Epiphany of the Lord
The Rev. Ryan Slifka
I don’t know about you, but I get really excited when I see a license plate from somewhere that I’ve never seen before. (I know—obviously a really exciting person). One plate this summer really grabbed my attention. First it was from somewhere interesting—New Hampshire. But it was the motto that blew my mind. It read “New Hampshire: Live Free or Die.” It had a little more urgency than say “Wild Rose Country.” Or “Beautiful British Columbia.”
“Live Free or Die.” It quotes a general in the American revolution. It basically means that freedom is worth dying for. Freedom is essential to living a full human life. Without it, we might as well be dead.
I’m sure we’d all agree in some way. The problem with “freedom,” though, is the same as a word like “happiness.” Or “prosperity.” Everyone wants it, everyone’s for it. But what is it, exactly?
In general, the Bible presents two ways of thinking about freedom. Two that compete and contradict with each other. And we can see these two ways play out in today’s scripture.
The first definition of freedom takes shape in the figure of King Herod.
Herod’s a puppet king, appointed by the world superpower Roman Empire. Herod’s known for his lavish building projects—like rebuilding the Jerusalem temple. But he’s more known for his ruthlessness. Even with family. He killed one of his wives, and several of his children, because he was worried that they would betray him. Caesar Augustus, the Emperor of Rome—a ruthless guy in his own rite—one said that “I’d rather be his pig than his son.”[i]
This guy’ll do anything it takes to stay king. And this is pretty clear when some Wise Men come knocking.
Contrary to popular belief, these guys aren’t Kings. They’re astrologers, magicians. Pagans from maybe Iraq, Iran. They’ve seen a star in the sky, which means somebody important’s been born,[ii] and they’ve followed it all the way to Herod’s door. “Show us this new born King of the Jews,” they tell him. “Because we’d like to pay him homage.” They’ve come to worship, to pledge allegiance to this remarkable person.
Only problem is, that Herod’s the “King of the Jews.” And that’s why the wise men assumed the new king would be born there, as part of the royal house. But no new births in his house—as far as Herod knows. Meaning there’s somebody else out there. A rival king. There’s competition. And it’s not just any competition. This child is a challenger with divine backing. This child is the promised One, the Messiah. The one sent by God to overthrow the kings of the world and preside over an everlasting Kingdom. And so when Herod hears this, it says he’s “frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” The news of this new divine king freaks Herod out. And it terrifies the whole Herod administration.
And so he hatches a plan, sending the wise men to Bethlehem, where the Messiah is supposed to be born. “Hey,” he says, crossing his fingers behind his back. “When you find out where the little guy is, let me know. I’d like to pay him homage, too.” And by that he means “tell me where he is so I can send some people to kill him.” That’s about it. Because if he succeeds, Herod won’t be king anymore.
Here we have the first definition of freedom. Freedom for Herod is complete autonomy. To be in control, to make decisions, to be in charge of himself. He refuses, even, to be governed by the Creator of the universe. The birth of Jesus means he won’t be king anymore, someone else will have say over him. And that’s the source of his greatest fear. His motto is less “Live free or die,” than it is “live free by getting others out of the way.”
Now, few of us are raging maniacal monarchs who kill anyone who gets in our way. But our culture shares a similar view of what freedom is. It’s the ability to make decisions, and to live our lives without other people telling us what to do. Or how to live our lives.
Like Herod, for us, freedom is autonomy. It’s one of the reasons why we have come to reject the notion of God, or a higher power of any kind. Because if there’s someone, something greater we are accountable to, it means we aren’t in charge. If Jesus is King, Herod can’t be king anymore. If God is god, then we aren’t. And that means we can’t make our lives and our world into whatever we want them to be.
But there’s a downside. When we’re driven by the desire for autonomy, when we have it we become afraid of losing it. Like Herod, we become driven by fear. Because no matter what, people really do get in the way of our freedom eventually. It drives Herod to plot murder. But it can drive us to use other people. When our spouse or our family gets in the way of our ambitions, or our own desires, we start to resent them. And we may even push them away, or discard them to protect ourselves. It’s also why we might avoid relationships, and community in general, because it means that someone else might call the shots for us.
Which, ironically, means we’re no longer actually free, but slaves to our own wills, our own desires. Our own drives and appetites. I mean, the irony is, too, that Herod already has a King—the Roman Emperor. And according to Matthew’s gospel the Emperor has a boss, too—the devil. Like Bob Dylan put it once: “you gotta serve somebody.” By pursuing our own autonomy above else, we ironically become slaves. Slaves to our own desires, fears, and ambitions. We are our own tyrants. Even if we have no king by name.
For us, freedom is freedom from other people. Like Herod, Freedom is autonomy, the ability to be our own king, make our own choices, live our own lives. But there’s another kind of freedom, though. The second definition of freedom is represented by the wise men. But the thing about it is that it’s pretty foreign to us, 21st century people. Because to us it doesn’t look like freedom at all.
They respond to the news of a new king differently.
When they leave Herod They follow the star until it hovers over Bethlehem. When they see where the star stops, it says, they are “overcome with great joy.” Notice that. A new king filled Herod with dread, but this king fills these seekers instead with deep gladness. Joy, rather than fear. And when they enter the house, it says, they see Mary, the child Jesus in her arms, they kneel down, open their treasure chests and place gifts before him. Gifts of gold, frankincense, myrrh. Kings don’t really need your gifts, though. Gifts for kings are symbolic. “They paid him homage,” it says. Which is a sense of respect, deference, tribute. Gifts are symbols of loyalty. They are essentially pledging their allegiance to this new king.
Herod refuses to bow down, does everything to maintain his freedom. But these guys basically give their freedom away. They’re giving it over to this newborn king. They give themselves in fully as servants. And this is the strange biblical notion of freedom.
Servanthood sounds to us like the very opposite of freedom. If we take our New Hampshire license plate slogan seriously, they might as well be dead.
But it’s not simply being a servant. Remember Dylan—you gotta serve somebody. It’s not service that leads to freedom. It’s who we serve above all else that does.
In a dream they’re warned of Herod’s plot. And it says they “returned home by another road.” The King James puts it even more poetically: “And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.” They’re avoiding Herod’s wrath. But they’re also avoiding Herod’s way altogether, and finding another. They’re pledging allegiance to the infant Christ. They’re choosing to serve Jesus. To become disciples. To learn how to be more like him. He who lived free of the bondage of sin, and the fear of selfishness.
Symbolically, in becoming disciples, in becoming servants of Christ, the Magi are being led out of the way of fear and tyranny and death. Away, and in to new life. To become more like he who is the divine expression of our humanity.[iii] That’s what leads us home, out of our bondage and self-destruction. And in to true freedom. That’s the other definition of freedom the wise men represent.
Freedom is not the ability to do what we want, when we want. It’s not to have all the power we can muster. It’s not to have the world’s resources at our disposal. It’s not to be free of all responsibilities and relationships. No. According to Matthew’s gospel, is in the footsteps of Jesus. He whose life was an outpouring of unconditional love and mercy. To live truth-seeking lives of generosity and justice. And to more fully reflect the One who gave himself as an offering for the salvation of all. True freedom is found in kneeling before Christ, bringing the gifts of all that we are, and giving them away in service to him. And in love and service of the world. Freedom is being unchained from our will to power that pushes love aside, and pushes others, including those we love out of the way.
A license plate that perhaps reads instead “live free… by dying to yourself.” In doing so we are freed from our fear, our self-destructiveness, and our imagined self-sufficiency. That’s true freedom.
Brothers and sisters: these are the two definitions of freedom. One: like Herod, free to do what we wish. A way leading to fear, anxiety, and self-destruction. The way we know ain’t workin’ for us. Or humanity. And the other: the way of the wise servant of the Lord. Free to become more than we are. A way that leads to serving more faithfully, loving more deeply, and living more joyfully.
May each of us, by God’s grace, have the courage to choose the freedom of Christ, God made manifest. Because if we gotta serve somebody—and we could do worse than Jesus.
[i] Macrobius, Saturnalia II.4.11, quoted in Thomas Long, “The Wrong Town at the Wrong Time,” sermon on Day1.org, accessed January 2, 2019. <http://day1.org/8313-tom_long_the_wrong_town_at_the_wrong_time#_ftn2>
[ii] “Pagan beliefs associated the birth of a new ruler with astral phenomena.” M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995),142.
[iii] “In other words, Jesus shows us what God means by man: a being of mystery and wonder whose destiny is union with God. And when you look at Jesus as he reveals the true potential of our human nature, we can believe it.” See Michael Mayne, “Follow the Star,” in To Trust and to Love: Sermons and Addresses (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2010), 18.