King Herod had a problem.
Well actually, he had a few, but his main problem was that he considered himself the center of the universe. He was obsessed with what other people thought of him, and he couldn’t stand to hear criticism. He suppressed protests and sent spies out into the population to listen for anyone who might slander him. Being pathologically paranoid, he put to death several of his own family members, including his own wife. He was so concerned that no one would mourn his death that he ordered a bunch of other people be executed when he died so that the nation would grieve properly. Thankfully, this was never carried out.
Herod believed himself to be the center of the universe. We can see this clearly in our gospel reading. Herod tells the wise men to report back to him about this new king of the Jews. Herod says he wants to honor the child, but no king who believes himself the center of the universe will tolerate another king. Instead of paying homage, Herod ensures his own power by taking a leaf out of Pharaoh’s book and slaughtering every boy under the age of two.
Being Jewish, I’m sure Herod heard the words of Isaiah 60 at some point or another. Maybe he even knew them well. We can imagine that the words of Isaiah 60 would stand out to a guy like Herod:
“Nations shall walk by your light,
and the kings by your dawning radiance,” Isaiah writes,
“The sea’s bounty shall be yours,
the wealth of nations shall come to you.
A tide of camels shall cover you,
dromedaries from Midian and Ephah,
they all shall come from Sheba.
Gold and frankincense they shall bear.”
As they came out of exile in Babylon, the prophet Isaiah promised Israel that the city of Jerusalem would eventually return to an age of glory and splendor. Isaiah’s words conjure images of Solomon’s reign, when emissaries from foreign lands would come bearing gifts for the great king of Israel. I bet Herod would have salivated over this passage, imagining all of the gifts promised to him in the scriptures.
But for being the center of the universe, Herod did not receive as much attention as he wanted. Emissaries were not coming to him from foreign lands; if anything, he was having to send them to Rome to please his overlords. But then, one day, a small caravan of travelers from Persia shows up at his palace: a group of astrologers, star-readers, wise men, accompanied by their retinues, camels, silks, and spices. They stand upon the steps of Herod’s palace and ask for the king of the Jews.
For a brief and glimmering moment, Herod is convinced his multitudes of camels have finally arrived. This is the moment when the whole world finally bows down to him. “I am the king of the Jews!” he declares proudly.
“Our apologies, my Lord,” the wise men reply, “we are seeking a child, a king who has been born recently. We have been reading the stars and they point us here.”
Herod grows numb with disbelief and then hot with fury. Another king? he thinks, Someone vying for my throne? NO. I don’t care if he’s some new David, or the messiah, or God himself—no one, NO ONE, takes the throne from Herod. I am the center of this universe! I AM!
And so Herod hatches his bloody scheme.
I wonder if the wise men ever read Isaiah 60. They weren’t Jewish, so I doubt it. And yet, if they had, the wise men surely would have understood Isaiah 60 better than King Herod ever did. It is true that Isaiah speaks of a new and glorious Jerusalem, shining like a beacon in the night, drawing all nations to herself. But that’s not the whole story. If Jerusalem shines like the sun, whence does her light come? It comes from God.
God, not Jerusalem, is the center of this reading. The light of God shines upon Jerusalem, and Jerusalem reflects God’s light like the moon reflects the sun. Jerusalem does not shine because of who the people of Jerusalem are, but because of who God is. The great parade of camels and spices and people of which Isaiah speaks come to Jerusalem not as gifts for Jerusalem but for God.
What the wise men understood, and Herod failed to understand, is that Jesus is the center of the universe. Herod was so caught up in his own power that he forgot his purpose as king was to serve God, not himself. It was the wise men, these philosophers from some far-off land, who were ultimately open and receptive to the God who made all creation coming to live in that creation as a baby.
As I sat down to prepare this sermon, I rolled my eyes. I said to Isabel, “Why do we make such a big deal about Epiphany every year? Of all the stories in the Bible, I find this to be one of the least meaningful.” She just shook her head and walked away, but I continued on my rant, no longer needing an audience, “If it were up to me,” I proclaimed, “Epiphany would come only once every three years, if at all! If it were up to me, we would read something else this Sunday! If it were up to me! If it were up to me!”
And so I sat staring at my computer screen wondering what on earth to preach. But then the Holy Spirit showed me the problem, as she does so often and so well. I realized that when I read this passage I usually try to identify with the wise men, with Mary, or even with the baby Jesus; but really it is Herod with whom I should identify. My own dislike of the Epiphany holiday is a good example of how I believe myself so often to be the center of the universe. I’d toss out Epiphany in a heartbeat if it were up to me; thank God it is not up to me.
We in the church would love to consider ourselves to be the faithful wise men, but I think a lot of us would find ourselves in Herod’s shoes if ever Jesus were born into this world again. Martin Luther believed that all sinful behavior comes from the belief that we are the center of the universe. We steal from others because we consider our needs more important than theirs; we hurt others because we consider our wellbeing of more importance than theirs; we lie to others because we consider our feelings more valuable than theirs. We may not be as dastardly as King Herod, but we are all certainly guilty of the same egocentrism. We cannot help but put ourselves before and above others.
And this is why we need Jesus; this is why Jesus came into the world, to save us from that selfishness, to orient our hearts not on ourselves, but on our God and on our neighbors. One definition of the word epiphany is “a revelation.” The great revelation of Epiphany is that we are not the center of the universe: God is. That is why we need to hear the epiphany message every year. Maybe we should even celebrate Epiphany more often than that.
If God is the center of the universe, and not me, then one of the most important acts of discipleship is to constantly practice decentering, taking ourselves out of the center of our universe so that God can inhabit that space. The wise men knew how to decenter themselves. They paid homage to God in Christ Jesus. And that is how we can do it too. As one biblical scholar reminds us, every week when we gather for worship, and hopefully, every day in our prayers, we offer praise to God, not because God has made us the center of the universe but because God is the center of the universe (Rolf Jacobson, Working Preacher Podcast).
As we close up the Christmas season today, we move now into the six-week interlude before Lent. During these next six weeks, I encourage you to adopt a prayer you can pray every day. This prayer is meant to decenter you from yourself and center you instead on God. The prayer should be simple and it can go something like this:
“Praise be to you, God, for you are the center of the universe.”
When we ask God to be the center of our universe, slowly we will find that we think less about ourselves and more about our God.
The light of Christ shines upon each and every one of you; let that light shine out, not so that people will be drawn to you, for you are not the center of the universe, but to God, in whom all things hold together.