Over the past week since Christmas Day, I’ve been thinking about the church’s celebration of Epiphany on January 6th, the Wise Men, Herod, the Flight to Egypt, and how we can either worship Jesus as the Messiah … or reject him and even put him away through defending a way of life that has no place for him because we find him to not be useful for our larger ends. I recognize that the celebration of Epiphany doesn’t necessarily encompass the Slaughter of the Innocents or the Flight to Egypt, but the Biblical story in Matthew 2 flows quickly from the Wise Men presenting gifts to Jesus to the murder of the little boys under two years old in and around Bethlehem to Jesus’s family fleeing the brutal tyranny of a mad king. I can’t see one aspect of this story without seeing it all. The Christmas Story isn’t complete until we find Jesus and his parents having fled to Egypt before their later return to Nazareth after Herod’s death.
In thinking through this, it was the first time I’ve deeply connected Herod’s response to hearing about Jesus being the “king of the Jews” from the Wise Men in Matthew 2 with the response of the chief priests and Pharisees in John 19 when the Roman governor Pilate says Jesus is the king of the Jews and they say, “we have no king but Caesar.” The Messiah/Christ was the hope of Israel, but when he came, Herod (a political leader who acted as a religio-cultural champion by rebuilding the Temple) wanted to kill him as a baby leading to the Slaughter of the Innocents in and around Bethlehem. The birth of the real Messiah and his in-breaking reign and rule didn’t fit his agenda.
This of course led to Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fleeing to Egypt for refuge from political and religious persecution (Herod wanted to kill the prophesied “king of the Jews” as well as the “Messiah”).
And then later, the story bookends as the religious leaders wanted to kill Jesus as an adult because they could not accept him as Messiah (see Matthew 26-27). Perhaps they expected someone else, like a military-political leader who would violently overthrow the Roman government and give them the freedom they desired — with them in charge, of course. The false combination of state-religion usually wants to put aside the real Jesus, the Crucified King, because he is a threat to protecting/promoting their “way of life,” i.e., the grasping for provision and pursuit of power and prominence. However, the Better Way of Jesus is the humble way of sacrificial love and laying power/prominence down because he calls us to take up our cross and seek first the kingdom of God. The state-religion kingdoms of this world see that threat and try to neutralize it, often through violence.
John 19:14-16 explains this well:
14 It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon.
“Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews.
15 But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”
“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.
“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.
16 Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.
Either Caesar is king or Jesus is king. We can’t have both. The Jewish religious leaders chose Caesar because they thought that through keeping the status quo under an ungodly world system they could keep power for themselves to protect their own position and authority. So, they crucified the Messiah to protect themselves. Herod wasn’t just trying to eliminate a rival to his throne by wanting to kill Jesus, “the one who has been born king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2). He also knowingly tried to kill the Messiah (Matthew 2:4). Herod intentionally wanted to kill the hope of Israel just to protect his own shoddy kingdom that functioned as a client state of the Roman Empire.
For those who say Jesus isn’t political, he’s not really, at least not in the way we are. He doesn’t directly confront the worldly powers with an army or an overthrow or an election. But, his presence and ethics sure do make the political and earthly and religious leaders whose focus is on their own kingdoms tremble in denial and rage. Or seek to put him aside because he doesn’t affirm their use of violence to get their way (James 4:1-5). The presence of Jesus upsets things. And thus, Jesus dramatically affects the political, religious, social, cultural, and economic spheres. Except, he doesn’t do it by grabbing and using earthly power to take control or dominate the way we are so often tempted to do. Instead, he shakes every world system, culture, and government by bringing His Kingdom into the hearts of people everywhere from the bottom up, like yeast through dough. And that Kingdom of sacrificial love shown through the Cross looks so very different from the kingdoms of this world.
January 6th is celebrated as Epiphany, or Three Kings Day in the churches of the West. Epiphany means, “manifestation,” and it points to the unveiling of the Son of God. The Magi from the east came bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to describe who Jesus was (king, priest, his death) and in prophetic fulfillment and echo of Isaiah 60 which says,
1Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
2 See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
3 Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
4 “Lift up your eyes and look about you:
All assemble and come to you;
your sons come from afar,
and your daughters are carried on the hip.
5 Then you will look and be radiant,
your heart will throb and swell with joy;
the wealth on the seas will be brought to you,
to you the riches of the nations will come.
6 Herds of camels will cover your land,
young camels of Midian and Ephah.
And all from Sheba will come,
bearing gold and incense
and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.
The prophecy says that the nations will come and worship and bring gifts before the light of the glory of the Lord rising upon Israel. When the Wise Men came bringing gifts from the east, they represented the Gentile nations bowing before the Glory of God shining upon His people in the Messiah, Jesus, the Son of God. In this, they echoed the angels chorus in Luke 2:13-14.
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
Jesus came as the Prince of Peace, the Messiah, the Christ, the Holy One of Israel. And Herod, who dealt in political machinations, violence, and treachery wanted him killed so he could maintain power. Jesus lived and ministered as the Son of God and Son of Man, Israel’s long awaited Messiah, and the religious leaders wanted him crucified because they’d rather give allegiance to Caesar to protect their power and way of life than see Jesus for who he really was and lay down their position, power, and prominence and follow him.
Ephiphany, January 6th, points to quite a lot if we have eyes to see. Which side are we on? The side of the Wise Men, likely pagan astrologers who followed God’s guiding star to point to Jesus to worship him before he ultimately revealed his better way of the Cross manifesting among his people in sacrificial love, peacemaking, true joy, and hope in another kingdom to come that even now is breaking in? Or, the Herods, Chief Priests, and Roman governors of this world who threw aside the Son of God and His Better Way to save themselves and promote their own power and prominence over and above others, even to the point of fostering violence against the innocent?
The choice is before us each day. Epiphany, January 6th, is just another reminder of that constant conflict. I know that Baptists don’t usually acknowledge Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, in the church calendar, but perhaps we should? We need regular encouragement to see Jesus for who he really is, worship rightly, and reject the rulers in our midst trying to protect their own kingdoms at all costs … especially when those alleged rulers can sometimes be us.
Of course, there is another meaning for January 6th today in the United States where most of us reading this live that grasps for our attention. I wrote this piece the night of January 5th knowing that the next day the news would be dominated with images of the U.S. Capitol being stormed one year ago today and questions about what that means for us. But, as Christians, what if we apply lessons from the Magi in their good worship of the Newborn King to the continual and growing conflict raging all around us and clearly rejected the self-protection and violence of the Herods that always loom before us an option? How are we better positioned to be the worshiping and witnessing church when our focus is on the in-breaking kingdom of God through Jesus, the Prince of Peace, as he challenges and seeks to supersede all other allegiances and affections, especially when those affections go terribly sideways? And, how can we remember, pray for, and serve those who flee the violence and persecution of the kingdoms of this world as refugees looking for a place of safety?
May we rightly see, worship, and follow Jesus this Epiphany and reject the claims upon us of all the other rulers who try to exert their false way of violence.