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Matthew 2:1-12 (13-18)
“In the time of King Herod . . . ,” our story begins.
Which is to say that God chose to become one of us for such a time as this. Which is to say that Love is with us not only in the cosmic sense but also in the very real, sometimes god-awful particularities of our political and personal circumstances.
Jesus was born not only into the Roman Empire’s brutal occupation of Israel, but also at a time when Israel’s very own king cared more about protecting his own power than about ruling God’s chosen people with justice and compassion. The vulnerability of God With Us began not at the cross or in the earlier days of Jesus’s ministry, but when he was an infant. Having survived all the dangers of human birthing, baby Jesus became the subject of a king who wanted to kill him. Baby Jesus and his parents became refugees, fleeing for their lives to another country.
It’s a far cry from singing angels and awe-struck shepherds. It’s a long way from our idyllic notions of a guiding star shining down on a stinky stable surrounded by nothing more sinister than gently rolling hills. Our upbeat carols, our lionization of an anonymous band of foreign (which is to say, not Jewish) wise ones, and our celebrations of gifts and stars and epiphanies notwithstanding, the Light that has come into the world, the Light of all people, the Light no darkness could overcome lived in darkness and danger his whole life long.
Which is to say: “Arise, shine; for your Light has come!” Which is to tell again the story of how wise ones from the East (perhaps from ancient Persia, which is now Iran) dropped whatever they were doing to embark on a long journey, following a star, so that they might pay homage to a baby king. Which is to have fun with camels and gifts and Three Kings Cake, and to think about our own callings and our personal journeys in the dark. Which is to reflect on our own mistakes and detours, how desperately we need direction, on the one hand, and how discerning we need to be in deciding whose directions to follow. Which is to follow our hearts’ buried longings for the holy, which is to open ourselves up to all the surprising manifestations of God’s love, which is to allow ourselves to be overcome with joy when we find it.
Which is not to deny the darkness that surrounds us or the fear that threatens to overwhelm us, but to trust God’s love to lead us through it.
These are just some of the gifts of Epiphany: gifts not only of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but—even more important—gifts of comfort and hope, light and love, perspective and inspiration, encouragement and joy.
And this is why we keep telling and celebrating the story: Because it is dark out there. Because when the news is so bad, and the suffering so real, it’s hard to keep hoping. Because when the danger seems to be everywhere, it takes courage to leave our comfort zone and set out for a foreign land.
Because if we have any intention of following Jesus, we should be prepared to run into trouble. We should understand that loving God and our neighbors—especially the least, the lost, the undocumented, the unhoused, and the non-white—will threaten the powers that be. Because staying close to the Jesus way will often mean taking a very different, bumpier road than the highways paved by the rich and powerful.
At Epiphany we celebrate the great good news that in the time of King Herod, God’s love-light broke into the world to be with us in a new, very real way. That stars shine brightest in the darkness, and that especially in such times and particularly in such darkness, there is room enough for God to be born. That if we look—really look and keep looking—for God’s light and love in our lives and in the world, we will find it. And that the encounter will bring us to our knees in love and devotion, and then send us rejoicing on a different way.
As so it is, beloveds, that in the time of Donald Trump, in this frightening time of U.S. military action against Iran and the uncertainty of Iran’s response, in this time of political corruption and disinformation and abuse of power, in this time of rising anti-Semitism and gun violence in every place imaginable, in this time of climate-change disasters and an entire continent on fire, in this time of 60 million refugees around the world and thousands of children separated from their parents and put in cages by our own government, in this time of thick darkness and shifting sands, God’s love-light still shines. God’s Love is still with us. Divine Love is still made manifest, in more ways than we can count. And the glory of the Lord has risen upon us.
In this time and at every time, evil ones in power will do what they do. The wise ones, meanwhile, those who, despite all the material riches and human wisdom they have, long for a deeper connection with what is Holy and Real, will be on the lookout for signs of God’s coming. Despite the darkness and the constant distractions, they will not be deterred in their pursuit; they will follow the star and keep their eyes on the prize. And when they have gotten a glimpse of the Holy, when they have seen a sliver of all that is meant to be, when they have fallen on their knees and opened their hearts, they—which is to say, we—will never be the same. And having been transformed by the Spirit, we will work together to walk a different path through this world, the path of peace and love for all.
And we will see and be radiant; our hearts shall thrill and rejoice. For a child has been born unto us, and he is named Word Made Flesh, Love With Us, Suffering Servant, Risen Christ, Hungry Neighbor, Thirsty Traveler, Foreign Stranger, Uninsured Patient, Forgotten Prisoner, the Good Shepherd, Messiah, Prince of Peace.
He is here even now. Love is With Us, even now. Our Light has come. This is good news of great joy for all people.
Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, peace, peace.