Charming and Chilling
It is a story that is at once charming and chilling. That would be the Epiphany story from Matthew 2, celebrated today, January 6th, this Day of Epiphany.
Charming are the three (actually no number if mentioned, three because of the three gifts) kings or magi or magicians who, guided by a star, come to Israel to pay homage to Jesus, the newborn king. Was “the star” the planetary conjunction that took place this Christmas, of Jupiter and Saturn, in the southern sky? Who knows? Maybe.
The foreigners come from afar, following a star, to worship. Note who gets it, who gets Jesus, not the people you would expect, not the insiders, but outsiders, foreigners, strangers. How often in the church we insiders resist what God is doing, while outsiders catch on.
The gifts they bring tell us who Jesus is. Gold for a king (but a different kind of king), frankincense for a priest, and myrrh the spice used to prepare a body in death. “King and priest and sacrifice” — as the carol puts it.
Which leads to the chilling part. Herod, a.k.a. King of the Jews, tells the magi, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may go also and pay him homage.”
This is of course a lie. What Herod wants to do is kill the infant king, off the competition. But this teaches a lesson about the world. The world is not honest.
Examples of the world’s dishonesty are manifold. Today Senators Hawley and Cruz will tell us that they are seeking the truth about the election. That’s a lie. What they are seeking is power, positioning themselves for a 2024 run for the Presidency. The world continues to lie.
But God is truthful. And God will not be thwarted in God’s plan of salvation. So Joseph is warned, once again in a dream, to take his family and flee, flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous minions.
Christ comes into a world, a world that rife with deception, a world held in the grip of Sin and Death. He comes to meet us there — here — in this dark, dangerous and deceitful world and to bring redemption, salvation. Nothing will thwart God’s plan to save us.
What gifts shall we bring to him? Something beautiful, something precious? How about our failures, our addictions, our sins and sorrow? Lay these down at the feet of Jesus for he will receive them, take them and transform them and transform us.
Meanwhile, the wise men return home by “another way.” When we have encountered Jesus — his forgiveness, his mercy and grace — we aren’t the same, we don’t travel by quite the same road ever again.
It’s a charming story of stars and seekers. It’s a chilling story of a deceitful world, where people lie about their intentions as they lust for power and control.
And one more “c.” It’s a little, or a lot, crazy, this story.
This story of God coming into a dark and dangerous world as a human child, guided from danger by dream revelations, in time to be called up “out of Egypt” fulfilling words of prophecy, and making his home in a nowhere town, Nazareth. God working to fulfill God’s purposes in the midst of chance and change, danger and darkness. Believe me, Harry Potter and the Hogwarts gang have nothing on this.
A good story, and the truth of God, for an uncertain year and a dangerous time, these early days of 2021. God’s purposes abide and will be brought to fulfillment in you, in me, in the world that God loves. Trust this and rejoice, and a blessed Epiphany to you all.
(Note: some of the insights into the text were prompted by the podcast, “Same Old Song,” a weekly commentary on the ecumenical lectionary by Jacob Smith and Austin Zimmerman. I recommend it.)