|Ethiopian Magi, from a photo online by Patrick Comerford|
Epiphany has come to be known as the celebration of the three kings’ encounter with Jesus, only in this text there are only two kings, and neither of them are the Magi.
Our passage begins “in the time of King Herod”, and I translate, “In the time of a notorious authoritarian demagogue, enormously wealthy and notably insecure, a ruler obsessed with his reputation, who both taxed the people extensively and offered extensive job creation on vast construction projects throughout the kingdom designed to build up his name. Herod was a sovereign answerable to a foreign government, who spent lavish sums of money building up his own private empire and secure fortresses, whose rule was characterized by security measures aimed at suppressing the people’s contempt for him and keeping them from speaking out, and whom history remembers for both for his successes and his tyrannical despotism, in that time…”
In the time of that “king”’s rule, comes another king.
A baby, born amidst a bit of scandal and a shotgun wedding to a carpenter and his young bride in Bethlehem of Judea, which, to translate again, means either born in a tiny, nowhere town on the outskirts and in the shadow of powerful Jerusalem, or means to be born in a place of deep significance – the city of David, where David was born, and later anointed by Samuel, and then later crowned King of Israel. The place where the matriarch Rachel, Jacob’s wife, was buried many generations before, (her tomb is at the entrance to town). The place where Ruth and Naomi returned and lived. To the seat of power Bethlehem of Judea was an unassuming little town. To the people of Israel, it was a city of identity and symbolism, a city of prophets, and kings, and divine direction “from of old.”
We’re not even one whole line into this story and it’s already dangerous and provocative!
So what we’ve read so far could be stated, in other words, “In the time of a flashy, demagogue king of commercial success and paranoid dominance known throughout the region as “the king of the Jews”, after the King of the Cosmos was born, when the Messiah was a toddler hiding in plain sight in the modest, secret place of divine promise and deep and ancient authority…”
In THIS time…
some magi came from the East to the center of Herod’s power 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…
Now, while there actually are some wise men in this story. Scholars, sages, scribes – they are not the magi, they are Herod’s advisors. The ones who are gathered to tell the one in power what he wants to hear. These chief priests and the rulers of the people confirm what the prophets foretold – that the messiah would come from Bethlehem.
But the ones who followed a star from a distant land, the strangers, foreigners who didn’t belong in the picture, they were magicians, astrologers, mystics with a vastly different worldview and understanding of the universe than anyone else here.
And they were the ones who really knew what was going on. They came in obedience, following a celestial sign, and when they arrived they were overwhelmed with joy, and they humbled themselves before a child and a woman. And then, not one bit deferential to the whims and commands of the so-called rulers of this age, they defied orders and went home by another way. Their direction came from the Creator of the universe, who guided them with stars and dreams, and revealed himself to them in the vulnerability of a child whose life was under threat from those whom the world saw as powerful.
I love this story so much for so many reasons. I love imagining the Magi showing up, and what it does to the neighborhood. Their otherness: Other clothes, other language, other skin, and hair, and smells, and mannerisms, and customs. The little town is invaded by otherness, in the form of these people who recognized, and came to celebrate, that this whole world has been invaded by otherness: “The word became flesh and made his home among us.” God has come in! Their arrival declares, and now resides, incognito, next door.
And I love imagining Mary and Joseph’s tiny circle of co-conspirators and witnesses, those on the inside who get what is going on – which so far, if we’re counting, has only been the two of them, Zechariah and Elizabeth, a bunch of random shepherds – whom I like to imagine them staying in touch with – and old Simeon and Anna from the temple. Can you imagine that crazy hodgepodge getting together for a support group? You have all been part of this amazing thing, this story that is changing the world has changed you, and nobody else will get it, but as different as you all may be, you have each other, you all are in it together.
But then suddenly this tiny circle is blown wide open by these people from the other side of the world, who have nothing in common with any of you – they haven’t shared the same messiah hopes, or the same ways of being captive or oppressed. They haven’t learned the stories or believed the prophets; they haven’t longed for the salvation of Israel, and they know nothing of David, or Moses, or Abraham and Sarah, any of those whose lives had gone before, through whom God has shaped the way.
Here come the astrologers. The ones who aren’t even looking like you do to your God and faith of your people- instead they are looking beyond this planet altogether for direction. They are watching the stars and measuring the universe for order and revelation, and their story of longing for hope and deliverance couldn’t be more different than yours. But also, at its essence, it is absolutely the same. We all long for our source, the source of all life. And when love comes in, they will load up their camels and cross deserts and mountains to welcome it, to kneel down before the one who brings in the real, who brings salvation. And in wonder you discover that you are in it together far beyond how you ever fathomed together could mean.
Two stories are playing out at the same time.
One is the story of a so-called king, locked away in his fortress, raging in fear, perceiving threats to his power and authority, using manipulation and flattery to coerce strangers- as though they are under his jurisdiction – to do his bidding, so that he can stamp out a potential usurper by any means necessary.
The other one unfolds in a simple home on a simple street, with an ordinary family opening the door to astonishing strangers from afar, who unexpectedly kneel before a mother with a child on her lap, and then give strange gifts and tell strange stories in a strange language, with charades and hand gestures, of a long journey led by a mysterious star, the very heavens pointing them to this precise place.
Oh, Herod. This story is so much bigger than you. It’s so much longer, deeper, stronger and more significant. God is doing this thing. God has come, God is here – and this thing is moving toward its eternal and everlasting conclusion.
No matter how it looks on the surface at any given moment, the heartbeat underneath is love, and the project of a whole world indivisibly connected to God and each other, of all nature in harmony, and all people in family, with God as the true sovereign, who rules in disconcerting vulnerability and incontestable strength – like it or not, that is happening.
And it can never be thwarted. Not by ego-maniacal leaders, not by the wisdom of the sages, not by coercion or might, or brutal violence or tragic suffering, not by anything human beings can forget or demand, or screw up or succeed at. Nothing we can do, or not do, can stop what God is already doing. It is unstoppable.
And yes, we do a whole lot to muck it up –accidentally or on purpose. We can act like we are divided, we can kill, and blame, and shut down, and overlook each other. We can contaminate the earth and wipe out whole species; we can ravage our own hearts and minds and go numb or afraid – and fear can make us do terrible, heartless things. But no matter what, God is doing this.
It can happen through us or it can happen in spite of us, but God’s project of redemption and wholeness is under way, and it will not stop until all that remains is love.
Today’s scripture is a story about some, one especially, who missed it. Who lived in the way of fear, obsessed with his own security and power – and ultimately lost it anyway because death is real, triumph is short-lived, and permanent success is an illusion.
And it’s a story about some who got it. They set down everything and went on a long journey to lay themselves down at the feet of it, to welcome in the divine with ecstatic joy. They let it shape them, each moment, taking it in, noticing, listening, sharing, and then getting up and going home by another way because ultimately security comes not from what we build up for ourselves or tear down in others, but from trusting our lives to the Great I Am, who directs the whole universe in true wisdom.
And even when this King, who starts out his time here submitting completely into the arms and care of those made in his image, grows up to be killed by these he has come in to love and save, even that does not stop the project, it only cements it deeper and opens it wider.
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. Not ever.
We have a choice. We can look at what is right in front of us at any given moment, and we can live in fear. We can believe that the powers that rattle their sabers are the real powers, and that the terrible damage they can do – and they can do terrible damage – can break us, or make the world go off course.
But we are the others, brought into this story not through the genealogy and messianic longings of our people, but through the strangers who followed the stars. We are people called to lift our eyes to a further horizon.
The whole world is in on this conspiracy. Every blade of grass, and creeping insect; every daily sunrise and blazing planet, light years away. We are people of this infinite vista, this vast, cosmic perspective, not bound to look only to the situations in front of us like Herods, captive in fear to events and circumstances by which we stand or fall, driven to go after our enemies or hide in fortresses of false security.
We belong to another narrative; we are subjects of another king: the Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, eternal and omnipotent.
And this King has come; and now there is nothing, not anything, that can separate us from the love of God. God’s redemption is under way already and forever.
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.
Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.
In the tides of history, there is, as Ecclesiastes says, nothing new under the sun. Nations rise and fall. Great leaders come and go, fools rise up and disappear, fear dominates and wars rage, babies are born and gardens are tended and beloveds die and are buried, their graves are covered with new fallen snow, and the sun melts the snow and spring comes again, and love, love, love, happens, in between, in all the nooks and crannies, weaving us together and weaving us into the story that cannot be derailed. God’s story. There is never anything so bad that it can alter the origin or the outcome – it all comes from God and to God it all returns.
And in the in between time, God comes to share it.
And I, for one, want to share it too. I want to be in it together with all the otherness and beauty that is in it with me.
And I want to know that I am in it while it’s happening, not just when it’s all over, looking back to see that I mostly missed it.
I for one want to be guided by the deeper, eternal force of love, instead of the shallow whims of panic, the rise and fall of drama and dread, addicted to the non-stop fluctuations of worry, frenzy and regret.
This is God’s world. We are just living in it.
And whenever I feel rage, despair, or frustration at how things seem to be going, I want to remember that I have a choice.
I could stop. At any moment.
And I could quiet myself.
And notice, and let myself plug back into the real – where nothing can stop love and forgiveness, nothing can hinder hope and healing – not the most terrible thing I can imagine can stop God from acting.
And I could remember that God wants to act through me.
And that I want God to act through me.
THAT’S the story I want to be in.
The one where I kneel before the hidden, humble king, a baby savior, who saves us from all the darkness within and without. The One who brings together strangers to surrender in joy to the love and hope embodied in their midst.
I want to be in the story where I hang onto ancient and cosmic promise
and don’t cower at bullies or venerate false power,
where I pay attention to dreams,
and find solidarity with people I think of as other,
and bear gifts for the unsuspecting,
and gladly lay down my life, a gift of gratitude to the God who comes in,
and am made willing to be redirected and sent home another way.
Fear and love.
Power and weakness.
Rulers and strangers.
In those days, in these days.
Two stories unfold; two stories are always unfolding.
One, as dominant as it sometimes seems, and as compelling as it often appears, will end. It is mostly illusion, anyway.
The other story is the story of God.
Eternal and unstoppable.
Which story will you live?