Gracious God, we thank you for the wonder and joy of this celebration of Epiphany and for the promise of your abiding presence with us. As we worship together today and as we journey onward in faith into a new year, let our hearts be open once more to your love and to your leading. Amen.
Happy New Year and Happy Epiphany Sunday! Though tomorrow, January 6th, is technically Epiphany, today we celebrate the close of the Christmas season as we focus on the story of the Magi, those wise ones from the east, who traversed afar to find and worship the Christ Child by following that star of wonder.
In our American culture, Christmas has already wound down and some of us might welcome that at this point. But in a number of other cultures, Epiphany is just as big a deal as Christmas. In a number of Latin American and European countries, Epiphany is a day when people dress up as the three wise men and have parades around town and give children gifts as they remember the gifts the magi gave to Jesus. This tradition really took off in the middle ages when the magi were imagined to be kings from other lands (an idea that came from the Psalms, not from the Gospel of Matthew) and were even given names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar (which was also a later tradition, not from the text). And so, the feast of the Epiphany became the last hurrah before all of the Christmas decorations come down and life returns to normal again.
Personally, I like the idea of celebrating and focusing on Epiphany on its own because the story of the Magi is a brief, but important opening movement in Matthew’s gospel and it illustrates some of the key themes that will continue to play out as the gospel story unfolds.
First, Matthew (who probably wrote his gospel for a predominantly Jewish community) emphasizes that Jesus came not just for some people, but for all people, not just for the Jewish people in Judea, but for the whole world. These wise men are Gentiles, outsiders from a foreign land who took a long journey searching for the Messiah who came for all people. The story suggests that they took this journey because they felt the tug of faith in their hearts and saw in the starry sky a sign that they interpreted as an affirmation of that faith. And so, they followed.
We call this day Epiphany because this story is a revelation, an unveiling, that illustrates to all the world who this child is. Right off the bat, the gospel is offering all who hear this story an invitation to follow. Matthew asks: won’t you come seek him too, whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever your background and culture, just as those wise men once did?
Second, Matthew is setting up a story of two competing kingdoms. The wise men seek the child who has been born king of the Jews. But there is already a king of the Jews and his name is Herod. And, in Herod’s mind, there is only room for one king.
So, once again, the gospel is offering an invitation and a choice. We must choose the Kingdom in which we will place our faith, the Kingdom in which we will invest our lives: the Kingdom of Herod (and the Roman Empire he worked for) or the Kingdom of God… the Kingdom of God which is already being revealed in the birth of Jesus and will continue to be revealed through his life, ministry, death, and resurrection… the Kingdom of God that Jesus will proclaim, teach, and embody… the Kingdom of God in which all are invited to participate.
Matthew makes the faithful choice clear to us, of course. The wise men had it right. They offered their precious gifts in reverence to the rightful king. And they heeded the divine warning that came to them in a dream to defy Herod’s malicious intentions and return home by another road.
What kingdom, what road, will we choose?
In order to help us choose, Matthew also shows us what happens when allegiance to the kingdoms of this world control us. That’s the story of Herod. And Herod’s story is all about power and fear. He is afraid of losing everything – his power and control, his favorable position in the Roman Empire, his money, his many mansions, and his life. He is fearful of a king who will rise up to conquer and destroy him. But, of course, the great irony is that he doesn’t understand what kind of king Jesus will become and he knows nothing of the Kingdom Jesus came to reveal.
It’s tragic really, especially considering the next episode in the story. What Herod does in an attempt to save his own reign and own skin is unconscionable. He slaughters all of the children two years and younger in and around Bethlehem. As is all too often the case, the innocent and vulnerable are the ones who bear the burden of a tyrant’s fearful, foolish, and selfish rage. I’m afraid it is a story history has repeated far too many times.
As we know, having been warned in his own dream, Joseph had already fled to safety in Egypt with Mary and Jesus. But this violent episode foreshadows and serves as a sobering reminder that Jesus’ life journey will ultimately not be safe. Eventually, these two Kingdoms will clash.
The faith of the Magi or the fear of Herod. The Kingdom of God or the kingdoms of this world. The way of peacemaking, healing, justice-seeking, and love or the way of violence, self-centeredness, and vengeance. This is the choice the gospel presents to us right from the beginning.
But choosing faith is more than just one big choice. It is a lot of little choices. And there are times in life when we have to make tough choices, scary choices… when we have to step out into the unknown, not knowing where the journey will lead us.
But the gospel also reminds us that we’re not alone. God is leading us onward and is present with us along the way.
That’s what that star is all about. The wise men weren’t simply wandering around aimlessly in the dark. That star was their light, their guide, their map. That star is a metaphor for God’s grace and love that is always inviting us to follow, always reaching out to us, always showing up and shining even in those times when we do feel like we are wandering around aimlessly in the dark.
God’s light and love is what got them going on this journey. And they were led to the one who shone God’s light and love most clearly, the one who taught us and called us to shine God’s love and light too.
That star shines on. God’s light and love still calls to us. And accepting that call does involve some risk… risk of trying something new, risk of failure, risk of having to change course, risk of upsetting the status quo, risk of challenging the powers that be. These are real risks.
And it might be tempting sometimes to avoid such risk, to circle the wagons, to maintain our familiar sense of security and order (even if its flawed). We don’t have to do the terrible things Herod did to acknowledge that sometimes we might have some Herod-like tendencies at times. That’s the challenging part of this story. We’re just as human as him. And we should be mindful that fear like Herod’s can lead to destructive behaviors that harm others and ourselves. Fear can also inhibit our ability to adapt, grow, and be challenged.
But we’re also just as human as the magi. And the call of faith invites us to step out in trust… even into the unknown, even into the darkness, knowing that if we look for it, if we are open to it, some sign of God’s grace and love will show up and help light our way.
The call of faith invites us to invest ourselves in hope. Faith isn’t necessarily surety in our beliefs. Often faith is following that light of God’s love anyway… even when we’re not so sure, even when we have our doubts, even when we’re tired and worn out, even when afraid, even when we struggle to see that light. Faith is carrying on in hope anyway.
We can’t know exactly how the journey of life and faith will go, or where exactly it will lead us along the way. But faith is trusting that the journey is worth taking, that Jesus is worth following, and that God’s with us in every step.
Sometimes I like to imagine what the magi’s journey could have been like. I mean, they were wise and faithful. But that doesn’t mean everything went smoothly and according to plan.
We all know how travel goes sometimes. A few years ago my husband and I ended up driving through someone’s vineyard in Italy over a little tiny bridge in a little tiny car (that barely fit over the little tiny bridge) because the highway was shut down in both directions and TomTom was sure that this was the best alternative route. We weren’t so sure about TomTom, and it was a little dicey, but we did end up where we wanted to be eventually.
Did the Magi ever get lost? Sure, the star was leading them west, but did they bicker about the best route to get there? Did they have camel trouble? I mean a flat tire sure is a pain… but a sick camel… that could be really bad. Did one of them accidentally leave the frankincense behind at the last campsite and they had to double back to get it?
And surely their journey back held challenges of its own. After all, they had to change plans to flee Herod’s wrath to save themselves and to protect Jesus. So, they had to find an alternative route to get home. Maybe they ended up in someone’s vineyard along the way too.
Who knows what challenges they might have encountered, how many times they had to change plans, or how many alternative routes they had to find? After all, many important journeys in life require some recalculations at times. But they took the journey anyway. They embraced the risks, they embraced the challenges, they embraced the adventure, they embraced the possibility for growth, they embraced the call to faith. And eventually they ended up where they wanted to be… kneeling in adoration to the Christ Child of Bethlehem, transformed and inspired by their encounter with the divine. And all along they trusted in a star, they trusted in God’s love and grace, to guide them.
And that love and grace of God is still shining, still guiding, still calling to us to follow. And so, as we begin another new year, we have another opportunity for a fresh start – to wipe the slate clean and to look with fresh eyes for the ways in which God’s love and light is shining into our lives and calling to us in 2020.
When we receive communion in a little bit, you’ll have a chance to pick an angel card with a word on it to help encourage you throughout the year along your journey of faith and life. You can choose your word or let it choose you. Perhaps it might be something you need or want to embrace in your life this year. Risk, adventure, and wisdom have been some of mine for the last few years. Somehow these magi keep calling to me to step out in faith on Epiphany! We’ll see what’s next.
Wherever this journey of life may take you this year, may you travel with faith and trust and may you have hope to inspire you, peace to comfort you, joy to uplift you, and love to sustain you. For Emmanuel is here; God is with us. And that bright and beautiful light of God’s grace shines on in our hearts and still calls to us to follow.
So journey onward, wise ones. Amen.