The Sunday before Epiphany
Matthew 2:1-12; John 1:1-18
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
“You will know the truth,” Jesus said, “and the truth will make you free.” He said it a long time ago, but it couldn’t be any more relevant than it is right now, when we Americans seem to be having such a hard time agreeing on what is true. Seriously, is it only me, or have you had some conversations in the past few years where you think you are saying two plus two equals four, but the other person says, “No, it doesn’t; it equals five”? And you say, “How is that possible? Two plus two has always equaled four,” and they say, “No, it hasn’t.” And you stand there, with your mouth open, not knowing what to say next, because you can’t even agree on the facts.
One nonprofit global public policy think tank notes that “the line between fact and fiction in American public life is becoming blurred.” [i] They call this phenomenon “Truth Decay,” and this is how they explain it on their website: “America’s current era of Truth Decay is defined in part by an increasing disagreement about objective facts that exists on a scale not observed in previous periods,” and that includes the period in which I grew up.
When I was a boy my family didn’t have a television, but when I visited friends I would sometimes watch theirs. I was so fascinated by TV itself that I didn’t care what was on and once ended up watching the evening news with my friend’s parents. There was a man with a mustache telling us what had happened that day. It lasted about half an hour and when it was over he said, “And that’s the way it is.” That man was Walter Cronkite, and although I was seeing him for the first time a lot of Americans thought of him as “Uncle Walter.” They loved him and trusted him to tell them the truth, and night after night that’s what he did, in about thirty minutes, on black-and-white TV.
But a few years later some crazy person decided that what America needed was a 24-hour cable news network, and CNN was born—all news, all the time. But there’s really not that much news, not even if you look for it all over the world. So, what we began to get was news plus commentary, and we didn’t mind that; sometimes it helps to have a little commentary. But then, as competing cable news networks began to spring up, we began to get news plus commentary plus opinion, and we didn’t always mind that either. Sometimes we like our news with a saucy side helping of opinion, especially if it’s an opinion we agree with. But then social media made it possible to “like” those opinions, publicly, and to share them with our friends, until our friends who had different opinions began to argue with us, and call us names, so that we had to unfriend them and find other friends who agreed with us, who shared not only our opinions about things in general, and not only our commentary on the news, but also our understanding of the facts.
That’s where we are today and this is how the people at Truth Decay sum it up. They see: 1) an increasing disagreement about facts and data; 2) a blurring of the line between opinion and fact; 3) the increasing relative volume and resulting influence of opinion over fact; and 4) a declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information. And then they list the consequences of Truth Decay: 1) an erosion of civil discourse; 2) political paralysis; 3) alienation and disengagement; and 4) Uncertainty, when we just don’t know what to believe any more, when we have no real way of knowing what is true.[ii]
So, to hear Jesus say, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” is exciting. “Yes!” we say. “Give us some of that!” And if we had lived in the time when the Gospel of John was written, we might have been even more excited, because that’s what those people were searching for: a truth that would set them free. John was written near the end of the First Century, AD, at a time when a new philosophy called Gnosticism was gaining in popularity. Gnosticism is the idea that each of us has within us a “spark” of the Divine, but it is trapped inside this physical body, and the flesh is essentially evil. So, what we need to release that spark, so it can return to its source, is some kind of special knowledge (that’s where the word Gnosticism comes from: gnosis, the Greek word for “knowledge”). That knowledge has to come to us from outside the physical world, and the one who brings it to us will be our “savior.”
With that in mind, hear Jesus say, once again, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” For those who were just getting acquainted with Gnosticism, it may have sounded like an invitation to learn from Jesus the special knowledge (or, as he put it, the “truth”) that would liberate the divine spark within them from the prison house of the flesh so that it could return to its Divine source.
Today is the Second Sunday of Christmas, and in Greek the Gospel lesson from John 1 begins like this: En arch hn o logoV: “In the beginning was the Word.” Rebecca Denova explains, “In the philosophical thought of the time, logos was the principal of rationality that connected the highest god to the material world.”[iii] In other words, the logos was the mediator between God and people. Keep that in mind as you hear John say, “And the logos was with God, and the logos was God…and the logos became flesh and lived among us.”
It would have been very exciting to those early adherents of Gnosticism to think that they might learn from Jesus the truth that would set them free from the prison house of the flesh, in the same way it excites me to think that we Americans, who have become so polarized by our competing versions of the truth, might find in Jesus something that would bring us together, and set us free.[iv] At a time when we can’t agree on the facts, is it possible that we might come to know the Truth?
Today is the Second Sunday of Christmas, but it is also the Sunday before Epiphany, when we focus on the story of the Wise Men from Matthew, chapter 2. You’ve already heard some references to that story in today’s worship service, but I don’t think you’ve heard this: that the wise men may have practiced a religion called Zoroastrianism. I had heard that rumor somewhere before, but last week I began to do some research and was amazed by what I learned. First of all, this religion was named for an actual man, a Persian named Zoroaster who lived hundreds of years before Christ.[v] He grew up in the religion of his time, a religion which had many gods and offered animal sacrifices, but when he was thirty years old he had a vision of an angel standing on a riverbank who said that he had been sent with a message from the one true god. From that message came a new religion, or at least a radical reformation of the old religion. One of the first things Zoroaster did was put an end to animal sacrifice. But he also taught that there is only one God. He called him Ahura Mazda—“the Lord of Wisdom”—and believed that he was not only all-wise, but also all-good. He believed that human beings should reflect that goodness through good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. And finally, he believed that each of us has free will to choose between good and evil.
Joshua Mark writes, “The central value of [Zoroastrianism] was human free will. If one chose to follow the precepts of Ahura Mazda, one lived a fulfilling life; if not, one became tangled in deceit and experienced strife and confusion.”[vi] And so to believe in the one true God, to believe that he was not only all-wise but also all-good, meant reflecting God’s goodness by thinking good thoughts, speaking good words, and doing good deeds, specifically:
- Telling the truth at all times – especially keeping promises
- Practicing charity to all – especially those less fortunate
- Showing love for others – even if they did not return the sentiment
- Moderation in all things – especially in diet
The new religion caught on, and it spread throughout ancient Persia, not so much through evangelistic efforts as through the virtuous behavior of believers who adhered to three core values:
- To make friends of enemies
- To make the wicked righteous
- To make the ignorant learned”[vii]
I have to confess: I didn’t know any of this before doing my research for this sermon and I am astounded by all of it. I’m not planning to become a Zoroastrian, but on this first Sunday of a New Year I can hardly imagine a better set of resolutions than these: to tell the truth at all times, to practice charity to all, to show love for others, and to practice moderation in all things. And I can also hardly imagine a better way to win converts to the Christian religion than by doing what these Zoroastrians tried to do: make friends of enemies, make the wicked righteous, and make the ignorant learned.
And so I wasn’t all that surprised to learn that the wise men, the magi, who show up in our Gospel lesson from Matthew, chapter 2, were probably not three kings named Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior, and probably not Professors of Astrology at the University of Persia,[viii] but were instead probably Zoroastrian priests. Listen to this description: “While little is known about how the faith was observed or how rituals were conducted, sacrifices, probably in the form of food, grains, and precious objects, were delivered to the magi—the priests—in return for their intercession with [God], and this practice made the clergy one of the wealthiest and most powerful social classes of Persian society.” Nevertheless, they remained seekers of the truth, and they scanned the night skies perpetually looking for signs from Ahura Mazda—“the Lord of Wisdom”—that would lead them in the right direction.
They used logic, they used reason, but when they saw a new star blaze into existence in the Western sky, they must have been like schoolboys, jumping for joy, and they must have saddled their camels almost immediately to follow this sign to where they first spotted it, rising above the mountains of Israel, announcing by its very presence the birth of a new king.
It’s a long way from Persia to the Promised Land. It would have taken them more than a year to get there. And when they did they would have followed the same road everyone else took from Jericho up to Jerusalem, the royal city, the place you would expect a king to be born. But something happened as they traveled up that road, something that may have happened to you. Do you know how it is in the city, that you can’t see the stars at night? Their feeble glow is overwhelmed by the bright lights of the big city. And so it was for these wise men: the closer they got to Jerusalem the less they were able to see the star, until finally it was gone altogether, lost in a blaze of ambient light. So they asked Herod, “Where is the child that has been born king of the Jews?” And although he didn’t like it, he asked his wise men what they knew. “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they said, which was a little town just seven miles from Jerusalem. Only as they left the bright lights of the big city were the Wise Men able to see that star again, and they followed it until it seemed to rest on top of one particular house, and when they saw that, they were overwhelmed with joy. Their long journey was over. When they entered the house they saw the child with Mary, his mother. And they did something that tells us a lot about them: they knelt down and paid him homage, that is, they worshiped him, this little boy with dirty cheeks and shining eyes. And then they opened their treasures and gave him gold, frankincense, and myrrh—gifts fit for a king.
In a story about the wise men Garrison Keillor says, “They came from a great distance, following a star, which for wise men was not really very smart. Because a star is up in the sky, and so the sense of direction you get from a star is going to be a little bit general, and which [house] the star is ‘right over’ kind of depends on where you are standing at the time. So these guys were navigating on faith. They took a long trip based on less hard information than a person might like to have. But, they came through, and they found Christmas, on faith. They actually found it, and so may we, although it may be even more of an adventure for us today than it was for them back then, because there is so much artificial light during Christmas, and so much reflected light, that there’s kind of a general glow, and it may be hard to pick out stars in the sky, just as it is in the city, even a very bright one. But it can be found, and it can be followed, and we can find [Christmas].
“There is hope.”[ix]
You’ve seen that bumper sticker: “Wise men still seek him.” So they do, and so do wise women and children. They are seeking the truth, the special knowledge that will set them free, and what today’s scriptures tell us is this: that the truth we are seeking can be found in Jesus. When we know him—when we truly know him—that truth and that knowledge will make us free.
—Jim Somerville © 2022
[i] The 70-year-old RAND Corporation, which claims to be nonpartisan.
[iii] Rebecca Denova, “Gnosticism,” in the World History Encyclopedia (https://www.worldhistory.org/Gnosticism/)
[iv] Just to be clear, Gnosticism was denounced by the early Christians as a heresy: they didn’t believe that that flesh was evil, and if they had John certainly wouldn’t have told us that the Word that was with God and was God became flesh (ugh!). But they did believe there was a truth in Jesus that was liberating, a truth that liberates us still.
[v] Joshua L. Mark, “Zoroastrianism,” in the World History Encyclopedia (https://www.worldhistory.org/zoroastrianism/).
[viii] As I have sometimes imagined them, bumping across the desert on camelback smoking pipes and wearing tweed jackets with leather elbow patches.
[ix] Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion, “Faith: Stories from the Collection” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_hcFU4wGiw)