O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully
restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may
share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share
our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ.
That’s the collect for the second Sunday of Christmas, which may also be familiar from the Easter Vigil, the collect that reminds us of the essence of the incarnation: God became human that we might become divine, that we might share in the divine life offered by Jesus. This day is a hinge between the season of Christmas and the season of Epiphany. Like all good collects, both the collect for the second Sunday of Christmas and the collect for Epiphany do a good job of collecting our prayers and hopes for these seasons and reminding us of who we are and whose we are.
If the Advent question was “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” the Epiphany question is “Who is this Jesus?” or, more accurately, “What kind of Messiah is this? And what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus?” (I know, that’s two questions.) There is a tension in today’s gospel, between the kingship of Jesus and the existing world order, a tension that I believe is part of our answer to those Epiphany questions.
All of our Epiphany gospels over the coming weeks explore the tension between kingship of Jesus and the kingship of Herod, or, to put it another way, tension between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Empire. This tension never goes away, and is with us today.
Always and everywhere, beware of the power of false kings. Herod is neither from the line of David nor, in fact, is he royalty by any standard. He is a tetrarch, which means ruler of a quarter. He’s placed in the region by the Roman emperor. It is the authority of the political structure of his day, rather than any kind of divine inspiration or connection, that Herod uses to terrorize the citizens entrusted to him. The more threatened he is, the more terror he inflicts.
The Magi were foreigners—“from the East” meant they were from Persia. They were the Other, and they were intricately connected with the world of Jerusalem—the world of the West—in historically complex ways. They knew Jerusalem to be the seat of power, which is why they went there first, but in this instance they were wrong. And so at the very start, with this slight wrong turn, the wise men set the stage for the tension between Jesus and the political and religious establishment, the tension that is part of the whole story that lies ahead of us, and is, in fact, part of our story as followers
Where there are false kings, there is danger. Jesus was born into a dangerous time. This is borne out in the gospel text that follows today’s gospel, which begins “After the wise men had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph and said ‘get up, take the child and his mother and flee….’”
You don’t get to be proclaimed the promised Messiah without consequences. Herod’s slaughter of the innocents and who knows what other violence and destruction has been titled by one writer: “The Empire Strikes Back.”
Now, it won’t surprise you to know that all over the country this morning clergy are preaching about Herod and the wise men in light of particular current events in the Middle East. (I know it’s true because I saw it on Twitter.) What I want to say this morning is that to be a follower of the Prince of Peace is always to be in conflict with Empire, and, if we work at it, even to be a threat to Empire. The tension between the Prince of Peace and the princes of this world has been with us ever since the Magi chose to return home by another way.
Make no mistake: there is a little Herod in all of us. This is never about us and them. Each one of us has times in our lives when we are driven by ego and insecurity, by a gaping hold in need of God’s grace. That, too, has been with us since long before the Magi made their journey.
This gospel tension between the Prince of Peace and King Herod who-was-not-a-king happens on a global scale and it happens in our own lives. We are challenged in many ways: Australia is burning, a US-Iran-Iraq conflict is simmering like a boiling pot, we are challenged in our own city and in our own community, and maybe in our own families and in our own souls. In light of all of this, the Herods of this world would tell us who follow the Prince of Peace that we have no voice, no agency. The prophets and the gospels tell us that we do.
Listen again to the reading from the prophet Isaiah.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn…
Life up your eyes and look around;...
Then you shall see and be radiant;
Your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you
This promise of abundance is made to Jerusalem, a city that had been destroyed, a city desperately in need of promise and of restoration. It could be a promise to any community in need, not just of comfort and solace, but also of strength and renewal. The reading speaks to us: as followers of the promised one, the King of Heaven, the Prince of Peace we, too, are invited to lift up our eyes and look around. To look, not like Herod, at our own authority and security, but like the wise ones at the stranger whom we have come to worship.
The Magi offer true worship, worship that takes them beyond themselves, out of their comfort, even away from their own familiar religion. They do not pay homage to the infant king for their own sake, but for the sake of the world. The prophets who promise the renewal of Jerusalem do so not for Jerusalem’s own sake, but for the sake of the world. So, too, we are given a share of the divine life of him who shares our humanity, not for our own sake, but for the sake of the world.
Who is this Messiah, and what does it mean to follow? As we travel our own long way home with these Epiphany questions, let us lift up our eyes and look around, to see and serve Jesus in one another and in the world, and to be radiant ourselves. Let our Epiphany light shine.