Whose Light Will Lead Us?

Jan 02, 2022

Sermon 1-2-2022
Epiphany of Our Lord
Text: Matthew 2:1-12
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
     King Herod wanted to be the ONE; the person in charge, the powerful, the honored, the worshipped, the adored one, even if it took terrorizing people to make it happen. Most commentators note that King Herod was well known in the ancient world for his paranoia and brutality. It is recorded that he had one of his wives and several of his sons murdered because he thought they were plotting against him. In fact, Herod’s “boss,” Caesar Augustus, once said that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son (since Herod could not eat pork).
    It’s not surprising, then, that when Herod hears about a baby born to be king of the Jews, he is threatened and plots to get rid of him. What is surprising is that he hears about this rival from a group of travelers who we call Magi, scholars from the Persian empire, readers of the night sky, who, like the Jews, were anticipating the birth of the true Savior.
     Commentator Elisabeth Johnson notes that the Magi did not know the scriptures, but they knew how to read the stars. So, God reaches out to them and leads them through what they already know. In the ancient world, stars and other signs in the heavens were thought to signal important events. So a bright star rising leads them to believe that a royal birth has occurred in Judea. (1)
      In this story, we have Herod and the Magi and the focus of their attention, Jesus.
     On the one hand, we have foreigners seeking Jesus. In spite of the humble circumstances in which they find him – at this point, it’s a house rather than a stable – they are overwhelmed with joy and kneel down and pay him homage, offering gifts that usually are given to a king or person of high status. Gold is a sign of kingship; frankincense is a costly incense and myrrh is a prized perfume. Then, these foreigners listen to God, who warned them, in a dream, not to return to Herod, and they go home by another road. For them, it is all about Jesus, God with us.
     On the other hand, we have King Herod, who wants to find Jesus only to destroy him. He is worried, threatened. Knows he does not meet the Biblical messianic criteria but is determined to be the ONE, the powerful, the honored, the worshipped and adored one, not just the king, but perhaps even the Messiah. For him, it’s all about himself; he is playing God.
      Playing God … that’s an interesting concept. I recently read about three men who were patients at the Ypsilanti State Hospital in Michigan more than 60 years ago. Their names were Joseph, Clyde, and Leon. Each one believed he was the physical reincarnation of Jesus Christ due to their particular mental illnesses. Now, this would not have presented as many problems as it did, except that the psychologist who worked with them thought that if they were thrown together they might cure one another of their delusions. (Obviously, his methods are ethically questionable.)
     In any case, they were assigned adjacent beds, seats next to each other in the cafeteria, and jobs in the laundry at the same time. Conflicts between them were constant, as were day-long arguments. Let me quote the article: “One of the men would claim, ‘I’m the Messiah, the Son of God. I am on a mission. I was sent here to save the earth.’” At which point, the psychologist would ask, how do you know? “God told me. That’s when another one of the patients would pipe up: ‘I never told you any such thing.’” The three never stopped believing they were each the Christ. (2)
     Unfortunately, a lot of “playing God” goes on in the world without the excuse of a mental health diagnosis. To greater or lesser degrees, we human beings trust in our own abilities, financial security, health and well-being, positions of authority, insights, intelligence, or on the negative side, the ability to lie, manipulate and control so that we mistake ourselves as God of our own lives. That’s a definition of original sin. We are smug until something happens to cause our plan to fail, then someone else – even God – is to blame.
      As much as Herod tried to be God, he could not, but, sadly, many people – including innocent children – suffered as he attempted to be the ONE.
      Jesus did not try to be God; he simply was God. Although his arrival as a helpless baby born to humble parents did not fit the picture of power that many people had of the Messiah. He was, and is, the light that shines in the darkness.
     In her commentary for Christmas, Vicar Laurel Mathewson writes how she gathered a small group of women from her church to tell their pandemic stories. The darkness was deep, she wrote, “A devoted mother of six didn’t know how she could help her children with on-line learning when she cannot read. A grandmother said her COVID anxiety had been completely eclipsed by the sudden deaths of her son and grandson. A recently divorced woman was enduring cancer treatment on her own. A young mother had spent time in a behavioral health unit for anxiety. A widow had just buried her husband of more than five decades.
     “And yet all of them, in their own words, said this: God answered when I cried out in prayer and desperation. God loved me through other people. God loved me when I was all alone. God is the only one holding me together, the only one who can hold me. It is very had, but God is with me.” (3)
     Only the true light, not one that is artificial, can break into such darkness. Now that January 6 – the Epiphany of Our Lord – is a date that lives on in many people’s memories as a day of upheaval in our country, not as the day the Magi honored Jesus, and as a New Year begins, it is a good day for us to consider in whom we put our trust, who will be God of our lives?
     Or, to think of it in another way, what light will we follow? Herod saw himself as the light, and thus stumbled in the darkness, taking the innocent down with him. The Magi followed the light that God provided and found Jesus. Jesus is the light who shines in the darkness, who is with us and in us. Whose light will lead us? It’s our choice. AMEN
(1) “Epiphany of Our Lord” by Elisabeth Johnson, www.workingpreacher.org
(2) “Playing God” by Peter W. Marty, Christian Century, December 15, 2021, pg. 3
(3) “Living by the Word” by Laurel Mathewson, Christian Century, December 15, 2021, pg. 20