Many times over the last few weeks I’ve had conversations with different people about the difference between truth and fact, particularly when it comes to the Bible. Apparently, the Christmas story – Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Mary, Joseph, Gabriel, angels, shepherds, magi, manger – provokes a desire for knowing the difference between fact and fiction. When asked if these stories are true, I say that they are. Every detail in the stories points toward a greater Truth. The next question is whether or not the stories are factual, as in historically accurate. Probably not fully, maybe not even partially. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t Truth. And lack of facts does not diminish their power.
For example, the Epiphany story, Matthew’s telling of the magi, is the Gospel in the proverbial nutshell. If this story is not an invitation or a call for us to move from death to life, then I don’t know what is. The contrast is laid out clearly. If you follow Herod (human ways), the results are ugly. If you seek Jesus (holy ways), the rewards are remarkable. The facts may be sparse in these verses, but the Truth is abundant.
Consider Herod. Herod has been empowered by the Empire to rule over Judea. He enjoyed the privileges of his power. He had palaces and swimming pools. He did as he pleased. He appeased Rome and oppressed the working people and accumulated excessive wealth int he process. Herod served himself, probably more diligently than he served Rome. By the time the news of Jesus’ birth reached his ears, Herod had a lot to lose if the baby was the long-awaited Messiah who would set people free. From this point forward, Herod’s actions are governed by little more than fear – fear of losing his power, position, and possessions.
In contrast, the magi came looking for the baby, guided by the light of a brilliant star. They traveled quite a distance to pay homage, to publicly show their respect and reverence for the newborn child. They were guided by something other than fear. Maybe it was curiosity. Maybe they had some hope of forging an allegiance with the new king. Maybe they came to find out what was under the star. Whatever their motive, it was not fear and it doesn’t appear to have been self-centered.
Herod’s fear guides him to act in secret and with deceit. He does not want to pay homage to anyone. Herod wants to eliminate the threat and ensure he remains in power. When his plans are unsuccessful because the magi are not fooled, Herod’s infuriation turns murderous. The only one who will benefit from Herod’s actions will be Herod. Everyone else stands to lose, especially those with children under the age of two.
Fortunately, the magi are not fooled by Herod’s plans. They seek the child and are rewarded with overwhelming joy. Filled with this joy, they are moved to offer what gifts they have. Their lack of selfishness leads them to kneel before a manger with reverence. Ultimately, they are changed; they return home on a different path. They sought Jesus for Jesus’ sake and were transformed. New life was a gift they took home with them.
It’s a familiar story. If we look for facts, we are likely to be disappointed. But if we look for Truth we will hear the familiar themes of the Gospel message. Live as Herod lived – in service to the empire, thinking only of personal power, position, and possessions – and anger will rob you and those around you of life. Live seeking after Jesus and you will be overwhelmed with joy and that change will cause you to move through the world differently.
Once again we are faced with an invitation to choose holy ways and be gifted with new life or choose human ways and be guided by greed and anger until the life is sucked out of the world around us. May this season of Epiphany be one in which Truth is revealed and we all find ourselves going home by another road.
RCL – Year C – Epiphany – January 6, 2019
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14