January 3, 2021 Epiphany of Our Lord The text is Matthew 2:1-12.
1 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.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Last year at Epiphany we delved into the nature of the Three Wise Men. That the accepted notion that there were, in fact three of them arose from the three gifts they bore; Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. And that the Gospel really doesn’t actually tell us how many Magi came in search of the Christ-child. And we took a look at the Christmas carol, “We Three Kings”. The “Kings” in the title may have its genesis in the writings of the prophet Isaiah, where it’s stated that “kings” shall come to honor the Messiah. In actuality the Wise Men (if indeed they were all males, and it’s possible that there were women among them) were most likely followers of an ancient Persian religion; Zoroastrianism. This very ancient Eastern belief system was deeply rooted in astronomy; the movements and alignments of stars, planets, comets, and meteors in the night skies. Zoroastrian priests gazed toward the heavens in search of celestial phenomena that might be the harbinger of an event of great consequence. They reported to Herod that they had witnessed a bright star as it rose in the sky, and based on their astronomical equations they were inspired to follow it, believing that it foretold the birth of a great king.
And the word, “Magi”? Well, this is the root of the word “magic”. Ancient Persian Magi were thought to have the ability to discern future events through their astronomical observations. Today we would call this astrology, rather than astronomy. Nonetheless, these Persian priests determined that something they saw in the night sky was important enough for them to make the long trek from what is modern-day Iran to Bethlehem in Israel. So, no matter the correlation between Magi and magic, these “Wise Men” felt compelled to act upon the cosmic observations they made.
Do these revelations diminish the importance of their visit to worship the baby Jesus? Not in the least; I would suggest that they serve only to highlight the paradoxical nature of Christ, as God in flesh.
The entire concept of God coming to live among his creation as one of them is counterintuitive at best. But we acknowledge that this is exactly what happened with the birth of Christ. What is worthy of discussion is how Jesus’ arrival is announced, responded to, and hopefully understood and appreciated.
When it comes to announcement we obviously need to begin with Mary. She is perhaps fourteen or fifteen years old, and a poor peasant girl. She is told by the angel Gabriel that she will conceive a child by the action of the Holy Spirit and will give birth to none other than the Son of God. Next, an angel informs her fiancé Joseph that his betrothed is with child, but he has nothing to be concerned about; she hasn’t been unfaithful to him, she remains a virgin. She has found favor with God, and she just happens to be carrying God’s own Son in her womb. Not the way we might expect the announcement of a future king.
John the Baptizer, Jesus’ cousin is one of the first to realize the truth of who Jesus is. He’s reported to be somewhat of a wild man; living by himself in the desert, wearing clothes made of camel hair, eating honey and insects. But he’s the one whom God chooses to baptize Jesus in the Jordan. Again, not a perfect choice that would seem most appropriate for the act that would reveal Christ’s identity. So, it’s not that much of a stretch to accept that God would reveal himself in the person of Jesus to these Persian stargazers whom we read about this morning; be they three, or wise, or even men.
Over the next church year, we will revisit the stories of Jesus’ adult mission and ministry. The unlikely dozen he chooses to be his disciples. Peter, who refuses to have his feet washed, who sinks when Jesus tells him to simply believe, and who denies Christ three times. We will watch Jesus perform miracles, dine with all sorts of unsavory characters, and defy the religious authorities to the point where they feel they have no other way to deal with him but to have him put him to death. In general, it will be, yet again the retelling of how God himself comes to us in flesh and turns the world upside down.
But, let’s not rush too far ahead; Wednesday will be January 6, the day the Christian church celebrates as the Epiphany. That is, when the “Wise Men” recognize that God has come into the world, in the form of the infant Jesus of Nazareth. This morning’s Gospel speaks to this event, one vitally important in the life of Jesus and his ministry, when humanity first comes to realize that the Messiah has come. The other incidents will happen during Christ’s adult ministry and we’ll certainly delve into them as the church year progresses. There are many more realizations, more “epiphanies” to come; the otherwise rather dense Simon renamed as Peter, ‘doubting’ Thomas, the Centurion at the foot of the Cross. But this first Epiphany is that of non-Jewish people from a far-off land, who followed the arc of a celestial body to discover and worship the foretold “King of the Jews”. It appears that the paradoxical nature of Christ’s entire ministry began very early on, when he was yet an infant in Mary’s arms. The epiphany of his kingship is revealed not to his own people, but to some very unlikely folks.
When Jesus was still a babe in Mary’s arms, even then, God was letting the world know that Jesus, God-in-flesh was to be a Light for all the nations, Jew and Gentile alike. So, two thousand years later, why does it seem there is there still such a limited Epiphany, so much unbelief? Why is it so difficult for people to accept the Good News of God in Jesus Christ, yet be so willing to embrace all sorts of other new age nonsense? It’s likely because belief in the occult, the mystical, and other kinds of new age ‘spirituality’ doesn’t require very much from their followers. All that’s needed is a belief in whatever is being said by astrologers, psychics, and the like. But when a person is guided by the Holy Spirit to be open to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, when the realization of who Jesus is and what he came to do occurs; when that personal epiphany happens, things are bound to change.
Just as God turned the world on its ear by announcing Jesus’ birth to Persian scientists; just as Jesus during his entire ministry disrupted the normal attitudes and behaviors of the people he encountered. Just as five thousand people ate their fill from a young boy’s loaves of bread and some donated fish. Things changed. And once we have truly accepted that Jesus the Christ is God incarnate, when we experience this personal epiphany, things must change for us too.
Because the epiphany, the realization of something as profound as God among us, isn’t the end, it’s a beginning. The Wise Men knew that they had to avoid Herod on their return home because they were warned in a dream to travel by a different road. That seemingly simple turn of events spared Jesus from the massacre about to be ordered by Herod. So, what’s the grand message that we can take from the Epiphany story? That God chose members of an astronomical priestly sect to be the first Gentiles to hear of the arrival of the Messiah? Sure, that’s vastly significant. That a star guided them to Mary and the infant Jesus? Yep, this is an important part of the story also. But for me, the deeper, yet the simplest message is this; they chose a different road.
The Wise Men did so literally; we ought to do so spiritually. What choice do we really have? Once we experience that moment of epiphany, once we slap ourselves on the forehead and finally figure it out, once we accept that Jesus Christ, God-in-flesh walked the earth as one of us, we have no choice but to take a different road. Because we have what the Wise Men didn’t; we have Jesus’ Holy Word in the Scriptures. We benefit from his teachings; we know what he came to earth to do. We are recipients of the salvation brought about through his rising from the grave after his death on the cross. We also know what he commands of us. And these admonitions demand that we do what God started when he sent his Son into the world. Jesus was born to a poor peasant girl in a stable food trough, not to a queen in a palace. Those to whom God announced the birth were as foreign to the people of Judea as they could possibly be. Nearly everything Jesus does that we read in Scripture goes against the norm; turns the ordinary in on itself.
He touches the unclean, eats with sinners, tells people that masters should wait on their servants, and that the timid, not the bold will inherit the kingdom of God. Then, just as we finally come to the epiphany that this is just how we would expect our God-in-the-flesh to behave, Jesus tells us that he expects us to do the same. He expects, no he commands us to take the different road! The road that leads to, not away from the homeless, the hungry, the naked.
Not the wide tree-lined avenue that passes in front of the soup kitchen, food bank, or homeless shelter, but the narrow, weed-choked lane that makes its way around to their back entrance. The path that leads into these places, where we are called to act just as Jesus did. To house, to feed, to clothe the very same people that Christ himself came to live among and minister to. This is the different road we are called to travel. This road may more likely than not be a rocky pathway, not a smoothly paved four-lane highway. In fact, the road Christ calls us to travel is nearly always the bumpiest, the most potholed; the one where a toll must be paid, the one most difficult to find. It might not even show up on the map we are using to find our way in our daily lives. Nonetheless, it’s the road we must travel. We know this because we, each one of us, at some point in our lives has come to know that our God-in-flesh has come to live among us. Just as the Wise Men did, we have had our epiphany and we know what we must do. We have to go out and hit the road, no matter where it may lead.
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious and Holy God, you chose to first reveal Christ to those least expected to come to worship him, gentiles from a far-off land. And you led them to travel a different road to ensure the safety of your infant Son. Guide us as we choose the road we travel, that we might always take the path that leads to the relief of those whom Jesus loved, “the least of these”. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, whose glory was first revealed to the most unlikely; and ultimately, to us. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good.