An Epiphany Sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
January 5, 2020
We don’t know much about these so-called wise men.
We don’t know their names. We don’t know they were all men.
We don’t know how many of them there were. We just know they brought 3 gifts.
What we know about “magi,” as they are called in the original text, is that they were a caste of astrologers in Zoroastrianism, a religion in Persia, now Iran.
Fun fact—the word “magi” is where we get the word “magic”.
Their story is not related in any of the other gospels.Mark and John don’t talk at all about Jesus’ birth or childhood, and we’ll move to
Mark’s gospel next week and journey to Easter through that Gospel. Luke, in the texts we have heard on Christmas Eve, tells us about
Bethlehem, the star, and the shepherds, but he makes no reference to the visitors from the East. Only Matthew gives us this story.
But we’re talking about the magi today, because today we are celebrating Epiphany. This is an ancient Christian celebration, dating at least as far back as the 300’s.
This word comes to us almost directly from the Greek.
“Epi”, meaning ‘on’ or ‘upon’,
and “phaneros”, which means ‘visible’, or ‘seen’.
Epiphany means to “show up, show on, show out”.
The star ‘shows up’ so the magi can make their journey and ‘show up’ and find Jesus.
And that’s what we do know:
For all we do not know about the magi, we do know they followed a star that led them to Jesus.
For people in Israel who grew up hearing Isaiah’s promises, people who were living under occupation themselves, I wonder what the image of magi from the east, offering gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the child Jesus meant to the people of Israel when they saw the caravan moving through town.
One might think the magi would bring hope to a people, validation from outside sources that something important was happening. Maybe the rumors of shepherds seeing angels was true?
Arise! shine! for your light has come,
the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
I want the presence of the magi to remind the people of long held promises and invite them to see the world in new ways.
The text says this, however:
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.
King Herod met the wisemen and was frightened. All of Jerusalem was frightened too.
That’s how it works when you’re ruled by an insecure ruler. When you’re ruled by a despot, you are subject to the whims and fears of the despot. It’s hard to be excited about a star in the heavens when a despot is throwing a tantrum in the palace.
King Herod is afraid of a baby.
A grown man, with an army and all political power, is afraid when he hears the news of a child born to be king. Insecure leaders create an unsafe populace. And so all of Jerusalem is afraid too.
I think this is a foible of human nature we should notice. 2019 has just ended, and while it was a good year, over all, for my family, I don’t feel good about it.
Our country is still separating families at the border. The deficit is ballooning. Life expectancy in areas of our country is falling, partly because access to health care is problematic. Violence in the Middle East, perhaps escalated by us, is sending more of our troops to Iraq. Human behavior is changing the planet’s climate. Anti-semitism and acts of hate are on the rise.
All of the United States was afraid, Matthew might report.
Nicholas Kristoff had a column in the New York Times this past week titled, “This has been the best year ever”.
I saw the headline and thought, “what planet has he been on?!”
Turns out, the same one we live on.
“The bad things that you fret about are true. But it’s also true that since modern humans emerged about 200,000 years ago, 2019 was probably the year in which children were least likely to die, adults were least likely to be illiterate and people were least likely to suffer excruciating and disfiguring diseases.
Every single day in recent years, another 325,000 people got their first access to electricity. Each day, more than 200,000 got piped water for the first time.
Perhaps the greatest calamity for anyone is to lose a child. That used to be common: Historically, almost half of all humans died in childhood. As recently as 1950, 27 percent of all children still died by age 15. Now that figure has dropped to about 4 percent.”
He writes not to encourage us to be complacent about the real problems we see in the world, but to remind us to keep those problems in perspective, and to not let the fears of Kings like Herod conscript us to join them in their fear.
Reading his column made me wonder if we’d all been following the wrong star, and had focused too much of our energy in the shadows, or as Isaiah put it:
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
Maybe we’ve been covered by darkness. Maybe it is time to shake off the darkness and fear, and time to show up and shine the light.
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
While I still know too many people with burdensome medical debt, and while I am committed to work to change things so that people don’t go bankrupt because they got sick, I’m also going to look at the light. This past year, Southminster and Boise Presbytery paid off the medical debt of 971 people in Idaho. We’re hoping to do that again in 2020. You can read more about that here. Arise, shine, for your light has come.
We can choose not to be afraid just because King Herod is afraid.
You know who didn’t seem to be afraid in this story?
Herod tells them to report back to him, so that he, too, can pay Jesus homage. I don’t know if they believed him at the time, but they were warned in a dream not to return to him. The magi receive an unjust order from a vindictive tyrant, and they disobey him, journeying home by another road.
Had they been led by fear of a despot in a palace, they would have obeyed his instructions. Having met the child, and having paid him homage, perhaps it became clear that you can worship Jesus, or you can worship the emperor, but you can’t give allegiance to both.
Giving homage to Jesus sends you home by other roads, away from the fear in which earthly leaders traffic.
The stars are in our sky 24 hours a day. It is only in the darkness that we see their light to follow them. So when we’re in the darkness, we have to remember to look up. Epiphanies come in the darkness. Are we willing to look for them?
The epiphany was only the beginning of the changes for the magi, for all of us. And not all of the changes are easy. The epiphany of a child born as king in Bethlehem turned the world upside down and shook the palace in Jerusalem.
The world responds when God breaks into the world—and it isn’t always peaceful. I invite you to read ahead in Matthew this week and see how the powers of the world responded to the epiphany.
However it was the Magi knew that this star was different, that this child was a king, they followed the call and showed up for the journey that would take them home by other roads.
There’s an old book by Henry Van Dyke called the Story of the Other Wise Man. And it chronicles a magi who misses the caravan to Jerusalem because he stops to help an ill man on the side of the road. He still travels to Bethlehem, but he’s missed the holy family, who has fled to Egypt, and he’s missed his magi friends, who have gone home by another road. He goes to Egypt and searches for Jesus in the refugee camps and settlements. He ministers to those he encounters on the way, even as it delays his search for the child. He spends the gifts he’d brought for the baby to feed people, to free people, to care for people.
Finally, 33 years later, he’s back in Jerusalem as Jesus is about to be crucified. The magi is headed to the cross and encounters yet one more person who needs his help. He’s feeling a failure, having missed the king he’s been looking to give homage to his whole life, when God speaks to him, thanking him for his gifts.
The man responds with “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” , quoting a passage from the end of Matthew’s gospel in chapter 25.
And God responds to this other magi, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
It occurred to me that Matthew 25 is the way the author of this gospel invites us to follow the star. We too missed the original caravan. Yet the work of our lives is to follow the star in search of the Christ.
I pray we take time and show up for the journey, ministering to those we meet on the way.
Blessings to us all on this journey. Lift up your eyes and look around. It is into the darkness of our world that God shines a star for us to follow. May it lead us to a child born to show us the way of peace.
Today was also the day we received our Star Words. If you’d like me to select one for you, leave a comment here and I will do that later today.