to foreign kings. Israel’s mood after the exile was one of oppression. Of being weighed down. Of walking in darkness. So in these verses, Isaiah gives voice to a hope for an end to the darkness and an end to foreign rule. He pronounces a new dawning of a great light; he anticipates a revolution that only the Lord could bring about.
Isaiah had some clear conceptions about the shape of this future restoration. Israel’s sons would gather from far away, her daughters would be carried back “on their nurses’ arms,” “the abundance of the sea and the wealth of the nations” would be brought to it, camels from Midian and people from Sheba would flock around it, and nations would offer gifts of gold and frankincense. Less clear from our text is that Isaiah had some clear conceptions for why none of this was the case yet. In the prior chapter, Isaiah saw that Israel’s sins had corrupted its hope. Whereas the people of Israel were supposed to incarnate God’s justice on earth, instead we read:
Their feet run to evil and they rush to shed innocent blood;
their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity
desolation and destruction are in their highways.
The way of peace they do not know,
and there is no justice in their paths.
Their roads they have made crooked;
no one who walks in them knows peace.
Therefore justice is far from us,
and righteousness does not reach us;
we wait for light, and lo! There is darkness;
and for brightness, but we walk in gloom.
For Isaiah, Israel’s oppression results from having forsaken the ways of righteousness. That means the setting in which Isaiah pronounces his vision of hope and expectancy is at the same time one of fear, death, and injustice. We might ask which mood is likely to prove the stronger. We know the one well. It is a mood with which, by the time of Matthew’s story, the people of Jerusalem had become all too comfortable: “Nothing ever changes; nothing ever will.” “Life is a zero-sum game: you gotta get while the getting’s good. And if you can’t get, well, batten down the hatches.” I wonder how well we know the other mood – the one of which Isaiah speaks. What is it like to live hopefully in our world today – one where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. One where gun violence is an everyday occurrence and police aren’t even charged after killing twelve year old children.
It is almost impossible to be hopeful today because even our most imaginative attempts at living hopefully appear to be fatally compromised. They get co-opted and turned into marketing techniques. Or perhaps they become the things we use to define ourselves over against those who do not see the world as we do. But most likely, experimenting with living hopefully isn’t even something which we believe we have time for anymore. Isaiah might have been able to accent hope in the midst of darkness, but if we are honest with ourselves, we find that we are much closer to the people of Jerusalem in Matthew’s day, preoccupied, that is, by our own unreadiness for God’s reconciling act.
Now we can turn back to our Gospel text and understand why Jerusalem’s response to the magi’s inquiry is one of deep fear. We can hardly blame them. Not only is hope often the hardest thing to live out, but it’s a very frightening thing. Because when our hopes come to pass, it means that life is going to get disrupted, that things are going to change. No longer will you be able to count on all the things you’ve always counted on. And while things might get better, then again, they might not. That is the very real risk of putting your trust in the future: things can always get worse. Hitting bottom is always relative. For a subject people like those in Matthew’s story, ruled not by Babylon but by Rome, hope in the restoration of their nation through a decisive act of God is bound to be a very scary thing indeed. Rome, after all, had a particular reputation of crushing just such hopes. “No Isaiah. Keep your prophecies to yourself, thank you very much. It is better for us if we can just find a way to keep on keeping on without stirring up any imperial attention.”
That attitude of preserving the status quo, of finding a way to live in a world grown old, a world steeped in the mood of of darkness, gloom, and oppression, is summed up in the person of Herod. We are used to picturing the various Herods in the Gospels as ineffectual puppet-kings. The Herods we typically consider are pretenders to the throne, promiscuous lap-dogs, clinging to the right people to obtain the little status which they have managed to carve out for themselves. But not this Herod. This Herod gets things done. He is powerful and authoritative. He summons the religious leaders of Israel to him. He finds out where the Messiah is to be born. And he hatches a plot to get the magi to do the searching for him. There is no hint that we should take Herod for anything less than a potent ruler. He was the kind of king that the kings of the world are supposed to be.
Psalm 72 tells us what the king was supposed to do, how the people of Israel were to expect their king to act: he judges with righteousness; he defends the cause of the poor; he delivers the needy, bringing them salvation; he redeems the people from oppression and violence. In short, Israel’s king was to be a focus for the people’s hope, the very hopes which Isaiah expressed. The king was supposed to be an agent who shifted the mood from gloom and doom to expectant hope and joy. But Herod, like his people, lost sight of these more expansive horizons. In the iron grip of empire, even kings lose the capacity for hope. And without hope, the power the king wields quickly becomes unjust and destructive.
Herod’s ambitions quickly turn murderous: “Those magi want to pay homage to another king? Fine! I’ll show them some homage!” Herod’s kingship isn’t about protecting the poor, it is about protecting himself. Herod’s kingship, like many kingships, we see them still, isn’t about just righteousness, generosity, comfort, or deliverance, it is about immunity from threat, about clamping down on the contingencies of life through national security agencies, about wielding the sword for self-preservation.
Oddly enough, it’s in this negative image of Herod that Jesus shows himself, that he is epiphanized as Lord. For in the person of Herod, the crisis of Isaiah’s coming age of hope comes to a head. The appearance of the star, the visit of the magi, their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh – all these do more than simply celebrate the birth of a baby who will turn out to be a king. They also mark a new dawn, the change in the mood which accompanies this birth, the change from darkness to light, from fatalism to hope. And, as I said before, with that change of mood comes a change in the possibilities for action, for a new continuation of the story.
The crisis of Isaiah’s vision of hope is also a crisis of decision. Here in Matthew, we have kings from the east who seek the king who will restore Israel, who will vindicate God’s purposes for the world; a king who will embody the light and life that Israel’s king was meant to be, and thus, breathe life into an old, weary, and frightening world.
These kings from the east hope to pay this new king homage. But in order to reach his light, they have to pass through the darkness of another Israelite king, who represents the very tiredness, fear, and murderous intent that this new king promises to disrupt. And so, this epiphany story maps a process, a journey, a crisis that takes place in us every day. Will we risk making that same journey? Risk traveling through the darkness of night to encounter God’s great light?
The shift in mood from darkness to light creates a crisis of decision. Again and again it washes over us: we can, with the magi, acknowledge this new king by paying him homage, by struggling to live hopefully in a world that doesn’t often reward that struggle. But to do this, we must pass through the darkness of our world, and risk finding that light which might disrupt everything in our comfortable lives. Or, we can be like Herod and all of Jerusalem, we can say: “No thanks, thank you very much. I think it is better for me to just keep on keeping on.” We can say to ourselves that experimenting with living hopefully just isn’t worth all the pain and drama which might accompany such a radical shift in our lives. But even this acknowledges him by acting against him out of fear for the new. Either way, the good news is that you have been confronted by his epiphany – either way, Jesus has still shown himself as king.