The wise men read the stars, saw the signs of the new born king and went to worship him. Herod, the current leader of the realm, was less than happy and while he said he wanted to know when the child would be born so he could worship him too, he really wanted to kill a potential rival. And so the wise men wisely decided to return home by another way.
I think sometimes the wise men get a back rap in the broader Christmas story. They are seen as having their heads in the clouds. Yet there is more to learn from them than we might realize. The wise men were gentiles, likely from a variety of places of origin. These wise men were well known for their ability to deduce things from the heavens, from both stars and dreams.
But what also made them truly wise was not only their knowledge of astronomy, but their willingness to apply what they learned to their lives. They were not above being changed by what they saw and experienced. And neither should we be. Let us pray. Loving Lord, as we begin this New Year we long for a fresh start and for a new infusion of grace and strength. We ask that the light of Christ and the wisdom of the star might shine on us this year. Amen.
During the Advent and Christmas seasons at Bradley Hills this year we focus on the theme of light. We sing “Creator of the Stars at Night” for the Kyrie and “This Little Light of Mine” as the Reflecting God’s Love for Children sections of the service all through Advent and Christmas. If you were here Christmas Eve at the 10pm service you know we preached on the topic of rediscovering light.
Most of us do a better job of building up to Christmas than living Christmas on the other side of it. The Christmas holiday cards start appearing at CVS in October, but by now they have all been replaced by Valentine’s Day cards. On the radio 97.1 starts playing Christmas carols in mid-November but on December 26 the station moves from those timeless Christmas classics to outdated pop and rock songs. I tried to read to my kids from Dickens’ Christmas Carol this week and show them more Peanuts Christmas specials and all they want is Harry Potter. Advent is full of carols and shopping and parties and preparation and then it all just ends after Christmas. It’s all kind of a let-down.
Yet in the church Christmas continues, not just for a day, but for a while because the work of Christmas continues long after the presents have been opened.
Over the holidays, my parents took our boys to see The Twelve Days of Christmas at Adventure Theater in Glen Echo. It was a great children’s show and reminded us that Christmas is a season, and that we should not simply call it quits right after the candles are blown out on Christmas Eve.
Last night as we were discussing taking the tree down, one of our daughters yelled out, “I want Christmas to come back!”
Well, the message of epiphany is the corollary to Christmas. A lot happens after the birth. And what happens, matters. The wise men reflect the light of the season and the star, and then they return home as changed people.
When the wise men experienced joy after they saw the star they no doubt were beaming. We talked on Christmas Eve about how the shepherds reflected the light of the Christ child. They did not produce any light. They simply reflected that which came to them from the manger. Reflecting the light is what happened to Moses when he met God on Mt. Sinai, it’s what happened to Paul after Christ’s light blinded him on the road to Damascus, it’s what happened to our faces when the candles were lit on Christmas Eve.
This is what happens when we meet something holy. We need not remain in the darkness where we once were. We reflect the light of the season. We might have an epiphany, a realization, a revelation, that something has changed in our life. That we have been amidst the holy and will never be the same.
Luke tells us that the glory which had shone around the angels now shone around the shepherds. Then the shepherds went home glorifying God. In the case of the wise men, they also saw the glory of God in the sky and Matthew tells us they were full of joy. Furthermore, the glory of God manifested itself in a dream which warned them not to return to Herod, but to go home by a different route.
It is noteworthy that the great narratives of the Bible that are read for Christmas and Epiphany, Luke 2 and Matthew 2, narratives about which many a Christmas carol and Epiphany song have been written and sung, have their main characters return home.
The Gospel writers emphasize that neither the shepherds nor the wise men stay in the manger either. Their lives and work continue but they are not the same.
It doesn’t matter how ordinary or special we feel, we don’t stay in the manger. Christmas comes and goes. Our task is to take some of the magic with us. Not simply to put it away on Boxing Day but to understand the season extends as we return home changed people. Now is the time for us to leave the manger and follow the star on a new path.
There is a difference between intelligence and wisdom. For the staff Christmas party in mid-December we ordered Lebanese food from an inexpensive but pretty good place in Bethesda called Roti. The man who delivered the food was wearing a company shirt which read, “Intelligence is knowing that tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in the fruit salad.”
We think about the epiphany here as the wise men deducing where Jesus was. And they were great astronomers and astrologers. But they weren’t perfect either. The wise men don’t originally follow the star to Jesus. Matthew tells us that while Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the wise men came to Jerusalem asking “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” They had observed the star rising and assumed the king would be in the Jerusalem seat of government. Herod had to send them to Bethlehem, for his priests told him that the messiah was to be born there. So Herod sent the wise men to Bethlehem and on the way they picked up the trail of the star again. They had to take a different path to the messiah in Bethlehem than the one they originally set out to take.
The wise men were wise in part because they were willing to have their whole trajectory changed. They were willing to learn and to apply what they knew. Their epiphany was not only what they learned about Jesus, his identity and his location, but what they learned about themselves and which way they should go from someone else.
One of you recently sent me a wonderful quote from Albert Schweitzer, who said, “Sometimes our light goes out but it is blown into flame by another human being. Each of us owes deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this light.”
We spent weeks anticipating, preparing, watching, waiting and then celebrating Christmas. Now perhaps our epiphany is more personal and potentially more impactful. This is the time of year for making resolutions. Now is the perfect time to commit ourselves to that which is new. To engage with and invest in this congregation of people who are reflecting their own light. To make plans to do something special next summer. To express thanks for those who have rekindled our light.
So we ask ourselves the question, “What route do I take now that I know God came for me?” We come to church each week to be reminded that there is a new route possible in life for us. One of compassion and hope and service and love. One where there may be a cross to carry but where Christ carries us. Like the Gentile magi and the Jewish citizens of Jerusalem who met in the Epiphany story to show that God’s love breaks down the dividing walls between races and cultures, we find God’s presence when we seek to break down divisions and include rather than divide.[i]
Christ is present at the table where all are welcome renew their shining light. To remind us that Christ came for us and that there is light within us waiting to be rediscovered.
So we go forth realizing that God came not just for Mary and Joseph, not only for wise men and simple shepherds, but for you and for me. God came at Christmas and continues with us.
God came as an ordinary baby in an ordinary manger to ordinary parents. It’s in ordinary activities, places and circumstances that God continues to appear. Like the shepherds and wise men, we return too. We return to that doctor’s appointments or financial documents that we were putting off. We return to the challenges the kids are having at school. To the busyness of work. To the routines of caring for family members or dealing with that haunting tension or figuring out how to make all the ends meet and the relationships work out.
Our challenge is that these issues, obligations and routines often become reasons for us to leave Christmas behind too quickly. For us to roll it up December 26. For us to become too busy to try something new. For us to act as if nothing happened. To feel we are only needed on that old path.
The real epiphany is that these are the very reasons for us to do something different. The epiphany is that we can now face our everyday tasks differently because God arrived at Christmas. God belongs with us in our tasks. We need to bring God into our relationships, prayers into our healing, discernment into our financial planning, compassion into our schools, the spirit into our family dynamics, commitment into our church and grace into our caregiving. God appears in each one of these encounters, whether joyful or painful. But we won’t recognize God if we walk back the same way as before, as if Christmas never happened, as if we don’t need to change. When Christmas is over, we go back to our own country, our own lives, our own routines, our own activities, but we do so now by another road.
T.S. Eliot wrote of the Magi’s Journey, “We returned to our places … but no longer at ease … in the old dispensation.”[ii] We too see things that need to be changed.
Last night before going to bed, I just stared at my lit Christmas tree in the living room. I know that I don’t have much longer to do so. In a few days that tree will be on the curb and one of the last reminders of Christmas will be behind me. But not the only one. For I stared at the beauty of the lights, ornaments and star, and I thought about what I will take away from Christmas into the New Year. About what new road I might walk on now.
We return by another road when we commit ourselves to the God who committed to us at Christmas. Then we bring our faith, those values and that love to our everyday lives. So, if God has been nudging you down a road less traveled, if there is a path you have been longing to follow, now might be the time to take it. It could make all the difference. Amen.