In the Epiphany, the church concludes the Christmas season in the same spirit with which it began: that a light comes into the world in the midst of darkness to be for us a permanent reminder of God’s presence and love.
Reinforcing the Christmas Light is in us
The Epiphany | Matthew 2:1-12
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We close the Christmas season tonight with the Epiphany, one of the oldest, most-loved holy days of the church. And it’s one of my favorites. Though I have kind of “a love the one you’re with” approach to Christian holy days.
The Epiphany, however, is different. While all these other holy days focus hard on the historical elements of Jesus’s life, like Christmas and Easter or the newer ones, which dwell on theological concepts, like Trinity Sunday and Christ the King, the Epiphany dwells in different territory.
God, Son, and Holy Spirit territory. Like Pentecost and the Transfiguration, there’s a rumbling here. A pushing and a bumping into that thin place where God and humanity are at once in peace.
But it also wraps up the Christmas story, brings an end to our celebration of the Incarnation for another year with the powerful witness that Incarnation keeps going past these thirteen days of celebrating and honoring the Christ child.
And we remember again the Incarnation of God in the flesh, in the humanity of the humble people gathering in the night, by the light breaking through darkness. Remembering that this is what God does.
And we hear in this terrifying and wonderful story of strangers from a foreign land, traveling to see the light who has come into the world, following a star to his home, to pay him homage as a king.
A king born under the rule of empire and the tyranny of a murderous fake king.
If we go back to the gospel we heard on Christmas Eve, we hear a beautiful story of Jesus born and laid in a manger. Because there was no room in the inn.
This story from the evangelist we call Luke is so familiar, we might ignore its most controversial context. It begins:
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.”
We read that as just noise; let’s get to the good part! Maybe because we don’t really know the context very well. And maybe because we don’t want to remember it.
Judea had only come under Roman rule some 60 years earlier. The Hebrew people felt trapped and under constant threat. And the threat of Roman taxes was anathema to their way of life and faith.
But that isn’t the chilling part. Emperor Augustus was a butcher and tyrannical ruler. To hear these words at the start of the birth story:
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world would be registered.”
would be to hear about a murderous dictator threatening the people.
When we read this story, we should imagine it was Adolf Hitler seeking the registration of all the Jews. And Eichmann is sent to rule over Jerusalem.
Christmas begins with our remembering that the light of the world was born under the rule of a threatening tyrant. And that angels came to the shepherds and announced the good news in the midst of dark times.
And we conclude the season telling a story from another gospel. About the fake king Herod, afraid of the word he hears about a baby born. The intelligence he gets from a foreign intelligence service scares the bejesus out of him.
And when those Wise Men don’t return to Herod, he’ll have all the infant boys in Bethlehem murdered. His response to fear is genocide.
Our stories for Christmas and the Epiphany, the Passion and Resurrection, the Pentecost and the Acts of the Apostles all come under the veil of empire and war-making for peace.
For the faithful, the great epiphany we get from Scripture is that war is evil. And the face of evil is making war with the other children of God.
As theologian and pastor, Brian Zahnd wrote recently:
The Epiphany text begins with these words: “In the time of King Herod.” Most of history has been “in the time of King Herod.” And if not the time of Herod, then the time of Pharaoh, the time of Nebuchadnezzar, the time of Caesar, the time of Nero, all the way into modern times—the time of Hitler and Mussolini, of Franco and Salazar, of Pinochet and Putin. It’s true that most of history has been lived in the time of tyrant kings. But the gospel also tells us that since the birth of Jesus, heaven has been invading the time of tyrant kings.
Of course, we remember Herod’s genocide on December 28th, which we call Holy Innocents. It’s easy to tuck that story in between Christmas and the Epiphany. You know, where we’re bound to forget it.
And tomorrow, we’ll move to the Baptism of Our Lord, which was the original subject for the Epiphany.
But tonight, we gather around this story of generosity in the midst of fear. This story of outsiders coming to join in the Christmas story. They come with expensive gifts for the king-to-be. Gifts for the infant, still incapable of caring for himself.
We gather to remind each other of the threat he poses to the Old World Order. How much they fear his authority and the lengths they will go to maintain power. To prevent this young boy from becoming a king.
We gather to remind each other of the terrors of the night and the beauties of the light. Of the honesty of the Holy Family and the lies of a tyrant. The deception and murder these foreigners can’t prevent, nor could they foolishly try to stop. They fear their own lives.
And we gather tonight to remember all of this in the midst of the one truth we can only truly appreciate in the midst of such angst: that God is with us in this junk.
Earlier today we honored the life of our dear friend, Jim Campbell. And I’ve been thinking about him a lot the last few weeks.
And I keep remembering his openness and welcoming in the midst of darkness. Remembering his generous gift-giving and easy offerings when we needed something done.
But what I keep going back to is how he’d offer a welcome to our guests and old friends alike. How he’d arrive to church ridiculously early to catch everybody and then encourage them to come to coffee hour.
That this invitation came to him like an epiphany, a revelation. Like God just turned his head a little bit to see the need. And reminded him he could do something about it.
I’ve been thinking about Jim and about the generous offerings of the people of St. Stephen’s to our food pantries and our homeless ministry this year, like the last few years.
And I’ve been thinking of the darkness some of us are enduring. The darkness and the hunger for the light to come. And really, let’s be honest, most of us are skipping over the coming of the light and wondering how we can be the light in this time.
In the Light
But here, in this blessed night, in this holy space, with all of this light shining in our midst, we are reminded of the darkness and the light. Of a darkness which could frighten us if that light didn’t move…
If that light didn’t guide…
If that light didn’t draw us to a new place…
A place far from the comfort of home and into a new place, Palestine? Germany? Orlando?
A light which grabs our hearts and fills them with love and we may not know how or why or what to do with it, but we do know what’s sick in the world. We know where the fear is. And we know what it’s like to let that fear go and share love.
So tonight, let’s do that. Let’s share our love and hope in the light of our guiding star. We can start there.