A New Light

+ A sermon for the Epiphany of Our Lord at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on January 6, 2019 +

Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12

Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

It’s hard for me to read this story of the visitation of the magi without thinking back to my childhood, to those Christmas pageants that I imagine most of us can remember. dt.common.streams.streamserver
You know, telling the story of Jesus’ birth in front of the whole congregation with a little doll in the manger standing in for the birthday boy.
And then we see the three little kids cautiously stumble on stage dressed in bathrobes and Burger King crowns as everyone sings “We Three Kings.”
Then those little kings mumble the names of their gifts and try to pronounce frankincense and myrrh.
Do you remember those types of pageants?
They give us a cute, almost sentimental, memory of the story we just heard.
One that reminds us to follow the star and give whatever gifts we have to our God—a good message to be sure.

But there are also elements of this story we should be careful not to gloss over.
Parts that may not be suitable for a children’s pageant, but are important for the adults in the room.
Parts that may read more like a political thriller and give this story a darker quality with a deeper meaning.
And it has a lot to do with a character that is often forgotten from these tales: King Herod.

King Herod the Great

Matthew tells us that when the magi come searching for the newborn king of the Jews, Herod and all Jerusalem were frightened.

Who would be frightened at the news of Jesus’ birth?
Who would be frightened at the fulfillment of God’s promises?
Who would be frightened at the coming of the Messiah, of Emmanuel—“God with us”?
Probably someone exactly like Herod.

We know from history and from scripture that Herod was a cruel despot, a puppet king installed by the Roman occupiers of the land who named him the King of the Jews.
He was paranoid, vindictive and used military force and crooked institutions to keep himself in power.
He murdered those who he thought of as a threat—including his sons—and he crushed opposition to his crown.
Without question, he was a tyrant.
And so when these magi from the east come searching for this newly born King of the Jews, Herod sensed a serious threat to his power.

These magi, whom our translations may render as “wise men” and we may call the “three kings,” but were not kings at all.
And we don’t know how many made this journey or if they were only men.
But we do know that they were part of the royal courts in Persia, akin to magicians and astronomers.

“The Adoration of the Magi” by He Qi

Foreigners who saw a sign in the stars that there was a new king in Israel.
Royal officials who traveled to give homage and perhaps even official recognition this new king.
And this very suggestion that there may be a rival to Herod’s throne sends him into a fit of rage.
Matthew tells us that after the magi go home, this tyrant will mercilessly slaughter all the male children of Bethlehem, desperately trying to stamp out this pretender.
And that the Holy Family will escape and flee to Egypt, refugees seeking safety in a foreign land.

No, this is much more than a cute children’s story—this is a story about how and where God chooses to break into our world. How God is revealed to us.

“Epiphany” by John August Swanson

Because while the magi are seeking the light of this star, the word of God and the truth of God born into our humanity, Herod can only see a threat to his power, to his rule of fear, intimidation, and murder.
But like the magi, we see something different by the light of this star.
We see a new king, a promised child, who brings a new way of reigning, who is in fact the opposite of Herod.
A king who will not ground his rule in fear or intimidation or murder, but in love and inclusion and life.
A king who will not couch himself in royal palaces in the capital, but comes among us in a lowly backwater town.
A king that will not desperately grasp onto power but preaches service and self-sacrifice.
We see the light that is the beginning of a story that is told in the life and ministry of Jesus, the King of Kings, who reaches out to the outcast and loves all people, who heals the sick and feeds the poor, who challenges the powerful and lifts up the oppressed.
We see the lasting message of the gospel born as one of us.

And perhaps that’s what we can hear from this story when we move beyond the adorable pageants and the sometimes shallow message to bring our sorted gifts.
This is a warning to the tyrants of the world that they will not win.
That no matter their abuses, no matter their policies, no matter the atrocities they commit, they will not be able to end God’s reign of liberation and love.
That no matter how desperately they cling to the status quo, change is coming.
Because the birth of this little baby heralds a new kingdom, a new kind of king that will be hated and feared by those who seek to maintain their power through fear and oppression.
And these same forces will try again to end this king, to crucify him on a Roman cross, only to find that this death will be swallowed up in the new life of his resurrection.
And unlike the tyrants and despots of our history and our present, this life, this kingdom will not end, but will grow more and more until our world is consumed by God’s perfect reign.

What a message for us today.
In a world wrapped in the ways of militarism and chaos, in a world where innocent children die every day from hunger and preventable illnesses, in a world where the powerful cling to their riches and castigate those in poverty, in a world where rulers scapegoat foreigners and rule by fear, we have a new light of hope.
We have a God who has chosen to come to us in exactly this type of world to bring us a new way of living.
To remind us that fear and tyranny will never have the final word.
To be born again among us as Emmanuel—God with us.

christmas-card-adoration-of-the-magiThis is the truth that the magi seek.
The truth that reveals to us the Christ, whose very presence terrifies the powerful and the oppressors.
The truth of a new and different king who will rule with the message of the gospel, proclaiming the new life we have in him.
The truth that will shine forth to all nations, a light of hope and love.

And the magi can inspire us to seek out this light that has come into the world that burns to banish the gloom of the tyrants of this world.
And that we can take an active role in resisting their tyranny.
Because remember, when the magi choose to disobey Herod, to not tell him where they found Jesus, they are actively defying his authority and resisting his murderous reign.
They join the resistance to the oppression of tyranny.
A risky and courageous choice to be sure.
A choice that could cost them their safety and even their lives.
But a choice that is revealed to them by God.
They choose to go home by another way, to reject the old ways and live their lives following the light of the new star and new king they found in Bethlehem.

My friends, we rejoice this Epiphany Sunday because this light has been born again among us—not just two millennia ago, not just 12 days ago on Christmas, but with each new dawn.
The same light that guided these magi beckons to us this morning.
It has come again within and among us to reveal to us the love God has for us and for our world.
It reminds us that we have become a part of this light.
That we have become bearers of this light, ambassadors for the new kingdom it heralds, and workers seeking its fruition.
We have become part of this holy resistance to which we are called, declaring our allegiance to the newborn king, resisting tyrants wherever they rule, and working against the reign of fear.
We have been called to model our lives after the light of this baby, this Messiah whose kingdom is based on life and love, and bearing his blessing to everyone we meet.

Where is this light needed in our world?
Who among us could use this message of hope and love?
Where are there tyrants whose fear must be trampled by the gentle love of our king?
These are the roads that our God has called us to travel.
This is the moment when we decide if we will return to Herod or follow the light of Christ.
This is a risky time that demands courage and trust in the truth that God has revealed to the nations.
How will we respond?

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“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you,” the prophet tells us.
Even in the gloomy world, you will help show forth the glory of the Lord, which is for all people.
A new light that vanquishes the old oppressive systems and comes with healing, life, and love.
“Then you shall see and be radiant” with the light of God shining as a beacon to all nations.

So rise up and shine with the light of Christ.


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