Jan. 6, 2019 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Jan 6, 2019 in Epiphany, Sermons

The Epiphany

January 6, 2019

Advent Starry Night 5 by Virginia Wieringa

I want to offer these words by Pope Francis from Evangelii Gaudium or The Joy of the Gospel:

“God has found a way to unite himself to every human being in every age. He has chosen to call them together as a people and not as isolated individuals. No one is saved by himself or herself, individually, or by his or her own efforts. God attracts us by taking into account the complex interweaving of personal relationships entailed in the life of a human community.”

God attracts us by taking into account the complex interweaving of personal relationships entailed in the life of a human community. Exactly! These words were sent to me by a dear friend this week, about our friendship and about my bond with St. Michael’s, as I’d been wrestling with having been absent from you whom I love from Christmas Eve until just the past few days. It’s clear to me that God is at work in relationships and can use them to, as Pope Francis says, “attract us” — and I experienced it in feeling fully with you in spirit on Christmas, even if not in body. I felt God’s pull and presence through you even while not here with you. So, it made me wonder; what about Herod? The wise men? We just heard, “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” Might God have been trying to “attract” Herod by seeing the wonderful opportunity at hand with the birth of Jesus, the wise ones coming to him, and all Jerusalem taking their cues from him? If so, Herod, like so many of us, blew the opportunity. Instead he acted out of fear.

When a powerful leader is afraid it’s usually because something is threatening that power or competing with them, and they project that to those they lead, so certainly Herod “and all Jerusalem” were afraid! He had to face the realization that his power could be in jeopardy and that things might not turn out as he expected, that his power was more fragile and could not be relied upon to be absolute. Not that Herod would admit this, nor does any leader who’s more about power and position than real leadership. Herod’s insecurity is activated when he hears of someone born to be “King of the Jews” — so he doesn’t stop to question whether this might be a good thing for the people he leads, he only sees a threat to what he values most; his own position of power over others. If there’s a new king, it means he loses. The world is about win and lose for such people, and we see it in some of our leaders today. If it’s all win/lose then the leader wants to coerce or manipulate things to his advantage and it’s all they can see. Herod tries to deceive them into telling him where the new child-king has been born so he can have him killed. Anything that gets in his way is wrong to his thinking; the wise men innocently spoke the truth to him and Herod saw an obstacle to destroy even if it meant deception.

Much as I’d rather think of myself as a wise one, I can be Herod too, attempting to manipulate things to serve myself rather than consider what else God could be up to or those my actions could affect. We all can, and our leaders can and do at times too. We get activated and challenged by something we think will mean we don’t get our way, and we neglect to stop and see what else or who else could be affected, be it positively or negatively. It’s inconvenient to think that way, and we may not like what we see, we may not like ourselves sometimes, but the Gospel gets right up in our faces telling God’s truth, be it as a mirror or a magnifying glass. We face this right now at our borders, where I doubt anyone considered or expected there would be such a disaster with children separated from parents and even being lost or worse, dying. We need to stop and ask what is being threatened here, and what is the cost we pay? What else might God be trying to do, if we believe “God attracts us by taking into account the complex interweaving of personal relationships entailed in the life of a human community.” We are part of the human community and so are those children, parents, legal aid workers, politicians, guards, and immigration workers. Francis said, “God has found a way to unite himself to every human being in every age. [God] has chosen to call them together as a people and not as isolated individuals.” If we are to hear the truth of the Gospel it needs to be when we’re acting Herod-like about people and really don’t want to hear it. If we are to be people of God, we need to speak Gospel truth to those who don’t want to hear it. How is God attracting us given the “complex interweaving of personal relationships entailed in the life of a human community”? Rather than detesting and dismissing Herod as a bible bad boy, we might want to ask how much like Herod we are when our thinking is challenged, or we’re afraid of losing power and control. How Herod-like are our actions? How ‘Herod’ is our leadership?

One Luther Seminary professor (Karoline Lewis) says, “the Gospel tells the truth, as hard as it is. It’s not easy to hear. The truth will indeed set you free, as much as it will first make you so unbelievably angry.” Leadership in the church and by people of faith like you and me “should be inherently and observably different than what is accepted and touted as leadership these days.” To me, this segues beautifully into the story of the Magi or ‘Wise Ones’ – which is what I not only want our leaders to be, but what we hope to be in our own lives too.

The Wise Ones in our story are not merely beautifully robed foreign gift-givers who finally complete our Christmas tableau. They are resisters—resisters to corrupt power and a self-serving king. They resist the convenient isolation of considering this newborn Messiah as irrelevant because they are after all from “the East,” and what could he matter to them? They resist Herod’s false words about paying homage himself, and instead chose to stay on the path they’ve chosen, to follow that rising star. They resist corruption and defy authority by refusing to curry favor with the powerful king, and instead faithfully listen to God speaking in dreams to go home another way. Their experience has taught them to believe in something greater, and it leads to what is their own epiphany and ours. They trust their hearts, they question what sounds false, they follow God’s light in a star, “until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.” Their actions, trust, and wisdom reveal how God can act through the complexity and possibilities of our lives with each other – drawing from faithful hearts outcomes beyond any we could imagine. I can only imagine it must have felt as Isaiah promised; “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”

I think of the political world of those Wise Men and wonder if going against Herod worried them, if they feared for their lives. Joseph and Mary and Jesus do the same, also divinely warned in a dream. They too had good reason to be afraid. The massacre of children Herod ordered when he discovered he’d been disobeyed indicates his disdain for those under his rule, the extent of his power to destroy, and the extent of his fear of losing that power. Our Messiah is the one whose coming and presence is the very thing such corrupt or power-driven ‘kings’ have reason to hate and to fear. Hearing this Gospel right now invites us to look at our own responses when we are the ones in power, and the opportunity — and challenge — our Christian response can be to corrupt power over us. It invites us to wonder if we would return to Herod or go the way God has shown us. Would we resist or go along?

The Wise Ones model trust and embody a holy resistance to such corrupt powers which cannot stand any questioning of their own motives or self-serving ways. They make a powerful witness for us to consider when we are faced with comparable challenges or conditions. I pray we find the courage to follow their example and seek the joy of worshiping the Christ who came into that Bethlehem manger, even if it leads us first through fear, risk, wickedness, or evil — as together we keep our eyes on God’s star. Amen.

© 2019 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

View Epiphany readings: