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Year A, Epiphany

Matthew 2:1-12

Most of what we know of Epiphany comes from our hymns and carols.

We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar

Then there is the spin-off story about The Little Drummer Boy

Come they told me, pa rum pa pum pum,
A newborn king to see, pa rum pa pum pum,

These are beautiful stories that we learn as children of three kings who come from afar bearing gifts for the newborn king. In the wonder and magic of this story we see that the importance of the birth of Jesus is far-reaching, even global. As the angels sing, we realize that this humble birth is cosmic in significance! God has come to save the whole of creation!

We love this story with the exotic wise men in their crowns and turbans. They give gifts to Jesus and from this we have the wonderful practice of giving gifts to our loved ones at Christmas. That’s the story we teach our children in Sunday School and it speaks to all of us even as adults. But when we look at the actual text of the Gospel, at what really happens, we see a different story:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, 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; (Matt 2:1-3)

The fear and opposition that will ultimately lead to Jesus’ crucifixion is present right at the beginning of the story. Herod, and all Jerusalem with him, is filled with fear.

Why? Well, Herod was king, but Herod was not in charge. The Romans were. Herod was subject to Rome. The one thing powerful people want is more power, the thing they fear is losing the power they already have. Herod had little enough power living under Roman rule, and what little he had would be seriously threatened by a new king.

Maybe there is another source of fear beyond the threat to Herod’s power. The three wise men and their quest for God’s messiah have announced that the world is changing. God is approaching and everything is changing.

And what’s worse: The announcement of the birth of the messiah comes not from the priests of the Temple but from foreign astrologers. God’s love and embrace is reaching beyond the chosen people to include the entire world. This is not a new idea in Judaism, but now it is actually happening. The messiah has been born, God is coming, who knows what will happen next?

Whatever the causes of fear, we know that fear is a powerful force. In response to their fear, Herod and the chief priests and scribes conspire to find the Messiah and kill him. Joseph is warned in a dream and manages to save his small family by fleeing to Egypt, but we know that eventually these same people will arrest and crucify Jesus.

This is indeed a dark side of the story. No wonder we don’t include these details in our hymns and Sunday School lessons. And what about us? What does fear do to us? Do we install more security systems in our homes and cars? Do we build more gates or buy more guns? Do we save even more for retirement, pulling back from charitable contributions to make sure we have enough? Do we close our hearts – and minds – to those who are different? What do we do out of fear?

Matthew’s story of the incarnation is darker than Luke’s version, but maybe it is also more realistic. We live in a world of political intrigue, deception and violence, all driven by fear. A year ago at this time we were in shock and mourning the school massacre at Newtown. How can we imagine something as innocent as the wise men and their gifts in this world?

Today we can look out the windows of this worship space and see the tents of Tent City 3. As a part of the permitting process for the City of Shoreline to allow us to host them we held a community meeting to invite comments from our neighbors. 20 or 30 people from the neighborhood came to the meeting, along with representatives from Tent City 3 and St. Dunstan’s Church. I have to admit that I was nervous as the meeting started. I was pretty surprised when the first neighbor to speak asked, “When do you arrive and what can we do to help?” There were concerns expressed by others at the meeting, of course, and that was appropriate and important.

We don’t live in a safe, lovely world of wandering wise men and angels and little drummer boys. Inviting a group of 100 strangers into our neighborhood is a serious matter.

The fun and fellowship we experience when we deliver meals to Tent City 3 remind me of the children’s version of the Epiphany story, with stars and wise men and gifts. After we deliver those meals, we go home. The reality of living in a tent encampment, with no way to cook and no way to get out of the cold, is a darker reality.

That is exactly why, in addition to the cheerful children’s stories, we need the darker, more realistic version of the story that Matthew offers. In Matthew’s darker story we see the crucial, and hopeful message that it is precisely this world that God came to. With the birth of Christ, God came for our new neighbors in Tent City 3 and God came for us. Even though we are sometimes driven by fear to do terrible things to one another and to ourselves, God came to us, to this world.

Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, the living, breathing, and vulnerable promise that God chose to come to us, live and die for us, just as we are, so that in Christ’s resurrection we, too might experience newness of life.

Denise Levertov captures this hopeful idea in her poem, “On the Mystery of the Incarnation”[1] and I would like to end by reading you her poem.

It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
the Word.

Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, sees us at our most fearful, sees us covet, hoard, cheat and betray, and yet, Jesus bears the promise that God loves us still. That is the Good News.

 

The Rev. David Marshall
St. Dunstan’s Church, Shoreline WA
January 5, 2014



[1] Denise Levertov, from The Stream & the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes

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