Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.
3 Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
4 Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
5 Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
6 A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
2 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…. 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.
“In the time of king Herod….” This is where Matthew begins to tell the story of the wisemen. “In the time of king Herod….” When a story starts like this…. In the time of President Trump…. In the time of Abraham Lincoln…. In the time of German Chancellor Adolf Hitler…. When a story starts like this, by naming the person who is in the seat of power, you know that what follows will speak into the social and political situation in which the story takes place.
It would be an understatement to say that the last couple of months in these dis-united states have been something of a political mess, and we are certainly not anywhere near the end of it. In the time of President Trump we have seen exposed the deep fissures of racism, classicism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and xenophobia within our nation. As a nation, we are not well. Washington is paralyzed by party divisions, multiple international relations are dangerously tense and heated, President Trump is tweeting threats of war that he is not authorized to make, and still there are plenty of people who are willing to overlook the dis-ease of this nation because “our economy is doing so well,” at least on the surface, and at least for some people.
In the time of king Herod…wisemen from the East came to Jerusalem asking “where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” The story feels especially timely to me this Epiphany Sunday. Herod and his political lackeys are anxious to hold onto the power they have. It is a fragile power, precarious, granted by the Roman Empire which has Herod under its thumb. In order to maintain his own power, privilege, and relative wealth, Herod has to keep the masses quiet, content to live in poverty, while aching to be freed from Roman oppression. The last thing Herod needs is a political rival who will challenge his right to the throne and have the people taking sides and protesting in the streets.
It doesn’t matter to Herod that the child born King of the Jews whom the wisemen seek is God’s promised Messiah, the one who will finally liberate the people. Herod knows this, and while you might think he would welcome God’s long-awaited salvation, he is instead ready to annihilate even the smallest glimmer of God’s promised kingdom in order to protect his own advantage. But even “in the time of King Herod,” when it seems impossible that life could become different and the king will do anything to maintain the status quo—the entrance of God’s Messiah into the world sends out reverberations felt by wisemen thousands of miles away who are simply attending to the choreography of stars and planets.
The wisemen are drawn toward an uncertain destination. These foreigners who speak with a thick accent, and wear funny clothes, are the ones who get it. They set off traveling by the light of a distant star which gets them to Jerusalem, the Holy city. It makes sense to them that they would show up at the king’s palace in Jerusalem to find this heir to Israel’s throne. They are off by a few miles, and although they are men, they are willing to ask for help with directions.
I’m guessing they could smell the fear on King Herod and saw the commotion that their visit provoked. And I imagine they thought it odd that King Herod himself wasn’t wise to the birth of this child king, and had to consult with his religious cabinet members to locate him. And I suspect that it seemed weird to them that this future king was in a little no account village nine miles south of Jerusalem. And if I were in their sandals, I would wonder why King Herod didn’t come along, or send a delegation, right then and there, to visit the child. Why wait? Why ask these guys to return with a full report and exact address? And although many paintings of the wisemen kneeling and offering their gifts show Jesus and Mary sporting glowing halos, what these foreign scientists found in Bethlehem was an unspectacular peasant mother and her baby, living as guests in a modest house that was not their own.
And I wonder if they ever thought to abandon this search? I wonder if one of them hit the pause button at some point along the way to say, “something feels off, something is weird here, Herod seems on edge, Bethlehem can’t be the right place, this can’t be the right kid, maybe we just leave well enough alone and head back home.” Despite all the weirdness, despite the twists and turns, despite their unknowing, the wisemen keep going. Despite their unknowing, they just keep going forward, irresistibly drawn.
Maybe the story didn’t happen exactly as Matthew tells it with all these delightful, intricate details, right down to the unwrapping of the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myhrr. But my experience confirms the core of this story that Matthew begins with the phrase “in the time of King Herod….” It is a story about the beautiful inevitability that God’s purposes for creation will be fulfilled. In the time of Herod…. In the time of Abraham Lincoln…. In the time of Donald Trump. God’s reign comes even in the midst of what appears to be a political impossibility. God will do this work no matter what forces oppose it. God will draw all kinds of people in all kinds of ways to receive and participate in God’s reign—an unwed mother, a stepfather, scruffy shepherds, foreign star gazers, fishermen and women folk, of both good and ill repute—AND US.
We are all kinds of people drawn in all kinds of ways—through dreams and angels; shamanic journeys and unexplained awakenings; long years of church-going and sudden hunger for spiritual home and deeper communion. God is drawing all kinds of people in all kinds of ways to be on this journey together and participate in God’s reign of justice, God’s kingdom of peace, God’s commonwealth of beloved community, God’s household where there is room for everyone at the dinner table.
And it is a blessed wonder that the twists and turns of our individual life journeys have landed us here together, sharing in the same search—a search for meaning, for lives that are less fearful and more matterful, and for a community we can walk with. This is not a perfect place. And we are not perfect people. We hurt one another without intention. We struggle to truly welcome strangers, and love enemies, and bear one another’s burdens, and do justice in our communities.
But we are committed to live into God’s intentions—to embody God’s radical love and welcome, to grow into God’s generous self-giving, forgiveness, and healing presence. Not just in our life together here, or with family and friends, but in our whole lives, where in the politics and social orders we are part of. We are committed to keep going on despite our unknowing, despite the resistance and the darkness. We are being drawn by the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus, into the beautiful inevitability that God’s purposes for creation, for this nation, for the nations of the world, for each of our lives are being fulfilled. And all kinds of people in our larger community are being drawn with us, in this time and place, to rise and shine, and walk together in the light of God’s love.