Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Feast of the Epiphany

Happy Feast of the Epiphany!
Otherwise known as 
the Feast of the Three Old Wise Guys...
You know,
John Wayne, Quentin Tarantino, and Clint Eastwood
Oh! wait, not those wise guys!

While we have no idea if the magi who showed up
to honor Jesus as a little child
were men, or wise, or kings, or other political or religious officials
or even if there were three of them,

Traditionally, the Magi are 
Casper from Arabia, 
Melchior from Persia, 
and Balthazar from India.

And of course, we don't know how the three of them ended up together,
or at least, showing up in Bethlehem around the same time.

Yet, we celebrate this story of Epiphany
because it is the first 
in a long, long, series of stories
about people recognizing Jesus
as the Son of God,
the Savior.

And it has such valuable political ramifications
that it has been used in situations 
over and over again
as a story of the subversion of political rule
by religious authorities.

This story sets up a drastic dichotomy
between the King set up by the Romans
and the King set up by God.
This is going to be a continuing struggle 
throughout Jesus' life
and the gospel of Matthew
and the understanding of his followers.

King Herod
while officially being King of the Jews
under, of course, the Emperor Augustus,
was by no means
well known for being a good Jew.

Case and point,
he doesn't even know where the Messiah is supposed to be born.
You know,
the One everyone was waiting for...
He tries to be a Jew
some of the time
but most of the time 
he spent his time caring about building grand structures
brutally ruling his kingdom
and being very suspicious of everyone around him.

In summary,
The political reality of the time in Judea
was
"Not Good."

Into this reality,
God sends his only Son,
Jesus
as a vulnerable, helpless baby.

And who comes to greet him
a new King 
three foreign magi.

These three men were probably political or religious officials
they were people with power
they were the people in charge
of something, we don't know if they had kingdoms or congregations or what
but, they were somebodies.

And they probably had people over them,
kings or high priests
who they owed allegiance to 
so the fact that they go on a special journey to find a new ruler
a new King
and one just born as a baby
portrays some serious significance.

Either these men came on their own,
showing disloyalty to their previous kings
or their rulers were recognizing Jesus
as the true King of the Jews.
Foreign rulers often sent ambassadors to greet and give gifts to other new rulers.
Precious metals
costly spices
were appropriate gifts for a new ruler.

Can you imagine any of our political leaders these days
going to look for a higher ruler
who shows up as a baby?

Most of our current political officials
would rather be the center of attention,
power and authority 
at all times
in all places

Our political leaders do not always know how to accept another's jurisdiction
Yet these three (or maybe even more)
wise men
(they are wise in so many ways)
they recognize Jesus' 
power and authority
they recognize their own place
in this great universe

Herod
unfortunately
has a hard time recognizing anyone else's power or authority
he wasn't always that great at following his Emperor's commands
and he eventually had restrictions placed upon him because of how he ruled
and he certainly didn't behave in a way to let anyone around him have any control over him
People who got close to him 
were likely to end up dead.
He tries to run a con
a trick
to find out where this new king is
so that he can destroy
this new threat to his rule.

Yet God takes care of his Son
protects him by reaching out to the wise men
and sending them home in a different way. 

Matthew wants us to know how amazing this baby being born really is
No only are there angels
but there are foreign kings
there is recognition on the world stage
that this baby is the King of the Jews
its a political statement
totally against the Roman Empire

The gospels were very subversive material
banned books type stuff

Its no wonder the Roman Empire cracked down on Christianity in the first few centuries
listening to this story doesn't give the same potency as it would have had then
people are forever saying things like the president has no claim to being president
And even people saying that Queen Elizabeth is not the real queen of Britain
aren't likely to be as taken seriously as they used to

But the change in the balance of power and authority in this story
is magnificent

This story is about a reversal of the world power structure
Matthew is telling us quite clearly
that Herod has no real power or authority
that with the recognition of the wise men of Jesus
all political and religious authorities and hierarchies
have no power
they have no basis
that Jesus
is God's answer to our power struggles

All of our power struggles.

Our power struggles in ourselves
our power struggles in our homes
our power struggles in our neighborhoods
our power struggles in our town
our power struggles in our state
our power struggles in our country
and our power struggles in the world.

We believe in a God who is above all these powers
We believe in a God who can change our hearts and minds
We believe in a God who can work miracles
even through and in our ordinary lives

The Magi make a choice
They could have given into the power system of Judea at that time
they could have reported Jesus
back to Herod
they could have ignored the dream
and reported the new King

Yet they stuck to their values
they stuck with their integrity
they followed God
who spoke to them in a dream
and they made a different choice

Sometimes we think we have no choice
in the power structures and systems we are in
but we do have choices
there are always consequences
but following God 
is always the best choice

The gospel according to Matthew is a book full of tension. 
Matthew wanted people to live by the Jewish traditions and customs. 
He wanted many things to stay the same, 
yet 
he also was writing to share the story of something entirely new, 
something subversive which was going to change everything.

The story of the Magi,
whether true or not,
is really about the status of Jesus

it is meant to give us insight into
who Jesus is
and foresight into what he is going to do.

This is not the only time Jesus is in opposition with a Roman ruler
Though only a baby in this story,
his response is pretty much the same
he gives himself up
innocent and loving.

Using power to fight power
is not the example Jesus gives us.
In this story, and throughout the gospel stories,
Jesus never uses his power as God Incarnate
to overrule the Romans
to fight against the Sanhedrin
to change the Pharisees, Sadducees, the priests, the scribes...
or anyone's mind.

I imagine he could have
he might even have been tempted to do so.

But he never used his power,

he worked within the limitations of humanity
he kept his integrity
he worked with his values
he loved
he cared
he discussed
he healed
he questioned
he loved
those were the powers he used

Those are the powers 
we have 
that we can use.
Even if you feel like you are powerless against the authorities
even if you feel like you are powerless against the changes going on in the world
even if you feel like you are powerless to make any difference in this world
you have the power to love
you have the power to care
you have the power to ask questions
you have the power to heal
you have the power to forgive
you have the power to pray
you have the power to love
Through Christ, we have the power to change the world.

Amen.