The magi see signs in the night sky, celestial revelations, announcing that the long-awaited Jewish king, the Messiah, has been born, and they want to pay their respects. After traveling for months across the desert, the magi, probably from Persia, finally arrive in Jerusalem. Jerusalem because, after all, that’s the kind of place where kings are supposed to be born, the royal city of David, the seat of power, the political and religious center of Israel.
But the magi have no idea what they are walking into when they enter king Herod’s courts and ask about the newborn king of the Jews. Herod is fearful, afraid of what this child will mean for his reign, for his control, for his dominion over the people. Herod has a reputation. He is known for his paranoia when it comes to his power. He is known to put people to death, on a whim, on a hunch that they might be involved in plots to take over his throne. Such rumors even led him to killing off family members, including a beloved wife, including three sons, all of them heirs to the throne, all of them threats to his power.
Herod shows us the desperation that comes with power, that the powerful are fragile, that their dominion is always on the brink of falling apart. With more power comes more fear, paranoia, imagining enemies behind every corner, plotting a coup. With power comes the fear of losing control, the fear of ending up powerless, at the bottom, with all the others, under someone else’s dominion, subject to someone else’s rules. Herod’s reign is a state of emergency, where rumors can turn anyone into a potential enemy, a possible threat. Herod is known for his spies, for undercover agents, scattered throughout the population, bystanders in the marketplaces, eyes everywhere, a surveillance state, with his fury always ready for a strike.
People are on edge, wondering what will set off another one of Herod’s violent tantrums, his irrational aggression. So, when the magi show up in Herod’s palace to ask him about the newborn king, the scripture says that all of Jerusalem is afraid (Matt 2:3)—terrified of what Herod might do.
The people are right to be in fear, because we learn, later in the same chapter, about the massacre of the innocents, where Herod has all the children in Bethlehem killed, 2 years old or younger, as a precaution, a preemptive strike, to protect the order of things, to steady the balance of power.
He tried to make sure that Jesus, the one the magi said would be the king of the Jews—Herod had to make sure that this Jesus wouldn’t grow up to be a rival for the throne. The combination of power and fear, the fear that comes with power, fuels Herod’s unthinkable violence.
This is the world that the Magi step into after their long journey across the desert. “In the time of King Herod” — that’s how the storyteller begins this second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. Herod hovers over the scene, his terror on the horizon. The magi are entering the domain of Herod, a time overshadowed by Herod.
Today is called Epiphany, a day to focus on what happens after Advent and Christmas, when this one we’ve been expecting finally arrives. The word Epiphany means revelation, appearance, for what was hidden to be made known. Epiphany is a day to focus on how Jesus appears, and to notice who sees him, who recognizes his identity, who welcomes him.
The scandal of the story of Epiphany, of Jesus revealed, is that the magi are the first ones to arrive on the scene. In the Gospel of Matthew, after Jesus is born, the magi are the first to visit, not the shepherds we hear about in Luke’s Gospel. For Matthew, the magi get there before all the others, these foreign sages, travelers from pagan lands.
To call them “wise men” is to miss the scandal of who they really are. They are astrologers, sorcerers, fortune-tellers, priests who consort with the gods of Babylonia, Arabia, Persia, members of Zoroastrian priesthoods, magicians. Our word “magician” comes from the word magi, from these visitors of the newborn king of the Jews. The magi show up in the book of Daniel; they are the religious servants of king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Magi are people who belong to the enemies of Israel, enemies of the prophets and priests of God. They are despised foreigners.
Yet these are the first people in the story who find Jesus, they declare the truth about this child. Epiphany is the story about how outsiders, unacceptable people, people who don’t belong, strangers, foreigners with an offensive history, with an genealogy that ties them to the enemies of God, practitioners of a questionable religion—Epiphany tells the story about how these people are the ones who see the revelation of God. The magi.
And not just see, but worship. “We have come to worship him,” the magi announce to Herod in verse 2. Then, at the end of the passage, we hear what the magi do when they finally see Jesus. This is verse 11: “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and worshiped him.”
To worship, proskuneo in Greek, literally means to bow down or lay down and kiss someone’s feet. It’s a gesture of reverent humility, of devout submission. Worship is something we do with our bodies, with our lives—how we gather before each other, how we revere God among us. And we learn the movements of worship from these magi in the story—not from the priests of Jerusalem who serve as pawns in Herod’s plots, not from the familiar religious authorities of the homeland.
There’s a book from the sixth century; it’s called the Rule of St. Benedict. It was written as a guide for Christian communities, for monastic communities. Benedictine monks still use it today, to inform their communal lives. They have a section on what to do when strangers show up. Here’s what it says: “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ (Matt 25:35)… Let the head be bowed or the whole body prostrated on the ground in adoration of Christ, who indeed is received in their persons” (RB 53:1-2, 7).
Just as the magi bowed before the child Jesus, the Benedictines bowed at the feet of visitors, in adoration, in devotion, because they believed Christ to be present with strangers. Worship is a posture of reverence, of expectation, an openness to God. Worship as “domestic mysticism,” to borrow the title of a poem by Lucie Brock-Boido. There’s a streak of mysticism that runs through the Christian story, our faith as contemplative devotion to this life we’ve been given, to the people who wander into our lives, because this world offers epiphanies, the surprise of God.
Warfare is the opposite of all of this, a denial of this faith in a God of epiphanies, the God of unexpected advents. To convince people to choose war, to convince a soldier to kill, leaders have to persuade a society to assume that strangers, that foreigners, that people we’ve never met should be encountered as enemies, as irredeemable enemies.
War begins as a posture toward others, a decision to consider some human beings as disposable, as killable. War begins with a belief about the status of others. War is a ritual of a kind faith in the permanent depravity of some human beings, that their corruption is unchangeable, that God created some people as beyond redemption, as outside the reach of grace.
War believes that some people shouldn’t exist anymore, and that we in are a position to decide which neighbors are expendable for the sake of the common good, a common good that doesn’t include them. There is a spirituality that comes along with a society that believes in war, to be part of a people always preparing for war—and that spirituality is the delusion of pride, that we are in a position to make a verdict on whether another person should live or die, that we are authorized to seal the fate of another with a weapon.
Societies that prepare for war, that put their trust in war, like this country does, every year with an obscene military budget—this kind of society adopts a culture of narcissism, of protectionism, of closing out outsiders, of building walls to keep our possessions in and some people out.
We shouldn’t absolve ourselves of all of this, just because we are a peace church. I don’t think our hands are clean, even though we don’t take up weapons. I was reminded this week of a poem by Ilya Kamisky that speaks to our situation. He starts the poem with these lines:
“And when they bombed other people’s houses, we / protested / but not enough, we opposed them but not / enough…”
Those lines seem true but a little judgy to me. Probably because I don’t understand what’s going on in the poem yet. However, it’s how he ends the poem that I find haunting:
“…in the house of money / in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money, / our great country of money, we (forgive us) / lived happily during the war.”
We lived happily during the war. The United States has been at war for as long as I’ve been your pastor, this war of terror across the globe. And we’ve lived more-or-less happily in our great country of money during it all, among these stockpiles of wealth and weapons.
John Chrysostom, a preacher from the fourth century, had this to say about our story of the Magi, these suspicious foreigners who arrive in Bethlehem, these historic enemies of the people of God. John Chrysostom said in his sermon, “The people first learned from a Persian tongue what they had refused to learn from their own prophets.” The magi, these strangers to the promises of God, who speak a strange truth, their Persian tongues bearing witness to an epiphany. These sages from modern day Iran, bowed before Jesus, their worship as a revelation of God’s mysteries.
In a world at war, in a country at war, we still gather for worship, because this is our faith, this is how we confess our reverence, how we proclaim our belief in God’s epiphanies—here, as we listen, as we offer each other patience, our gentleness, our hope for true words about God, for truthfulness about the world and ourselves. Here we remember how to be present, vulnerable, humble, as if bowing down before God and one another, without defenses, without pretense, as we offer our gifts to God, our existence as a gift, all of life as grace.
Worship is an education in reverence before God—a reverence that we take with us as we go about our week, a reverence for the God who comes to us in human form, in someone we would never expect to be a friend of God because they are no friend of ours, because they are known enemies or rumored to be plotting against us, potential threats, ready to take away all that we hold dear.
If we listen, if we quiet ourselves, there’s a little Herod inside all of us, whispering lies about what it will take for us to guard our corner of the world, to govern our small dominion, to protect our security at all costs.
In a world always ready for war, our worship is preparation for the epiphany of God, the appearance of God among us.