“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.” So Isaiah said some 576 years before Jesus’ birth.
Epiphany, which means revealing, is about the revealing of Jesus, in a particular place, at a particular time. The wise men from the east, the Magi, reveal it to us. They have seen his star in the east, marking his birth. But first they come asking for the new-born king, not at Bethlehem, but in Jerusalem. Did they mix up their astrological calculations, not hear the GPS right? Or was it a diplomatic courtesy to check-in with King Herod on their way? What’s this all about?
One clue is that both the Magi and King Herod know this Isaiah passage by heart and are under its influence. “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” Could this be the one?! Isaiah had given hope all those hundreds of years ago, had given courage to Jesus’ ancestors returning home from exile in Babylon, present day Iraq. It was a difficult journey to return and find that Jerusalem was still in ruins, the economy a wreck, unemployment and poverty frightening, and rebuilding the housing market would take longer than expected. Where was the hope? Where was the glory? It would take a few starts and stops by the people of Israel and their occupiers, before this one, the insatiable glory-hound and the pseudo-king of the Jews, Herod the Great, to successfully apply for a grant from the Empire’s impressive treasury, to rebuild the Temple. Whatever his true intentions, you can’t argue with job creation, and unemployment plummeted for decades.
Like the magnificent skyline downtown here in Chicago, the river front project envisioned by our former mayor, and all the way back to Daniel Burnham himself, King Herod set out to make Jerusalem greater than ever, a treasure that stood out to the world. And he made the temple the crown jewel. With a gold plated dome reflecting the sun far and wide, it shimmered gloriously. And now priests and scribes were in his debt, they shared in the privilege of its accomplishment, the chimera of peace, built on a settled-ness of self-satisfaction, but which separated them from the 99%, of their own people, instituted through an unspoken system of injustice enforced by Herod’s spies and informants.
The Magi, travelers from the east, are part Bedouin wanderers like the Shepherds and Mary & Joseph, but are also part upper class, rich and well educated like Herod, the priests and scribes. They know the stars and the signs of the times and Herod doesn’t doubt for a minute that they have ascertained that a new born king is near. This is exactly as Isaiah had told it. And it made Herod and all Jerusalem afraid. This was not good news, and he took it as the direct threat that it was – in this particular time and in this particular place – this threat to his throne from the Christ-child.
But a funny thing happens when Herod asks the Old Testament scholars, the chief priests and scribes, about this passage – about the gold, frankincense and myrrh, that will come from other nations to Jerusalem. You have the wrong passage, they tell him, trembling before Herod and fearing for their lives. We have to tell you, ‘Isaiah 60 will mislead you with its prosperity good-news that Jerusalem’s treasury will be filled as in the days of King Solomon, and be restored as the center of the global economy. You can’t privatize what God has given to the people. In Isaiah, the urban elites would recover their former power and prestige and nothing will really change.’ (cf. Brueggeman, The Christian Century, Living By the Word, 2001) The prophecy you want is Micah the 5th chapter, “But you, Bethlehem… are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” This is a glory that will change the world.
Herod is smart, he doesn’t take off the heads of these truth-teller OT scholars. No, he’s after this pretentious new born king. So he tells the Magi to go ahead and go to that backwater, Bethlehem, asking only that they return and tell him the exact location, under cover of wanting to also go and worship him.
Epiphany is the story of these two competing cities, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, just 9 miles down the road from each other. One opulent and impressive, the other small and unpretentious. One is ruled with an iron hand by King Herod, from the other comes a child-king, Jesus. Can you imagine what would have happened if the Magi had not visited Bethlehem, and we would never have known the new born king and Messiah? What kind of faith and world would we have today?
Pastor Mitri Raheb, the faithful Lutheran pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in present day Bethlehem, is fond of telling the story of this alternative city, the birth place of Jesus our king. We should not be surprised, he says, of this story of Herod and the Magi from the east. It is not the story book tale we learn from Children’s Christmas pageants, but a testament to a real place in real time, when God revealed God’s glory.
Pastor Raheb tells of the time a well-known evangelical preacher from the U.S. came to visit Bethlehem and was stopped at the airport, and more or less politely invited to come have a cup of coffee with the immigration officials in a separate and secure room. After 4 hours of warning him about the religious conference he came to attend, and the so-called, “radical” clergy he would rub shoulders with, they finally let him through. There are other religious groups from solidarity movements that have not been so lucky, and have been sent home. When the evangelical preacher told Mitri the story he simply said, “Welcome to Palestine! Knowing the gospels as well as you do, you shouldn’t be surprised. This is the same treatment Herod gave to the visiting Magi, detaining them for his own security purposes, so he could keep tabs on them.”
Today, Bethlehem is surrounded on three sides by the enormous dividing wall, and on the fourth side, with a secure check point, leading down the road, 9 miles to Jerusalem. Today, in that same particular place, Mary and Joseph would have been stopped, and like other Palestinian couples ‘with child’ who are detained on their way to Bethlehem, may have given birth right there, waiting in line.
“Arise, shine for your light has come… and the glory of the LORD has arisen upon you.” The glory of the LORD expected in Jerusalem, is transformed and incarnate in a new born king, in Bethlehem. The glory of the LORD that Moses, Isaiah, and the Priests could not look at directly, before, that was certainly mighty, but aloof, shines now in the face of this child. Now we are called to be on-lookers of this glory, the incarnation of our God, that we can be followers, fellow travelers, and indeed, are invited to be friends. At Bethlehem, ‘God comes, God irrupts, God arises and shines forth in a glory that is unconditional, and salvific. The people’s repentance, the mending of ways, the living out of justice is a response to this coming! It is not an attempt, or initiation on our part, to be made right with God, but it is thanksgiving for the one who comes, who reveals life and salvation in the midst of the community.’ (cf. Dirk G. Lange, workingpreacher.org )
The narrative of Epiphany is the story of these two human communities: The Jerusalem of Herod, with its great pretensions, a life of self-sufficiency that contains within it, its own seeds of destruction. And Bethlehem, with its alternative promise that comes in innocence, in a life given in vulnerability, which can make room for the Holy Spirit, and a hope that confounds our usual pretensions. It is amazing, how in the glory that shines in the face of Jesus the new born king, the true accent of epiphany is revealed to us, by way of the wise men. The Magi miraculously do not resist this Bethlehem alternative. Rather than hesitate or resist, they reorganize their wealth and learning, and reorient themselves and their lives around a baby with no credentials. (cf. Brueggemann, The Christian Century, Living by the Word, 2001)
At Epiphany, the glory of the LORD is revealed in a particular time, in a particular place. To which city are we called? Where is the glory that we will follow? How will we reorganize our wealth and learning to offer our gifts to Christ, the new-born king?