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Reveille United Methodist Church
Epiphany Sunday – January 6, 2019
King Herod was a paranoid and dangerous man, who even some in his own day thought was mentally unstable. Herod banished his first wife and three-year-old son in order to marry another woman and increase his political power. As Herod grew older, he became more and more paranoid, more and more afraid that someone was plotting to take his power from him, which led to Herod eventually executing his wife, mother-in-law, son-in-law, brother-in-law, and three sons. It was said in his own day that it was better to be Herod’s sow than his son.
So we can imagine how Herod must have thought and felt when he somehow heard this rumor that a new king had been born in his land, and we can imagine why Matthew tells us that “all Jerusalem was frightened with him.” They knew Herod did not receive bad news well.
I imagine that the first encounter between Herod the Great and the magi went something like this: these scholars of the stars and planets approach Herod and proclaim that they are looking for the King of the Jews. To this, Herod could only reply, “You are looking at him!” Yet as he realized that these men had made a such a long and perilous journey because they believed that the heavens were telling that a new king had been born, one can imagine the feeling of panic this puppet king felt in his heart when he realized that the word was out, not just in Judea but in other countries that a new king had been born.
Herod had to, at some level, understand that his kingship was borne of nepotism, the machinations of his father, and little else. Certainly he was aware that there were no celestial events that marked his own birth, and it is doubtful that anyone, much less scholars from the East came to pay him homage. This was terrifying stuff. So he plots and he schemes, becoming increasingly brutal in what amounts to a desperate attempt to hold on to power that was never really his.
There is a word that has entered the lexicon of American popular culture in the last several years. It was coined by the satirist and talk show host Stephen Colbert (who is also a Roman Catholic and for years was a Sunday School teacher). The word is truthiness. Truthiness refers to a belief in truth that comes, in his words, “from the gut, instead of facts, research, data or books. It is about what we hope to be true.”
The story of the Epiphany, particularly King Herod’s part in it, is not about the truthiness of the Gospel; it is not about the ways, sometimes inconsistent, that we hope the story of Jesus is true. Instead, it is about what Herod feared: if Jesus really is the newborn King, the Messiah, the Son of God, then what? What stays the same? What needs to change? If he is the king, then who is not? Whose reign must come to an end?
You see, there are times when I believe in the truthiness of the gospel. I sometimes find myself believing that Jesus is my Lord, my God, my savior, redeemer, and friend, the one who answers prayer, the one who forgives my sins, and that is all good, but when the gospel starts to get truthy, I find myself more interested in the broad claims about Jesus’ grace and less interested in the ethical expectations of discipleship. When the gospel gets truthy, I find myself believing that God is a bit too busy to be concerned with my day-to-day choices, which means that, maybe they don’t matter so much. When they gospel gets truthy, it is easier to believe in forgiving enemies and even forgiving myself as an ideal rather than a way of life. When the gospel gets truthy, it becomes less about the poor, less about loving my enemies, and less about praying for those who persecute me.
In other words, when the gospel gets truthy, then it is easy for me to think and act like the gospel endorses all of my natural proclivities while asking very little of me at all. When the gospel gets truthy, it is less about King Jesus, and more about King Me.
This is why Herod ultimately feared the little baby nursing in Bethlehem. He knew that ultimately, he was in an either/or situation. Either Herod was on the throne, or this child was. There was no middle ground. Herod never allowed the message to get truthy. This message of the one born in the city of David propelled Herod into action. Granted, it was secretive, conniving, and eventually, horrible, violent action, but Herod knew that he could not continue to live as though there could be two kings any longer.
But the good news for us is that we too can be propelled into action: good and righteous action. The good news is that you and I do not have to be in control of everything anymore, because the one who sits on the throne is the one who loves us more than we love ourselves. The one who sits on the throne is the one who asks so much of us, but who promises and who gives even more. The one who sits on the throne for us is the true king to whom we owe our joy, our hope, and our lives.
To be subjects of the true king (not the truthy king) often means that things in our lives can and must change, for when we worship and adore this king, we enter a new dominion. We become a part of a new realm. Jesus promises, and many of our experiences confirm, that following him can even set us against members of our own families. It makes us question the fundamental assumptions of our lives, and the fundamental assumptions we have about others. It makes us understand the world differently, and perhaps most importantly, it makes us think of ourselves differently. Our lives become less “me-centered” and become more “Christ-centered,” as we start to better resemble the one who made us.
It is a lot to comprehend. It can be a long journey to make.
But here is hope: if we embrace the truth of the gospel, and we acknowledge that the one born in Bethlehem is our King, then it means that all of those other “rulers” in our lives get pulled off their thrones. It means that we have the hope that the power of those false kings: the abuser, the tyrant, the addiction, the oppressor, and all of those other things that enslave and violate what is means for us to be God’s royal priesthood, God’s chosen people, made in God’s image will not last forever, and will soon be taken away and it means that you and I do not ever have to bow before one of those false kings ever again.
Although I cannot prove it, but I believe that the obedience of the wise men to the message they received from God in this dream forced them to take a longer way home then the one the took on the first leg of their journey. They now had to avoid Jerusalem entirely, and if the way they were taking home was the better route, why wouldn’t they have taken it in the first place?
I do not think it is a coincidence that the first task the wise men must undertake in obedience to the God of Israel is one that is more challenging than what they had done before. It was not any different for Jesus, who is baptized by John and then whisked by the Spirit into the wilderness to fast and be tempted by Satan for forty days. Likewise, have you ever had an experience in your faith life where suddenly you find that living what you believe made your journeys seem harder than they were before? Jesus tells us to take up our crosses and follow him, yet he does not promise to lead us to shortcuts, and any journey is longer with a cross on your back.
If you are anything like me, you made it as far as January third before you realized that keeping your New Year’s resolutions was going to be harder than you thought, and you find yourself wondering why things that are right and healthy and life-giving seem so unnatural and difficult. You find yourself reaching for that cookie, and “Oh, wait…” Stopping by that place, and “Oh, wait…” Forgetting to practice that new habit, remembering a promise you made, and “Oh, wait…” Before we know it, we are gravitating back to the old way home, the easy way, the shorter way, yes, but not the way God would have us to go, and before we know it, the life we were promised eludes us, and we find ourselves back standing at the door of Herod’s palace, wondering how we got there all over again.
The older I get, the more convinced I become that King Herod the Great is still alive and well, and he is still giving us directions as to the roads we should travel, roads that promise shortcuts, ease, happiness and pleasure to you and me, but which end up leaving us serving his agenda, his conflated desires, and not the stuff of abundant life that Christ tells us that God wills for our lives. King Herod promises to share our desires, to want to participate in our agendas, yet what we get instead is materialism masquerading as abundance and oppression masquerading as worship, as the life we wish for eludes us, and as we find ourselves worshipping the wrong king.
The thing is, our God is the god who uses the long way home as means to form and transform us into sons and daughters of God. The forty-year journey that the Israelites made after escaping from slavery in Egypt to the promised land of Canaan is sometimes called “the wilderness school.” Egypt to Canaan is not a long journey; even by foot it should not take that long, yet in it, in those experiences in the wilderness, God taught, formed, shaped those people, and prepared them to inhabit the prosperous land of milk and honey, prepared them to be God’s covenant people in a way a short journey from slavery to abundance could not.
In this morning’s text, the magi have a choice to make: do they go home the old way, the Herod way, or do they take a different road? What road are you taking, am I taking, is our congregation taking, that may be serving our immediate desires, but which fails to meet our eternal needs? In what places are our journeys too superficial, when they could be deeper and more meaningful? Is it in a relationship with spouse or children? Is it in caring for yourself? Is it in your relationship with Christ? Where? And what does it look like for your life to not simply have your faith as a component to it, but instead where your faith is the guide that directs you on the roads you should follow?
A woman leaves work and travels around the block on the way home so she does not stop by the liquor store like she usually does, despite the fact that she really wants to. She is taking the long way home.
A man goes to sleep when his wife does instead of spending time alone on the Internet, doing what he knows he should not, despite the fact that he really wants to. He is taking the long way home.
A student taking a test does not accept the note with the answers written on it, even though the test is important and very difficult. She is taking the long way home.
You befriend an outcast, serve the poor, claim your faith, even when it is unpopular. You are taking the long way home.
The long way home may seem harder, longer, more difficult, but think of where it leads. Paul tells us it leads to the boundless riches of Christ. Matthew’s gospel tells us that it undermines the oppressor and leads to freedom and the way back home. Jesus tells us that the wide and easy paths lead us to destruction, while the rocky and narrow paths lead us to eternal life.
The thing is this: Any time I have ever taken the long way home, literally or metaphorically, there is always a point on the journey when I wished I hadn’t. When I ran the Richmond Marathon in 2004, I remember around mile 20 being able to see the finish line, but having six miles left to go.
Regarding my diet or my exercise, I keep wanting to believe that there is a simpler way, one that rewards me completely, but without hard work or sacrifice.
I pray for God to use me as God wills, that God’s “kingdom comes, that God’s will is done, on earth as it is in heaven.” I pray for strength, fortitude, and wisdom, yet my prayers have hidden footnotes, written in tiny text at the bottom of the page, about how, if at all possible, God could just grant me these gifts, instead of forming me, through experience, through the journey, into a disciple who is strong and wise.
On this Epiphany Sunday, as you arrive at the home of the newborn Son of God, what are you looking for? What are you hoping to find? How has the experience of encountering the living Christ changed you, and how will that change lead you to take the long way home?
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.