Friday, January 5, 2018

Epiphany and the 4th King

A man went to confession one day and told the priest:
Father, forgive me, for I have stolen a fat goose from someone’s yard!
Priest: That is very wrong.
Confessor: Would you like to accept it, Father?
Priest: Certainly not- return it to the man whom you stole it from.
Confessor: But I have offered it to him and he won't have it.
Priest: In that case you may keep it yourself.
Confessor: Thank you, Father.
The Priest arrived home to find one of his geese had been stolen...[2]

For the priest, this was an aha moment, wasn’t it?  Suddenly he understood what the man had been telling him in a whole new way.

This is what we call an epiphany--seeing things in new ways – aha moments.

For the church this Tuesday is the celebration of a divine epiphany, when the wise men appeared revealing that the messiah had come to more than just Palestine.

I had a small epiphany recently in reading a little book called The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.[3]  In this book, a church is getting ready to put on the usual Sunday school Christmas pageant, but this year is different because the kids from the worst family in town show up to be a part of it. They’ve heard that there’s free food involved.  They’ve never heard the Christmas story before, have no idea how it’s supposed to be done, or who any of the characters are, so the director has to begin by reading them the Christmas story.  These kids have lots of good questions:  
  • “Why doesn’t the inn keeper MAKE room for such an important baby?” 
  • “Why doesn’t Joseph work harder to fight for a better place for Mary to have the baby?”
  •  “Who are these wise guys and why do they bring such stupid gifts?”
  •  “Who’s going to be Herod in this play?”

But there is no part of Herod in the traditional nativity play.  We have Mary and Joseph, of course, and the baby Jesus, and the angels and the shepherds, and the animals and the wise men, but no Herod.
Why is there no Herod in the Nativity Plays?

Why?  Maybe because we tell an idyllic, romanticized version of the story.  In our typical Christmas pageants, everything is peaceful and beautiful.  Mary is dreamy as she ponders, Joseph is quiet and supportive.  The shepherds are mannerly and don’t smell bad.  The wise men speak English.  The angels sing in perfect harmony. 

When we look at the reading from Matthew for today, we tend to prefer the mystery of the three kings from the East to the tyranny of Herod.  Who were they?  How many of them were there? (Eastern tradition says 12, Western tradition says 3 because of the 3 gifts. The Bible doesn’t actually say how many.)  We don’t spend much time on Herod because there’s little room for Herod in our idyllic picture.

But the reality is that the situation into which Jesus was born was far from idyllic.  Mary and Joseph are in Bethlehem because there’s a new emperor in Rome who needs to raise some money, and the way to raise money in those days was by having a census.  One of the reasons Herod was popular with the powers in Rome was because he was good at collecting taxes and keeping order.

I think one reason we leave Herod out is that we like to keep things simple.  Black and white.  Right and wrong.  Herod is an evil tyrant.  End of story.  But real life isn’t like that, and like most things, there’s more to the story.  In this case, there’s so much more to the story that there are books and books about Herod and all the political intrigue surrounding life in the world at that time.  Herod’s rise to power sounds like something out of the show Game of Thrones or out of a Shakespearean history play.  Herod reminds me a bit of Richard III, actually.

I think there’s no question that Herod is not really a good guy.  He’s well known for ruthlessly killing people to preserve his political position.  But did you know that he was actually Jewish?  That he was good friends with Antony and Cleopatra?  For political purposes, most likely, but friends, nevertheless.  Or that he had ten wives?  And lots of children and potential heirs to the throne?  Or that Herod’s title was King of the Jews?

So when the wise men show up hunting for a baby who is going to be King of the Jews, it’s no surprise that Herod is disturbed and wants to know more.  The last thing he needs is another kid who’s going to try to claim the throne.

Something else we don’t hear much about are all the good things that Herod accomplished.  He was known for major building projects, including rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem.  He is also known for bringing peace to Palestine.[4]  So when Matthew tells us that Herod is disturbed and all Jerusalem with him (v3), it just might be that the people are worried that this new baby might stir things up and ruin their current stability. 

The problem is that trusting Herod for peace was short-sighted.  Herod maintained peace through inciting fear, and he himself was paranoid and fearful, which is why he then went on to order the killing of all the male babies under 2 years old.

In the interest of giving Herod the benefit of the doubt, one commentator points out that Herod was at least a little merciful.  He could have ordered that EVERYONE in the city of Bethlehem be killed—men, women and children—but instead he only has the children killed, and of those, only the youngest children, and of those, only the male ones.  So he actually spared most of the people…which is nice, right?

Before I read that book about the Christmas pageant, I hadn’t given Herod much thought.  But I think we shouldn’t be surprised that these kids who’d never heard the Christmas story before were intrigued by Herod.  He just might be one of the most interesting people in the story.   He’s the dose of the real world in the midst of our romanticized plastic picture of the nativity scene—the real world in which families are fighting, people are conspiring for wealth and power, and political alliances are constantly changing.  The world was like that then, just like it is now, and always has been.

The reality is that life is not perfect.  The good news is that Jesus comes anyway, survives despite Herod’s attempt to kill him, grows up in the midst of ongoing political upheaval and gets put to death under the reign of one of Herod’s sons (another Herod), rises from the dead and saves us, and continues to be with us despite all of life’s ongoing imperfections.

One of the reasons I like the text from Jeremiah that we read this morning is that it is a picture of hope and faith in the midst of another time in history in which life was messy – when Israel was facing the horror of occupation and exile.  Their situation was quite bleak, but Jeremiah gives them God’s promise of a better future, and the assurance that God had not forgotten or abandoned them.

We could pick any number of points in history to find parallels to the situation with Herod…times in history when the world was a mess and people needed help to hold on to hope for a better day.

For example, we like to romanticize Merry Old England and the British royalty, but there was plenty of horror in that time, too.  Henry VIII isn’t too different from Herod, actually.  Henry only had six wives, not ten like Herod, but Henry killed more of his wives than Herod did. 

The writer of the hymn that we’re going to sing in just a little while, O Come All Ye Faithful, lived in the 1700’s in England and had to flee to France during the Jacobite rebellion,[5] when those who thought the descendants of the House of Stuart were the rightful rulers of England, and if you didn’t agree and you didn’t want to be killed for disagreeing, you had to leave the country.

We could stop at any number of points in ancient or recent history and talk about wars, bad economies, genocide, oppression and poverty.  Why did those kids at that church want to know more about Herod?  Because here was something in the story that sounded more like the reality in which they lived, in which we all live.
The reality is that life is not perfect.  Jesus’ birth wasn’t perfect either.  And knowing Jesus doesn’t make our lives perfect.  Telling a beautiful story about the birth of Jesus might give us the impression that with God all things are perfect.  But that’s not what Jesus came to tell us, and that’s not what Matthew is telling us either.  In fact, that’s not what the Bible is telling us.  The Bible is full of stories of imperfection, and Herod is just one of those imperfections.

The world isn’t perfect.  We are not perfect.  Our church isn’t perfect.  If anything, I think the Bible is showing us that there’s always room for improvement.  But more than that, it’s showing us that even in the midst of our imperfections and messiness, whether or not anything ever improves, God is still there, God still loves us, and hope is still possible. 

The church in that book I read was expecting to have the best Christmas pageant ever by making it perfectly just like all the previous pageants.  The result was far from perfect, and hardly like any of the previous pageants at all.  But in the process they saw the old story in a new way, and they saw some imperfect people in new ways.  Isn’t that what epiphany is about?

Maybe one of the reasons those kids wanted to have a Herod in the Christmas Pageant is that if somebody who’s as bad as Herod could be in the Christmas story, then there’s hope for the rest of us.

What matters isn’t that we tell the story perfectly, or sing the perfect songs, or recite the perfect litanies.  It’s that we worship the God whose perfect love comes to us regardless of our imperfections.  And that God’s perfect love is big enough to include people like Herod, and all the difficult people we know, and even you and me.

So what’s our response to this?  I think sometimes we get caught up in trying to make everything perfect.  Isn’t that what so many of our New Year’s resolutions are about?   Maybe what we need instead is to look for a new perspective on how things are.  A fresh perspective.  God’s perspective.

So instead of a resolution, just a prayerGod, help us to see through your eyes
And a confession.  Life isn’t perfect.  I’m not perfect. 

So how will we deal with life’s imperfections?  Maybe this is really what faith is all about:
·      Trusting God to be with us in the midst of our imperfections. 
·      Striving to be prayerful, thankful and joyful in the midst of everything. 
·      Being willing to change.
So I suggest another prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.[6]

Peace, courage and wisdom.
May we find all three by walking with God in the year ahead.

[1] By Rev. Melissa Krabbe, preached on January 4, 2015 at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Galveston, TX.
[3] Barbara Robinson, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (Harper & Row, 1972).
[4] Calvin J. Roetzel, The World That Shaped the New Testament, Revised Edition.  (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002).

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