Listen to the sermon here.
Some folks take the Christmas tree down the day after Christmas. Pack up all the ornaments, wrap up the lights, vacuum the tinsel and glitter. Perhaps after all the anticipation for Christmas day, you’re ready to move on from the season, and the carols and look ahead, embracing this New Year upon us. I’m curious! Who is this? All your Christmas stuff is packed away? (hands raise) Okay, now who still has their tree up? Maybe new presents still under the tree? (hands raise) I remember growing up, we always kept the tree up and decorated until at least January 6, the Epiphany—the celebration of the day we tell the story of the magi’s visit to the Christ child. My mom even liked to set up the nativity scene with the angels and shepherds in the manger with Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus in one place and then we would set up the three wise men up in another part of the living room and move them closer and closer in the days following Christmas, as they journeyed towards Bethlehem.
Today we celebrate their arrival, and their journey. Let us pray:
Gracious God, who calls to us in every time and place. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, Oh Lord, in whom we live and move and have our being. Amen.
In the medieval church, the Christmas festivities lasted this whole period, with the culmination on the feast of Epiphany— the twelfth day after Christmas. That twelve-day celebration is also, where we get the song from. So rather than the twelve drummers drumming, and three French hens we get the story of these three gifts of the magi.
It is an entirely different story than that of the gospel of Luke, even though we tend to merge the stories for a fuller nativity experience on Christmas Eve. But today we focus just on the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, to gather a word of hope and inspiration from these travelers who find themselves on a journey. We say good bye to the shepherds and angles that bring and tell good news, we also bid farewell to the inn and the manger. For today’s gospel tells us another tale: Travelers, wise men, star readers and dream interpreters.
They came to Jerusalem, where King Herod held court, and were asking around. Maybe they didn’t have a G.P.S. to get them the seven miles further to Bethlehem or maybe they were distracted by the center of power so they lost their way and their ability for celestial navigation . . . or perhaps they needed confirmation from the devote scholars of faith to continue on their quest. But word travels fast in Jerusalem, just like it does in the end of the Gospel story that we hear on Palm Sunday. Important travelers are asking about the newly born king of the Jews, and people are talking!
Who are these foreigners in Jerusalem asking where is the king of the Jews supposed to be born?? There is a king and his name is Herod. He’s in charge, he’s pretty powerful, gets his way most of the time, by force or violence or scheming. Herod hears these rumblings of mysterious travelers, crossing not only through his kingdom, but into the very center of it! Asking questions about scripture writings and faith, and talking about star interpretation and looking to the sky for answers.
So Herod requests a consult with the scribes and asks the same question, where is the messiah to be born? They know the prophet Micah’s teachings well and tell him. This is an important piece of the story because it places Jesus’ beginnings in line with the prophet Micah who foretold that Bethlehem of Judah is the place. This confirms the Jewish prophetic witness that he is born in Bethlehem. In the early church, a big objection to accepting Jesus as the messiah is that the messiah was foretold to be born in Bethlehem. So how could Jesus of Nazareth be that messiah? A big focus in the Gospel of Matthew is telling the story of how Jesus is the long-awaited messiah about whom the prophets spoke.
After their consult with Herod, the scribes do not act. Knowing these magi are seeking a ruler who will be the shepherd of the people, even knowing the prophetic words, they are not open to seeking him. Perhaps they don’t want to upset Herod further. Maybe they are comfortable in their positions or maybe they just didn’t have it in them to risk faith in something more. But Herod is a man on a mission—to hold onto power for as long as he can and determined to root out any possible threats. So he calls the magi to consult with them about when the star appeared and told the magi the information they needed to get to Bethlehem, hoping they would return.
But the magi now are following both the star and the scripture to Bethlehem.
About eight years ago I was in Peru with the Young Adult Volunteer program, and one of our mid-year retreats was a three-day trek in the Andes Mountains. Now I wasn’t much of a hiker then so my favorite times were when we’d stop and set up camp for the night. One night after we put the fire out, I was making my way back to my tent, and I looked up amazed at what I saw. It was a clear night with barely any light from the moon, and the stars were unreal, simply incredible. We were hiking in a part of the mountains that was relatively uninhabited by people, so there were no lights to disturb the beauty of the bright and clear sky. Even now, I can close my eyes, and still see the abundance of stars stretching from horizon to horizon – surrounding me as I stood there in the darkness of the mountains.
I was in awe of the night sky and it gave me the tiniest glimpse of what it might have been like to look at the sky before we learned to light our own way.
As I’ve considered what I saw that night while thinking about the magi’s journey, I wonder how someone might be led by the stars, or one star in particular among the rest.
There are so many shooting stars and bright ones, and interestingly arranged stars. How do you know which star to follow? And imagine looking night after night to make sure you are on the right course.
When we think of the word epiphany, it is defined as a sudden inspiration, like an “a-ha” moment, a stroke of insight, perspective or vision. Maybe even you imagine these cartoon light bulbs that pop up in your head.
But Epiphany for the magi takes more work than that. Study, patience, faith, and risk… the word, when capitalized, is defined as the manifestation or revelation of Christ to the gentiles. This is part of the celebration. These magi, who are outsiders, are the ones who truly understood who this baby was. They were not kings themselves, they were wise astrologers, who would often be consulted by kings and various persons of power for their wisdom and guidance.[i]
So the magi didn’t just look up one night and say, “Oh, that’s interesting, let’s go check it out!” It took more than that for them to go. They studied the night sky and made comments and charts. They weren’t just “waiting expectantly for some messiah [to appear], they were taking notes on comet and planetary movements.”[ii] They actively sought God at work in our world. It took discernment and practice looking—looking for patterns and movements, and changes over time. It took a discipline to make the observation, and then faith to go on the journey. “Even though they have no special knowledge of [the scripture] the Torah, [they] still came to worship.[iii]
Epiphany means waking up to God in our lives and our world. And it still means that today, in our lives.
It takes openness, and thoughtfulness to deepen our faith, and intentional seeking to meet God. And it takes a community, to journey with. We traditionally have this image of three solo travelers wondering in the desert making their way towards Jerusalem, because of the three gifts that were given by the magi. But we truly have no idea how many travel companions they had. It could have been a whole company of people who journeyed together to meet the living Christ, God present in our midst.
So I ask you today: Who are your travel companions as you journey into this New Year? Who are those people that enrich your life and deepen and challenge your faith? Inspiring little and big epiphanies in you? It can be more than people too, I encourage each one of us, myself included, to think also about which practices and spiritual disciplines will be our companions in this year to come? Is it in adding a devotional practice to your daily routine? Or meeting one another in conversation and prayer. Praying for each other, or reading scripture together.
And who are the travel companions we’ve said goodbye to? Maybe because of a move, or a job change or a death, or maybe because we’ve realized that we might need to continue on another road, that like Herod, they might not have the best intentions for us and our journey towards deeper faith?
The magi were open and looking for an epiphany, preparing their hearts and minds to align themselves with how God was leading them. Just like the magi, my prayer for us in this New Year ahead, is that we might open ourselves up to following a path set out for us, with our travel companions, seeking the place of the star.
So that we too may kneel and believe, and be changed through the encounter with the living Christ.
[i] The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Matthew. (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc.), 15.
[ii] James C. Howell, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 212.
[iii] New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume VII. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 140.