The Epiphany, January 5, 2020, the Rev. Louise Kalemkerian

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Sermon preached by the Reverend Louise Kalemkerian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Feast of the Epiphany

May the light of God shine in our hearts, and lead us to the Christ Child.  In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.  AMEN.

On our pilgrimage to the Holy Land last summer we visited the ruins of the Herodium, the lavish palace of Herod the Great, complete with amphitheater and baths, located just outside Jerusalem. Herod was an ambitious and ruthless ruler who set himself up by balancing the delicate relations with the Roman Empire. He was paranoid, jealous and fearful and had his wife and three of sons killed.[1] This is the king to whom the Magi came.

The writer of Matthew says that Herod was frightened.  In his commentary on this gospel, theologian N.T. Wright says, “What he (Matthew) tells us is political dynamite.  Jesus is the true king of the Jews and old Herod is the false one, a usurper, an imposter.  The house of Herod did not take kindly to the idea of anyone else claiming to be ‘king of the Jews.’”[2]

This last scene of the Christmas season, unlike Luke’s local lore about no room at the inn and angels singing to shepherds, comes to us from the Gospel of Matthew, the one from which we will hear most this year. Matthew wanted to interpret Jesus for his Jewish brothers and sisters, so he made lots of insider references to their religious heritage, OT prophecies fulfilled, etc. The account of pagan seers seeking the newborn Jesus fits right into his plan to open his parochial-minded audience up to the fact that the Gospel is universal. From the time of Jesus, the Gospel belongs to all the nations, all races and religions, not just the chosen people.

Who were these Magi and why did Matthew tell us about them? They were religious seekers, perhaps a whole caravan of them. They were not Jews, and didn’t know the Hebrew scriptures. They were philosophers, the counselors of rulers, learned in all the wisdom of the ancient East. They relied on their traditional ways of knowing God through nature and reading the signs of the times in the movement of the stars; they were astrologers. Nothing that says they were all male. In fact, some scholars have suggested that the text clearly indicates some of these Magi were women: they asked for directions.

The Magi start asking around town where to find the child who has been born king of the Jews. They get instructions to Bethlehem. They follow the star there to find the child with Mary his mother. They kneel before him. They open their treasure chests and present gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Those gifts say something about who this child is and will be. Gold: a gift fit for a king. Frankincense: a gift fit for a priest. Myrrh is an embalming spice; it foreshadows what is to come for this child.

The Biblical scholar Raymond Brown notes that the church has worked overtime in imagining the wise men strand. These “wise men” are Magi; from the same word we get “magician.”

Epiphany reveals that even in his infancy Jesus Christ is for all humanity, not only for the chosen few. He is for the outsiders; he comes to draw people together: wise men from the East, Syrians from the north, Egyptians from the south, Romans from the west. The truth that grasps us in the moment of epiphany, the moment when Christ is revealed to the Gentiles, is that Jesus Christ is the very love of God incarnate, and that love cannot be confined to ethnic or national identity; it cannot be restricted by gender or claimed only by the powerful and privileged. Jesus Christ, as the new king of Israel, is in fact, Jesus Christ the sovereign ruler over all the earth.

King Herod was a politician, he did intentionally violent things to protect his power. That’s why he shook all over with fear when the Magi told him that a star had risen in the sky to announce the birth of this new king, Jesus. That tyrant knew that the birth of the true king, Jesus, meant the end of his own abusive and illegitimate reign of terror. Matthew tells us that he even ordered the massacre of all children younger than two years old in and around Bethlehem so he could rid himself of this newborn king, and, of course, later in the story they tried to stop Jesus again by nailing him to a cross. But when Jesus Christ is at work in the world, the powers of cruelty and oppression cannot stop him. When Easter hope is alive, it is the tyrants and the power brokers and those who ignore human need for their own gain who should tremble.

The Gospel of Jesus is political. It addresses the concerns and affairs of the people and the city, the polis. It was first revealed to obscure shepherds in a field. From the beginning of his life Jesus rattled the cage of King Herod, just by his birth.  And Herod, in fear and response to news of this birth lashed out at the children of Bethlehem.  Later, when his parents thought they’d lost him in the Temple, Jesus’ retort to them was “don’t you know I am about my father’s business?”

And that business was and is, as Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel “to bring good news to the poor… proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[3]  To seek and serve the lost, the marginalized, the hurting, the refugee, to seek justice, to speak truth to power, to be non-violent, to stand against oppression and to love everyone. He says that the truly blessed ones are the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers.

Whenever Christians think Jesus can be used and/or manipulated to promote their own ends, they are mistaken, whether they’re in the White House or the poor house.  Whenever Christians think that Jesus blesses the wealthy and disparages the poor, they are mistaken. Whenever Christians proclaim that some politician or power broker who ignores the cries of the poor and turns a deaf ear to the pleas of the hungry, the orphan, and the refugee, is “chosen by God,” they are sorely mistaken. Whenever we ignore these least ones and instead seek out the successful and the powerful, we are looking for the Messiah in the wrong town and at the wrong time.

Some years ago, a reporter from the BBC interviewed one of America’s prosperity preachers, a preacher who preached a false gospel of power and wealth and worldly success and who had a large following.

The reporter asked, “You preach a message of success and prosperity, don’t you?”

The preacher replied, “Yes I do. I think Jesus helps us sail…not fail.”

But the reporter was sharp, and she knew the Bible, so she asked, “But didn’t Jesus die on a cross as one who was rejected and condemned as a criminal? How does that fit in with the gospel of success?”

“Oh,” said the preacher, “like all great men, Jesus had his setbacks, but on Easter he put all that behind him.”[4]

I don’t think so. On Easter, Jesus did not put the cross behind him, as if it were some unfortunate misstep in the otherwise successful journey of a powerful Messiah. The resurrection on Easter validates the gift of love and redemption that Jesus gave in his death on Good Friday, when he joined himself with all who suffer and who are oppressed. That prosperity preacher was looking for Jesus in Herod’s palace, not in Bethlehem.

Here we are, 2000 years from  Jesus.  The Gospel of Jesus, which we begin to understand from his birth in Bethlehem, calls us to act in the ways he did.  The story of Epiphany is to put into action in our own lives the light that was born in Bethlehem.  The light that moves us to leave Bethlehem and seek out the hurting and broken, the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters, and serve them.  Let us go forward from here.


[1] Encyclopedia of World Biography.

[2] Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone. Vol. 1.

[3] 4:18.

[4] Thomas Long story, Day1.org, January 6, 2019.

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