January 5, 2014: Epiphany Sunday
Gospel of Matthew 2:1-12
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men* from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, ‘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.’ 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah* was to be born. 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd* my people Israel.” ’ 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men* and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising,* until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped,* they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
– Gospel According To Matthew 2:1-12, NRSV
The Magi set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising,* until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
This morning’s Gospel reading from Matthew is half of our conflated story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. We are only told the story of Jesus’ birth in two of our four Gospels, and it is a bit of a stretch to refer to the two of them as one story, they are so different. There are really hardly two accounts of the same event in any of our Gospels that are more different than these two birth narratives.
The part about the angel Gabriel coming to Mary, the shepherds and the manger and the heavenly host, peace on earth and goodwill to God’s children….that part of the story is in the Gospel of Luke. Matthew’s version does not even tell of the actual birth. Matthew tells the story not from Mary’s perspective as does Luke, but from Joseph’s. And so the angel comes not to Mary, but to Joseph. And the story skips any mention of the actual birth altogether. The first time we encounter the child is when the magi, led by the star, enter the house in Bethlehem where the new born baby lies. In fact, Matthew and Luke are so different in their respective accounts that Luke spends the first few verse of chapter 2 explaining how Mary and Joseph get from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and Matthew spends the last few verses of chapter 2 explaining how they get from Bethlehem to Nazareth. These two narratives are literally going in very different directions.
Matthew’s big contribution to our beloved nativity story is the star in the East and the wise ones who have been sent by Herod on a sort of reconnaissance trip, and who, in order to conceal the child’s whereabouts, return home by another way. There are a few distinctive characters in Matthew’s telling; characters that give us a sure hint about who and what this birth is all about.
The first character that shows up only in Matthew’s account is Herod the Great, King of Judea – but known locally as the “King of the Jews” because of the preponderance of Jews under his domain. He is one of five Herod’s mentioned in our New Testament, all of whom were reported to have feared and persecuted Jesus and his followers. This particular Herod had been installed in Judea by the Roman Emperor roughly 35 years before the star rose in the East. This Herod was, among other impressively powerful things, the builder of the Jerusalem Temple….the builder of the second Temple….the one built after the Babylonians sacked the first Temple built by King Solomon, almost a thousand years earlier. And Herod was understandably concerned when he heard that there was a new “King of the Jews” in his jurisdiction. So concerned that he sent some envoys, the magi, to locate the newly born threat to his unchecked power and prominence. Matthew’s placement of Herod in his account of the birth narrative tells us that Jesus has come, not to stand with the marginalized as in Luke’s account, but to stand against the entrenched power structure. Herod’s presence and fear and murderous intent tell us that this new born child is a major threat to the authorities of the first century. It tells us that there is a new power structure, actually, a new interpretation of the power structure – a new interpretation of the political landscape that has, for thousands of years, been supported by scripture, which is Matthew’s idea of ultimate authority. Jesus is going to be the new authority, the new interpretation of the Torah.
And so as Matthew alerts us to this new assault on the powers in the realm, both the religious and the political powers. He quotes scripture to add a note of legitimacy to his message. Matthew writes, quoting from 2 Samuel and Micah: from out of Judah shall come a ruler to shepherd the people of Israel. It is a curious conflation of religious and political language. How often do we hear rulers described as shepherds? Rulers rule, and protect, and govern, and preside, but they rarely shepherd. Matthew is telling us that our very definitions of power are going to change with the birth of this child.
And. As one of our very astute confirmation class theologians reminded me in the last class, Herod reminds us that Jesus’ birth is not Good News for everyone. The Gospels offer Jesus as the Good News…universally. But, she said, Jesus is only Good News if we are willing to embrace change. What a profound idea. Jesus, as the new interpretation of the law, of the Torah, of the power structure, is ONLY Good News if we are willing to accept and embrace and welcome…..change.
The next character(s) distinct to Matthew’s version of this story are the magi. The magi were probably from Persia and had already traveled a very long way by the time they got to Herod – so long a way that it may not even be historically possible for them to have found Jesus child in his mother’s arms by the time they reached Bethlehem.
But that is another sermon for another day. For now, let’s just say that they were sent by Herod to see what was up with that star that appeared to herald something radically different on the horizon; even though it was not unusual for a star to herald some event, in those days. Stars were thought to announce a whole host of amazing phenomena. And so when this star appeared, Herod summoned the magos – the magi, the ones who were typically summoned, to read the star. I grew up thinking they were kings. But they were not, not by any means. And they were not necessarily wise one, either, not in the prophetic sort of way. And they were not exactly astrologers, not by our modern definition of astrologers. But they were, according to many scholars, well heeled, well educated, contemplators of stars. Matthew, incidentally, does not mention how many of them there were, but Herodotus in the 5th century surmised that there were three and so three there have been ever since. But, they were rich and they were pagan and they were intrigued. And so they set off from where ever they were from with whatever they could bring and when they got to the spot where the star beckoned, they fell on their knees and paid homage.
If Herod tells us that this child has come to redefine authority and power, the magi tell us that this child has come for all – not just for Jews. The magi were pagan foreigners on a mysterious journey, not just a journey of Herod’s bidding, but a journey of their own, a journey which led them to the realization of new hope and power and life. The magi tell us of the inclusivity of God’s presence on this earth.
And then there was the star. The brilliant star shining in the East. The mystical sign of a promise. So deep so enduring so enlightening, that we tell the story 2000 years hence. And the star tells us that this story that we are about to encounter is grounded in mystery and integrity and hope.
The star is both brilliant and unflappable, clear as day and yet just beyond our grasp or ability to contain or define. And we know that following the star is going to be an adventure. Following a star is not like following a map, not like following a blueprint that leads from one particular place to another, that leads to a given destination via well-defined routes and roadways. A star is not fixed in our grasp, it is not defined by our parameters, and it may appear to move and shift and change its location at will. The star cannot be stabilized nor quantified. It appears and disappears without notice. And if we are inclined to follow said star, there is simply no telling how many miles or how long the trip to reach it. But never mind, for no one has any earthly idea of where one will be when one finally arrives. It is the perfect herald for this coming of the Incarnation.
We hear the story of the star and we rejoice! We marvel at the courage and the commission of the magi. We envision their trek across God knows how many miles, through God only knows what conditions, to some faraway place that they can scarcely imagine, to find the surprise of all surprises in the arms of an unfathomably humble Mary on the outskirts of……anywhere, of consequence that is. It is easy to frame the story of the magi and the star in the genre of a Disney classic……right to the very end: and having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the wise ones went home by another way. The miraculous end. This story must be from whence fairy tales have come! Story by Disneyworld, music by James Taylor.
And undoubtedly, the star is the star. And so I think it is easy, when we rejoice and celebrate the brilliance of this star in the east to forget the darkness from which it emerges. Because, the thing about stars is that they shine brightest through the darkest night. And this star that we celebrate this morning is no exception. It is only as powerful as the depth of the darkness that we encounter in Advent. The terrifying scripture readings that opens the season of Advent are not gratuitous ranting’s by Isaiah and John the Baptist, they are the necessary prequels to the Epiphany. And the journey of Mary and Joseph is nothing if not terrifying and chaotic and…..murky, at best. So, there can be no illuminated star if there is no darkness from which it can emerge.
Some of us have felt that darkness in spades this past year. For some of us, this star is not just an inspiring story of hope and good tidings, it is literally a Godsend….very personally to us; a glimmer of peace in the dark night of our own soul; the dark recesses of this life that can seem to envelope us in our grief or our loneliness or our powerlessness or our alienation or whatever manner of existential despair lites on our souls as we make our way on this mortal coil. This star is the light that obliterates that darkness. It is the promise that God is here and now and brilliant and everlasting. This star is the sacrament for the words: “Be not afraid.” It is the pointer to the way God works in this world. And it is the reminder that the darkness, painful and heart-rending as it may be, is, even so, in deepest partnership with the light.
In Luke, the angels first tell the lowly shepherds of the birth of the Good News. But in Matthew, it is the star that pierces the darkness of the world that had thereto fore been without the flesh and blood and the vulnerable, yet steadfast human love of God, to light its way. But everything changed with the advent of the star. And so:
The Magi set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where … …..everything in the world was made new.
© January, 2014 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw