Epiphany, January 4 2015
For the past month or so the soundtrack of my life has been Christmas carols. I’ve heard them whenever I’ve been shopping; I’ve played them while driving in my car; I’ve thought about them while I’ve been preparing Christmas services; I’ve found myself humming them as I’ve walked; and on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day I joined in with you in singing them – until halfway through the Christmas morning service when my voice decided that it had had enough. Given my recent visit to the Holy Land, it’s been an interesting experience. Take “The First Nowell”, which we just sang. Singing “in fields where they lay keeping their sheep” instantly takes me back to Beit Sahour, to memories of standing in the Shepherds Fields and looking across to Bethlehem on the hill. It’s lovely. But then the chorus of that carol, “born is the king of Israel,” shocks me out of any carol-induced feelings of Christmas joy, as I remember the modern state of Israel, which does not want a king, and if it did most certainly wouldn’t choose Jesus. What do the modern people of Israel think about Australian Christians blithely singing about a king of Israel at Christmas?
The carol line that makes me laugh comes from “Oh little town of Bethlehem”. Any carol that mentions Bethlehem reminds me of my time there, and I find it very hard to sing “how still we see you lie!” without giggling. In Bethlehem I stayed at the Bethlehem Hotel, and in the street below my room was a very popular hamburger place. Just before I went to bed each night I would sit at the hotel room window and watch the young men and boys of Bethlehem socialising in front of it. Watching them made me a little sad, because I suspect that if they came to Australia and did the same thing, some people would contact the police to report a group of ‘youths of Middle Eastern appearance’ congregating on the street. But it also made me laugh, because Bethlehem seemed to me to be as far from a town lying still as it is possible to be, and decades of singing Christmas carols had primed me to see in Bethlehem a quiet little place.
Bethlehem isn’t a quiet little place. But in some ways it is a muted place, a stifled city. Bethlehem is in “Area A,” which means that it is controlled by the Palestinian National Authority. Under Israeli law Israelis are not allowed to enter it. But Bethlehem is surrounded, and in some places penetrated, by the Separation Wall built by Israel. This barrier is built, Israel says, to protect the people of Israel from terrorists, particularly suicide bombers. But about eighty-five per cent of the Barrier’s route runs inside the West Bank, rather than along the Green Line. In Bethlehem the Barrier divides the urban area from its agricultural lands – I’ve stood outside houses that are now inside the Barrier and looked across at the olive groves that belong to those houses’ owners that are now outside the Barrier and so are completely inaccessible. The Barrier divides the people of Bethlehem from East Jerusalem, which the international community agrees is part of the Palestinian territories. There are Christians in Bethlehem who are unable to go to Jerusalem to worship, although the two are only eight kilometres apart. This means that were the magi travelling today, they would struggle to journey from Herod’s court in Jerusalem to Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem. At the very least they’d have to go through a checkpoint. And so woodcarvers in Bethlehem make Nativity Scenes like this one from the Bethlehem Bible College. Nativity scenes like this one might seem to be politicising the Christmas story. But the Christmas story is a political one, especially the part of it that we hear today.
Today we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord. Epiphany, the 6th of January, concludes the twelve days of Christmas. The word ‘epiphany’ means any sudden realization; so that if at any time you have a revelation, you can declare that you’ve had ‘an epiphany’. But the particular epiphany that Matthew writes about and that we are celebrating is the revelation to the Gentiles, through the magi, that the One God is seen in the infant Jesus.
The magi are “wise men from the East” but apparently they lack common sense. It’s their naïve questioning that tips King Herod off about a potential rival. The magi come to Jerusalem, the centre of Jewish power, looking in the wrong place for the wrong kind of king. They find a fearful tyrant, and calmly ask to be directed to another, newly born, king. Herod thinks that he is the ‘king of the Jews,’ although he’s actually a Roman puppet, and when he hears the magi’s questions “he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him”. For those who have come to terms with Roman occupation and a Roman-approved king, hearing about the birth of Jesus is understandably terrifying. But Herod covers up his fear. He calls the chief priests and scribes, finds out where to direct the magi, and sends the magi off, asking them to let him know when they’ve found the baby. This is because, like all evil kings, he has a cunning plan.
The magi go to Bethlehem, and here finally they do show their wisdom; they recognise Jesus as king. In Matthew’s story, the magi are the only people who worship Jesus as he deserves, kneeling down and offering him homage. Matthew contrasts these Gentiles who honour the ‘king of the Jews,’ with Herod, who calls himself ‘king of the Jews’ and pretends that he wants to offer Jesus homage, but actually seeks to kill him. Despite their blunder in frightening Herod and all Jerusalem, we can see that the magi truly are ‘wise’ in their acknowledgement of Jesus.
The magi are warned in a dream not to tell Herod where Jesus is, and they return home another way. Joseph is then warned in a dream to flee Bethlehem, and he takes Mary and the baby and seeks refuge in Egypt. This flight to Egypt is mentioned by many Australian churches when we argue for a more humane treatment of asylum seekers and refugees; we point out that according to the Gospel Jesus himself was a refugee, fleeing to Egypt to escape extermination.
The massacre of the innocents isn’t usually part of nativity pageants, but it’s as much a part of the Christmas stories as shepherds and stars. Herod’s conversation with the magi leads him to slaughter all of the children under the age of two in Bethlehem, based on the time the magi told him the star appeared. Jesus, of course, escapes, and lives with his parents in Egypt until Herod dies. Then, Matthew tells us, Joseph takes Mary and Jesus to Nazareth in Galilee, rather than back home to Bethlehem in Judea, so that they can avoid Herod’s son, Archelaus. As we’ll hear next week, it is from Nazareth in Galilee that Jesus comes to be baptised by John in the Jordan.
The Christmas stories are stories of power and protest and politics. The magi, after their initial foolishness, refuse to obey Herod, the ruler of the land. More than that, they pay homage to an alternate ruler. It’s an obvious case of civil disobedience! That shouldn’t surprise us. After all, being a Christian automatically involved civil disobedience from the time of Christ until the early fourth century when Christianity became officially acceptable through the Roman Empire. Living in the times that we do, we often forget how revolutionary and counter-cultural Christianity is and has been from its very beginning.
So, let today’s story remind you. When you hear or read about asylum seekers and refugees, remember Joseph taking Mary and Jesus and fleeing to Egypt. When you see news of children being kidnapped or killed, school children murdered in Pakistan or girls abducted in Nigeria, remember the innocents massacred in Bethlehem. When you see injustice perpetrated by people in power, remember the magi refusing to do what King Herod wanted of them and offering their homage to an alternative king. And when you sing carols about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, remember the Barrier that now surrounds that city. As Christians we are called to follow the one who, in the words of today’s psalm, was born to “defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.” This Christmas season, let the Christmas stories inspire us to recommit ourselves to joining Jesus in this mission. Amen.