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Wisemen, Herod, & Western Civ.
F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Epiphany I - 12/1/8
Is. 42:1-9; Ps. 46; Eph. 3:1-12; Mt. 2:1-12
We have transferred the Feast of the Epiphany from January 6, last Friday, to today, which is the 1st Sunday after Epiphany – because we did not have many who would be at the Thursday service. The feast of the Epiphany is a High Holy Day in the Church Calendar, but when I called the two churches in my area that I would go to, they were not celebrating Epiphany. I was astonished. I suppose they too were transferring to today. Next year, we will have a service here in the chapel, even if I am the only one here. Ignoring High Holy Days is not a good way of being faithful, traditional Anglicans. Each of these great festivals signifies something important in the life of Christ, to which we need to pay attention.
At this time we hear much about the three kings, or wisemen, visiting Jesus. For many Christians, it is conflated with the birth story at Christmas rather than having its own day for celebration. We do not know that there were three of them. A number is not given in the Gospel. But we assume from the three gifts, I suppose, gold, frankincense, and myrrh, that there were three visitors to see the baby Jesus. The tradition has stuck.
But the real importance of this visit is hardly noticed, at least in popular celebrations of the event – that these visitors were Gentiles, not Jews. They were probably astrologers who would have kept track of the stars, wise men who were concerned about what they saw as a very important event. If they came from eastern Mesopotamia, “from the eastern mountains” as we sing, they would have traveled as much as 500 miles across the fertile crescent, and south along the trade routes, probably on camel back, much of it over harsh desert and mountains. At perhaps 20 miles per day, it would have been a month’s journey of steady travel.
And then another such trip going back. Clearly they thought this was an important event transcending political and geographical boundaries.
They did not know that they would be treading on very dangerous ground, and that if they were to remain faithful to their spiritual instincts, they would have to make a hasty and devious retreat back toward Mesopotamia. The power structures typical everywhere of the fallen world of paganism would not appreciate the news that a new king was born. That was not a welcome message because it meant potential competitors in the power struggle.
Herod was not a Jew. He was an Edomite put on the Jewish throne by Rome to keep the population subdued. He was apparently a very capable ruler, if you are willing to include brutality as a part of his capabilities. Rome no doubt did. That may be why they chose him. Life was brutal, and competition was often brutally dealt with. It was the expected response.
“All Jerusalem was troubled,” we read as the wisemen came to Jerusalem to find where the baby might be living. “The baby was to be born in Bethlehem”, not far away they were told by Herod who had inquired of the Jewish scribes and chief priests. Herod did not know the birth place himself because he was not Jewish, but an Edomite with no interest in Jewish messiahs.
“All Jerusalem was troubled...” The chief priests and scribes had said to Herod, “...for thus it is written by the prophet, ‘And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, are not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.”
We have to remember that there was no secure tradition of a “loyal opposition” as the British gave us – a government where there is an active opposition, but which has an agreed set of basic principles by which opposing parties could cooperate and work together. Such an arrangement was, so far as I know, almost unheard of anywhere in the pagan world. In order to have such a tradition of a loyal opposition, you have to have an objective moral order on which there is a consensus and mutual submission, a very scarce item in the pagan world. The birth of a new king, announced by wisemen from afar would be very troubling, indicating a coming power struggle.
You survived, not by getting the population to agree on a moral order, but by gathering about you your own small army, your body guard. As you rose in stature and power, you could control larger and larger domains in your society. Much of life was a sort of agree to live-and-let-live situation – until someone upset the balance, butted in on someone else’s territory, just as the Mexican drug cartels claim certain parts of the American border as their space for bringing drugs across the border. Any other cartel trespassing onto their border section will be quickly dealt with.
A few years ago, when I was working with the Minutemen spotting for the Border Patrol along the Mexican border, four men were shot, execution style just over the border by the Mexican cartel who thought that they “owned” that part of the border. Their bodies were left there by the border. That, often, is life in the dog-eat-dog power-struggle society of paganism. Herod assumed he “owned” Judea, and did not want intrusion, not even by a predicted messiah, in whom he, an Edomite, had no interest anyhow. The babies of Bethlehem were a price he was willing to pay for the security of his own throne. He saw the baby messiah as one who would rise up to overthrow himself.
He was, of course, correct, but in a way neither he nor anyone else could predict. We read in Isaiah 42:
Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread forth the earth and what comes from it...
I have given you [Hebrews] as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness....
Herod would not know what to make of such a king. And to be fair to Herod,
neither did a good number of the Jews.
I was surprised to learn (from one of Rodney Stark’s books) that about ten percent of the Roman world, by the time of Jesus, had become Jewish or at least God fearers, persons who admired the Jewish religion and its moral order, but who did not wish to become circumcised Jews. Jews were much more active at proselytizing than I had thought. But the converts wanted a new religion, not a new ethnicity. And Paul, especially, understood that this was the plan of God for fulfilling those prophecies about the Gentiles flocking to Jerusalem.
The Good News of God was maturing, moving out of the cradle of Judaism to engage the whole world on a level playing field.
Most of these Jewish communities of the Diaspora were in the larger cities of the empire, and, of course, formed the ready-made network by which the apostles could travel abroad and find a welcome, at least at first, to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ. Had that Jewish network not been there, the growth of Christianity throughout the Roman empire would have been much slower.
led by Peter, Paul, Barnabas, and others, the early Christians began to reach
out to local pagans who showed an interest in the Gospel. Many synagogues
rejected the Gospel, so increasingly, Christians went to Gentiles to win
converts to Christ. And then the Gentile converts themselvesl would naturally
seek out other Gentiles to share the Good News. The sign of circumcision had
done its job to mark the covenant relationship between God and the Hebrews, but
it was time to move on. The new signs would be baptism, the Eucharist, and a
life lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. As God had predicted so often in the
Old Testament, the Gentiles too would come to
the sovereignty of God, His law, and His grace. They would
to be ruled by such a God.
The fruits of this Epiphany to us Gentiles have been extraordinary. And, we Christians are coming to better understand how important our own Biblical religion was to the formation of Western Civilization – precisely because of the Epiphany to the Gentiles. Most of Rodney Stark’s books point in this direction. But others as well, notably Summit Ministries in Colorado teaches worldview courses and seminars which show how the Biblical worldview was necessary for the formation of Western Civilization, including the rise of science. And David Aikman’s book, The Delusion of Disbelief, likewise tells the same story.
The evidence is quite stunning, and gives a history which we Christians have often forgotten. Stark writes:
Christianity created Western Civilization. Had the followers of Jesus remained an obscure Jewish sect, most of you would not have learned to read and the rest of you would be reading from hand-copied scrolls. Without a theology committed to reason, progress, and moral equality, today the entire world would be about where non-European societies were in, say, 1800:
A world with many astrologers and alchemists but no scientists. A world of despots, lacking universities, banks, factories, eyeglasses, chimneys, and pianos. A world where most infants do not live to the age of five and many women die in childbirth -- a world truly living in "dark ages".
(The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, & Western Success, p. 233)
To that you can add as dependent upon the Biblical worldview and/or Gospel:
The rise of science – Neither the pagan, secular, nor post-modern cultures could have given rise to science;
Political freedom, such as those given by the British parliamentary system, and even more so, by our American Declaration of Independence and Constitution;
Economic freedom – an entrepreneurial spirit and the rise of a middle class;
Social freedom, to move up the scale;
Vastly increased educational opportunity and freedom, such as given by free market education and independent universities;
Freedom of religion.
All of these require, or are greatly aided by (1) an objective moral code and (2) a sacramental worldview in which the spiritual and the physical are organically united. Those two things happen only in Judeo-Christian religion. Because of the Epiphany to the Gentiles, Western Civilization was uniquely prepared to spread the Gospel around the world.
That leads to “All this and heaven too!” The Kingdom of God is the world of time and space infused and informed by the presence of God. No other religion contemplates such a union of God with the world. It is the living presence of God which leads to honest, secure, and realistic improvement of our life on earth, and beyond.
So the psalmist can say:
Be still then, and know that I am God:
I will be exalted among the nations, and I will be exalted in the earth...
A sea-change was happening to all of human life. Nothing could be the same again. An epiphany was happening aimed at the whole world. As Paul says, a mystery was being revealed which had been hidden, “...as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit,; that the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel...” It was not a new thought in Scripture, but it was a new thought being taken seriously by at least some Jews.
The time had arrived.
One can see how deeply Paul felt about this invitation to the Gentiles to become fellow heirs of the Kingdom. He understood how his fellow Jews might have a hard time with such a change. But the Light of God was meant for the Gentiles without their having to become ethnic and cultural Jews, thus setting the Good News free in a new way to touch the lives and souls of the fallen human race.
Though the wisemen came shortly after the birth of Jesus, it was not until some 30 years later that the issue was first openly addressed by God through Peter and Paul. The story then moves on through two millennia more of history, to the present day.
We are approaching the time when the Gospel will be being preached to every people group in the world in their own language and with their own Bible. We Gentiles, of all people, should be vigorously commemorating the Epiphany to us. Where would we be today without the ministry to the Gentiles some 2000 years ago? Without the Gospel in our language and without our own Bibles. Still living, as Stark says, in a very Dark Age, not only physically dark with no eye glasses, hospitals or pianos, but spiritually dark in some form of paganism, as God says to Jonah of the Ninevites, “not knowing our left hand from our right”.
A continual theme from God to His people has been His promise that if we obey His law, then we will prosper. If we are not prospering, we, just like the Hebrews, need to make a deep examination of our obedience, and beg for His clear word and judgement about our relationship with Him and with one another.
As the Christmas card says, “Wisemen still seek Him...” Let us renew, renew, renew our commitment to be followers of Jesus, and ask Him to do in our lives whatever it takes to get us to where He wants us to be.
Father in heaven, make us wise men and women who will not rest until we Gentiles come to that place where we hear You say, “Well done, good and faithful servant...” and to the place where others, Gentile and Jew, will say, “See those Christians, how they love one another...” and will glorify Your name because of our behavior and attitudes; by the power of Your Holy Spirit. Amen.
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