Elizabeth M. Deibert
January 6, 2013
Many people love the whole approach to Christmas – the gift buying, the decorating, the baking, the anticipation, the Silent and Holy Night of Christmas Eve. I prefer the twelve days of Christmas, the time between Christmas Eve and today, Epiphany, when we, like Mother Mary, ponder all the things that have taken place in a more relaxed schedule. For my family, the last six or seven days of the twelve dyas of Christmas are always a time to journey, as we travel away from the routines of life to visit our families in N. Carolina.
This year the journey has been a little deeper and heavier, as we sorted through the possessions and memories of two lifetimes. Richard’s mother died six years ago and his father has recently moved to a skilled nursing facility and because of his rapid decline, we spent the last four days, packing up his house. Confident that Irv was on a journey to the Light of Christ, we watched him nonetheless wandering through the dark of dis-ease, the failing of body and sometimes of mind and spirit.
In our text today, we read the story of the Magi journeying to the Light, following the star. Tradition has always had this Gospel lesson on Epiphany because this visit was likely quite some time after the visit of shepherds. In some countries, gifts were given on Epiphany, to connect with the gifts of the wise men to the growing baby Jesus.
There are two more journeys in our Gospel lesson – journeys made by the Holy Family themselves. Mary and Joseph fled with the baby to Egypt when Joseph heard in a dream that Herod was plotting to kill the Infant, called King of the Jews.
Again guided by the message of an angel, Joseph learned it was safe to return to Israel, but then yet another dream warned him to go to Nazareth, in Galilee, instead of Judea. You can see in the map that this trip was no walk in the neighborhood; no, it was three to four hundred miles each way, which means they probably journeyed hard for close to a month.
Before we read, there a song that I have wanted to share with you that speaks of the dark and the danger of this birth, which brings light and life to all.
“Born in the night, Mary’s Child, a long way from your home; Coming in need, Mary’s Child, born in a borrowed room. Clearing shining Light, Mary’s Child, Your face lights up our way; Light of the world, Mary’s Child, dawn on our darkened day. Truth of our life, Mary’s Child, you tell us God is good. Yes, it is true, Mary’s Child, shown on your cross of wood. Hope of the world, Mary’s child, You’re coming soon to reign; King of the earth, Mary’s Child. Walk in our streets again.” (Geoffrey Ainger, 1964)
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 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." 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son."
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."
19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead." 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazorean." (NRSV)
In our life’s journey, we may have times of fear. That’s how the Holy Family began Jesus’ life. In your life’s journey you may have times of real danger. Jesus’ life was threatened by King Herod from the first Herod heard of him. Your life’s journey may leave you exhausted. Think of Mary and Joseph trying to get away to Egypt. Mary is exhausted and anemic, needing water, so she can produce milk. Joseph is worried about Mary and about the baby, feeling responsible for their well-being. The infant Jesus is exposed to all the elements and dangers of travel.
The Incarnation – the birth of God, Immanuel, as a real human being –means that God own self was exposed to all the fears and dangers of this life, and we know the ending of the story. With real life comes real death, but also real life after death, thanks to the Resurrection.
It is that which gives us hope when we see life ebbing away, when we pack up all the knick-knacks and photos and possessions of daily living into a box because they are no longer needed, we realize that our most important journey is the one we make toward the loving arms of God. We journey to the Light, to the true Light of God.
As the Magi, who followed the star, we journey to find the One who lives among us as God with us. Week by week we bring our gifts to the One whose birth we celebrate. By next Sunday, we will be moving from infancy to ministry, via the baptism of Jesus. Epiphany forces us to consider that this moment of infancy is not a time for simple sentimentality. There’s a real baby in real danger. A real couple with crucial, life and death decisions to make. A group of wise men who have to play politics with the King to spare their own lives, as well as Jesus’ life. A lot of families weeping and wailing, who lost a boy child to the brutal murder of one filled with fear.
This is an unsettling story, just when we were about to sleep in heavenly peace. Just when it seems we might relax and enjoy the story of the Persians coming to bring their gifts to the Christ’s child, we have to deal with the violence of a power-hungry politician. Herod claims he wants to know where Jesus was born, so he can worship him too. But we’ve heard his story before, and we’ve seen it played out many times after. Power gives way to corruption and even murder. Little children are sacrificed to keep the powerful in power.
The irony of the story is that the Holy Family flees to Egypt, the place from which the Israelites had run away from four hundred years of oppression. The place where Pharaoh had unleashed his own infanticide against the firstborn Israelite children (Exodus 1:6–22) became a refuge for the baby Jesus, King of the Jews. In the end, and as with the Egyptian Pharaoh, it was king Herod "the Great" who died, not the baby he was trying to kill, allowing Mary and Joseph to return to their homeland with their baby. And just as the baby Moses survived Pharaoh's mass murder, so too did the baby Jesus survive Herod's infanticide. There are actually five Herods in the New Testament, and they all persecuted Jesus and the early church. All the Herods were doing the opposite of what the Magi do. Instead of bowing to the Messiah, they fear the Light, and try to extinguish the Light. But we know that the Light will always overcome the darkness. Jesus is the Light of the World which can never be extinguished.
We journey to the Light, because this life is filled with darkness, but with Jesus lighting our way, with the faithful example of the Magi and Mary and Joseph, we can keep walking, keep standing up to or avoiding the demands of the ruthlessly powerful. We can keep living even in the face and the fear of death, because we have a Savior who walked this way. We can say with Simeon, “My eyes have seen your salvation, a light for revelation to all the people.
It was poignant when I read these words from the Song of Simeon to Richard’s father, Irv on Friday. "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation...
It is always clearest at the times of birth and times of death, what really matters in life, and the value of being at peace with God and with significant others. Irv’s final words last night, as his sons, Don and Richard, tucked him in and helped him get comfortable were these:
I love you all. It’s gonna be a great life. I don’t know where or when I’ll see you. I’m done. I can’t take this anymore, and I’m going. Irv died at the break of day – this morning. In life and in death we belong to God, through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.