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Leonardo Da Vinci, “A Study for the Adoration of the Magi.” (ca. 1481)

(a sermon for January 6, 2019, the Day of Epiphany, based on Matthew 2:1-12)

Today, as we’ve said before, is the Day of Epiphany, also known as “Twelfth Night” (or, the 12th Day of Christmas, as it were!), which celebrates the light of God that shone forth in Jesus Christ; and which according to Christian tradition, was the time when “wise men from the East” came seeking the Christ Child, bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

There’s no question that the “three kings” – or more accurately, the magi – loom large in in our text for this morning: their arrival at the manger, with all of its flourish and drama, plays like the grand finale of the nativity story; and even theologically speaking, the mere fact of the Magi’s presence in Matthew’s gospel, as brief as it is, says a great deal about how Christ was given as a light unto the nations as opposed to simply the people of Israel.  So speaking as a preacher, I can vouch for the fact that there’s actually a great deal that can be said about these ancient and mysterious star followers; but all that said, I also must confess that this year as I’ve returned to this part of the Christmas story it’s seemed to me that before we can say much about the wise men, we really do have to say something about… King Herod.

That’s right; King Herod, also known as Herod the Great, the Roman appointed King of the Jews, a described by at least one commentator I came across this week as “the nastiest of all nasty kings.” Now, I should point out here that this not the same King Herod that figures in the story of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion; that was in fact the son of the King Herod in this story, actually part of a long line of Herods: Herod Antipater, Herod Antipas, Herod Archaelaus, and on and on!  But, as pastor and author James C. Howell has pointed out, really, “Herod, Herod and Herod are the same guy.  All were egotistical, insecure petty potentates, in bed with Romans and clueless about God.”

However, there’s a valid argument to be made that this Herod, who reigned at the time of Jesus’ birth, was the worst of the lot.  Historians tell us that Herod was growing old and in his aging had become a mentally unstable tyrant who had also become so paranoid about his standing as king that “every whiff of palace intrigue and potential opposition threw him into a murderous rage,” (Thomas G. Long) so much so that Herod actually killed one of his wives, several of his own children (!) and other members of his family, all because he believed they were plotting to betray him! It’s said, in fact, that when Caesar Augustus heard what Herod had done to his own family, he said regarding Herod that he’d much rather “be his pig than his son.”

So… in the midst of all of this here come these “wise men from the East” (and the truth is we don’t know all that much about them, just that they were probably not kings in the traditional sense, but more likely philosophers and astrologers of the ancient world looking to the stars as the sign of something momentous and world-changing; something like the birth of a new King).  Here they come; “traversing afar” across the desert sands, following that “star at its rising,” and yet where do they go to find out what’s happened?  Not to Bethlehem – not yet, anyway – but right straight to Jerusalem and before “an aging, insane, and ruthless Herod, the King of the Jews,” so that they can ask about where they might find the new King of the Jews! I love what Thomas Long of Emory University has said about this; he writes that this “would be like going to the Kremlin in Russia and asking Vladimir Putin, ‘[Soooo….] where’s the new leader of Russia?  [You see,] we’ve come to pay him homage.’”  Needless to say, when Herod realized that these visitors from the East had come looking for a new king of the Jews and that his own reign of power was most certainly coming to an end, “it rattled [him] so badly that he shook like a leaf in the wind, and the whole city of Jerusalem trembled with him.”

Well, you know the story: ever the consummate politician, Herod sends the magi on their way with instructions to report back to him once they’d found the child so that, he said, “I may also go and pay him homage.”  And armed with prophecies about the child’s birth given them by the chief priests and scribes, the magi followed the star to Bethlehem and found “the child with Mary his mother.”  And of course, they’re “overwhelmed with joy” at this discovery and what it all meant – not only for Israel, but for all of the nations, even their own country far from Bethlehem – but once they’d knelt down with their gifts to pay him homage, something very interesting happens.  The magi don’t, in fact, send word back to Jerusalem; but, in a twist that we sometimes tend to gloss over in our telling of this familiar story, Matthew tells us, “having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”

You see, one thing is for certain: once you’ve encountered Jesus, everything changes!  I mean, we’ve seen this all through the Christmas story, have we not:  Mary and Joseph, two impoverished teenagers, become the earthly parents of this “Son of the Most High,”  (Luke 1:32); lowly shepherds run through the streets “glorifying and praising God”  (2:20) for all that they’d seen and heard from the heavenly host; and now, after having had this collective dream that confirmed every bad feeling they’d had about their conversation with Herod “the Great,” these truly wise men decide that it’s not only prudent but the right thing to do to immediately change course and head back home by another way!

It’s true; once you’ve encountered Jesus, everything changes, and that includes how you deal with the Herods of this world! Because as I said before, to understand the place of the Magi in this story we have to understand who Herod was… and, yes, who Herod is.  Quoting Thomas Long once again, “Herod represents everything in human beings and human history that is haughty, cruel, violent and vindictive.”  Herod is the definitive reminder of everything that Jesus wasn’t; in that he was not born in the comfort and prestige of a palace, but rather in the silent simplicity of a stable far apart from the vestiges of riches and power; dwelling not among those who desperately cling to power by means of fear and cruelty, but rather among those whom Jesus would later call “blessed,” the ones who are “the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers… it is among these little ones where Jesus is truly to be found.”

This is what happened at the manger of Bethlehem, friends: where once there was darkness that could overcome the world, now there’s light; where division and hatred ruled the day now there’s a spirit of unity and love; hopelessness has at long last given way to , unending hope, and peace on earth:  all of this and so much more because of this child “who has born king of the Jews.” If it seems as though everything this child is and represents stands in direct opposition to the world as we know it… you’re right!  Because when you encounter Jesus, everything changes; life changes, the world changes, you change (!) and even your journey ahead changes… so much so that like those magi before us you’re compelled to go home by another way!

There is a painting by Leonardo DaVinci (actually one of his earlier works, created around 1481) entitled “A Study for the Adoration of the Magi.”  I just sort of found this painting while in the midst of my study this week, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.  What’s interesting about this work is not simply what’s in the foreground – Mary and Jesus, surrounded by the Magi all kneeling in adoration of the Holy Child – but also everything that makes up the backdrop of the scene; which, in stark contrast to the calm and quiet visage of a starlit manger, actually depicts something of a ravaged world, complete with ruined buildings, fighting horsemen, men quite obviously engaged in warfare, and a landscape that’s clearly jagged and rocky and in great need of repair.  Apparently, there even looks to be something of a self-portrait of the young Leonardo, standing off to one side and yet surrounded by all this chaos and decay.  I’m not great interpreter of art, friends, but for me the message of the painting is clear: that it’s precisely into this kind of a world, a world that is teeming with all manner of sin and death, that Jesus has come; and it’s why you and I stand in the need of a Savior.

Maybe for you this morning it’s not so much the “chaos and decay” of life and this world that surrounds you; maybe for you it’s found in the weight of all the sadness and grief that you’ve been carrying on your shoulders; or perhaps for you it’s in the relentless struggle to live life with purpose and a modicum of integrity;  could be it’s in trying so hard to keep the faith even as the rest of the world spins increasingly out of control.  I dare say that figuratively, literally and yes, even spiritually, there are more than a few King Herods out here that would smack us down given the slightest opportunity!

But here’s the good news, beloved… Christ is born and light – true and brilliant light – has come into the world!  Jesus, who is the new King, the Messiah, the Lord (!), has come to us and now the world changes; and by his life-giving, sin-forgiving, hope-renewing word, so do we.

And lest that anyone of think that the time for bowing down at the manger has long since passed, the notion of paying homage to the new born king now to be stored away for another year along with the rest of the nativity figures, I’m here to tell you that even now we have this opportunity to fall down in worship in this amazing, life-changing gift of a Savior who has promised to be with us even unto the end of the age, and makes that promise palpable for us in a simple meal of bread and wine.

So let us come to the table; let us rejoice in his presence and power… let us be nourished and strengthened in this Holy Meal, and then, when we’re done, let’s resolve to outsmart Herod and all the rest of his minions… and go home by another way!

Thanks be to the God of Light and Life who has come to us in Jesus our Emmanuel.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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The Promise of a Star

christmasstar2Granted, it took us until a week into Epiphany for us to do it, thanks to delays owed both to the typically capricious winter weather we have here in New Hampshire and to the holiday themselves, but today our small Bible Study group finally reached the end of an Advent survey through scripture relating to the nativity of Christ!

To be sure, it’s been an enjoyable journey.  This morning’s discussion centered on the visit of the “wise men from the East” as recorded in Matthew 2; arguably one of the most romanticized parts of the Christmas narrative, what with all the layers of tradition and myth that have been attached to the story over the centuries.  And while I have to confess that I still kind of prefer telling the story with all those flourishes intact, there’s something to be said for the stripped down, biblically correct version, in which we’re introduced to these foreign “magi” who are moved to make a long and difficult journey from Persia; following a star, of all things, across the harsh desert wilderness, all so that they might pay homage to what they understood was a powerful king who’d been born among the Jews.

It’s that image, I suppose, that’s the strongest for me when I think about those “three wise men;” the very idea that this journey had to have taken place largely in the dark of night makes it all the more remarkable, and might I add, by its very nature “faith-filled.”

The thought of it has actually brought back memories of the many times as a young man I used to go to my father’s little “hunting camp” deeply nestled in the woods of Northern Maine.  One of the things I really loved about that camp is that it was just about two miles from anywhere; and the journey to get there required a walk across pastures, along old tote roads and through a fair amount of forest. Over a number of years, I walked that walk countless times: day and night, in all kinds of weather, somehow managing to find my way without getting hopelessly lost, which admittedly, wasn’t always easy!

I remember one time in particular; I’d gone into camp to spend the day with Dad and some of the other men who were there for the weekend, but for some reason I had to leave that night (Actually, I probably had to preach the next morning; alas, such is the life of a pastor!).  And so, trusty $2.99 Eveready Flashlight in hand, I set out to make my way to the main road and my waiting car.  It was November, with a bitterly cold wind in the air and a little crusty snow on the ground beneath my feet.  And since there was a new moon, it was also incredibly dark; so dark, in fact, that truthfully I barely knew where to go.

The first part of this walk was an old logging road that’d grown up to the point where it had become not much more than a footpath, winding about three quarters of a mile through black growth knolls, ridges and spring holes.  Eventually, this came out to the edge of a large hay field, across which was another dirt road that connected with the main road.  As I said before, I’d known this old tote road like the back of my hand; on this particular dark night, however, it was as though I was walking a trail I’d never traveled.  There was nothing that appeared the least bit familiar to me; and the increasingly dim light of that cheap flashlight made every tree look pretty much the same. What’s more, there wasn’t enough snow on the ground to pick out any footprints, and even the ruts that had worn into the road were deceiving.  Again and again I found myself wandering off the trail and into the woods, only to have a fallen tree or some of what we refer to in Maine as “pucker brush” remind me that I was most definitely headed the wrong way!

In fact, the longer I plodded along the less sure I was of where I was actually going, and I was getting more than a bit nervous about ever finding my way out of those woods!  So you’ll understand my joy and relief when suddenly, looking skyward, I saw above me a literal canopy of stars, the heavens displayed in all their glory and wonder, with one star in particular shining prominently: the North Star, right there off the edge of the Big Dipper constellation; the very same star that I’d been taught at an early age could serve as a compass in the heavens!

I remember laughing aloud, because I knew immediately that I’d made it; indeed, somehow I’d already found my way to the edge of the woods, and what’s more, I’d gotten there without realizing it and despite my best efforts.  But now, even though I still had “a ways to go” on my journey, I could move forward with faith because the promise of my destination was about to be fulfilled.  Simply put, I knew where I was, where I was going and perhaps most importantly, now I knew which way to go in getting there!

Long ago, there were some ancient astrologers – tradition tells us there were three, but it’s also been suggested by some scholars there may only have been two, or perhaps as many as twelve (!) – who needed to find out about the birth of a newborn king in or around Jerusalem, and thus set out on a journey from the place we now know as Iraq to find him. Despite the wonderful picture we have of them arriving by camel to the manger on that holy night of the child’s birth, it’s likely that they paid homage later – perhaps as long as two years later – and the time spent finding Jesus was fraught with danger, political intrigue, and ultimately a hasty retreat home “by another way.”  We are assured in Matthew that the Magi did indeed bring the child those familiar yet exotic gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but as the old adage suggests the real gift might well have been in the journey itself, and in that nightly vision they had of a bright and shining star at its rising; a light that spiritually speaking, at least, still offers us that glimpse of heaven and of the one who is the good shepherd of our lives.

All I know is that to this very day, every time I stand beneath a starlit sky (and particularly on those evenings I find myself in an unknown location), I am compelled to seek out the North Star!  Yes, it does give me a clear sense of orientation that I find very comforting wherever I happen to be; but I also must say that the act of simply finding that particular beacon in the sky serves as a reminder of the larger journey of life on which I walk.  It’s the way of faith; and though most often it’s a joyous journey, it’s also sometimes a dark and rugged terrain on which to travel, for it’s all too easy for me to fall off the pathway as you go.  I need a light to guide me, and that light is Jesus Christ, who is Light of the World and my own assurance that though I may well have a long ways yet to go on my journey, I will indeed be guided by that perfect light…

…knowing, I pray, where I am, where I’m going, and perhaps most importantly, which way to go in getting there!

c. 2014  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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