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  • Writer's pictureRich Scheenstra

Epiphany 2024

Have you ever had an epiphany? Epiphany comes from a Greek word meaning “manifestation.” We use it to refer to an illuminating discovery or realization – an aha moment. I think I had one a few days ago while preparing for this Sunday’s worship.


We’re now a few days into the new year. This one has a different feel, I sense, for many of us. It’s a year already dominated by what will come near the end – the next presidential election. The epiphany I had about Epiphany has to do with this present political moment and what the event behind Epiphany – the story of the Magi or wise men – might have to teach us.


One thing it can teach us is about assumptions. For example, consider the part of the story where the Magi – these Gentile astrologers – follow a star from their home in the east to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem. Are you with me? Now pay attention to what Matthew actually says:


After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”


The Magi saw the star when it rose – and then went to pay their respects. There’s nothing said here about following the star. This would explain why the Magi went to Jerusalem rather than directly to Bethlehem. They interpreted the special star as pointing to the birth of an important Jewish king. So they did the logical next thing – they went to Jerusalem, the Jewish capital. Their arrival raised quite a stir. King Herod asked the chief priests and teachers of the law where the Messiah was to be born. When they told him the Old Testament prophecy about Bethlehem, Herod informed the Magi and said to let him know what they found on their way back. It was at this point that the Magi saw the star a second time and actually followed the star the last few miles to Bethlehem:


After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.


Apparently the Magi were overjoyed because they hadn’t seen the star for awhile, possibly since it first rose. This time it not only appeared but “went ahead of them,” escorting them to their destination. So it’s only in this last leg of their journey that they actually followed the star.


The story that many of us grew up with is the story of Magi following a star from their own country to Bethlehem. Because it’s the story we’re accustomed to, it’s the story we read into the text. (Many of us also assume that there were three Magi, probably based on the number of gifts given to Jesus’ family. But the text doesn’t say that. The Eastern Christian tradition actually sets the number at 12.) In other words, all of us, Christians and non-Christians alike, tend to read our assumptions into the biblical text. It’s called confirmation bias.

There are a lot of assumptions these days, especially in white evangelical circles, about what should happen in this country. There’s a growing movement called Christian nationalism based upon these assumptions. It assumes that in order for this country not to completely go off the rails, Christians (actually a particular brand of Christian) need to take over Washington, or at least inhabit key leadership positions and steer the country towards Christian values.


Just this week I was reading in John’s gospel about a crowd planning to make Jesus king. It was after he’d fed thousands of people with a boy’s lunch. When Jesus got wind of it, he slipped away. While his kingdom had political implications, Jesus wouldn’t be that kind of king. I’m pretty sure that one of the main reasons Jesus was eventually crucified was because he refused to fulfill people’s political agendas. The idea of being led by a crucified king didn’t fit with any current political theory, party or movement – especially someone who talked about loving your enemies. People couldn’t imagine how that kind of king could make any difference for their everyday lives, much less change what was wrong with the world. So disappointment turned into resentment, which led to the violence of Jesus' crucifixion.


That should’ve been the end; except that it wasn’t. This crucified king rose from the dead – which if it actually happened, suggests that whatever authority Jesus had or has, includes authority over death. Personally, I’ll take a king who reigns over death over a political king any day.


The word evangelical comes from a Greek word meaning “good news.” For example, if Jesus is God in human flesh and reigns over death, and plans on completely renovating this world into New Creation when he returns, that’s very good news. And if we can become his students and begin to participate in this New Creation now, that’s more good news. And if Jesus’ death on the cross somehow covers or atones for all of the destructive, shameful, unloving things we’ve done to one another, I’d say that was pretty fantastic. And if this crucified king disdains “lording it” over or dominating people, and instead wants to serve people and teach them how to love and serve one another, well, he’s got my vote.


Unfortunately, those aren’t the sorts of things most people associate with the word evangelical these days. Recent polls show that people who are white and self-identify as evangelical feel more connected to the Republican Party than a local congregation. Most don’t even go to church. Outsiders tend to connect evangelicals with bad news rather than good news. White evangelicals are known for their outrage more than their outreach, for their paranoia more than their faith, hope and love. I understand that there are a lot of evangelicals that don't fit this profile, but those who do are poisoning the well.


I’d argue that the term Christian nationalism is an oxymoron. You can’t be a Christian and be a nationalist. You can love your country, even be a good patriot, but you can’t worship or idolize your country. You can’t talk about “God and country” as if they deserved equal allegiance. You also can’t make your country more important than other countries, or believe that God loves your country more than other countries, or rewrite your country’s history to make it look like it's always been a Christian nation.


If it had been, that would be pretty embarrassing. We’d have a lot of explaining to do, like why we allowed and even justified the genocide of Indigenous people, or instigated a Civil War that not only divided our nation but killed 800,000 Americans. We’d also have to explain why it was that we used our own Scriptures to justify the practice of chattel slavery, or the passing of Jim Crow laws after enslaving Black Americans was no longer constitutional. We’d also have to explain why Christians are so divided and spend so much time condemning one another over issues the Bible hardly talks about; why we think Washington should become a holy city, when we can’t manage to be a city on a hill ourselves.


Sometimes we’ve been outright delusional. For decades white evangelicals have been told by their leaders that if a Democrat becomes president, churches are going to be shut down and it’s going to become illegal to be a Christian. (Having to close during Covid proved it!)


All this paranoia isn’t just unbecoming, it’s even made us willing to vote for someone like Herod, I mean Trump, to protect us. Herod was self-absorbed, ruthless and paranoid. He demanded absolute loyalty. Because of his sister’s influence and lies, he had his wife Mariamne killed along with her mother and grandfather. He also had his oldest son, Antipater II, killed as well as the two sons he had with his first wife. Such behavior explains how it might have been that Herod arranged for all the two-year-old boys and younger to be killed in Bethlehem, like the Bible says, when the Magi didn’t return.


Today white evangelicals overwhelmingly support a presidential candidate who praises dictators, describes prisoners of war as losers, claims to have never needed to ask for forgiveness, has bragged on tape about sexual assault, told 30,000 documented lies during his four years in office, insists the last election was stolen in spite of overwhelming and conclusive evidence to the contrary, and waited 187 minutes on January 6 – while people were being killed and 140 police officers were being injured – before telling his followers to stand down; a candidate who's currently facing 91 federal indictments for four different crimes, who promises to create detention camps for undocumented immigrants while they await deportation (do people realize what this would do to our economy?) and to weaponize the DOJ to get revenge against his opponents, those he refers to as “vermin.”


Political scholars and historians who have until now been cautious about attaching the fascist label to Donald Trump are saying his rhetoric and promises have crossed a line. Trump is a hedonist and demagogue who has yet to exhibit on any occasion that I’m aware of even one of the nine fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Evangelicals used to prioritize character when choosing a political candidate. Now they’re convinced they need a bully to get back what they think they’ve lost.


Thing is, Donald Trump clearly couldn’t care less about Christians. Like Herod, he’s obsessed with one thing – himself. He’ll pander to Christians only as long as they help give him what he wants – more power, more wealth, the opportunity for revenge, and a way to escape having to go to prison. He displays all the classical symptoms of a narcissist. He appears to be constitutionally incapable of caring or compassion. He’s transformed the Republican Party into a personality cult. And white evangelicals have become his enablers.


In 2016 Trump stood before an audience at a Christian college (Dordt) and said, "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters, OK?" and people just laughed. How embarrassing and disgusting.


Not all white evangelicals support Donald Trump. A bunch of them are shaking their heads. Some pastors have lost scores, even hundreds of parishioners to churches that drink from a God and country gospel. (Check out Tim Alberta's new book, The Kingdom, the Power and the Glory, written by a conservative evangelical.) The new speaker of the house recently said at a private gathering that he believed God was calling him to be a new Moses. He’s also been repeating the recent evangelical talking point that America is a republic rather than a democracy. (We’re both, by the way). He's said, “We don’t live in a democracy, because democracy is two wolves and a lamb deciding what’s for dinner.” He has close ties with what some people describe as the fastest-growing but least known Christian movement in this country – the New Apostolic Reformation. Their goal is to put Christians in leadership over the seven “mountains” of society – family, religion, education, media, entertainment, business, and government. The NAR's "prophets" convinced their followers that Trump won in 2020 and encouraged them to come to Washington on January 6.


Jesus’ brothers and disciples wanted him to spend more time in Jerusalem, their nation's capital. Since the creation of the Moral Majority, white evangelicals have moved from the political sidelines to trying to influence Washington. Political power is seductive. Even Jesus felt it. When Jesus’ disciple Peter tried to discourage him from taking the path of the cross to establish his reign, Jesus replied: “Get behind me, Satan.” The Magi assumed that the key to Israel’s future lay in Jerusalem. They associated the Messiah’s rising “star” with Israel’s capital. That was an honest mistake. But we don’t have to make the same mistake. Jesus spent most of his time in northern Galilee, far from the political and religious power brokers in Jerusalem. He was born in a small town and raised in another small town.


Jerusalem is where he was executed by the politicians and religious elites.


“But we can’t elect a Democrat!” Why not? Democrats are far from perfect, but at least in principle, they care about poor people, minorities, immigrants, healthcare and quality education for all – priorities I can gladly get behind as a follower of Jesus, whether or not I agree about particular policies. Policy is really complicated. Good policy would ideally be designed and corrected by both parties working together without concern for the next election. Democrats are going to tend in the direction of government playing more of a role, while Republicans are going to envision government playing less of a role. That’s fine and even good, as long as politicians are actually talking with one another and are willing to try stuff.


"But what about abortion?" I call it the abortion trap. (Yes, Democrats have their own issues: see Yascha Mounk's The Identity Trap.) When the founders of the Moral Majority began plotting how to build a political movement, abortion wasn’t on anyone’s radar. The initial impetus for forming the Moral Majority was to thwart Jimmy Carter’s reelection because of his challenging segregation in Christian colleges. Making abortion an issue made their movement more palatable. Go ahead, research it. Abortion didn’t become a political issue for most evangelical Christians until six years after Roe vs. Wade.


Sure, I wish Democrats had stuck with their platform of abortions being legal, safe and rare. That’s not an ideal standard, but it should be a minimum one. On the other hand, Democratic social policies have actually done more to decrease the number of abortions than attempted abortion bans. In my experience, most Republicans are pro-birth, not pro-life. Many show little concern for a child once it’s born. They’re willing to shut down abortion clinics but not to pay for childcare. These are extremely complicated issues morally, politically and even spiritually. White evangelicals have proven to be very good political strategists, but very poor moral strategists or conversation partners.

That’s probably part of why there’s actually been a small uptick in abortions since the overturning of Roe vs. Wade. Forcing women to give birth was never going to be an effective strategy for decreasing abortions. Attempted abortion bans will only keep the discussion focused on rights instead of responsibilities – including our common responsibility to help families of all kinds thrive. We absolutely have to start being as concerned about what happens to children after they're born as we are before they're born – and stop letting our addiction to Mammon get in the way. (Remember, Jesus talked about money more than any other subject other than love. He even said to stop complaining about taxes.)

In Matthew's gospel – the same gospel where we find the story of the Magi – Jesus gives his followers a three-fold strategy for bringing about societal transformation: being salt, city and sent. First, we're to be the salt of the earth. Salt preserves and enhances the natural flavor of food. Salt was also used in the ancient world as a fertilizer. The story of the Magi reminds us that there are a lot of good people in the world (theologians call this common grace), and that there is at least some good in everyone. Our focus needs to be on fertilizing and affirming the good rather than condemning the bad. We also need to own up to when we've been bad. It's called repentance. It's okay to be woke.

Secondly, instead of focusing on Capitol Hill, we need to get our own house in order and be a city on a hill ourselves, learning how to get along with our Christian sisters and brothers, demonstrating the light and life of Christ – the one who humbled himself and became nothing (Philippians 2:4-8). Remember, Jesus came to serve rather than be served, pouring out his life for the world.

Third, Jesus sent us to make disciples of all nations, teaching people the things he commanded us. In other words, we're to abandon our white privilege and invite people of all nations to join us in learning from Jesus how to live lives of genuine flourishing. "Make" doesn't mean "force." We're to live the kind of good news lives that are attractive and make sense. We should be known for what we're for more than what we're against.

The Magi weren’t Republicans, Democrats or even Christians. But they seem to have been good people, putting to shame the orthodox religious folks in the story who failed to check out the Magi's story for themselves. Is there a lesson to be learned here? Is it time for white evangelicals to stop demonizing nonbelievers and Democrats? Given our history, what right do Christians have to suggest that we know how to run a country? From my angle, any group that looks for a depraved demagogue like Trump to represent their cause has lost all credibility. They're just plain lost.


May I make a suggestion? The BibleProject is beginning a year-long study of the Sermon on the Mount. I love their podcasts, videos and classes. They’re all free. They’re doing some innovative things with this year’s weekly podcasts which I think will make them really interesting and entertaining. The Sermon on the Mount contains the nucleus of Jesus’ teaching. The Magi went the extra mile to find and learn about Jesus. Immersing ourselves in the Sermon on the Mount would be a great way to prepare for the political challenges facing us in 2024. I hope you’ll join me.



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Jan 09

Thanks Rich, good statement of the political/religious realities in the USA. Definitely something to pray and consider in this election year.


Jan 08

Thanks Rich. Excellent.

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