Epiphany, 2016.

First:  Why is everyone asking the same question?  The Wise men (of indeterminate number, but bearing three significant gifts) have read the signs of some great cosmic event.  The follow the signs to the seat of power in Judea, and ask the only question that matters to them – ‘Where is he?  Where is the one born king of the Jews?  We know that this thing has happened – we can see the signs – we need only one more bit of information, so that we can honour him.’  The question they ask of Herod is appropriate, really.  They’re not from around here – can’t be expected to know all the details, the local gossip – the birthing customs of Jewish royalty.  It is a sensible question when posed by the Magi.  The same question becomes sinister in Herod’s mouth.

He leaves the meeting – he calls the experts – the scribes, the priests – and asks the same question: Where is he?  But Herod’s question has a different motive; his desire is to keep this potential rival…potential.  He’s a clever operator, is Herod – knows how to get information – how to keep up appearances.  Find him for me.  Send me word so I, too can worship him…

No one believes that Herod wants to fall down at the feet of his replacement.  The Eastern visitors ignore his request and return home by another way, so they weren’t fooled.  Herod knows a threat when he hears one, and the news that an ancient prophecy has been fulfilled is, in this case, a threat.  So why is he asking the question?

Someone with ambitions to power should know where the threats to that power may come from, don’t you think?  A man in Herod’s position should be better informed – certainly, he should have paid closer attention to his early religious training…because Herod was a Jew.  Not a very observant Jew, but most scholars believe that he identified himself as Jewish.  King of the Jews was HIS title – bestowed on him by the Roman Senate after his successful campaign to conquer Jerusalem as a leader of the Roman force.  So any suggestion that there was a new king on the way…Herod should have put the pieces together.

In a time when people of every culture – and nearly every level of society; the rich and poor; those with education and those without; lawyers, farmers, midwives and politicians – EVERYONE knew that heavenly events or any alterations in the natural order of things were signs from the gods.

The world worked at a level of divine mystery – and that mystery was tangible.  Omens, rituals, wive’s tales, proverbs – all these tried to explain the inexplicable workings of the universe.  The Magi had read the heavens, and concluded that change was in the air.  They were so sure, they sought an audience with the ‘King of Judea’, to ask where the next king had been born.  That takes more than nerve – it takes a degree of religious certainty.  Not that these men had any stake in the religious politics of the Jewish people, but their faith assured them that this birth had happened, and they wanted to mark the specialness of the event with worship.  The signs were there to be read; so how did Herod miss the signs?

There may be a simple explanation, but the answer to that question doesn’t concern me.  I read this passage from Matthew’s gospel as a follower of Jesus, and Herod’s motives don’t really matter.  The cultural background of the wise men matters even less.  I am led to wonder if we are, in our own time and place, as ignorant as Herod, for we too have, for the most part, missed the signs.

No new stars, not the last time I checked.  No virgin birth, nor shepherds reporting a heavenly visitation, but we are missing the signs of God-with-us every day.  Christians we may be, but not very observant.  For we hear that ‘Christ is born’, or that ‘Christ is Risen’, and we acknowledge this news as historical event or deeply rooted religious mythology, or something beyond our comprehension – or perhaps all three – but we don’t always make best use of that news.  We have a history with the story of Christ’s birth and death and resurrection, but we are guilty of treating that story as part of our cultural entitlement.  We find ourselves deeply rooted in the ‘Christian story’, but we’ve lost touch with the sense of wonder that brought complete strangers – foreigners with different belief systems – to the feet of the king of kings.

The word epiphany, when not describing the several weeks of the Christian year between Christmas and Lent, can describe a sudden clear burst of understanding (“I’ve had an epiphany!”).  It is that moment when one suddenly sees a thing as it really is, and in our case it describes the moment when folks from beyond the Jewish tradition recognized a work of God in their midst.  So, is that was Christmas has done for us?  Have we been led, once more, to a moment of clear understanding – a recognition that God is among us?

The signs are all there – we’ve listened to the prophets, waited on the angels, marvelled at the shepherd’s news and perhaps even worshipped at the manger.  So what happens next?  Herod’s reaction was predictable – perhaps he had been paying attention after all – because the coming of Messiah meant liberation for the people whom Herod ruled by fear and force.  And that is the King whom we greet; the light in the darkness, the redeemer long promised – Jesus brings freedom from every sort of tyranny, and liberation for all who are oppressed. A very different political landscape.

Herod knew it, and despaired.  The Magi recognized it, and defied the orders of ‘the king’.  Can we accept that Jesus would also change the way we view the world?  He will, by his life, death and resurrection reveal to us where the real power is.  He can restore in us a sense of wonder at the workings of the natural world.  He insists that justice, mercy and love are the keys to the kingdom that he represents – a kingdom with its foundation in God, with boundaries that span the universe.

Praise God that we haven’t missed all the signs – we are gathered; we have worshipped; we have welcomed our new-born King. Christ comes as both a representative of that kingdom, and it’s one true authority – so say our creeds.  And we are charged with sharing our knowledge of this great event – this great work of God – that confronts us in the infant King.  You see, recognition – epiphany – is only the first step.  More important is how we react to the truth we have discovered.  God is with us – the signs are all around us – The world is crying for change,  and in Christ, God brings the promise of renewal – redemption – radical change.  So the real question is this:  Are we ready?

Amen.

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