A sermon by the Rev Linda Harrison
Epiphany of Christ; Jan 6, 2019
Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
An audio recording of the sermon is available here.
The annual Christmas display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC includes a Neapolitan Baroque nativity scene – quite exquisite in person from what I hear. I found some images online; it is beautiful, and it has all the recognizable elements of any crèche: shepherds, angels, magi, Mary, Joseph, infant, livestock. What intrigued me most, and the reason I looked up images, is that the scene is not set in a rustic barn or stable in Bethlehem. Instead, the holy family are nestled upon a hill, under the crumbling columns of a Roman building – the columns that represent the power, majesty, and might of the Roman Empire, columns that once supported a grand building, now in disrepair, unable to even hold themselves up, let alone the impressive building it was once a part of.
Once tall, strong, and proud, like the Empire itself, the building has collapsed leaving but a few sad traces of its existence. In the shadows of those remains, sits Mary holding the Christ child with Joseph at their side.
So, here, I give you the Gospel supplemented by the Met. The display reminds us that the coming of Christ has shaken the very foundations of the world – for indeed, the Roman Empire was the center of the world at that time. The birth of God Incarnate has upended the world and brought the empires low.
Even as the empires, nations, republics, principalities, democracies of this world are shaken to their foundation, even as the world changes and governments crumble, God remains forever God. Christ, lying in the arms of Mary in the shadows of rubble and ruin, is a visible reminder that God outlasts all human endeavors. Indeed, the Word made flesh was in the beginning and the Word will be until the end of all time.
When the magi came and asked the whereabouts of child born ruler of the Jews, Herod’s world was shaken to the core, and Herod was frightened. In Matthew’s story, the author doesn’t specify which Herod. Matthew simply uses the generic ‘King Herod’ – Herod being the family name, members of which governed Palestine and surrounding areas for about 150 years. The gospel of Matthew mentions four rulers of the Herod family. From history, we know Herod the Great was ruler at the time of the birth of Jesus. Matthew’s Herod is at once specific – the Great – and general – all rulers, governing bodies, and authorities. The Herods were Roman loyalists. Herod the Great owed his power and privilege to a foreign empire. He was especially known for his lavish and massive – some might say unrealistic – building projects meant to garner personal attention and favor among his supporters and the Roman elite. Sources also cite that he was known as moody, unjust, cruel, and violent. …and Herod was frightened.
And after leaving moody and violent Herod, the magi find Mary, Joseph, and the Christ child nestled lovingly and tranquilly under the falling columns of one of Herod’s once magnificent building projects.
This is where we find our God for God has entered human history – the manifestation of the promise of God’s coming Messiah and the justice, mercy, grace, and salvation the Messiah will bring. Jesus comes among us, amongst the rubble and in the midst of violence and injustice. Jesus comes despite human cruelty and arrogance and narcissism. The Incarnation of Divine Love and Mercy comes. The Christ comes to save. That is what is most frightening, most threatening to the world order: nothing we do can stop the coming of Love Incarnate. The coming of God among us reminds us of our need for salvation, mercy, and grace, and we realize that no Herod on earth can bestow or deliver that. Human endeavors are impotent; governments do not have the final say – indeed, governments in themselves are not even final, they are not lasting or enduring.
As we look upon the magi kneeling before the babe beneath those crumbling Roman columns, we think of the Herods of this world. The Herods of the world order the slaughter of innocent babes to protect their own position and power. The Herods of the world cage children and separate families out of fear of people who do not look or speak the same as they do. The Herods of the world bow to corporate greed that prevents the flourishing of creation, the policies and actions of which end up causing senseless deaths of innocents from preventable diseases, that keep clean drinking water and healthy food from vulnerable populations. The Herods of the world foster oppression and corruption in their lands causing families to flee to other lands for safety.
The Herods of this world do not recognize the Divine, are not ruled by and do not extend God’s justice, mercy, and grace. The Herods of this world deny God and scorn those who live by Love.
The magi, as sages and wise ones from the East, were open to other realities, open to wonder and awe and new perceptions. Their world was bigger than fear and power. The magi recognized the divinity of the babe nestled under crumbling columns, and they knelt in worship. The magi recognized the fear of Herod and, having been warned in a dream, they recognized and obeyed divine authority. So, in an act of courageous civil disobedience, they returned home by another road.
Open to other revelations, the magi were open to the Word of our loving and merciful God. And we cheer those people in public and private life today who, like the magi, resist unjust edicts, policies, and customs.
The Christ has come and comes among us still today in the bread and wine of Eucharist and in the love shared in this community. Christ has come and Christ is here. May we be moved by the same awe and wonder as the magi in the presence of Christ among us. May we be moved by that awe to continually live into the Love of God in Christ, resisting evil while embracing our neighbor.
Christ is indeed here among us. And nothing you or I or any human can or will do, can keep Christ from being with us, for us, and among us.
Blessed be God forever.