Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.
There’s a little song that I picked up somewhere along the way—at camp, in college, who knows—that always gets stuck in my head. It’s not very complicated, but it has a few different parts that you layer on top of one another until it sounds very cool. The part I always get stuck in my head goes like this: “Arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of the lord has dawned upon you.” I don’t think I knew this at the time that I learned it, but it’s an Epiphany song. Those words come straight out of the Isaiah text for the feast of the Epiphany.
“Arise! Shine! For your light has come, and the glory of the lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isaiah 60:1-6).
This well-lit season of Epiphany is a funny little time in our church year. Setting aside the big chunk of ordinary time—the whole majority of the year that happens all summer—for just a second, let’s look at the structure of the beginning of year. There are 5 pieces. Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter. In Advent, we anticipate the birth of Jesus. At Christmas, we celebrate it—yay! In Lent, we anticipate the death of Jesus. At Easter, we celebrate the resurrection—yay! Those are similarly structured times, though totally different vibes.
So, what’s up with Epiphany? It’s just sitting there in the middle of those other seasons. The scripture we read focuses on Jesus’ childhood and ministry. Squeezed into these weeks—up to eight of them, depending on when Lent begins—Jesus has been born, is alive, we are celebrating, we are learning, we are living, we are walking, and we are not preoccupied by the idea that—spoiler alert—there’s anything to be worried about.
Epiphany is the time when we are 100% reveling in the life of Jesus the Christ. We are all in on the radical, world-altering, life-changing awesomeness of Jesus’ very existence. This is where I’d put the praise hands emojis, because Epiphany is rad.
Our story begins as it did over the last couple of weeks—with the baby. Jesus is born, Merry Christmas, Hallelujah! He and Mary and Joseph are in the stable, smelly and dirty, with the animals. Meanwhile, far away, some Persian astrologers are perplexed by what they have seen in the night sky. They saw an unusually bright star and had an epiphany—this star signaled the birth of a child in Judea who was God, come to life on earth.
Being wise men, as the story tells us, they knew they had to make the trek to see him for themselves. To see if what they had read in the stars could really be the truth. Persia is what we now call Iran, a significant distance from Judea in the first century, traveling by nothing faster than a camel. Their route to Jesus takes them through Jerusalem, where they meet Herod, King of Judea. These Persian astrologers are not Jews, and are not under Herod’s rule or the rule of this child they are calling King. But they tell this other king what they know, and that they are going to witness it firsthand.
King Herod does not have the same wide-eyed wonder that I imagine the wise men had. He does not drop everything to travel a long distance to fall to his knees in awe of the embodiment of God—the Word made flesh—in the baby, Jesus.
King Herod, like many rulers, stepped on a lot of people to get to his throne. He was first a Governor, and then a tetrarch, and then, finally, the King. Along the way, he had 10 wives and had several people assassinated, including some of his own sons, as a preventive measure so they could not assume his throne. [link] A fairly paranoid man, it seems.
It is not hard to imagine how he would take the news that there was a new King of the Jews out there. “When King Herod heard this,” the text says, “he was frightened.” We should not be surprised by this. Powerful men do not like to become less powerful men, and a new King is direct threat to the current one, it would seem.
Calling together his most reliable sources, King Herod learns that—in accordance with the prophets—the child has been born in Bethlehem. The wise Persians go on their way, with fairly dubious instructions to come back through Jerusalem and inform the King about where, exactly, they find the child.
The star leads them, once again, to the town of Bethlehem. By this time, Jesus is not a newborn in the manger like in our nativity scenes. He’s a toddler, probably noisy and messy and learning to walk and talk and all of those beautifully human things. The wise men are overwhelmed with joy to arrive at the home of the holy family after this long journey. Their first instinct is to kneel down and acknowledge the greatness of the Christ child.
They open their treasure chests and give him gifts. Gold, to signify that he is truly a king; frankincense, to signify that he is a priest, like those who light incense in the temple; and myrrh, an embalming spice, to foreshadow his death. These are unusual gifts for a toddler; but Jesus was a fairly unusual toddler.
The last line of the Gospel text is significant. These Persian astrologers, after meeting the Christ child, went home. They did not go back through Jerusalem, to tell Herod what they had seen and what they knew about what was to come. No, they were wise enough to see that there was another way home. They were wise enough to know that this tiny child, Jesus the Christ, would not be the same kind of King that Herod was, but that his power was far greater. They were wise enough to know that Jesus Christ is Lord, and that Herod is not.
This is where our centuries of Christendom are a disadvantage. We hear this story, and we say, “yeah, of course Jesus is the King of the Kings and Lord of Lords, we know. What’s the big deal?” At the time of his birth, these terms—king, Lord, Son of God, savior—were reserved for people like Herod and Caesar. Political leaders, emperors, warriors. Not Jewish children born into poverty. The absolutely radical nature of this epiphany is staggering.
If Jesus the Christ is Lord, then Herod is not. If Jesus the Christ is Lord, then Caesar is not. If Jesus the Christ is Lord, then the President is not; the pastor is not; we are not.
True power is not to be found in the waging of wars; in the oppression of those marginalized and minoritized; in terror and fear; in self-glorification and self-aggrandizement.
True power, true leadership, true salvation comes to us from the lowliest of circumstances, and leads us all to liberation. Liberates us all from the power of sin and death; liberates us all from fear; liberates us all.
In this season after the Epiphany, we will begin again at the beginning. Jesus will travel the countryside, gathering disciples and telling the truth about who God is and who we are. Spend this season bathed in the light of Christ, knowing that the truth has made you free. Arise! Shine! For your light has come!
Yes, the world around us is dark and dreary, and there are powers and principalities waging wars and wielding terror. This was the case at the time of Jesus’ birth, throughout his life, and in the centuries since. But the reason we are gathered here tonight is because a star shined in the East, and guided wise men to see the world in a new way. We are gathered here this week and every week because a light has shined in that darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Thanks be to God.