Epiphany – January 10, 2020
Faith Lutheran Church
Grace to you all and peace from God our creator & our savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
I loved our Children’s Christmas program. I am not sure about you, but having grown up in the church, Christmas programs have been a yearly experience for me, beginning back at my first Christmas when I was cast as an 8-month-old baby Jesus!
One part of the program that one can always expect is the “three wise men”, the magi from the east to bring gifts to baby Jess. The Magi are a part of the Christmas story as so many of us know it. Yet, the church has traditionally, and even through today recognized the Magi not on Christmas eve, or Christmas day, but 12 days later on Epiphany–January 6.
This past Wednesday, Christians across the globe commemorated the Magi paying homage to Jesus–with gifts that were fit for a king. As we gather to worship this morning, we too shall commemorate these Magi and the Christ they encountered.
Our gospel reading today begins with the words “In the time of King Herod.”The whole reading is situated with relation to the reign of this King that ruled over Palestine. Yet, Herod’s reign wasn’t like that of other modern monarchs, like the queen of England for example, because while Herod had the title of king, he still served under the Emperor of Rome. So while he had immense power in Palestine, he only had that power because it had been bestowed upon him by the roman empire.
When the Magi from the east came, the self-obsessed king might have imagined that they had traveled from far off to pay him a visit. He was, in his own mind, the most important person they could wish to see. But to his shock, to his horror, these foreign visitors were asking “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”
Upon hearing this question, Herod was frightened. He was the king, and there certainly wasn’t a BABY who was more powerful than him. Not in the lands that he ruled! And if there is something we know from history, it is that people with great power, little accountability and fear often act out in violent ways– Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler come to mind.
For the Israelite people, the news of a messiah would have been good news. As we heard in the reading from Isaiah, the foretold arrival of the Christ would cause their hearts to thrill and rejoice, and our Psalm spoke of an end of oppression.
But for those in power alongside Herod, the Chief Priests and scribes who had previously been teaching the people to understand the signs of God, they finally had something to lose. And so the power they had accrued meant that they did not proclaim the arrival of the Christ.
Herod, afraid of losing his power told the Magi to go seek out the messiah so he might also “go and pay him homage.” But the Magi weren’t fooled by this self-aggrandizing puppet king. They knew the evil intentions charading behind his words of homage. After bringing their gifts before the Christ Child, they didn’t return to Herod, but left for their own country. These magi, through their wisdom chose to resist the evil they encountered in Herod. Evil, that while not part of our reading today, we know resulted in Herod ordering the murder of all the children in Bethlehem under two years of age. And while the Holy family was able to escape to Egypt before the murdering began, the bloodthirsty ruler Herod still murdered countless children because of his fears that he might not hold onto power indefinitely.
Siblings in Christ, on Epiphany, this past Wednesday the world witnessed the bloodlust of those seeking to hold onto power indefinitely. As I sat in my office crafting a sermon for this morning, to my shock and horror I began getting notifications on my phone that the United States capitol had been breached by a violent mob of insurrectionists. I began to see images and video of people storming past the capitol police, destruction of the building, looting. I saw the confederate battle flag waived in the building that 155 years ago defeated the secessionists who created that flag.
To date five people have died because of this bloodlust.
We have been witness to the embodiment of evil in the world. And yet, this evil on Epiphany was not limited to the events at the capitol.
Earlier in the morning, a group of interfaith leaders joined together at Luther Place Memorial Church, an ELCA congregation in the heart of DC. They were joining together for a prayer vigil, to witness against the evils of white supremacy and all forms of hatred and division. Yet, it was white supremacy, hatred and division that they encountered. Rev. Lauren Muratore of Augustana Lutheran recounts with a trigger warning for racial violence:
“The prayer vigil was at times punctuated by racist rhetoric hollered from passing vehicles, which circled the church multiple times; a group of men …attempted intimidation by walking directly through the prayer circle; two men entered the prayer circle and–horrifically–parodied the murder of George Floyd in front of the Black Lives Matter sign, followed by declaring that they’re “fighting for America” before storming off.”
It was those same people who desecrated the prayer vigil who went off to march on the capitol, some of whom referred to themselves as God’s warriors. One of the people who stormed into the senate chamber carried the “Christian flag.” The same flag that can be seen here in our church.
That is not the message of Jesus. This is not good news. Like Herod and those who surrounded him that were willing to do anything to retain their earthly power, we have witnessed the sacrilege of evil that was present in DC and is present in our world.
In our Epiphany Gospel, the magi, the wise people from the east, from foreign lands followed the light of the star that rested over the place where the messiah was born. The wisdom of these visitors was to recognize the brightness of Jesus that would bring forth life and liberation, not death and destruction like Herod. The magi understood that this Christ Child would dispel the gloom that surrounded them. That he would bring freedom from oppression to those who called on his name. That Jesus would restore all that had been threatened by emperors and kings.
Now, The Christ child was just that. A baby, lying in a manger. Jesus didn’t have servants who would do his bidding, he didn’t have soldiers whom he commanded, he didn’t have wealth or riches. No, the power that Jesus demonstrated was a power informed by love. It was a power that enabled those who recognized him as messiah to love others. To love all others without reservation.
No wonder Herod was frightened. As a ruler who maintained power through domination, Jesus’ power was something he could not compete against. Jesus’ power was as unfamiliar to him as the magi who sought Jesus.
Beloved, in these days following what we have witnessed unfold in the nations capitol, know that whatever you are feeling right now–scared, angry, sorrowful, anxious–your feelings are valid.
As followers of Christ we are empowered to envision the world not as it is, but as it should be. Informed by the knowledge of Jesus’ saving grace, we can name the evil in the world–the evils of white supremacy and Christian nationalism that have been clearly displayed–and work to bring about the realm of God-the realm of one who demonstrates power through love and not domination.
In the adult study on Thursday night we were learning about what Martin Luther wrote about the power of Faith in Christ for the life of believers.
Luther wrote that through faith in Christ, what “could possibly harm or frighten such a heart? If awareness of sin or dread of death overwhelms it, it is ready to hope in the Lord. It neither fears hearing about these evils nor is moved by them, until finally it despises its enemies. For it believes that Christ’s righteousness is its own and that its sins is now not its own but Christ’s. More than that, the presence of Christ’s righteousness swallows up every sin.”
Beloved, Christ’s righteousness is our own, and because of that we need not fear the evils we have witnessed this week. Through Christ, the same child the wise Magi worshipped, we have received freedom from anything that holds us back from loving and serving our neighbor. Freedom that despite recognizing the evil in the world, can bring us hope for a future where the reign of Christ is made real among us. A future where the power of sin, the devil and all of the forces that defy God are no more. Where all of the sin, shame, suffering of the world, has been taken up in Christ and through God are made hollow and empty of any power: Obliterated by this very same Christ Child on the cross.
As we commemorate Epiphany this year–remembering the magi whose wisdom allowed them to recognize Christ that very first Epiphany–may we pray for that same wisdom. Wisdom to recognize the call of Christ in our world and in our lives. Amen.