An Epiphany Sermon

My friend Rev. Robert McKenzie preached the following sermon this past Sunday at St. John’s Presbyterian in Berkeley. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?”

This little story is probably as familiar to folks as any story in the Bible. The wise men; traveling from the East, the place of light and wisdom; arriving at the court of Herod in Jerusalem; claiming to have seen a star which they interpret to mean that a king has been born in Israel, destined to reign over the Jews; inquiring  at Herod’s court just where this king was born because they want to pay him homage. Makes sense that a future king would be born to a king. Turns out that Herod and his courtiers are badly shaken by this bit of news. He sends for the leaders of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious officials appointed by Herod, and ask if they know where this king was to be born. One of their prophets had predicted that this king would be born in Bethlehem of Judea, just a short journey south of Jerusalem. So Herod sends the wise men on their way, instructing them to report back to him so that he, too, might pay homage to the new king.

Fat chance! Herod had recently killed two of his own sons and several of his ten wives whom he believed had their eye on his throne. Turns out that Herod was a serial killer who got away with it because he was the king. Shades of Henry the eighth. Despotic Rulers have a way of wanting to hold on to their power and Herod the Great was among the worst of them.

For the most part, we don’t pay much attention to this disturbing aftermath of the wise men’s visit. We applaud the wise men for not falling for Herod’s sham-interest in this new born king – with a little help from an angel – who elude Herod by taking another route home. Herod,of course , is not one to be outdone, so orders the slaughter of all the baby boys under the age of 2 in Bethlehem. Another angelic intervention sends Mary, Joseph and Jesus off to Egypt just in the nick of time, but alas, parents of the other two year olds failed to get the word and we know the tragic result.

So, we with our 21st century perspective want to know what this story is all about and why Matthew chose to include it in his birth story,  whereas Luke seems to know nothing about it! Every Tuesday morning for the past 33 years a group of us pastors gather to talk about the lectionary texts for the following Sunday. This past Tuesday there were ten of us, two of the group being NT scholars. We agreed that the important thing about this story is not whether it happened, but rather, what does it mean and why did Matthew include it in his story of Jesus’ infancy. What is the point Matthew is making 80 years after Jesus’ birth, when he tells us about the visit of the Magi from the East, and Herod’s violent reaction to their visit.

The story is amazingly complex; very rich as a text for preaching. I want to make one single point which I believe is the heart of the story and it is this: The birth of Jesus is a threat to the world’s powers and these powers either have to co-op him or destroy him. The gospels are a recitation of just this point. From the very beginning of his ministry, the religious establishment which controlled the lives of the people, contrived to destroy him. He was hounded throughout his travels by scribes and pharisees and priests who kept tabs on his words and actions while crowds of poor and oppressed people heard him gladly. When he finally arrived in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast, they were waiting for him, sending their most powerful agents to trip him up. Finally, in a midnight raid on his encampment in the Garden of Gethsemane, they took him into custody, sat in judgment of him throughout the night and finally turned him over to the Roman authorities to pronounce the death sentence. The powers of the world, the world of Herod and his ilk, finally got done what Herod 30 years earlier wanted to do.

The light which Jesus brought into the world has never been quenched, tho it has flickered badly from time to time. Having failed to snuff out the light which Jesus’ disciples carried into the Roman empire for 300 years, Constantine finally co-opted his band of followers in the 4th century. For the next thousand years the risen Christ struggled against the official Roman church by raising up pockets of faithful disciples like Francis of Assisi  and Peter Waldo. Then there was the great upheaval in the 16th century known as the Protestant Reformation and a brand new beginning for the church.

Time and again the gospel has shed its light into the dark world of Herod and his succesors.

I’m thinking, for instance of the Quakers and the Beecher family who put a human face on slavery and radically challenged the notion that slaves were chattel to be cared for by benevolent white folks while exploiting their labor.  I’m thinking of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who embraced Jews and  other non-Aryans – even against many fellow Christians – challenging the malignant power of the Nazi state, and was hanged for his resistance. I’m thinking of Oscar Romero, bishop of El Salvador, who embraced the poor peasants,  directly and publicly challenged the Salvadoran government, a client state of our government, just as the Jewish Sanhedrin was a client state of Rome, and was murdered by a government agent while saying mass. I’m thinking of Martin Luther King who turned his sights on the Vietnam war as a racist war and aroused the enmity of many former supporters, even among his closest colleagues. Sometimes shining the light of the gospel in the dark shroud imposed by the world’s powers can get you killed.

I must confess that I shudder a little for the new Pope when I see and hear what he is about. The radical right is already branding him a Marxist. He is challenging the authority of the inbred powerful curia which reigns over the church, by appointing a new council of eight international bishops to advise him.  He is saying that the world’s economic system is the new idolatry. Everything is justified in its name.  He embraces the poor and the outcast  as models of what the church must become, telling the clergy to get out of their comfort zone;  it is their calling to become like the poor. He has replaced the very conservative Bishop in the United States, who recommends to the Pope candidates for bishoprics, with a new open-minded official. Our Catholic friend, Margaret Roncalli noted the other day that everyone is waiting for the second shoe to fall. No one imagined that the archbishop of San Salvador would be brutally slain for his out spoken challenge to the government. How long will this out spoken Pope be tolerated for a gospel which empowers the poor at the expense of powerful interests inside and outside the church?

John’s gospel opens with a paean to the light of God.  “In God’s word was life, and the life was the light of humankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Friends, you and I are called to be bearers of the light of God wherever darkness oppresses the world.

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