A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.
January 5, 2014
The Epiphany of the Lord
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road (NRSV).
During the Season of Advent I preached a sermon series called “Opening the Gift of Christmas,” and sometimes, as I tried to picture it, I pictured it like this—like a little boy opening a big, cardboard box in which there is a wonderful present, lifting one flap on the box, and then another, and then another, and then another, until at last he can see what’s inside. For us, the wonderful present inside the Advent box was Jesus, and we lifted the flaps of hope, peace, joy, and love one Sunday at a time until—on Christmas Eve—there he was! We could see what we had been waiting for. We lifted him gently out of the box on that night, and held him in our arms, and we’ve spent the last couple of weeks celebrating God’s greatest gift.
But did you ever get one of those gifts that has lots of features? I’m thinking about the grandmother who got a smart phone for Christmas, and whose grandchildren are even now showing her all the things it can do. “What?” she says, “It can take pictures? It can send email? It can play videos? It can send text messages?” She’s finding out about her gift one feature at a time, and it will take her a while to become completely familiar with it, maybe a long while. So, I’m thinking about Mary, the mother of Jesus, who looked into the manger on Christmas Eve and saw that perfect gift lying there, and I’m thinking how she would have learned who he was and what he would become one truth at a time.
In fact, that’s what I’m calling my sermon series for these next few weeks, for Epiphany and the Sundays that follow: “Opening the Gift of Christmas One Truth at a Time.” I’m going to be working from the Gospel of Matthew, and as you know Matthew tells the story of Jesus in a different way than Luke does, beginning with the story of his birth. Luke’s Christmas story features Mary, and angels, and shepherds, while Matthew’s Christmas story features Joseph, and dreams, and wise men. You might ask why, since there was only one birth. Why do we need two different stories? But I’ve been thinking about something John says near the end of his Gospel. In chapter 20, beginning at verse 30, John says: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” And in the next chapter, as he is bringing his Gospel to a close, he says: “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (21:25).
What John is telling us is that there were lots of stories about Jesus out there, lots of sayings, lots of signs. He couldn’t include all of them in his Gospel and so he picked and chose some rather than others. Let’s assume that Matthew and Luke did the same: that each of them did some picking and choosing as to what would end up in their respective Gospels. John says that the things he included in his Gospel were included for a purpose—so that his readers and hearers might come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing they might have life in his name. Don’t you think Matthew and Luke also had some purpose in mind as they began to write? Didn’t they want their gospels to do something, and not only say something?
I picture Matthew sitting there at his desk with a shoebox full of index cards, all of them stories about Jesus or sayings that were attributed to him. Matthew is going through them thinking about which ones he will include and which ones he will leave out (and, by the way, any college student who has ever written a term paper knows something about this process). Many of those stories would have come from the Gospel of Mark, which was written several years before Matthew. Some of the sayings would have come from a written collection of Jesus’ sayings which scholars now call “Q.” Matthew may have had other sources, other stories and sayings, but as he looks through that shoebox he is thinking about what he wants his Gospel to do, and about which stories and sayings will serve his purpose best. And then—way in the back of the box, almost lost behind the others—he finds this story about the magi, and he knows as soon as he sees it that it’s the one he wants to tell, maybe only because this story—from the very beginning—presents Jesus as a king.
It begins with a king—Herod the Great—who has been variously described by historians as “a madman,” “an evil genius,” and someone who was “prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition.”[i] It is to this king, sitting on his throne in Jerusalem, that wise men from the East come asking where they can find the new king of the Jews, which makes me wonder just how wise they really were. Unlike the hymn, Matthew never identifies them as kings. The Greek word is magi, and they were most likely Persian astrologers. Craig Satterlee writes: “a more precise description might be that the Magi belonged to the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism, which paid particular attention to the stars. This priestly caste gained an international reputation for astrology, which was at that time highly regarded as a science. So these Wise Ones from the East were scientists and practiced other religions, and God used their faith and knowledge to bring them to the Christ.”[ii]
When I read that description about scientists who practiced other religions I did a quick search on my computer, typing “VCU,” and “Faculty,” and “Astronomy” into the search engine. For some reason I ended up in the Physics Department, but when I looked at the list of names I saw Purosottam Jena, Shiv Khanna, Adam Niculescu, Bijan Rao. I don’t know these people, and I don’t know that they practice other religions, but they have these exotic names and these exacting disciplines and I could almost picture them, gathered around the latest images from the Hubble space telescope saying, “Hmmm…” So, what if some of their ancient predecessors looked into the night sky, saw an unusual celestial event, and said, “Hmmm…”? They may have spent weeks or even months discussing what it meant, but in the end decided to go and see for themselves. In those days before telephones, the Internet, and the 24-hour news cycle they didn’t have many other options. We don’t know how many of them there were, how they traveled, or how long it took them, but eventually they got to Israel and made their way to the capital city of Jerusalem.
Where else would you look for the newborn king?
But when Herod got word that visitors from the East were looking for the new king of the Jews he was disturbed, troubled, frightened, and all Jerusalem with him. He called together his own wise men—the chief priests and the scribes—and asked them where the Messiah was supposed to be born because even though he, Herod, was not a Jew, he knew all about their expectations of a Messiah.[iii] They reminded him that once upon a time a shepherd boy named David from Bethlehem had been anointed king while the old king, Saul, was still on the throne. They told him it could happen again, that it would happen again, soon. So Herod was always watching his back, and it must have made him a little jumpy. The chief priests and scribes told him that, according to prophecy, the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, just like his ancestor David. So Herod called the wise men in, secretly, and told them where they could find the new king, and asked them to go and search diligently, and then come back and tell him so that he, too, could worship the child, but not before finding out from them exactly when they had seen the star. He was calculating the child’s age, you see? Working on “Plan B” in case the wise men didn’t return.
But this story isn’t really about him.
When the wise men left the palace they set out for Bethlehem and it looked as if that star—that heavenly light—was going along ahead of them until it came to rest over a house no different from most of the other houses in that little town. But they knew it was the place they had been looking for since they set out, and that they had finally reached the end of their long journey, and they rejoiced (as it says in the King James Version) “with exceeding great joy.” And then they knocked on the door and Mary opened it and there was Jesus, who must have been nearly two years old by this time, not a baby in a manger, but a toddler standing there beside his mother, looking up and wondering who these strange visitors were. And they must have been looking at him, wondering, “Is this it? Is this what we’ve come all this way to worship? This little boy? This tiny king?” But at some point they decided he was “it”; he was the one they’d come to worship. “And they knelt down and paid him homage, and they opened up their treasure chests, and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (2:11).
And it’s that point I want to linger on, that point when the wise men saw Jesus for who he really was. The theologians would call it an epiphany, and if you read the front of your bulletin this morning you know that the word epiphany means literally, “to shine upon.” “It’s what happens when an actor steps onto a dark stage and the audience waits breathlessly for the spotlight to come up, to reveal his identity. In the church, Epiphany is our celebration of how God’s light shines on Jesus, revealing his true identity to an audience of wise men, kings, and ordinary people like us.”[iv] And this may be the point Matthew is trying to make with this story: that Jesus wasn’t just the king of the Jews; he was the king of the world. And if a handful of road-weary wise men, from another country, and another religion, can see that, then we should be able to see it, too. There comes a point for each of us when we have to look on Jesus and decide: is this it? Is he the one? Can I open up the treasure chest of my heart to him? Can I offer him the best gifts I have to give?
The story goes on from there. Matthew tells us that the wise men were warned in a dream not to go back to Jerusalem, so they went home another way. And when Herod heard about it he was furious, and sent his soldiers to slaughter every male child under the age of two in Bethlehem. That might have been the end of Jesus right there, but Joseph had a dream too, and in that dream he was warned to take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. That’s what he did. And that’s why I’m able to stand here and tell this story more than two thousand years and nearly six thousand miles away from the actual event. And that’s why you have a chance to decide what you’re going to do with Jesus. Are you going to wipe him out, as Herod tried to do? Or are you going to worship him, as the wise men did?
Matthew says they went home by another way. Others say they went home a different way, while still others say they just went home “different.” What about you? You’ve been invited to look on a little boy named Jesus and see him for the king he really is. You’ve been invited to fall down and worship him, and open up the treasure chest of your heart to him. You’ve been invited to look at him in a whole new light, and to go home “different” than you came. Will you, or won’t you? There’s only one person in the world who knows the answer to that question,
And that person is you.
[i] From Wikipedia—not the best but often the most readily available source of information.
[ii] Craig Satterlee, “Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12” from the Working Preacher website, January 6, 2013 (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1525).
[iii] Herod was an Idumean, from the region south of Israel. He was appointed king of Israel in 37 B.C. and ruled until his death in 4 B.C. He may have been especially troubled by the legitimacy of one who was born king of the Jews rather than made king.
[iv] Jay Green is the pseudonym I use when I don’t want to quote myself in the bulletin. Now you know, and I know there is at least one person in the world who reads the endnotes. Thank you.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.