In case you haven’t noticed, we’re living in an age of recurring political turmoil. Trump’s presidency — whether you love it or despise it — and the impeachment debacle are just the tips of the iceberg.
There’s Brexit and the anti-Brexiters. There’s a concerning trend of growing nationalism and xenophobia not only here in the USA, but also across European nations like Germany and France. In the United States, anti-semitism is very openly resurging, along with other white supremacist demonstrations.
Even if we’re charitable and assume that Trump himself is not anti-semitic or a racist, the fact that many people who are openly racist typically seem to believe that Trump speaks their language is disturbing and ought to give us all pause.
Further abroad, there are various perpetual wars and rumors of wars in the Middle East and all the political, military, social, and religious tensions and complications they entail.
There are tensions with Iran, Russia, China, and North Korea, including the real and terrible potential of nuclear war if cooler heads and diplomacy don’t prevail.
The list goes on.
Into this madness, the Christian holiday of Epiphany speaks some powerful and provocative truths. Epiphany’s message strikes me as especially relevant and poignant at this chaotic and divisive moment in our history.
Will we — especially those of us who are Christians — listen?
What is Epiphany?
Today is Epiphany, the celebration of the manifestation of King Jesus the Messiah and Savior of everyone to the entire world. (Check out the prescribed Scripture readings for Epiphany here).
The story of the Magi—the wise men from the East in Matthew’s Gospel—is the paradigmatic story for Epiphany because it’s remarkable that these pagan astrologers recognize something significant about the newborn Jesus and come from far away to worship him and bring him gifts.
“We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him”, they tell a troubled King Herod (Matthew 2:2). When they finally reach the home of Joseph and Mary and encounter the Christ child, Matthew’s Gospel tells us the Magi “bowed down and worshiped him. Then they presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11).
The standard Old Testament readings for Epiphany speak of the universal rule and reign of God’s ideal messianic king, which Christians believe was ultimately fulfilled in Christ.
“Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn,” the prophet Isaiah proclaims (Isaiah 60:3). “All assemble and come to you … the wealth of the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come” (Isaiah 60:4-5).
Similarly, the psalmist prays for the king, “May he rule from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth … May all kings bow down to him and all nations serve him” (Psalm 72:8 and Psalm 72:11).
What all these Scriptures proclaim from a Christian perspective is that Jesus is king. Not just “the king of the Jews”, as the Magi supposed and inquired about. But the king of the whole world and of the entire cosmos and created order.
The Apostle Paul says it this way in his letter to the Colossians:
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the one who is first over all creation, 16 Because all things were created by him: both in the heavens and on the earth the things that are visible and the things that are invisible. Whether they are thrones or powers, or rulers or authorities, all things were created through him and for him. 17 He existed before all things, and all things are held together in him.Colossians 1:15-17
Epiphany is all about this recognition of King Jesus and the salvation and liberation he brings to all, particularly the most vulnerable among us. The true King of the world cares for the poor, oppressed, marginalized, and disenfranchised. Indeed, he gives special deference to them.
For, importantly, the psalmist also prays, “Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness. May he judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice … He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight” (Psalm 72:1-2 and Psalm 72:13-14).
The Darker Side of Epiphany
We perhaps tend to think about this story of the Magi visiting Joseph and Mary and little baby Jesus through the lens of cute children’s nativity plays. There the wise men are just additional characters, along with the rejoicing shepherds and angelic choirs from Luke’s Gospel, who are praising God for the good news about Jesus’s birth.
But Matthew’s story is far darker. There are no angelic choirs or rejoicing shepherds anywhere in Matthew’s telling of things.
Instead, there is a tyrannical king who murders every male child in and around Bethlehem who is two-years-old and under, in accordance with the timing of Jesus’ birth that Herod learned from the Magi.
There are Joseph and Mary with baby Jesus fleeing as refugees under the cover of darkness to escape the hateful wrath of Herod.
And then, even upon Herod’s death, there is Mary and Joseph not able to return to their home, but instead having to relocate somewhere else, in order to lay low and escape any new death plots from King Herod’s son, who is the new king.
Theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas notes, “Perhaps no event in the gospel determinatively challenges the sentimental depiction of Christmas than the death of these children. Jesus is born into a world in which children are killed, and continue to be killed, to protect the power of tyrants” (Matthew, 41).
Indeed, the story that Matthew’s telling us is far from nostalgic and sentimental manger scenes of rejoicing shepherds, angelic choirs, and worshiping wise men. It is, rather, in the words of Bible scholar and theologian N.T. Wright, “political dynamite.”
Because if Jesus is the true king of the Jews, then Herod is not. And this is simply unacceptable for the Herods of the world, both then and now.
King Herod and the Herods of the World
We get clues from the very beginning of the story that trouble’s brewing. The Magi show up in Jerusalem, the center of political and religious power in Israel, and they are somehow able to gain an audience with King Herod.
They ask him—the current King of the Jews and a puppet to the ultimate power of Rome—what ought to strike us as a very provocative question: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2).
The Magi have come to honor the king of the Jews and worship him. But it’s not Herod they’re looking for!
Matthew tells us the reaction in the very next verse: “When King Herod heard this, he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:3). The NRSV says, “he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” The CEB has it, “he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him.”
Here’s a question we might ask: Why?
Why were Herod and all of Jerusalem with him, disturbed or troubled or frightened?
Weren’t the Jews longing for a Messiah?
Shouldn’t this be good and exciting news? Something to rejoice about?
Not if you’re a Herod or part of the elite establishment who control all the power systems and structures that benefit the Herods of the world and those who do their bidding.
If you’re a Herod or those who benefit from the Herods of the world, any threat to the status quo must be squashed. And that is precisely how Rome dealt with those who wouldn’t play by their rules.
The next time Jesus is called the king of the Jews is at the end of Matthew’s Gospel when he is mocked by Roman soldiers and then brutally executed by crucifixion. A sign hanging above the suffering Jesus’s head on the cross proclaims to all who pass by the charge that brought about his conviction and execution: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37).
Jesus is a king who wins the ultimate and decisive victory through his sacrificial death and subsequent resurrection, not through violent political revolution or military might.
The primary virtue in the kingdom of King Jesus is love—the same kind of radical, self-sacrificial, indiscriminate, inclusive love that God demonstrated to the world in Christ.
Just before his arrest, trial, and execution, Jesus told his disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35). In the kingdom vision of Jesus, love is the force that changes the world.
In contrast, the Herods of the world are volatile, fragile, paranoid, and tyrannical. If they love at all, it’s only themselves and those who do their bidding. But even this is tenuous.
We know from ancient historians, for example, that King Herod even had some of his own family killed when he perceived them a threat to his power. Victims included at least one of his wives, one of his mothers-in-law and brothers-in-law, and several of his sons.
Nevertheless, though history often judges them as brutal tyrants, the Herods of the world are also often very effective and successful rulers by the standards of the world.
Shrewd and savvy, the Herods of the world often know how to cut good deals with other power brokers. At least twice Herod significantly lowered taxes, first cutting them by a third and then a few years later, cutting them again by a fourth, gaining the goodwill of the people.
The Herods of the world are also masters at public relations messaging and manipulating others. “Go and search carefully for the child,” Herod tells the Magi. “As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him” (Matthew 2:8).
Of course, we know from what follows in the story — the so-called slaughter of the innocents — that Herod’s true intention was murder.
The Herods of the world also know how to get things done, even some good things. For example, during his long reign, Herod completed impressive infrastructure and massive building projects throughout his ever-expanding territory, including what most consider his crowning achievement, a plan to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.
Although the temple was not fully completed until long after his death, it was a magnificent structure. Even Jesus’s disciples marvel at one point about the massive stones and beautiful buildings that comprised the temple complex (see Mark 13:1).
In many ways, Herod’s rule was an age of prosperity. Under his leadership, Jerusalem became a major cosmopolitan center in a far-flung outpost of the Roman Empire. Life was good for many. But at what cost?
Allegiance to King Jesus
We live in a world today where Herods still rule in many places. Some are certainly much more approximately like the Herod in Matthew’s Gospel, brutally ruling over the people they are supposed to govern and protect.
Others are Herods in more subversive, yet no less damaging ways. They may not overtly murder people. But they are mostly all about preserving and protecting their own power and advancing their own agenda.
The kingdoms of this world will always be run by Herods of various sorts. Some are certainly better than others. And though we may find some Herods far more agreeable than others to how we might personally think about things, we must remember that if we are Christians our ultimate allegiance is to Jesus and his kingdom vision for the world, not to any particular political party, or socio-cultural, or religious ideology that we may subscribe to.
Whatever our political or theological leanings, we must remember that we are not first and foremost Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or progressives, or even Americans. Those things are important and part of who we are. But they are not primary.
Rather, what’s first and foremost is that we’re followers of Jesus Christ and his kingdom vision for the world. We’re called to live and love in the way of Jesus. Everything else comes after.
And when we live and love in the way of Jesus, whatever our political and theological leanings might be, this will be disturbing to the Herods of the world and those who support them.
Because the values of Jesus’s kingdom vision demonstrated in his life and teachings, especially in key passages like the Sermon on the Mount, are completely counter-intuitive and antithetical to the values of the world run by Herods.
Sayings like “Love your enemies”, “Pray for those who persecute you”, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last”, “Sell everything and give it to the poor”, and “Deny yourself, pick up your cross daily, and follow Jesus” don’t appear on too many campaign slogans. That’s just not how the world run by Herods works.
But though we live in the world, we are not of the world. We’re living a different story than the one told by Herods. We’re called to live as resident aliens, praying for and working towards a coming kingdom that started with the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.
And someday that kingdom will be finally and fully established when Jesus returns in power and glory. But for now, we live in the tension of the already/not yet — the time in-between — in a world that is often run by Herods.
In such a world, worship of the true king, Jesus, and living into Jesus’s kingdom vision, is a protest against and resistance to all the Herods and all the powers and systems and structures that derive from Herods.
That’s what the Magi did in Matthew’s Gospel passage. They came looking for King Jesus. And they worshiped him. May we follow their example and may Jesus’s kingdom come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Let us pray: O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer)