“Between the Bookends”

January 9, 2022

For the Day of Epiphany — January 6

Matthew 2: 1–12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘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.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

“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.” ’

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then 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.’ When 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. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. ***

Many years ago, I was visiting with a member of the church several years older than me who was wrestling over the decision of when to retire. I remember him saying, “I do not want to work until I’m too old to live.”

This gentleman did not explain what he meant and I was focused on listening, so I did not ask him to elaborate. Yet his words have remained with me because it seems like one of those statements that says more than the words spoken. Not long after he retired, he moved away and I never saw him again, though I have thought of him periodically. I have wondered if his comment of not wanting to work until he was too old to live was more about his longings, a search for something. Or was it fear about the change in life — the fear of losing his purpose or his importance to others.

Admittedly, those are my interpretations. Our experiences of longing and fear are universal. We know them about ourselves because we live between the bookends of longing and fear. The story of the wisemen celebrates the revelation, the epiphany of God come in Jesus. This story comes with longing and fear.

The Bible does not tell us much about the wisemen. It is likely they were astrologers. They play a key part in the revelation of Jesus. Upon his birth, scriptures say, the shepherds saw a star rise over the place where Jesus was born. Others noticed the star, too, including astrologers in the east. Longing to know more, they traveled to Jerusalem to inquire with the ruler of the day — a man named Herod. They knew that a new star was part of the promise of the long-awaited king of the Jews.

When Herod heard about this star he was will filled with fear. A new king would be a threat to his authority.

This news incited such fear in Herod that he pulled the wisemen aside. Feigning excitement, he commanded them to find the child and come back to fill him in.

Longing and fear are the bookends in this story of Epiphany. On the longing side are the curious astrologers. It seems as if there is a call on their lives that cannot be left unanswered without following this new star. Who or what is calling is not clear. There is no advance notice with an epiphany.

At the bookend of fear is Herod. “He was frightened,” Matthew tells us, “and all Jerusalem with him.” He feels threatened. His power and identity are at risk of being lost. In fear, he had no intentions to open himself and follow the star. He stays put and begins to hatch a plan to kill this child.

Think about it. The wise men and Herod are responding to the same event. Perhaps epiphanies are not merely something that happen to us, but instead something that possesses us.

Epiphanies are not simply instances when we say, “Aha, I see “ or “I understand!” Rather, they are times when we say, “Oh, something has taken hold of me.” Epiphanies can have us in our longings and in our fears.

I am recalling a lecture I heard years ago. The speaker was Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico. He said that our reaction to situations in life are what have the capacity to impact us, not the situation itself.

Both the wisemen and Herod encountered the same event. But their reactions were drastically different.

When I think about longing and fear that we experience in life, I am convinced that both the wise men and Herod live within us. Wherever there is longing or fear there is an epiphany awaiting our response.

Ponder for a moment the longings and fears you hold. What are they and how do they impact you? What possibilities do the longings hold and what might God be showing you? Conversely, how does fear prevent you from moving forward with greater faith and confidence? How would life be different if the fear were removed?

How you answer the questions about longings and fears hold the possibility of an epiphany.

This biblical story reveals an epiphany for the wise men and Herod. The wisemen’s response led them forward to discover the divine. There they paid homage, shared gifts and left “by another road.” Herod’s response kept him in locked in fear. What if he had followed the star? What if his reaction had been more like the wisemen? Less fear and more curiosity? Imagine how his life would have been different, and all of human history since?

May the epiphany of God come to dwell with us, be one that has you and leads you forward in faith, discovering the divine in the course of these days.

On Epiphany day,
we are still the people walking.
We are still people in the dark,
and the darkness looms large around us,
beset as we are by fear,
anxiety,
brutality,
violence,
loss — a dozen alienations that we cannot manage.

We are — we could be — people of your light.
So we pray for the light of your glorious presence
as we wait for your appearing;
we pray for the light of your wondrous grace
as we exhaust our coping capacity;
we pray for your gift of newness that
will override our weariness;
we pray that we may see and know and hear and trust
in your good rule.

That we may have energy, courage, and freedom to enact
your rule through the demands of this day.
We submit our day to you and to your rule, with deep joy and high hope.

Prayers for a Privileged People (Nashville: Abingdon, 2008), p. 163. ~Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933)

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Kurt Jacobson

Kurt Jacobson

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.