You thought that Christmas was over, but here in the church the Christmas decorations remain. There’s a reason for this. We have one more thing to do – we have to put the wise men into the story. As everyone knows, a complete manger scene needs wise men. A complete set has Mary, Joseph, shepherds, angels, a few animals, and of course three kings. There’s only one problem with this set up. Luke doesn’t have magi or a star and Matthew doesn’t have a manger or shepherds.
On Christmas Eve we heard one story, now we hear the other, and as we listen to this story we transition from Christmas to Epiphany. Matthew really doesn’t have a Christmas story, instead he tells an Epiphany story. An epiphany is an appearance of God and such an appearance is often a moment of enlightenment. Since the magi represent the east, maybe we could use a Buddhist term here: – a word like "mindfulness." The Buddhist writer Thich Nhat Hanh defines mindfulness as the "kind of energy that helps us to be aware of what is going on inside of us and around us, and anybody can be mindful."
To be enlightened is to be mindful of God, yourself, and your neighbor. Many of you know I grew up Episcopalian, and each year our church celebrated Epiphany with a service called the Feast of Lights. I don’t remember all the details, but I do remember that we would darken the sanctuary, and then we’d light lots of candles to mark the light of God coming into our lives. Of course, being that I was a kid, what I most remember is the party and the cake we had afterwards.
In Matthew’s story a light appears in the darkness in the form of a star, which appears in the sky. The magi, who are really astrologers, follow the star’s light westward to the Christ child so that they might experience enlightenment. You may have heard the slogan: "wise men still seek him." I guess that’s kind of the point. When you truly seek out Jesus you will become enlightened and wise.
Signs and Wonders
The ancient world looked for signs. If they saw a comet or an eclipse, they would try to find meaning in these events. These portents could signal good times or bad, depending on how they were interpreted. And so, when a fiery meteorite hit Switzerland in November 1492, the Emperor Maximilian went out to see it. Not knowing what to make of it, he checked with his counselors who told him this was a sign from God, signaling God’s favor on the Emperor. The Emperor was so pleased with this interpretation that he had the rock displayed in the local church. (from Owen Gingerich, God's Universe, Harvard, 2006, 43-44).
Herod and Jesus represent two very different kinds of king. It’s not surprising that the magi went to Herod first looking for the new born king. Where else would you look besides a palace? They thought they were coming to see Herod’s heir, but Herod saw things differently. You see Herod didn’t like challengers, even if they were little boys living in his own palace. In Matthew’s story Herod has all the little boys in Bethlehem murdered, just to be sure there would be no challengers.
Herod represents human authority run amuck. He represents "the powers that be" and the "rulers of this world." His is a kingdom of brute force and dominating power. Much has been made of Saddam Hussein lately, and Herod was a lot like Saddam. But Herod and Saddam are just the extreme forms of this domination system. They represent the kind of top-down, take-no-prisoners, power for the sake of power, kind of rule. You can find such attitudes even in democracies like ours, only you have to look harder to see the evidence.
Not finding their king in Jerusalem, the Magi head for Bethlehem where the signs in the heavens pointed to the little house of Joseph and Mary. There they find a different sort of king and a different sort of kingdom. This is a kingdom of light rather than darkness, it’s one of love instead of domination. Instead of enslaving us, it sets us free. In fact, it’s the kind of kingdom described in the Beatitudes. Blessed are the poor, the grieving, the meek, the ones who hunger after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peace makers and the persecuted. This sort of kingdom is very different from the one represented by Herod.
In his homily at President Ford’s state funeral, Robert Certain, the late President’s pastor, spoke of Gerald Ford as an exemplar of the Beatitudes. From what I know of him, I think I would agree. He was gentle, merciful, gracious, and he was a peacemaker. He didn’t seek power nor did he seek to hold on to it. And he represented a night and day difference from his own predecessor.
Signs of God’s Kingdom in the Here and Now
You will find the light of God present wherever you find people at work in the world, caring for the poor, teaching, feeding the hungry, building homes for the homeless, giving a shoulder to cry on, standing up for those who are persecuted or oppressed. Next weekend we’ll celebrate Martin Luther King’s Birthday. I think Dr. King is a good example of a point of light in the world. The good news is that each of us, can be a point of light, a sign of God’s presence in the world. The key is to be mindful of God’s presence in us and around us.
Dr. Bob Cornwall
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
First Sunday after Epiphany
January 7, 2007