Joyful Surprises

Epiphany, Year C, Sunday, January 6th, 2013

Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I have sometimes wondered why we give presents at Christmas instead of Epiphany.  It seems to me that Epiphany would be the holiday logically associated with presents, because Epiphany is the day we celebrate the Magi, who came to the infant Jesus and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

We read their story today in the Gospel lesson.  Now, there are a lot of legends surrounding the wise men that have developed over the years.  For example, somehow or other along the way people decided that their names were Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar.  The Bible doesn’t even tell us how many there were, let alone what their names were.  Also, people have assumed that they were kings, when in fact they probably weren’t.  The Bible tells us very little about them.  They were wise men, they were from the East, and they brought gifts.  The most likely explanation is that they were a delegation of Persian astrologers, priests of Zoroaster who believed that everything could be predicted through the movements of the sun, moon, stars, and other heavenly bodies.  We don’t know exactly what they saw in the sky; an unusual conjunction of stars is the most likely explanation, but a supernova or shooting star is also possible.  Whatever they saw, it sent them many hundreds of miles to Roman-ruled Judea, to the palace of King Herod, to do homage to a new-born king of the Jews.

You can imagine what a rude shock that must have been to Herod.  Herod was a Roman puppet who had been appointed King of the Jews because he was good at sucking up to Caesar.  He was a man who had worked hard to put himself at the top of the ladder.  He had no legitimate claim to power, and his own people detested him, but he had amassed great power and great wealth, which he spent on large building projects.  He played the political game with great panache.  To ingratiate himself to his Roman masters, Herod built Roman cities on Jewish soil, complete with pagan temples.  To appease the Jewish people, he greatly expanded the Temple in Jerusalem, making it grander and more beautiful than it had ever been. Herod could be cruel and unjust if it served his own interests, and he was willing to execute members of his own family—even his wife, Mariamne—if they stood in his way.

Herod had worked hard and sacrificed much to get to where he was, so it’s not surprising that he took the news of a new-born king of the Jews so badly.  After all, he had not had any children born lately, so the new king could only be someone coming to supplant him and take away all that he had.  So he turned to the chief priests and the elders, to ask them where this new king might be found.

The priests knew that only one king would be great enough for God to proclaim his birth in the heavens: the promised Messiah, the king born of David’s line, who would be greater than David ever was and restore the people of Israel.  They weren’t quite sure exactly what the Messiah would do or what he would be like, but they knew that he would do a new thing, something wonderful.  Good news, right?

Well, not if you’re Herod.  Not if you’ve spent all your time and energy climbing the ladder, working the system, and getting where you want to go.  He liked things as they were just fine, thank you.  No messiahs needed, he’d gotten exactly where he wanted to be.  And if he’d done terrible things along the way, well, having done all that for power he certainly wasn’t going to give it up, even if the king sent by God to save them was finally there!  For all his rhetoric about serving God, Herod served only one master: himself.  So it’s no wonder that when news came that God was doing something new, Herod promptly resolved to stop it by killing this new king.

What’s more surprising is the response of the rest of Jerusalem.  Jerusalem was the seat of the Roman-controlled government, but it was also the home of the Temple and the Sanhedrin, the most important parts of the Jewish religious establishment, and it was the richest city in Judea.  Roman-ruled or not, it was a Jewish city.  In other words, the inhabitants of Jerusalem should have been the happiest people in the world to hear that God’s chosen Messiah, the new king of David’s line, was finally here.  Yet they, like Herod, were afraid.  Why?

I wonder if it has to do with who the messengers were.  God had sent his Messiah … and the priests and the chief scribes hadn’t even noticed?  God was doing something new in the world, and they hadn’t even realized it?  They were so wrapped up in the cares and concerns of their daily life, the office politics and the family feuds and the gossip and work and hobbies that they couldn’t see what God was doing, didn’t hear his call.  They were so oblivious to what God was doing around them that it took a foreign, pagan priest to announce it?  To think about what that must have been like, imagine if Christ came back to Earth and we didn’t notice until a Buddhist monk from Tibet showed up trying to find him.  That’s about what happened!  It must have been so frightening to have God break through into their world out of the blue, telling them that something new was going to happen.

Have you ever noticed that sometimes people would rather stick with a bad situation than take a chance at something better, something new?  How sometimes we’d rather stay stuck in a rut in the mud rather than change?  As Hamlet said, we would rather bear those ills we have/than fly to others that we know not of.  People in abusive relationships will stay in them because they’re afraid things might be worse elsewhere.  People stay in jobs they don’t like because they’re afraid another might be worse.  We fear what we don’t know, we fear what we don’t understand.  And when those wise men came from the east, asking about the new king, all of Jerusalem was afraid of what that meant.  Sure, they were ruled by the Romans through Herod, and things were pretty bad.  And yes, God had promised them that things would be better when the Messiah came.  But they didn’t know what “better” would look like.  All they knew was that it would be different.

God’s plans rarely look anything like we expect.  Jesus’ birth is a perfect example: God chose a nobody from a backwater town in a small corner of the Roman Empire to be the mother of his son, and chose to have him be born in a stable.  And then God chose to announce it with shepherds, the poor schmucks who did the dirty work nobody else wanted, and foreign pagans!  And when that baby grew up and started his ministry, he didn’t change the world by raising up an army and forcibly throwing out the Romans, building a normal kingdom with God as the king, he did it by teaching, and then by dying to save the very people who most wanted to destroy and deny him.  We know the stories so well that we take it for granted, that of course that’s what the Messiah was going to look like!  Of course that’s what all the prophecies meant!

We shake our heads that the people in Jesus’ day, from the disciples to the religious authorities, from the lepers to the kings, kept getting it wrong and misinterpreting who Jesus was and what he came to do.  But the truth is, in their shoes we would be just as bad.  Because even in our own time, even knowing the story of Jesus, even having Jesus in our midst, we do the same thing.  We can’t see the surprising, new things God is doing in our midst.  We get so caught up in our worries, in our assumptions, in playing the game the way the world says we should that we miss what God is doing around us and in us.

What if, instead, we followed the example of the wise men?  It had to have been a big surprise to them, too.  The Jews were an insignificant people, so to have the birth of their new king so momentous as to be recorded in the stars … that must have been a shock.  Surely, only a new emperor rated that kind of introduction to the world!  Yet when God called the Magi, they came.  They left their ordinary lives, their expectations, their assumptions, and followed where God led.  And they were overwhelmed with joy!  Instead of focusing on their fears, they focused on the new thing God was doing.

God has always done surprising things, things nobody can predict, and God is still doing them today and will keep doing them in the future.  What that will look like I have no clue—nobody’s ever been much good at predicting what form God’s saving actions will take.  But here is something I feel pretty safe in predicting: it won’t be what we expect.  It will be a surprise.  God will do new things, wonderful things, filled with joy and wonder and love and grace.  No matter how dark things get, God will continue to shine in our darkness like the stars that guided the Wise Men to Bethlehem.  Our task is not to predict what God will do, or (God forbid) to assume that God will do what we think he should.  Our task, as Christians, is to look for the light and follow it.  Our task is to let ourselves be joyful at God’s presence, and rejoice in the new things God is doing in us and around us.  May we, like the Wise men, leave our fear behind and follow where God leads.


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