Food for Thought-Some Guys Can’t Handle Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1-12)


If it wasn’t so serious, it would be funny. Those are the same words I said the last time I was pulled over for speeding on the way home from charge conference. A group of well-meaning, well-educated foreigners looking for a baby in a strange country in order to present him with lavish, out of place gifts; it sounds like a must see comedic film. You can just picture the witty dialogue, the humorous high jinks, and comic misadventures which befall the wise men along their way. There would be one night at a cheap, roadside motel (somewhere in the middle of nowhere between Persia and Jerusalem) where their expensive gifts were stolen by slick talking pre-owned camel merchants. The hilariously inept king, trading his gold for an unneeded Bengal tiger, would be the subject of much derision by the others. While they detour hundreds of miles through war torn Syria with a tiger to retrieve their gold, frankincense, and myrrh; Jesus sleeps peacefully in the Holiday Inn in Bethlehem. Like all good action movies, there is a villain lurking in the distance. His name is Herod. He’s waiting for our hapless heroes when they finally arrive in Jerusalem. Will they be duped by his sinister plans? Will they lead Herod straight to Jesus? Will there be a sequel? Yes!  Do I see this as 1st century version of the Hangover? Yes!

The church refers to this day as Epiphany Sunday because we tell a revelatory story. It’s the story of Jesus being revealed to people other than his own. The magi, the three kings, or wise men they are not Jewish. They represent and stand in for all Gentiles. These three guys are saying: people from far and wide recognize Jesus as the Messiah. This is one of the important things this story wants to tell us. But as you can see from reading the text, it takes a long sometimes torturous route to tell their story. The Epiphany as described in Matthew 2 is not like a single light bulb going off over the head of the wise men or people around the world. Epiphany is a gradual process. If anything, it’s like the crackling of an antique light bulb starting to warm up as the electricity begins to flow again after years of being dormant. It’s going to take generators, flashlights, and candles for the Epiphany to eventually be complete.

The Epiphany will not be realized by wise men and kings. It may start this way but it won’t end with men in gaudy hats and ostentatious gifts. There’s something not quite right about Jesus being revealed to a select group of privileged men. Kings tend to hold on to whatever they have no matter who they are. Wisdom is guarded and passed down to a select few. These are not the people we want to be the custodians of Jesus’ story. It will stop with them. Jesus’ ideas will rest on a shelf amid a cabinet of royal curiosities. He will be a collection of memories from that long camel trek they once took to Palestine. In addition, the three kings seem oblivious to the danger both Jesus and they face from Herod. Something’s not quite right.

We sing the song “we three kings”. Do you know any kings? Knights, Lords, and Earls, I’ve met a plenty. I worked with people who’ve met Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip, and Prince Charles. So each time you shake my hand, you’re one hand shake away from the Queen of England. Among the things I’ve been told about the Queen and Prince Charles in particular, is that they work hard at listening to those around them and are great conversationalists. Despite their ability to interact with people from various religious and political groups, they still live in an exclusive and privileged world that we’ll never fully comprehend. This is how I see these guys. They make a flying visit to a foreign country, use “Bull in a China shop” diplomacy, pay their respects to Herod and the baby, and leave when things start to get dicey. Sound familiar? Seemingly in touch but out of touch, this is the wise men.

It reminds me of the old song, “You can’t get to heaven on roller skates”. You’ll roll right by the pearly gates. We’ve held up the wise men (or kings) as role models but it’s really an ideal with no spiritual roots or religious substance. Wise man Christianity is a type of faith that cobbles some fancy looking stuff together, rolls by the manger on high end magi roller skates, drops off the stuff to a bewildered mother, and then gets the heck out of dodge before night falls. Magi Christians give God what they think God needs before light bulb over our head can ever warm up. The irony is, for the Magi and Magi Christians, there is no Epiphany, because they’ve already left town. The true Epiphany is on its way to Egypt because King Herod, another one those out of touch monarchs, is crazy and wants Jesus dead.

If you want the real Epiphany, you need to stick with Jesus. Even if it means taking on King Herod, going to Egypt, and asking “how did we end up here?” Egypt is a prominent place in scripture. It seems people are always running from or toward Egypt. Jesus and his family are seeking sanctuary in Egypt. It doesn’t, even some two thousand years on, seem like a likely place for a young Jewish family to seek refuge from genocide. That ought to tell you something if Egypt was your best option home was pretty bad. I remember a story my grandfather used to tell. His mother (my great grandmother) remembered her mother telling stories of surrendering Confederate soldiers fleeing the Union army.

The soldiers stopped by their home seeking water and other provisions. My grandparent’s memories were long and real, as real as the war the Confederate army lost. It seemed strange to me, that what I read about in history books was something they remembered as reality. It was like that for Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. Memories of the Israelite’s slavery in Egypt were real and kept alive by scripture and ritual. For Joseph to take his family west, he walked headlong into powerful memories.

So we stay with Jesus to experience Epiphany, even if it means walking headlong into uncomfortable memories, and away from Herod’s bloodshed.

As with Pharaoh, Herod too will die. Kings are mortal. Memories live on but tyrants fade into history. We recall today the memory of those slaughtered by Herod and the Epiphany we receive in the life, work, and person of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus returned from Egypt so one memory would be clear, the one we recall at his table: Pharaoh, Herod, and Caesar are not Lord.