MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
January 5, 2014
Epiphany with an Edge
The glow of Christmas is definitely over! Today’s story begins a chain of events in which King Herod is so paranoid, so afraid of Jesus, that he will end up targeting an entire population of children in Bethlehem. All children under the age of 2 will be eliminated in the verses that follow this story.
But here is how the story begins.
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.
This week our family watched the movie Field of Dreams, one of my favorites. Ray Kinsella (the main character, played by Kevin Costner has built a baseball field in response to a voice who has told him, “If you build it, he will come.” Then he receieves instructions to take the writer Terrence Mann to see a baseball game. Terrence Mann has been in seclusion for many years after bring a public figure. As they walk through the stadium, Ray asks him what he wants:
I want them to stop looking to me for answers, begging me to speak again, write again, be a leader. I want them to start thinking for themselves. I want my privacy!
No, Ray says, gesturing to the concession stand. What do you want?
I’m curious, at the beginning of this new year …What do you want?
We’ve just finished a season in which the machinery of advertising and commerce play on those wants. Did you get what you wanted? Did that item on your wish list appear on Christmas morning? Or was it a wish unfulfilled? Or… did you get everything you asked for, yet a part of you still feels like something’s missing?
We are a seeking people. We are always looking for the next big thing, that perfect place or object, or the answer that will make us happy—that product or service that will make our lives better. And we love our journey stories, fairy tales of people seeking out their fortunes or finding their heart’s desire, or people going on a quest. There are so many of these stories in the scripture, and here is one: the magi, seeking out the child, the next king of the Jews.
It’s interesting to me that the magi ask Herod where the new king is. It’s funny to me that they expect him to know. Don’t they realize who they’re coming to see?
Don’t they know that the child was born not a palace but in a cave in the hills outside Bethlehem?
Don’t they know he was born not to royalty, not to cronies of Herod, but to two Galilean commoners?
Don’t they know that they’re chasing after a king unlike any king the world has ever seen or ever will?
Maybe even these wise ones, these astrologers, didn’t know what they were dealing with. The truth of the Christmas story is much edgier than even they expected it to be.
Matt Emerson is a Catholic theologian, a Jesuit, like Pope Francis. He wrote recently about the glow of the Christmas season that can so often dip into sentimentality, and cautions us against that reading:
The news of Jesus’ arrival confused Mary; caused Joseph to consider divorce; and, in King Herod, commenced a genocidal fury. Once Jesus is born, Mary and Joseph have to flee Bethlehem to evade Herod’s assassins. The Holy Family wait there until an angel tells Joseph to return; but Joseph, fearful of Herod’s son, and warned by another angel, decides to head to Nazareth.
That’s the first Christmas. It rattles a marriage. It exiles a family. It endangers lives. And it provokes a madman to murder. The brisk descriptions in the New Testament fail to capture what must have been, for Mary and Joseph and many others, a bewildering, terrifying ordeal.
He goes on:
I don’t recall these scenes so we can relive them. I don’t recall them to make Christmas feel like Good Friday. Our vocation is not to those trials. But the exile, the massacre, the uncertainty, they remind us that what we mark so gleefully and easily, what we express in lounging, food and song, had the effect of an earthquake in the lives of real people. The Light came, but not without a fight. The Light won, but not without cost. (Source)
Hear that again:
The Light came, but not without a fight. The Light won, but not without cost.
This is often the Sunday in the church year in which churches remember those who are being persecuted for their faith. It’s a story that’s not often told here in the U.S., where we are free to practice our religion, whatever that religion may be. It bothers me, actually when people say that the star of Duck Dynasty is being persecuted for his faith, or that our faith is under attack because clerks say Happy Holidays last month instead of Merry Christmas.
I have preached about how our culture is becoming more diverse, and the number of religiously unaffiliated people is growing year by year. And that is true. But Christianity is still the majority religion in the United States, and I’m tired of shrill voices acting as if Christians are on the brink of extinction. We are not. And we are not being persecuted. Our freedom of religion is constitutionally protected.
Persecution is what’s happening in places like Eritrea, one of the earliest Christian countries in the world, where 2,000 to 3,000 Christians are in prison in a former military compound. They are being held because they are part of a small independent Protestant community that is not approved by the government.
Eritrea is far from the only place where Christians are suffering for their faith. The Pew Forum reported that, between 2006 and 2010, Christians faced some form of discrimination in 139 countries—close to three-fourths of all the nations of the world.
There are 65 churches in Baghdad, 40 have been bombed since the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003. Iraq had a flourishing Christian community of about 1.5 million at the start of the war; now it is a third that size.
Persecution is occurring in Nigeria, Kenya, Burma, India and North Korea. North Korea may be the worst place in the world to be a Christian; it’s believed that a quarter of the country’s Christians live in forced-labor camps. (Source: The Christian Century, October 30, 2013)
Again, like Matt Emerson, I don’t bring up these statistics to glorify the suffering of another. But following God inevitably should cost us something. Otherwise what kind of faith is it?
Mary said, “Here I am,” but it cost her something to do so.
Joseph said yes to God, but it cost him something. He had to flee for his life, and the life of his family, to a foreign country. He had to become a refugee.
And Jesus, of course, this baby, would grow into a man who would follow the God of love so completely that when the powers and principalities came to crucify him, he said "put down your sword Peter," he went without a fight and his last words were forgiveness.
What will following in the way of Jesus cost you this year?
When the magi arrive at the manger, they don’t get the answer to the meaning of life. They receive no five-step plan for happiness or fulfillment. They don’t get to benefit from the wisdom of some spiritual leader, like those old cartoons of the person climbing the mountain to get to the guru. The trip cost them so much, yet they don’t receive anything. All they receive is the chance to be in the presence of the God’s own son, and to give him gifts. And when they leave, they have to go a different way than they came—they don’t even get to enjoy the familiar road! They must find another way, an unknown way.
But that moment in Jesus’ presence—that wordless moment—is enough to overwhelm them with joy. Imagine that. Perhaps… that moment in his presence was all that they really wanted.
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©2014 MaryAnn McKibben Dana. These sermon manuscripts are provided here for personal use, and are not to be redistributed or otherwise reproduced without permission of the author.