Sermon: Epiphany/Holy Innocents

January 3, 2016

The story of the wise men (probably not kings, sorry) journeying from the Middle East (probably not the Orient—sorry again) to visit the newborn King of the Jews is one of true courage. These men were not Jews. They were not of the same culture or religion or history as the child whose arrival they followed the star to witness. Why did they do it? What did they expect to gain from their expedition? What was it that made them load up their camels and kiss their wives goodbye and ride off to pay homage to a new king who was not their king? How was it these strangers were not deterred from investigating a life that would change theirs?

I cannot understand their willingness to embrace so much change, to actually seek it out. Maybe this is what makes them wise. They are unafraid to face the truth, even if learning it makes everything else they believed up to that point null and void.

The wise men, of course, didn’t have it ALL figured out, which I find gratifying. They had preconceived notions about kings, and where they might expect to encounter one. They presented themselves, after a long hard journey, at the palace of King Herod, a ruler appointed by the Roman Emperor to keep the rabble in order. Our wise men knew that Herod was Jewish, and that he was, at least in a minimal way, a king. But the baby Jesus was not there.

I bet most of you know a song about a king hearing of the birth of the Christ-child called “Do You Hear What I Hear?” It differs from Matthew’s Gospel in that the song has the king hearing of Jesus’ birth from a shepherd boy instead of from visiting astrologers, but the delivered message is similar: “In your palace warm, mighty king, do you know what I know? A child, a child, shivers in the cold; let us bring him silver and gold.”

The song most dramatically departs from the Biblical account when it comes to the king’s response: “Said the king to the people everywhere: ‘Listen to what I say: pray for peace, people everywhere. A child, a child, born to us this night, he will bring us goodness and light.'”

In Matthew’s Gospel the king does not respond quite this way. In the Biblical account, Herod tells the wise men where his advisors think this child is, and pretends that he, too, longs to worship this newborn king. He begs them to come back and tell him when they find the baby so that he also might go and pay homage. When they do not return, King Herod orders his soldiers to kill every Jewish boy under the age of two, since any one of them might be this spectacular baby. There was no room in Herod’s heart or head or throne-room for any threats to his authority. He needed to be sure he was eliminating his competition.

I absolutely understand why the authors of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” decided to alter the king’s reaction for their song. Why spoil the Christmas season by repeating Matthew’s version of this horrendous episode we now call The Slaughter of the Innocents? Why allow reality to creep into what is otherwise such a sweet tale of babies and angels and mangers and God-with-us?

The tragedy is that King Herod’s behavior makes sense to me, unlike the behavior of the magi. In our world, when powerful people are threatened, they do what they can to destroy the opposition. They run smear campaigns about their opponents, spread mean rumors, bully their enemies. Sometimes they react with pure, unmitigated violence. It can look like domestic abuse or war or rival gangs destroying one another. It might be tribal retaliation or revenge killings or mass shootings. All of these forms of violent domination are about preserving one’s illusion of power over others.

I wish I could say that this response to feeling threatened is ancient history, as outdated as mistaking astrology for science. But you and I both know that these are very current, very real actions by the King Herods of our day.

In order to imagine those petrified families in Bethlehem, cowering as Herod’s soldiers broke down their neighbor’s doors and slaughtered their babies, all we have to do is open the newspaper or watch the TV. There are pictures of sobbing refugees, running with their babies in their arms, or parents bending over their children’s dead bodies on city streets or foreign beaches, in playgrounds, or emergency rooms. From Palestine to Chicago, from Aleppo to Cleveland, from Nairobi to Baltimore, Ferguson, and the horrific scene is repeated.

Right now, mothers all over the world mourn children blown to bits by bombs or landmines or perfectly-legal-but-badly-employed guns. Babies are dying in their father’s arms for lack of proper nutrition, vaccinations, or clean drinking water. Herod’s army is everywhere, still storming the lands, still destroying children. The rich are getting richer, the strong are getting stronger, and the children are dying in a bloodbath. It is infinitely worse when we bear in mind that, to a great extent, our tax dollars are funding this nightmare.

The Bible tells us that in a dream, Joseph is warned to flee and take Mary and Jesus with him, and so they run to Egypt to escape Herod’s soldiers. The wise ones, too, are cautioned in a dream to return home by another way. But what about all those other babies and their parents? Why didn’t God send them warning dreams? Why weren’t they spared the wrath of a paranoid ruler? Why are children of color in this nation so much more at risk than white kids? Where is God in all of this?

I really don’t know what to say about that, about why God allows evil now or did in the past. What I can offer is what I DON’T BELIEVE:

—I DON’T believe “everything happens for a reason,” a phrase I hear too often in the face of inexplicable circumstances.

—I DON’T believe that God planned for soldiers to massacre other babies so that Jesus, like Moses before him, could be shown to be a very special baby

—I DON’T believe that people who pray hard enough can spare themselves and those they love from hardship or suffering

What I DO BELIEVE is this:

—God is in the midst of our pain, weeping with those who weep, bolstering the courage of those who feel weak, and encouraging the strong to bear the burdens of those in need.

—Furthermore, a God who brings redemption out of everything, including something as evil as the cross, can bring good out of even the very worst of circumstances.

—Most of all, I believe that what God does and doesn’t do is often surprising.

The Wise Men were looking for the King of the Jews, and they didn’t find him at Herod’s palace, despite the fact that Herod considered himself the King of the Jews, and conducted himself as a supreme ruler might. Everything the wise ones thought they knew from their years of star-watching was upside down. They did not find what they were looking for until they got down on their knees. They only saw the real king when they looked into the eyes of a defenseless baby. Herod could never understand it, but God’s power is nothing like human power. It is not based on wealth or status or military might.

When King Jesus grew up, he did not rule like other kings. Jesus killed no one. Instead, he wandered the countryside, raising the dead, healing the sick, and comforting the grieving. He touched the excluded ones, taught the ignorant, and welcomed the strangers. Instead of a trail of blood, he left light and hope in his path. He cautioned his followers, “Don’t return insult for insult. Pray for your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you. Don’t store up treasures here on earth, but take care that your soul is nourished.” It sounds like absolute foolishness. You might wonder why the wise men didn’t leave some wisdom behind instead of frankincense.

But that’s the thing about Jesus. He calls us to live not by force, but by love; not by ruling over, but by serving; not by controlling, but by offering up all that we hold dear for the sake of others. His way shatters everything that seems logical to us. He’s never where we think he should be, doing what we think he should do. And when Jesus finally died, having willingly surrendered to the worldly powers who could not bear the idea that their system no longer dominated, he died under a sign that read King of the Jews.

That’s our King Jesus.

Do we have the courage to get up and go where this Bright Morning Star is leading us? Are we wise enough to seek him, not where we think a mighty God should be, but in the pain-ridden, bloody, dark corners of the earth? And if we find there, not a mighty ruler, but a vulnerable baby, will we know what we have seen? Maybe, on our good days, we might recognize God in those moments. Such occasions of insight can be called Epiphanies. But my hunch is that just as often, we may not get it. We might not even try. We are not as advanced in wisdom as some ancient people who thought they could tell the future by the patterns of the night sky.

In spite of all the darkness, my friends, there is still Good News. Hear this: whether or not we know how and where to find Jesus, whether or not we seek Jesus, whether or not we even WANT to encounter Jesus, daily Jesus seeks us. Daily Jesus offers to us his whole self, his body and blood, his Word, his promises. Daily the God bends over us to whisper, “You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased.” Daily, the Holy Spirit blows through our lives and makes it possible for us to start again. In the strangest ways—a star or a dream or a baby or the opportunity to give a gift or a thirst for knowledge—God sends us invitations and opportunities to open ourselves up, to be renewed, strengthened, and enriched.

“Arise, shine, for your light has come.” In spite of all the hardship around us—in fact, because of it!—we have a joyous duty to fulfill. We are called to shine—to raise hearts and hands and voices for the alleviation of the suffering of God’s children all over the world. We have a story to tell, a journey to make, and so, so much more to learn! Let’s follow these wise foolish ones, so rich in courage and generosity and faith, so blind to racial and religious divisions, so confused about power. Let us learn from the strangers how to grow in wisdom, how to listen to the angels and ponder the stars, how to offer our treasures to the unlikely Prince of Peace. Let us learn from King Jesus how to exercise power and how to live the truth.

Amen.

~Pastor Susan Schneider

About Trinity Lutheran Church

A congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) located in Madison, Wisconsin.
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One Response to Sermon: Epiphany/Holy Innocents

  1. Barbara Bogard says:

    Hello Pastor Sue,
    I recently subscribed to the Trinity emails, and look forward to reading each posting. The Epiphany sermon shares much the same message as my Church – Grace Lutheran (ELCA) in Mountain Home, Idaho. I also attend a Bible study class at Christian & Baptist Church at a friend’s invitation. I learned that “King” Herod could be called a fake king, and that he wasn’t even Jewish. Apparently he had a couple of his sons killed, as well as some of his wives. Definitely not a good guy.
    By the way, I’m 73 years old, and a transplant from Trinity in Madison until I married and left in 1963. Thanks to Air Force husbands, I’ve lived in Texas, South Dakota, Germany (my favorite), and now Idaho – where I’ve lived since 1972. I’ve learned much about church life by getting involved; much easier to do in a small congregation.
    The first pastor called at Grace was the late Luther Watness. What a coincidence to learn that he had studied under Dr Ernest Steen (my pastor when I lived in Madison).
    I still have one sister living in Madison, and another in Beloit (her husband is a Congregational minister). My visits to Madison are only every 2 or 3 years, and only for a week. Unfortunately, I haven’t made it over to visit my old “stomping grounds” at Trinity. I plan to include this on my next visit…some time this year I hope.
    Finally, a request I hope to accomplish on my visit. My late mother, Julie Jones, was the librarian at Trinity for many years. I painted a small portrait of her and my niece Sara which I brought to Trinity to hang in the library after my mother passed. I called it “Read to me Grandma.” I asked a dear friend to look for the painting when he stopped by the church. I spoke to my friend – Bruce Lauck-Janacek – this week. He said he didn’t find the painting there. I had attached a note to the back of the painting saying I would like the painting to eventually be passed on to my sister(s).
    I do hope the painting can be located and kept in safe-keeping until I can pick it up.

    By the way, my friend Bruce spoke very highly of you, Pr Sue. I was his 5th grade Bible School teacher at Trinity.

    Blessings to you in the new year. I hope to meet you when I next visit Madison.
    Sincerely,
    Barbara (Jones) Bogard

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