Posts Tagged ‘Magi’

Epiphany 1-6-19

In this sermon for the day of Epiphany, based on Matthew 2:1-12, I explore the visit of the Maji, which starts off a season of texts in ways that Christ is revealed to the world.  In this story, we switch focus away from the Magi to the reaction of King Herod the Great. His action reveals truth about those who cling the illusion of power and authority in the world.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/epiphany-1-6-19

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

The grace and peace of our Triune God is yours, now and forever. Amen

You’ve probably heard me talk about some of the congregations that I’ve been connected to in the past…both large and small. I grew up in one about the same size as Underwood. I provided monthly pulpit supply at a tiny country church for a couple of years where a dozen people was a good Sunday…but on the flip side I’ve been at some pretty big ones too.

My internship congregation was about 1200 people…and for about a decade, my wife and I were members and staff at the largest congregation here in our Synod, which at its peak had nearly 2000 members. Now the thing about a congregation that size…there’s a lot kids…and therefore…there was a pretty good sized Confirmation program…and it took a lot of people to make that happen…small group leaders, prayer partners, mentors, and of course…teachers.

Now that church had 2 pastors on staff…but with the large number of kids and classes, they needed more than just the two pastors to teach…and so by the time I was about 25…they started asking me if I’d help out…but let me tell you…I resisted that like the plague…I never thought of myself as a teacher of any sort…and so I kept saying no.

This went on for about 3 years…until finally reaching the point where I knew I’d be going to seminary and becoming a pastor…and since teaching confirmation comes with the territory, I figured it was about time that I start saying yes.

And wouldn’t you know it…it became one of my favorite things to do. I love teaching…and as you might have seen I do so in a lot different ways and formats…but teaching confirmation is one of the most enjoyable…and not only that…but I’ve got a favorite lesson that’s grown over the years.  Of all the different subjects that we cover in the 2 year cycle of confirmation…hands down…my favorite one is the Birth of Jesus.

I love it…because over the course of the lesson we debunk a few traditional aspects of the story that aren’t actually present…for instance…many of you have heard me point out that there’s no donkey for Mary to ride anywhere in the story…but the other one that always comes out…ties us into today’s story.

Epiphany…a focal point that only pops up here in worship on rare occasions…its always the same day of the year…and so it is typically happening during the week…but every once in a while it lands on Sunday…and we get to hear today’s gospel.  Now…I can’t help but think that a moment ago as I was reading the lesson…that someone out there…at least one person, reacted to our story like this. (Pause) “THE MAGI?  Wait….Christmas was like 2 weeks ago…they’re just showing now?” (pause)  Yep (and nod).

There is a common misconception that the Magi or wise men or three kings, whatever we chose to call them…were part of the nativity…but…they…weren’t. And based on a few bits of info we’re given throughout the course of their story, the best guess is that they showed up anywhere from a couple months up to a couple years after Jesus was born.

Now…as much as I love the Magi…we really don’t know a ton about them.  We know they’re from the East…and tradition has filled in all kinds of possibilities about them that we really can’t confirm…including names and even ethnic varieties…but best guess…they were likely from Persia…the remnants of a once large and powerful empire…and their title of Magi indicates that they were likely the court magicians or astrologers…maybe even the “scientists” of the day…and in their work, they’ve witnessed the rising of a special star…an event that has told them of the birth of someone with incredible importance…and so they’ve come looking.

History does tell us that this sort of thing occurred…there are records of Magi visiting the Emperor of Rome at one point…but this time around they head into Jerusalem…apparently whatever sign was present in the heavens through this star…it only led them so far…and they needed some assistance. And so…they go right to the top…stopping off at the palace to inquire with King Herod about the one born king of the Jews.  You know how the rest of the story goes…they figure out Bethlehem…Herod tells them to go and find the baby and then come back to let him know so that he can go worship as well…wink wink…they go searching…the star pops up again, pointing them to the right house…in they go and there is Mary and Jesus…they kneel down….open up their gifts…worship him with joy…and angelic warning dream points them away from Herod and they depart…very likely into the sunset with a lone violin playing a poignant song…and other than one brief reference back to them a few verses later…their part of the story is done.

That’s the story of the Magi…the story of Epiphany. Now Epiphany in itself is important…by its very definition it means a dramatic reveal or revelation about something…and that’s what we see. Jesus…the divine made flesh…is being revealed to the world…and as we move through the season of epiphany through the next several weeks we’ll continue to find stories of similar nature…as Jesus continues to be revealed. We see it in many different settings, with different types of people…some quite small and intimate…others on a much larger scale.

And that’s true today as well…because the story of the Magi following the star and stopping off for directions in Jerusalem points us to some intriguing facts about this big reveal.  Now remember, Bethlehem is only a couple miles away from Jerusalem…and even though Jerusalem was no longer the ultimate center of life in the region at this time…it was still important and the political and religious big wigs spent a lot of time there…so you’d think that by this time they’d have caught wind of the messiah’s birth…months, maybe even a couple years have passed…but based on their reaction to the Magi…it would seem that they are oblivious…

What we do hear…that with this news…with this inquiry about the one born King of the Jews…they loose their minds.  Some translations say Herod and the city were frightened…others say they were disturbed…but when we dig in we find that their reaction was earth shattering…the type of thing that you see in a fear filled mob…and to understand just why that is…we need to step away from the Magi and focus in on Herod…who might seem like just a secondary character…but who’s presence actually casts a really wide shadow over this whole deal.

Now when we hear the name Herod…it could mean a lot of people…the Herodian dynasty lasted the better part of a century…and included about 3 different generations of individuals who all went by the name and held various roles of leadership as granted by the Roman government…but in this case…we’re talking about the original…the OG Herod…Herod the Great.

History remembers him…as a strong leader…as a great builder…but also as a backstabbing, blood-thirsty tyrant. This was a guy who claimed power by marrying into an important family…finagling his way into the title of king by sucking up to the Roman authorities…and then promptly terrorizing anyone and everyone that might threaten his position…up to an including murdering several of his own kids…not to mention countless officials.

If you started to gain any popularity…or maybe gave an inkling of future plans…Herod would have you killed…because you can’t be a threat if you’re dead right? And honestly, this knew no bounds…because if we continued reading through Matthew chapter 2 we would see that once Herod realizes the Magi avoided him, he had every baby boy in Bethlehem 2 years and under killed…simply because of the rumor of a future king.

I can’t help but think that this reveals insecurity…and fear.  Even though he had been given pretty much the ultimate power in the region…I can only think that Herod was secretly terrified that someone would take that power away again. (pause)

Now I don’t know about you…but when I hear the name Herod…and when I think about this whole story and all the stuff he did…I just think…man, he’s just the worst. But then I stop and think about it…and I think it sounds pretty familiar.

We live in a world that is pretty constantly defined by might makes right…an idea that my way is the best…and I’m right…and you can join me as long as you agree with me…but if not I’ll destroy you.  We see it in our interactions…we see it in our conflicts…we see it between individuals, we see it between nations and political leaders.  We blame the other…we demonize…we shout them down…we threaten…we dig up dirt…we do whatever we can to destroy or discredit ANY opponent to get them out the way.

And what’s the motivation? It might be a lot of things but I think the base of it all is fear…fear that we have been given will be taken away…fear that the illusion of power and authority that we hold might crumble…fear that the things we’ve come to rely on will fail and we’ll suffer because of it.

Herod was guilty of this…all because some random guys from the east showed up asking for the one born to be king of the Jews…because if there is one born to be king…then that means Herod’s not…no wonder he reacted with turmoil and fear…lashing out to kill a helpless baby. (pause)

Now here’s the thing…you’ve all heard me say this before…but whatever it is that God is up to through the life and the death and the resurrection of Jesus…whatever God is accomplishing by the divine becoming flesh and dwelling among us…it shows all the world that might makes right doesn’t cut it anymore.  God is showing us that there is a new authority…a new definition of power…but to those who hold to the world’s way of thinking…to the illusion of control…that’s a threat…and they’ll do anything to beat that down.

In Jesus God was showing us the new way…a way of humility…of love and humbleness…a way of care for our neighbor…and harmony with one another…and the world…the apparent powers that be…killed him for it.

But if the Christ event taught us anything…its that this tiny baby…would grow up…would continue to show us that that the old way of thinking…the old way of being…the old notions of power and authority can’t win…they might of killed him…but not even death can shut this news up…and three days later he walked out of the tomb…overcoming that which should be the last word.

And that should make us sit up and pay attention.  We don’t have to look very hard to find present day Herod’s…and if we are honest with ourselves, we probably even see him when we look in the mirror…I know I do more often than I care to admit…and maybe, just maybe that’s why we hear this story and we think about the atrocities that he committed and we think “he’s the worst.” Because then we don’t have to feel so bad about ourselves…but those same tendencies are alive and active today. (pause)

But…the promise also remains that somehow God has already overcome those powers…even if it doesn’t seem like it when we turn on the news…see the junk that’s going on…and hear our “authorities” screaming about who’s to blame for it.

The promise remains that in the end…God wins…and no matter how messed up the world might be…and no matter how hard we ourselves crash and burn as we try to live out our lives…the love of God will never be taken from us…and that true power lies in vulnerability…something God showed us by bringing ultimate power into the world in that which is ultimately vulnerable…a tiny baby who’s very birth threatened those the world called powerful.

And that promise…that’s earth shattering…it’s a revelation…and when we hear it…and I mean really hear it…we might even call that an epiphany. Amen.