*Originally preached at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C., on January 7, 2018*
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men* from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, ‘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.’ 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah* was to be born. 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd* my people Israel.” ’
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men* and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising,* until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped,* they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
A few months ago, I found myself in a very unexpected period of immense life upheaval. Perhaps you know the feeling. I had previously arrived at a place of relative calm and stability and even joy — one of those rare and precious times when every part of life seems to fall into place. A year into my life in a new city, I’d found a dream job, an amazing group of new friends, a promising start to a relationship, and an apartment that was tiny, but which I loved. I felt settled and at peace in a way that I hadn’t felt in a long time, if ever. It felt like the kind of peace people search for. And then, of course, life happened. And some other life happened.
Within the span of a few months, everything became disrupted in jarring ways. First at work, and then in my relationship life, and then finally, my housing situation fell apart. And though my friends were loyal and compassionate, they too were struggling in painful ways and I hurt for them as well. I was afraid, and stressed. Everything suddenly felt out of control and — it would be fair to say — I like to be in control. A lot. I have, over the course of my life, honed the ability to problem solve creatively in just about every situation. I have always fought stubbornly to get and keep what I want, to do whatever I had to, to keep it together. I’m good at that. By contrast, I have never handled being out of control very well. This time was no different.
Perhaps this quality in myself is why — when studying the text for this Epiphany week — I made the somewhat alarming discovery that I actually … relate to King Herod. Believe me when I tell you that — in this age of ideological and political conflict — of all the modern day people I *could* compare to an unstable, self-obsessed, power-hungry, violent first century ruler, I did not expect or want it to be me. But listen, verse 3 says that when the magi came speaking of the birth of the prophesied King of the Jews, Herod heard it and was frightened, and all of Jerusalem with him.
I admit my first reaction to this verse was to question, “Really, was all of Jerusalem with him? Or was it more like the king’s sentiments were merely projected onto his subjects?”
But then I looked a little harder. The Greek word here that gets translated as “frightened” or, in other places, “troubled,” is “tarasso” and it’s described as meaning “to stir up that which needs to remain still.”
There is some intensity in that definition — especially the last part. The “need to remain still, at ease” carries with it a sense of desperation, of impending threat. That is what Herod feels in response to the birth of Jesus Christ. The sure and certain realization that everything he knows and relies on — everything familiar and stable in his life and world — is about to change forever in ways totally beyond his control. I know that feeling. And so I can believe that the people of Jerusalem did, in fact, feel it right along with the king because whether you are a demented despot or a citizen barely scraping by, the sudden promise of impending and overwhelming upheaval can be terrifying.
We get that, don’t we? Who runs willingly and joyfully into the unknown?
But the one we call the Prince of Peace, who comes to us in the frail vulnerability of a newborn child comes with a promise that precedes any lasting peace — and that promise is indeed the stirring up of that which we need to remain still — the setting in motion of utter upheaval.
This word — tarasso — follows Jesus. It’s the same word that describes how Zachariah feels with the angel comes to announce John’s birth. And it’s the same word used in the gospel accounts of Jesus walking on water. It’s what the disciples feel when they see him doing the impossible. It is that deep, awesome knowing that something is stirring.
King Herod is afraid and all of Jerusalem with him. And they should be. Christ has come, and everything familiar is about to be stirred up. Nothing will ever be the same.
These days we dress up Epiphany as a joyful folktale about colorfully costumed kings from far off lands going with their camels to bring fancy gifts to sweet little baby Jesus. But what epiphany really is, is the revelation of God in a powerful and profoundly transforming way.
It’s not unreasonable to be afraid, to dig our heels in, and hold tighter to the things we know and take comfort in. But that isn’t the only possible response — it’s not the response of the magi.
In the midst of my season of upheaval, I took a trip to Northern Ireland. I was primarily there to work on a story, but I took some time at the end of my trip to travel to the northern coast and relax and reflect and try to embrace the changes happening all around me. I spent my days staring out at the striking and rocky coastline and the deep blue Irish sea. I prayed. But I couldn’t quite dislodge my fear. I couldn’t quite trust that if I let go, God would be at work in the chaos surrounding me in powerful ways that I couldn’t imagine.
On the last morning of my time at the coast, I took one last walk down to the beach to watch the sunrise and when I came back up to the AirBnb where I was staying, two older women had arrived. They called each other Bird and Bebe and they were from Abilene,TX. They shrieked in delight when they heard me say y’all and invited me to sit with them. I honestly wasn’t quite in a social mood, but their joy and vibrancy were infectious and so I agreed.
Over several cups of coffee and toast, they took turns telling me the story of how they had spent four years planning out every last minute detail of this three week trip they were on in Britain. The entire point of their journey was to arrive at a place called the Callenish Stones — an ancient ring of rocks not unlike Stonehenge — on a tiny, remote island off the coast of Scotland at precisely 9:02 on the Autumnal equinox. I don’t quite remember what was meant to happen at 9:02 at that location on the equinox, but it was clear to me that it mattered a great deal to them.
They described their adventures in the days leading up to that one event. How almost from the moment they got off the plane in England, their plans began to fall apart. Missed reservations, the challenge of driving a rented car where everything is on the opposite side, bad luck — it was an amazing and frustrating combination of misfortunes. But Bebe and Bird never lost an ounce of their mischievous joy as they told me the story.
Despite all that had gone wrong, the two women kept trying to make it to their destination. And then finally, an issue with a train schedule made it clear to them that there was no way they would get to the stones by 9:02.
“We just had to surrender,” Bebe said to me. “We had to accept that we weren’t going to make it.”
“Sometimes,” Bird said, “You have to give up, and then see what happens.”
And so they did, and somehow — by remarkable circumstance — they arrived at their inn on the small island with 5 minutes to spare and found two Canadians headed to the stones who offered them a ride. They left their bags in the rode and got in and when they arrived they found two other strangers, scotsmen, one of whom was wearing a black hoodie and drinking a beer, and he pulled out some bagpipes and played them as the group of 6 strangers made their way up to the stones and stood together at precisely 9:02 pm on the autumnal equinox.
The point of the story isn’t that the two women from Abilene made it to the stones after all, but that when they surrendered to the universe — to use their words — everything changed in a way that they could not imagine but somehow seemed intended to be. And it transformed them.
I told them, “You’re not going to believe this, but your story is so crazy to me because I came on this trip, exactly because I needed to learn this lesson about surrender and trust.”
Bird said, “Oh of course I believe it. This is the universe at work too, you see.”
Unlike Herod, and more like my friends Bebe and Bird, the magi choose trust over fear and control. We refer to them often as the three wise men or kings, but the truth is that we don’t really know their gender or their number, or even exactly where they came from. Most scholars agree that they were likely Zoroastrian priests — an early monotheistic religion that predates Judaism and of course Christianity.
It matters to know this, because it means that when the priests saw in the stars the foretelling of the birth of Christ, and then chose to follow — they were leaving behind everything familiar to them in pursuit of a child prophesied by another faith entirely. Where Herod saw danger and threat in all that was being stirred up, the magi saw wonder and invitation. It was not without danger for them, of course. It roped them into the conspiracy of the king and honestly, we don’t really know what becomes of them when they leave Jesus and don’t return to Herod as they were commanded. All we know is that they follow a star and listen and watch and trust where it leads and there they encounter God’s own self. Then, they go home a different way. Of course they do. For isn’t that what it means to encounter Christ? To be transformed such that you cannot back the way you came. You are different. Everything is different.
And so this story sets in motion the life and work of Jesus — God with us — work which will flip tables in the temple and command storms on water, that will lift the lowly and outcast, and cast down the powers of this world. Jesus will turn all understandings about power and purpose and living itself on their head. Jesus has come to be a troublemaker.
The question and calling for us this Epiphany is to ask ourselves what in our own lives is Christ stirring up and setting into motion — even those things we are fighting hard to control and hold onto? What is Christ stirring up in this world — demanding the end of what is familiar and worldly in favor of a profoundly new way?
There is so much chaos in the world these days, so much upheaval that does not come from God, but rather from the desperate clinging to power and security of those who have it – generally at the expense of those who don’t. There is so much to fear.
The promise of Christ to us in this Christmas season is not that everything will be calm and stable and familiar. But it is a promise of holy upheaval, within us and beyond us — absolute transformation toward a different way of being, a better way. There is hard work that must come. And change and maybe chaos even. The flipping of tables and managing of storms and upending of oppressive worldly systems and powers. But in the work, in the transformation — we find a new way. And in that new way of being, in Christ himself — if we can learn to open ourselves and surrender and trust even when we are afraid — we will find home, and a peace that lasts for us and for the world, and we will not be troubled any more.
May it be so. Amen.