Between Two Powers

[Note: I preached a version of this sermon on Epiphany, 2018 at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois]

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord. Epiphany is an ancient Christian holiday, maybe older than Christmas. It comes from a word that means “manifestation,” or “showing forth.” On this day, Christians celebrate the manifestation of Jesus, the infant of Bethlehem and the young man of Nazareth, as the Son of God. Especially, in today’s Gospel story, we see Jesus being revealed to the Gentiles, people who are not of Jesus’ own Jewish community and faith.

And today’s story in particular is about power. It can seem kind of strange—kings and “wise men” and gifts that are not especially suitable for an infant. But it’s a story about things we know in our own way: politics, knowledge, and the tools humans use for controlling the world and each other.

It’s about the powers of the world and the power of God revealed in his Son. The power of the Magi, the power of Herod, and the power of the infant Jesus. It’s about weakness hidden in a powerful form. And it’s about strength hidden in a weak form.

When Jesus is born, some magi from an Eastern land come to Jerusalem looking for him. They have seen an astronomical event of some kind that showed them a new king had been born. They get to the area but need more help, so the chief priests and the scribes fill them in with a prophecy from the Scriptures: Bethlehem is the place where the new king will arise.

So the magi go and find the child and his mother. They open their treasure chests and give him those famous gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Now we call these people “wise men,” as if they are philosophers or sages. But magi are something different than that. They are probably astrologers or dream interpreters or both. Their knowledge of the stars and of dreams gives them special insight and special power in the world. Unlike the shepherds we hear about on Christmas Eve, who were probably Jewish, these magi are not expecting a Messiah or a savior. That hope is not part of their religion. They are coming to show respect or homage to a new king, a new power in the world. And to show this homage, they give these rich gifts. Both literally and figuratively they bow down before the child. They say that his power is greater than theirs. It is worthy of their best gifts.

The other worldly power in this story is Herod. He, of course, is the reigning king of Judea. But his kingdom is part of the Roman Empire. He pays protection to the Empire, in the form of taxes, and in exchange the Empire helps keep him on the throne. Herod is a wily political operator. He knows where his power comes from and he knows how to keep it. So when he hears that a king is receiving homage from foreign lands, he is frightened. And he schemes to find this child so that he may have him killed and remove the threat to his power. Herod is not looking for a Messiah or a savior, either. He is on the lookout for potential rivals. And he’s not going to take any chances with them.

A plot to murder the infant Jesus is a strange kind of homage. But that’s what it is. It is Herod’s recognition that this child is powerful. He is a threat to Herod’s rule and to the Empire that stands behind it. Rome chose Herod and Rome protects Herod. What if God chooses someone else? Herod’s panic, and his attempt to find and eliminate Jesus, is Herod’s way of acknowledging that this child is indeed powerful, and that if this story gets out, things in his world could change.

So on one hand we have the power of knowledge. Today it would not be astrologers or dream interpreters. We do not talk about “wise men” very much, maybe because we don’t know what wisdom means. But we do talk a lot about knowledge. Especially scientific and technological knowledge. This is the kind of knowledge that creates power. Our phones and our computers know things about us that we don’t know about ourselves. They ways we have developed to extract oil and gas have reshaped the world dramatically. And let’s not even talk about nuclear weapons. We tell young people that knowledge is power, and yet we don’t realize how terrifying that truth is. How potentially destructive the magi of our world have become.

On the other hand, we have the power of politics. We know what it’s like to live under temperamental, insecure rulers whose first and only goal is to preserve and extend their power. We know how hard they work to manipulate our own fears. We know how awake they are to threats. The rules change, the people change, over time. But Herod still fears his rivals. Herod still takes no chances, even with the Word of God. The scribes and chief priests of our own time will still help Herod however they can.

And yet the story of Epiphany is the manifestation of the true power in the world. The child in Bethlehem is not mighty. He can’t speak. He can’t read the stars. He can’t interpret a dream. He has no armed guards. He has no religious experts to flatter and protect him. Yet he is the one who draws the homage of the great and mighty. He commands that homage. And it doesn’t matter if the homage comes in the form of rich gifts or royal fury. They all point to the same truth: this is the King of all creation. This is the one who accepts our knowledge and turns it into foolishness. This is the one who accepts our power and turns it into weakness.

This is the one who was born poor to bring the riches of God’s grace. This is the infant who was and is from the beginning until the end of time. This is the one begotten from the love of the Father before the foundation of the world, the alpha and the omega, the one witnessed by prophets, the one glorified even by human wrath and wickedness.

He calls forth our gifts. But more than that, he calls forth our faith. He calls forth our peace. First toward him—that we would lay aside our tools of destruction and control; that we would surrender our rage and our jealousy. And then, through him, that we would love and honor everything he made, and everyone for whom he was born. Amen.

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