I’m so blessed to be at this combined service with The Episcopal Church of the Epiphany and Christ the King Lutheran. Pastor Nathaniel is doing wonderful work shepherding both of your congregations. Thank you to everyone who have come together in faith and made some sacrifices for this experiment to proceed. You have the support of the staffs of two bishops, mine and my friend, Jim Hazelwood. We are here for you as our always creative and dynamic God does a new thing.
Knowing I would be preaching for Episcopalians and Lutherans today, naturally I did some research on what Martin Luther had to say about Epiphany. I discovered a sermon from 1522. The sermon goes on for twenty-five pages of small print. Even if he channeled his inner New Yorker and spoke at my speed, that sermon would take at least an hour. Nathaniel, is that how long Lutherans preach?
Episcopalians have a hard time sitting still for long sermons, but we do love liturgical traditions. Epiphany gets celebrated with more pomp and circumstance around the world that it does in the U.S., with the liturgy in Australia’s Anglican Church standing out. There they combine Epiphany with the baptism of the Jesus that occurs the following Sunday. The congregation gathers around a swimming pool and a cross is thrown into the pool by the “senior ecclesiastic present” who should be “wearing a cope.” The children jump into the pool and attempt to “find Jesus.” Someone emerges from the water with Jesus and the liturgy continues. If you want to try that next year, I have a cope to lend Nathaniel.
I’m not going to quote from Martin Luther’s hour long sermon on the Epiphany, but I will read from this plaque that hangs in my living room. It is quote from Martin Luther and it will lead me into some reflections on Epiphany.
“This life is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness. Not health, but healing. Not being but becoming. Not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it. The process is not yet finished but it is going on. This is not the end but it is the road.” Keep Luther’s theology in mind as we look at the magi, at King Herod, and then at the power the Christ child and vulnerability of children. I promise we will do this in less than an hour.
The magi. Although we have some great music calling them “kings”, the scripture is clear they are not kings. They are magi and the word, “magi” comes from “magician.” These were astrologers who searched the sky for God’s plans. They were seen as quacks and charlatans by the Jewish leaders. There is a rabbi who lived around the time of the rabbi Jesus who wrote: “He who learns from a magi is worthy of death.” The only other time the word “magi” appears in the bible is in the Acts of the Apostles when Peter says of Simon the Magi: “He is in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.” Yes, the readers of this story would be shocked that magi came to see and worship Jesus.
But this only continues a theme that runs throughout Matthew’s gospel. Throughout the gospel, over and over again, the least likely people are saved by Jesus – the hated tax collectors, despised Roman soldiers, Gentiles. Matthew does this to make a powerful point: no one is out of reach of God’s love. No one. Not you. Not me. It is the great reversal caused by grace. In Luther’s words, “it is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness. Not health but healing.”
Now to Herod. Have you noticed that we never include Herod in the Christmas Pageant? We hear about the Roman Emperor calling for “all the world to be registered”, but we don’t hear about the Emperor’s puppet in Israel, King Herod. We don’t want to spoil a magical and mystical Christmas Eve by bringing in this tyrant. But Matthew wants us to know he is there. You will see why in a moment.
Herod was not just any king. He was among the most blood-thirsty. He killed at least one wife and several sons because he saw them as a threat to the throne. He had forty of the most popular people in Jerusalem arrested with the orders that they were to stay in jail and be killed on the day he died. That way someone would be crying on the day of his death. Right after the Epiphany story ends, Herod orders the death of every child two years old and under, in and around Bethlehem – what we call the death of the Holy Innocents.
This stands in sharp contrast to a new king of a different kind of kingdom. Matthew draws that contrast
through the gifts the magi bring – gold, frankincense and myrrh. The 60th Chapter of Isaiah says frankincense and gold are to be brought at the time of salvation, but there is no mention of myrrh. The magi add it. Myrrh was an aloe used to anoint a dead body. Why bring that to a new-born? Matthew does this to contrast Jesus with Herod. Herod makes others sacrifice and die for him. Jesus, the non-violent bringer of peace, will die for us. This king – Christ the King as our Lutheran Church is named – will sacrifice for his people. All is reversed.
The Epiphany story has inspired hymns, poems, various traditions in cultures throughout the world, sermons long and short. But perhaps no one expressed the great reversal, the grace-filled choice we have before us now, better than the poet W.H. Auden who wrote “To discover how to be human now/is the reason we follow this star.”
We can have the way of Herod – a way based on self- aggrandizing power, greed, cynicism and death-dealing violence. Or, we can discover how to be human now and follow the way of Jesus – mercy, compassion and hope. The magi understand. They “go home by a different road.” Some say the closer translation in Matthew is they went home by a different “way.” Their choice was both geographical and metaphorical.
We have spent the past several weeks preaching and singing and praying about the Child – the Christ Child – preparing for him, hearing the “good news of great joy” at his birth, witnessing the “homage” of the magi and the incredible courage of the refugees Mary and Joseph as they take him out of Herod’s death trap to safety in Egypt. Next week we will hear about the grown-up Jesus. So maybe now we need to spend a moment with the Child and with the children, our children.
Since the tragic massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School two years ago, there have been 95 school shootings. The death of the Holy Innocents continues. Ninety per cent of Americans want universal background checks on gun sales and nothing has happened.
One in five children in the prosperous Commonwealth of Massachusetts live in food – insecure homes. The number of children who are hungry throughout the world is a number so large I can’t begin to get my head around it. What I can get my head around is that the babies home we support in Mampong, Ghana has had its government funding of food cut off and when their director, the saintly Maggie Addai, was here in Massachusetts this summer and my wife Betsy asked her what she needed for the babies home she said “food.”
Ninety-seven per cent of scientists say we are heading towards climate change disaster unless we act soon. The window for stopping or slowing climate change is closing fast. The worst effects of climate change probably won’t happen in the lifetimes of the people gathered in this church. But what will happen in the lifetimes of our children?
W.H. Auden was right. There is an old way of living. Herod knew that way well. But you and I have chosen to follow the star. We have chosen a path of discovery, a new way of being human now. It is Jesus’ way of imagination, creativity and the dynamic grace of the Living God – the way of mercy, compassion and hope.
I’m still short of Luther’s hour long sermon on Epiphany so I’m going to end with a portion of one of my favorite prayers. It is written by Daniel Berrigan and it is called “The Advent Credo” but I think he misnamed it. It should be the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany Credo.
“It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss. This is true: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.
“It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger, and poverty, death and destruction. This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.
“It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever. This is true: unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be Wonderful Councilor, Mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of Peace.
“This is not true that we are simply victims of the powers who seek to rule the world. This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo, I am with you, even until the end of the world.
“So let us go forth in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ- the life of the world.”