A Provocation: The Epiphany of the Lord: January 6, 2019: Matthew 2:1-12

1   When Jesus was born,
       in Bethlehem of Judea,
       in the days of Herod,
          the king,
          Magi from the East arrived in Jerusalem.
2            They said:
                Where is the one who was born King of the Judeans?
                    For we saw his star in the East,
                       and we came to worship him.
3            After the king, Herod, heard this
                he was shaken
                   and all Jerusalem with him.
4            After he gathered all the high priests,
                and scribes of the people,
             he inquired from them
                where the Messiah is born.
5            They said to him:
                 In Bethlehem of the Judeans
                    For thus it stands written through the prophet:
6                      You, Bethlehem, land of Judea
                          you are not least among the leaders of Judea,
                             for out of you will come one who leads,
                                one who will shepherd my people, Israel.
7            Then Herod,
                after secretly calling the magi,
             learned exactly from them the time when the star appeared.
8            After he sent them into Bethlehem
                he said:
                   After you go, inquire exactly about the child.
                      As soon as you find him,
                         report to me,
                            so that even I might go and worship him.
9            After they heard the king they traveled.
                the star,
                   the one they saw in the East,
                it led before them
                   up until,
                      as they came,
                    it stationed itself over where the child was.
10          After they saw the star,
                they rejoiced a joy exceedingly great.
11          After they came into the house,
                 they saw the child
                     with Mary his mother
                they worshipped him.
             After they opened their treasuries they brought to him gifts:
                gold and frankincense and myrrh.
12          Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
                by another road they departed into their own region.
13   After they departed,
            a messenger of haShem appeared
               in a dream
            to Joseph.
            He said:
               Get up,
               take the child,
                  and his mother,
               and flee into Egypt
                  and be there until I should speak to you.  
                     For Herod is about to seek the child
                        in order to kill him.
14      He got up;
         took the child and his mother during the night
            and departed into Egypt,
15         and he was there until the end of Herod,
               in order that the word might be fulfilled,
                  the word from haShem,
                  the word through the prophet,
               which says:
                  Out of Egypt I called my son.  
16   Then Herod saw that he was ridiculed  by the Magi.
          He was furious.  
          He sent;
             he killed all the children in Bethlehem
                and in all her region,
             all the children from two years old and down,
                according to the time which he had discovered from the Magi.  
17   Then was fulfilled the word through Jeremiah the prophet which says:
18       A voice in Ramah is heard,
             wailing and great mourning,
          Rachel shrieking for her children,
             and she will not be comforted:
                they are not.
19   After the end of Herod,
               a messenger of haShem appears in a dream to Joseph in Egypt,
               he says:
20               Get up,
                  take the child and his mother
                     and go into the land,
                 They are dead,
                    those who were seeking the life of the child.  
21              He got up
                 and took the child and his mother
                    and went into the land, Israel.  
22              But after he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea
                    instead of his father Herod,
                 he was afraid to go there.
                     After he was informed in a dream,
                        he departed into the area of Galilee,
23                        he came
                           he made his home in a city called Nazareth.
                              Thus was fulfilled the word through the prophets:
                                  He will be called Nazarene.

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Matthew’s storyteller have these strangers from the east enter his story with gifts?
  • Why do they vanish?
  • What do they add to the story?
  • What does Herod add?

Some Longer Reflections:

I have extended the usual text for the Epiphany. I extended it because the revelation of the Messiah involves more than just the recognition of the birth of Messiah by people who read the rhythms of the universe.

If you stop with the usual text, you have a royal Messiah, ready to ascend to his throne. The universe has revealed him, and all is in harmony.

Matthew is telling a more complicated story.

In Matthew’s story, the Messiah is recognized both by Magi who bring gifts and by Herod who brings death into every family in Bethlehem. You know this, but read it carefully. I distrust interpretive lines that wind themselves around the opposition. The notion of a “War on Christmas” makes me nervous, no matter what flag the warriors are flying. Such interpretive structures work by catering to resentment and anger, and they foster our reliance on the notion that what God offers in the world is an intervention with apocalyptic heavy weaponry.

Perhaps such an intervention is appropriate, or even necessary, but still I distrust such approaches. Any theology with its roots in anger leads to bloody fights. I distrust such theologies, even when I am angry.

What I notice as I read the scene this time is that Messiah enters the world, and the world does not change. Brutality is still in charge after Jesus’ birth as much as it was before. And I notice that brutality is in charge even now. Read the news. Read the tweets. Not just from president #45.

Standard Christian interpretation has adapted to this by making Christianity into an intense form of inner spirituality. “Jesus came to save our souls,” we are told, “not our bodies.” “How silently, how silently,” sings a carol that I love, and goes on to say, “So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.” I understand this interpretive move. And I distrust it as much as I distrust theological anger. Such theological dodging leaves injustice untouched, just as long as we all get to go to heaven.

Messiah enters the world and his family in the clan-city of Bethlehem suffers violence and murder. Interpreters sometimes demonstrate their prowess as scholars by pointing out that we have no record of such a slaughter. Such tone-deaf interpretation ignores the normalization of violence in human life together. We may have no certain record of this particular slaughter, but children are killed everyday. We go to war gladly (at least those safe at home with bone spurs are glad). The story told in Matthew knows this, and has the Messiah born into the middle of it all.

As I read this scene this year, I am reflecting on the radical way this story is told. This is indeed “God With Us.” In Matthew’s story Messiah is not with us as a conquering hero. Instead, God is with us as a neighbor who also lost a child to Herod’s angry attack. Most troublesome of all, God is with us as a victim of our anger, our vengeance.

On the way to our family’s Christmas celebration, we filled the 4-hour drive by singing. We had brought along the old Lutheran hymnal of my childhood, the Service Book and Hymnal (often called “the other red hymnal”). In that hymnal (published in 1958), the carol, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, has a third verse that has since vanished. This verse, part of the original 1849 poem, reads as follows:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

This Epiphany I am reflecting on what it might mean that Messiah was born into the midst of “man, at war with man.” I am wondering what I might do to “hush the noise.”

I do not expect an easy answer.

3 thoughts on “A Provocation: The Epiphany of the Lord: January 6, 2019: Matthew 2:1-12

  1. Dear Richard,
    Thank you for your reflections every week. Wanted to share with you that I was highly inspired by your post corresponding to yesterday’s gospel and quoted you shamelessly. I attach my sermon here. Looking forward to continue reading you and being inspired by you. Happy New Year!
    Peace and courage,
    Andres Albertsen

    Sent from Mail for Windows 10


  2. Reblogged this on provokingthegospel and commented:

    Another Provocation from 3 years ago reflecting on (in the words of an old hymn) “Man, at war with man….” The old hymn asks us to “hear the angels sing.” This year I wonder what that means, especially in the midst of the activity of groups like the Boogaloo Bois who imagine that this is the moment to start a second Civil War.


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