January 8, 2023
Back in college, I had a friend who took a class on astronomy, and one of the assignments they had was to memorize the major constellations. It’s pretty amazing, really, because the same constellations they had to memorize were the ones named by the ancient Greeks over 2500 years ago! And honestly, if you took me out in the middle of the night, pointed me to the night sky, and told me to name as many constellations as I could—I could get about two. But centuries ago, knowing the stars was really crucial business.
The magi—the “wise men,” as we’ve called them—were exactly those kinds of people. Their whole job was to track the stars. They were astrologers, charting where the stars and planets were in the heavens, and determining how the positions of heavenly bodies were affecting things here on Earth. So when a brand new star appeared in the sky, they consulted their books and determined that a new king had been born. The star was above Judea, so they knew a new king was born there. And they set out to find him.
Now, the normal place to find a new king would be, we could assume, where the old king would be. New kings tend to come from old kings, right? When somewhere along their journey they lost track of the new star, they headed for Jerusalem to see King Herod, because he was the current king of Judea. It must have been an awkward meeting when the Magi came into Herod’s palace to congratulate him on his new son when Herod had no idea who they were talking about! But Herod was a really good politician, slippery as an eel and sly as a fox, so he didn’t let on to the Magi that he didn’t know who they were talking about. Instead, he secretly called the scribes and priests to figure out where this new king was supposed to be born, and convinced the magi that he was just as excited to go and pay him homage as they were—once they found him. So he sent the Magi on to Bethlehem with a promise to report back where the child was.
Then we get to the scene we know from our nativity sets and the Christmas pageants and the songs we sing. The magi, laden with their royal gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, came to the house where Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus were staying. When they found this new king, they were absolutely overjoyed! In scripture they literally “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” I mean, wouldn’t we be that excited to meet the baby Jesus? And remember, these magi had been tracking Jesus’s natal star for two years at this point, so it was the culmination of years of work!
We, too, get swept up in the joy of the magi on this holiday. Epiphany, before it was eclipsed by Christmas only a century or two ago, used to be the third biggest holiday in the Church calendar—and in some countries it still is. People bake cakes, put on pageants, hold festivals, light candles, get dressed up, and do all kinds of wonderful celebrating. And why not? It’s the completion of the Christmas season! Epiphany is the day that God is revealed to the Gentiles! It’s when we celebrate that the Light of the World has been born to dispel the shadows of sin and death! So we rejoice with the magi at the birth of the king!
But throughout this passage from Matthew, there is a discordant note. It’s like a movie scene where everyone is happy and celebrating, but something is off. And the “something” that is off, is King Herod. There’s a reason that Matthew tells us that, upon hearing the news, Herod was afraid “and all of Jerusalem with him.” We might wonder why the whole city would be afraid, until we understand something about who Herod was.
Herod made his way up the ladder from a mercenary serving the former kings of Judea—the Hasmoneans—to where he was as king by playing the deadly game of first-century politics. He managed to perfectly time when he would switch sides during the Roman civil wars—first with Julius Caesar and Pompey, then with Marc Antony and Augustus. To kick off his reign, he made sure none of the Hasmoneans could legitimately challenge his kingship by having them killed, then married the daughter of the last Hasmonean king. In the ensuing years he showed he wasn’t above killing his own family members if it kept them from taking his power. So the news of a new king, brought by foreign astrologers, one foretold in scripture, made Jerusalem as fearful of Herod as a terrorized family is of an abusive father once the company leaves.
The magi had no idea they were stepping into that kind of situation. They weren’t versed on the fearful politics of Herod’s paranoid grip on power. They didn’t realize the ill intent Herod had for the child when he warmly asked them to let him know where they found the boy. They were just happy to finally be able to finish their work of finding this king whose star they’d been tracking for years.
And that makes it even more remarkable how they responded to the dream they had.
They were warned in a dream not to tell Herod where Jesus was. Just a dream. Not an angelic visitation. Not a prophet emerging from the wilderness. It was just a dream. And these foreign dignitaries, astrologers from the Persian court, decided to listen to that dream and defy the orders of the powerful, paranoid, and persistent ruler of Judea. They decided that the king they had found, who did not have a royal court, or an army, or a vast cadre of hangers-on and sycophants, was the one they would choose. They gave up earning Herod’s favor in return for his ire. They duped the king and had to flee by a back road to make sure he didn’t vent his frustration on them for protecting Jesus.
Now, it might seem out of place to have such a scary and unnerving part of the story included on such a happy holiday as Epiphany, but Epiphany is the day we celebrate that God-with-us is revealed to the world. The Light of the World, Jesus, is a light that shines a spotlight on the reality of the world, too. And the reality of the world is one where petty tyrants, from Herod to Putin, do terrible things; where overflowing abundance is coupled with hunger, poverty, and homelessness. The reality of the world is one of brokenness and cruelty, injustice and outright evil. And simply by being born, Jesus shined a light on that reality, exposing Herod for what he was, rather than sugar-coating it with saccharine images of kings with gifts by a stable. How, we might wonder, is that supposed to be good news?
We heard echoes of it two weeks ago. “The light shines in the darkness,” we heard, “and the darkness did not overcome it.” Jesus shines a light in the darkness, exposing the reality of the world. And we need to see that reality, not pretending like all is well but really seeing where injustice is, and brokenness is, and sinfulness is. And when we see it, we can’t un-see it. And neither can the world. The one thing injustice, sin, and evil hate most is being exposed to the brilliant light of day. But that’s exactly what Jesus, the Light of the World, does.
But also, “the darkness did not overcome [the Light].” Jesus exposes the evils of the world. He shines light on the hypocrisy of school lunch debt when we fed every child during the stay-at-home period of the pandemic. He shines a light on the cruelties of Russian strikes on the Ukrainian power grid during the depths of winter. He shines a light on the homeless encampments in the Cities forced to disperse rather than being housed. He shines a light on all the ways that injustice is perpetuated by being shrouded in darkness. And then he overcomes it.
The joy of Epiphany is that the Messiah is made known to the world, and our hope is the light of truth that the Messiah brings. Just as much as he exposes the world’s iniquities, he exposes what God is doing about it. And God doesn’t wait in heaven, watching injustice grow like weeds or deepen like the snow, but instead God comes to us as a child, a little boy whose star couldn’t be hidden, who changes the world. In Christ, God has started to redeem the world from that brokenness that his light exposes. And in Christ, we are freed from ignorance to join the work of redeeming the world.
So the light of Epiphany might expose us to uncomfortable truths. It may reveal to us that the Herods of the world put on a nice face, but have cruel intentions. It may shine the light on racial disparities and injustices that stubbornly hang on through inertia. It may frighten us to see the stark reality of the world. But the Light of the World is born. And his light shines in the darkness, giving us hope for something better. His light calls us to trust that these cruelties and injustices of the world are not impossible to solve, because he is at work in them. His epiphany guides us, like that star, to the place where we can celebrate hope being born that will change the world forever.
Thanks be to God. Amen.