NRSV MATTHEW 2:1-12
2 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
And you thought Christmas was over.
Well, actually, it is. We have just finished the 12 days of Christmas, so the 12 pipers piping have departed the scene with yesterday’s to-be-recycled newspaper, and we are now into the days of Epiphany. Starting with today, January 6th, the Day of Epiphany.
It comes with no small amount of intimidation, this Epiphany thing. This Day only comes up for preaching on a Sunday once every six years or thereabouts, so the preacher better not blow it. It marks the coming of the Wise Men, three we have been told, “We Three Kings,” we have just sung. Those of us who study such things might also know that “epiphany” means “the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles,” at least in the Christian calendar sense of the term. It is Jesus being made known to the world, God breaking into our time and place for all people. It’s a great season to talk about mission workers and those who go to faraway lands to bring the good news of Jesus, to make Jesus known.
But Epiphany has a much closer feel these days. As we have been told over and over and over again, the mission field is not overseas as much as it is right outside our door. That does not mean that we neglect our brother and sister Christians in other nations. It just means that the Good News of Jesus Christ is not given only to us inside this building. We have a call to take that word out into the world. That should be obvious, a “no-duh” kind of thing. But it bears reminding. The minute we tell someone we are a Christian, our actions, our words, our intentions are demonstrations – icons if you will – of who Jesus is and what he is about. We become Epiphanic in the sense that our lives and our words are ways that make Christ known in the world.
So Epiphany is not just a day for a preacher to dread. It has a challenge for each of us. We better not blow it.
But all of that ‘better not blow it’ stuff takes away from the joy of Epiphany. And make no mistake about it, there is joy aplenty here. We know that Christmas day is long past, and the Christmas season is over. But the greens are still up, and the Christ candle in the Advent Wreath is still lit, and some of the poinsettias are around for one more week. We let go of Christmas only with kicking and screaming. After all, the Wise Men have finally arrived. They are part of the Christmas story, too, aren’t they? The crèche out in the foyer and in the ones in many of your loving rooms have had the Wise Men since they went up. Maybe we conceive of them as being coupled with the shepherds at the manger. But Luke is the Gospel of the shepherds, and Matthew is the only one that tells us of the Wise Men. He never really tells us how many Wise Men are there, even if we insist to our dying breath there are three. Matthew, in the original Greek, doesn’t even use the words, “Wise Men.”
He uses the Greek word magioi, magi. These were not kings, but Zoroastrian priests, from the land of Persia to the east. These were people who studied the stars for signs of something special, or rather, someone special. I stumbled upon an interesting piece of information this past week from a sister minister in the Lutheran Church who wrote that Zoroastrians, who still practice their religion in Iran (modern day Persia) had a lot of parallels to Christianity. They believe that the founder of their religion was also the product of a virginal birth, and entered into ministry at the age of 30 after defeating the temptations of Satan. Zoroastrians believed that there are prophets who are still being born to virgins, and their births are foretold in the stars. Hence, the reason why these three priests – or however many there were – were so diligent in finding this special one. They, too, were looking for that special one who would be the Savior of the world.
I don’t know about you, but that really filled in a lot of blanks for me. It certainly sounded a lot more congenial than other accounts I have read about magi; that they were just a bunch of quacks, star-gazing people who spent all of their time looking heavenward, making predictions like those many of us read in the morning paper. They were engaged in a practice that was specifically condemned by good, faithful Jews, like those Matthew was writing to and for. And then to top it all off, they were, of course, Gentiles; outsiders, not people of the covenant, not those who had received the commandments or were part of the legacy of God’s presence and liberation.
Yet there they are, gracing our creches for two millennia and counting, examples of those who seek out the Christ child wherever he is, those who may not have the inside track on God’s word and promises but who still search diligently for the child, and who worship him with joy. These wonderful, star gazing outsiders have a lot to teach us who feel we do have the inside track. They challenge us with what it means to worship God with more than surface religiosity. When they saw the star settling down over the place where the child was, they were overwhelmed with joy.
All of this after they encountered the forces of power and control, the forces who were not overwhelmed with joy but overwhelmed with fear. King Herod, sitting in Jerusalem, hearing all of this talk about the birth of a new king in Bethlehem; that little, out of the way place and yet a place filled with meaning and significance. The hometown of David; the people from another country bringing gifts also symbolized the bringing of gifts to David’s son Solomon by the Queen of Sheba. A new king, in the same place that produced the great king whose line was promised by God. But it upset the balance of power definitely tipped toward Herod. There was trouble afoot. As one writer noted, “Be afraid, Herod. Be very afraid.”
Not that he needs any encouragement. Herod is fearful because he is insecure. He knows there are enemies out there, and we know from historians that Herod did not take opposition lightly. Nor did he – nor any other king in those days – have any room for competitors. Yes, he engaged in a lot of big building projects but he was also known for being ruthless with opponents. Don’t forget – this account sets the stage for Herod, in a furious temper tantrum, to order the deaths of every male child under the age of two in the region his own priests told him about. But the young couple visited by the magi are tipped off about the temper tantrum, so they head off to Egypt to escape Herod’s fury. Migrants – not really too different from modern day migrants fleeing violence and oppression for a better life.
Any time the forces of power use violence to get what they want; any time a difference of opinion is not tolerated; any time insecurity becomes a false god for those in power, or for ourselves; any time the status quo becomes more important than the movement of God’s Spirit to make all things and all people new, we can see that this old, familiar story is as contemporary as this morning’s breaking news. We can cow tow to the Herods of our time who want to keep things as they are and everyone under control, using fear as a tool to make that happen; or we can follow the magi, the ones God came to and showed another way home.
Brain McLaren, who has done a lot of work trying to discern how the church is moving in our days with integrity and authenticity, was writing about how Jesus models an evolving faith. And yet I felt like he said something about the desire to stay put and control as opposed to moving on and trusting the call of God when he wrote:
“For centuries, Christians have presented God as a Supreme Being who showers blessings upon insiders who share certain beliefs and proper institutional affiliation, but who punishes outsiders with eternal conscious torment. Yet Jesus revealed God as one who ‘eats with sinners,’ welcomes outsiders in, and forgives even while being rejected, tortured, and killed. Jesus associated God more with a gracious parental tenderness than strict
authoritarian toughness. He preached that God was to be found in self-giving service rather than self-asserting domination. What would it mean for Christians to let Jesus and his message lead them to a new vision of God? What would it mean for Christians to understand, experience, and embody God as the loving, healing, reconciling Spirit in whom all creatures live, move, and have their being?”
Part of embracing that new vision of what God has for us and what Jesus has to say to us in this new year is letting go of dualistic thinking; of thinking everything and everyone have to be divided up into sides, into either/or. Instead our call may be to allow our minds to go a new way, the way of both/and. Maybe the decision for us is not so much to decide if we are going to be control-freak Herods or happy go lucky magi who get to go home a new way. Maybe the new way for us is to affirm that each of us is both Herod and magi, both dominating and letting go. In this new year maybe we need to give ourselves and others a break and give permission to be fearful when needed, but also aware that there is a wonderful new direction that God has for us, if we just take the first step and dare to be joyous in doing so.
That first step, of course is one we take at this table. This is where fearful and trusting disciples of Jesus have met since the beginning. We come, like they did, fearful of what the future holds; fearful that our way of doing things will be challenged, fearful that maybe we do not always have it right. But we also come trusting the one whose body and blood are given spiritually as we eat these elements and are then refreshed to enter a new year in faith, in trust, and in love.
Our guides in taking this journey are, of course, those star-gazing, horoscope-obsessed, future-predicting magi of old. For if God can work through these whom others dismissed, imagine how God can work through us? All we have to do is to do what they did: let the joy of seeing a rising star enter our own hearts, and then let that joy free us to journey in a new direction. Amen.