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The Hard Side of Epiphany

The good news of Jesus arouses the ugliness of sin and violence in the world.

From the editor:

January 6th is Epiphany—the day that many Western Christians commemorate the visitation of the Magi to Jesus. With that date just around the corner, we decided to run a classic Preaching Today audio sermon by Fred Craddock. We've never run it in transcript form before, so we hope you enjoy it. While the Magi get most of the attention on this day, we all know there is a darker character in the story: Herod. As Craddock points out—in his unique narrative style—Herod represents the "hard side of Epiphany." To listen as you follow along, click here.


This is January 6th. It's Epiphany. Liturgically, this means that we can, for a few Sundays before Lent, announce those marvelous passages that declare the revelation of the divine Son. We can announce those marvelous texts of the baptism of Jesus: "Thou art my Son," says the voice from heaven. We can announce the Transfiguration scene: "This is my Son, the Beloved. Hear him." Such marvelous, grand, glorious texts—a little breather before Lent. That's what it means liturgically.

I do not come from a very liturgical tradition, so I have to interpret Epiphany for our family. This is the day we take down the Christmas decorations. All of our decorations are based on the Gospel of Luke. There are Madonnas that we've picked up here and there in travel—of wood, of corn shocks, of brass, of glass. They're wrapped in tissue and put back in a box like you'd put away crystal or china because they're fragile. Our nativity scene is really cheap, but the kids made it years ago, so we put it out, and it gets prettier every year. All of this is from the scene in the Gospel of Luke: straw, a baby, Mary and Joseph, some animals. And we have all kinds of angels around the house. They're from Luke, too. We put all of these Lukan decorations away today. Luke is over now, and we need to go to Matthew.

It is hard to accept that the Good News has enemies.

Exit the women of Luke; in come the men of Matthew. Exit the stable; now it's a king's palace. Exit the shepherds; in with the wise men from the east. Exit the angels; in comes Herod. We have a little music box that plays carols like "Silent Night" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem." Just lift the lid and it plays. This music is from Luke. So, it's time to put the lid down, because exit Mary; enter Rachel. Exit lullaby; enter the scream: "I heard a voice in Ramah. It was Rachel weeping for her children."

It's hard to accept that the gospel has enemies, that good news has enemies, but it does. Herod called in the doctors of law and Scripture to inquire about the Messiah. He was faking, pretending to want to worship—all while issuing death warrants against all the baby boys. There was a house-to-house search, the butt of swords crashing in doors, chariots on the streets, lamps out early, and mothers clutching babies behind cellar doors ("Shhh, shhh, shhh! Don't even breathe! It's a soldier!").

It's hard to believe. It's hard to accept that the Good News has enemies. To read Matthew, the vultures circling over the shallow graves of children are hard to miss. You find Joseph bolting up in bed: "Mary, Mary! Get ready! Wrap the child!" "What's the matter?" she says. "We've got to go!" "What do you mean?" "I had this dream," Joseph says. "They're coming for the boy. Get ready! We've got to go!" And off they go to Egypt, to hide from his enemies, among his enemies. What else was there to do?

It's hard to accept: Rachel crying, refusing to be consoled. "They've killed my children! They've killed my children!" Why? Because Jesus Christ our Lord is born! It's hard to accept. It's hard to accept that good news has such enemies.

It is harder to accept that announcing the truth makes enemies.

But what's even more difficult to accept is that announcing the Good News creates enmity. All the wise men said is, "Where is he? All we want to do is worship Jesus." They weren't revolutionaries. They didn't stop and paint posters that said, "Let's march around the city." All they said was, "We want to worship Jesus." But then trouble broke out.

The great revolutions have not been started by revolutionaries, but by people who said, "All we want to do is love and worship." Do you know how to release Serpentine hatred in the world—how to stir that scaly thing in such a way that it crawls up from the floor of hell and wreaks violence in the earth? Just start loving everybody, and he can't stand it. Do you know how to strengthen and increase the network of lies and deception in our world? Just tell the truth. That's all it takes.

Poor Dr. Goiter! He's an old friend of mine who spent most of his life in China. We called him an agricultural missionary. He was a gardener who loved God and people, and he went to China to do it. In central China he taught people how to raise different kinds of vegetables, how to feed the children better, how to raise a cow and have milk. He told stories about Jesus, and he translated some of them into Chinese. He was perfectly at home there. He adopted two Chinese girls that he found in a trash can. And when he did, they arrested him. "Why?" he asked. "You're dangerous!" they said. But this man couldn't kill a mouse! He was incapable of violence. Yet they said, "He's dangerous!" Well, he was. He was dangerous because he didn't know how to love just a few. He should have known that you've got to watch whom you love. If you love the wrong people, it will get you into trouble!

Matthew's not alone in pointing all of this out. Even Luke says it. When Jesus was six-weeks-old, they took him to the temple. Mary was nervous. It was the first time there with her first baby. She probably had a lot of questions: "Where do I stand? What do they do? Do I have to say anything, Joseph?" "No," he would reply, "you just stand there and hold the baby. They'll have this little ceremony, then you'll be purified, and the baby is dedicated. There's nothing to it." "Well, I'm nervous," she would say. "What if he catches a cold? We haven't had him outside yet. He's only six weeks old. Why don't they have this at two years? I think it's too early." "Well, just stand there," he would say. "You'll be all right."

When Mary goes up to the temple, she encounters an old man named Simeon. He's as old as the hills—large, rheumy eyes, spittle in his beard, shuffling about. In his heart God had said, You will not die until you see the consolation of Israel. So there he is each day, frightening all the mothers. Every time he sees a blue blanket, he runs over. When he sees Mary, he comes to her and says, "Let me hold him." Mary is scared: Old man—he'll drop my baby! But her fear that he would drop the baby does not match the fear created by his words: "Because of this child, a sword will pierce your heart." Even Luke has to stop singing long enough to say that good news creates pain, violence, and opposition.

John offers this message, too: "This is the crisis of the world, that light has come into the world, and people love the darkness. The time will come when they'll drag you out of the synagogue, and they'll kill you in the name of God and say 'Amen.'"

It's hard to accept that the gospel, the Good News, has enemies. But the fact that announcing the Good News arouses that enmity is even more difficult to accept. But it's true. Jesus said in John 15, "If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sinned. But now that I have spoken to them …." What does that mean? It means that the coming of Jesus Christ and the proclamation of the Good News has aroused the ugliness of sin and violence in the world. It's the reason why crying women are lined up outside the little church in Bethlehem, asking the preacher, "It's already bad enough. Our sons are dead. Keep quiet about the child. Herod is still alive. You still want to preach?"

It is hardest to accept the responsibility to stand up for the truth.

Even more difficult—most difficult for me—is my own poor record in the face of the opposition to the gospel. It wasn't always that way. When I first dreamed of ministry at seventeen-years-old, I fantasized the Enemy. In my fantasies I was a martyr. I would lie on my little cot in summer camp beside the lake and imagine what it would be like to give my life to Jesus Christ, because we had sung a hymn around the lake that night holding candles. "Are you able? Are you able to drink the cup? Are you?" God had asked. "Yes, yes, yes!" I replied. So I would lie there in my bed and imagine how I would be able to give my life for Jesus Christ. I would picture myself being boiled in a pot somewhere, frozen to death in the tundra of the North, stood before a gray wall early in the morning with someone saying, "Do you still believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God? Deny him and live!" I would say, "I believe!" "Ready. Aim. Fire!" And flags would be at half-mast. Widows would weep in the afternoon. Oh, how I fantasized! I needed Herod in those days. I needed an enemy. I needed opposition. I wanted to be in the arena where the king turns down his thumb, the cage opens, and in comes the lion to tear me apart. I wanted a monument erected: HERE'S WHERE FRED GAVE HIS LIFE. People would come for pictures: "Stand over there, Charles. Let's get your picture next to the monument where ole' Fred gave his life." "Are you able?" "Sure! Bring on Herod!"

But then it got complicated. Something happened. I don't know if I got more mature, more cowardly, or what, but I was not able to recognize Herod. I would hate Herod if I could find Herod, but I didn't know who he was.

In Gethsemane two men approached Jesus. One had a sword in his hand, and the other, a kiss. Which is the friend, and which is the enemy? As it turned out, the one with the kiss was the enemy. The one with the sword was a friend. How can you tell? I didn't really want to get into any kind of campaign or project because I could be wrong. It was suddenly complex. You don't always have a simple right and wrong or yes and no. After I discovered this, I was immobilized for a long time.

In graduate school at Vanderbilt, I remember one time distinctly where I was immobilized. I was jumping through all the hoops to get my degree. It was a terrible experience. I was studying late at night, and the routine was the same: around midnight, I would take a break, go down to the little sandwich shop, and get a grilled cheese and a cup of coffee. One night I was following my routine, still thinking of my work. I went to the shop, ate my sandwich, and around the second or third cup of coffee, I saw someone I had not noticed when I had walked in: an elderly black man standing at the counter. I noticed him because the man working the kitchen asked the old man what he wanted. The old man said something, and the man at the grill went to the backside of the grill and picked up a dried-up hamburger patty, laid it on dry bread with no condiments, and handed it to the old man. He walked out the side door where the garbage can was and sat on the curb in the middle of the night, eighteen-wheelers whizzing by. And I didn't say anything. I felt really bad about it, and when I left to go up the hill, off in the distance I heard the cock crow. But I didn't say anything because I hate hassles. I like Luke. In fact, to tell you the truth, I would trade all 353 days of Matthew for the 12 days of Luke. I just hate hassles.


Today is Epiphany. What that means is, "For God so loved the world that God gave his only begotten Son." Someone stood up and announced that with great cheer and great joy, and Herod heard it and killed all the baby boys in Bethlehem. Is there anybody here planning to preach next Sunday?

To see an outline of Craddock's sermon, click here.

For your reflection:

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? _____________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ___________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? _______________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? ______________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ___________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see Plagiarism, Schmagiarism and Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize.

Fred B. Craddock is Bandy distinguished professor of preaching and New Testament emeritus at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and author of Preaching (Abingdon Press).

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Sermon Outline:


I. It's hard to accept that the Good News has enemies

II. It's harder to accept that announcing the truth makes enemies

III. It's hardest to accept our responsibility to stand up for the truth