Epiphany 2021: In the time of King Herod

“In the time of King Herod”

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 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.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; Matthew 2: 1-3

May the bright light of Christ illumine our hearts and minds to receive his word. Amen.

Epiphany, the manifestaion of Christ to the Gentiles, or according to the dictionary, a sudden consciousness, intuitive insight, reality or understanding.

Today the Wise Men, the star gazing Maji, get their annual outing to Bethlehem, and they present their three gifts to the Child Jesus of gold, frankincence and myrrh. We don’t know how many there were or where they came from, only that they traveled from the east, we don’t know if they travelled from the same place, or met on the way, and contrary to a popular carol, we don’t know their names. To be clear, we don’t know very much about them at all, except what little the Bible tells us.

What we do know is that they initially assumed that the new king they were looking for would be found in a palace. So it was to Herod they came. They must have been very astute because they saw through the wiley old fox, Herod, and went home by a different road.

Just before Christmas last year, I was talking with our son-in-law Steve. He is an avid astronomer and his business is all about telescopes and garden observatories, and he is also a Baptist minister. I made the mistake of asking him about his talk for Christams, The Star of Bethlehem. Half an hour later he was still going strong, however I was finding what he had to say interesting, even though it had to be taken with caution.

What he said went something like this: Jupiter, the king of planets was in conjunction with Regulus the king of stars, making a visibly bright light in the sky. This happened at the same time as the Jewish New Year. Because of the orbit of earth the bright light appeared to move across the stella sky, Jupiter then drew into conjunction with Venus, the Virgin, in sinc with lots of symbolism in Ancient Jewish tradition. The star gazing Maji were facinated and set off to follow the light.

Whatever it was that caused the Maji to go travelling we know it meant something to them, it was a sign. I think all of us at somepoint in our spiritual life end up looking for a sign, something that will confirm all we are told about Jesus, God and our faith. Not many of us have a Damascus Road experience, or see Bright shiney Stars that point to the truth we search for. But perhaps that is simply because we don’t notice them.

Herod, like all Jewish people was waiting for the promised Messiah, in retrospect he could have joined the Maji, he could have changed the outcome of God’s story, if only he had not panicked, if he hadn’t been afraid. He couldn’t see beyond being usurped and losing power to control. The difference isn’t that epiphany happened for the wise men but not Herod. The difference is that the wise men observed and followed the star, opened their treasure chest, and went home “by another road,” and Herod did not. But what if he had?

In both situations, the Wise Men and Herod are offering us something. And both are seeking a response from us. That’s what epiphanies do. They give us a glimpse of ourselves, our life, our world, and then they call for and ask a response. That response is what distinguishes the wise men from Herod.

I wonder how many times fear has clouded a sign for us, a sign that may have set us on a new path, a new way home. We have just lived through the most frightening time in decades, wondering what our world would look like after the corona virus. We were desperate for a sign that a vaccine would be found and when it came we began to long for it to get us back to normal life. The wise men followed their longing. Herod wallowed in his fear. Both, however, were about the child. Both were an epiphany.

I think we tend to hear the Epiphany story as being an epiphany to the wise men only. But what if it’s also an epiphany to Herod too? And in all that something is being revealed to us, and something is being asked of us. It might be love, forgiveness, healing, hope, gratitude, courage, beauty, compassion, gentleness for another or ourselves, mercy, acceptance of ourselves or another, nonviolence, repentance, new life, truth telling, wisdom.

Aren’t those the very qualities and values of the child whose life the wise men and Herod seek? They are at the heart of our deepest human longings and on the other side of our worst fears. And they reveal Emmanuel, God with us. That’s the epiphany and it’s always there before us, calling and waiting for a response.

What will we do with the epiphany before us today? How will we respond? My hope for you and me is that today we will all go home “by another road.” We will see one of the vaccines as surely as we see the signs of a recovery for each of us and for the world. My prayer is that each of us will choose not to be afraid but trust that God does send signs even now in 2021. May we all see clearly the little signs around us, a word of comfort, an act of kindness, a chance meeting, and then experience our very own epiphany. Amen.

The Rev'd Mo Lunn, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 03/01/2021