Ever-gracious God, we thank you for your ongoing guidance and love in our lives. May we find wisdom in the stories of those people who have journeyed before us in faith. And in this time of worship may we open our hearts to your call to each of us. Amen.
Today, we conclude the Christmas season with our celebration of the Epiphany of the Lord. Epiphany (which is officially on January 6th) is the day when we remember and celebrate the visit of the magi, the wisemen, to the Christ Child in Bethlehem. And the word epiphany clues us into the meaning and purpose of this story. An epiphany is a revelation, a realization of truth, a perception of meaning, an illuminating discovery. Here, in this story, the good news of the incarnation of God in Christ is revealed to the world.
In Luke’s gospel, the announcement of Jesus’ birth came through the voices of angels to the shepherds in the fields. But here in Matthew’s gospel things are quite different. The message is not brought to Bethlehem locals, but instead to this group of Gentile star-gazing astrologers from out east. And the message is not brought by an angelic chorus, but by the light of that special star.
Right here at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, the point is being made that the birth of Jesus, the birth of the Messiah, the Christ, is good news for all people. And this is a theme that will continue to be developed throughout the gospel. The magi are not insiders. They are from a foreign land, from another culture. They didn’t have the intimate knowledge of the Torah and the Hebrew prophets (which Matthew quotes all the time). They didn’t know the history of God’s self-revelation to the Jewish people. But nevertheless, they had the wisdom and courage to follow that star, to seek the Light of Christ. The message, the good news, has already begun to go global.
And for Matthew’s readers, then and now, part of the point of this story is for us to realize, “yeah, if they can take that journey of faith, maybe I can to” (and to realize that Matthew has given us a guidebook to get us started).
We really know very little about the magi; only what Matthew tells us. They may have been wealthy because they brought expensive gifts fit for a king. But we don’t know how many of them there were; only that they brought three gifts. We tend to think of gold as the gift for the kingship of Christ; frankincense as the gift for the divinity of Christ; and myrrh as the gift foreshadowing the passion of Christ, but even that logical interpretation may have been developed later on. For Matthew’s first audience, all three gifts were actually understood to be fit for royalty because they were pricy and special. The emphasis here is that Christ is the new and true king.
Matthew also says nothing about the magi being kings themselves. This familiar idea is also a later tradition. If you’ve seen paintings of the adoration of the magi throughout the history of western art, you probably noticed that it became common practice to portray them as kings of varying ethnicities. They were even given names (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar). Balthazar, in particular, was imagined to be of African descent.
All of this is a later interpretive tradition that developed beyond Matthew’s story. But, even so, this tradition is in keeping with that global message Matthew makes – that the birth of Jesus, God’s revelation of God’s self in Christ, was for all people. And the kings of the earth are also invited into faith, discipleship, and worship.
The magi followed that star for one purpose – to worship the new king, the one who would be king for all. They followed that star in the sky because they knew it would take them to the true “star” of this story. And the star’s light is symbolic, of course, for the true Light of Christ to whom it points.
The star is also a symbol of God’s grace and God’s invitation. And these wise ones illustrated their wisdom by responding to this gracious invitation and following where it would lead them.
The wisdom of the magi is wisdom that is available to all of us who seek in faith. So, what made the magi wise?
They were wise because they looked and listened for God’s presence in the lives. Perhaps that required some discipline. Perhaps that involved taking a moment away from the hectic busyness of daily life. Perhaps that required doing something that might look to be foolish in the eyes of the world like taking a break from the news of the day and going outside to look at the night sky for a glimmer of hope.
The magi knew that God often shows up in still, seemingly small moments. We might wonder why no one else followed this magnificent star. Did others even see it? Did they bother to stop what they were doing and look up? There is wisdom to be found in watching. There is wisdom to be found in learning to take a moment to look and listen.
They were also wise because not only did they look and listen, but they trusted and followed. They perceived a calling from God. And then they stepped out in faith to see where it would lead. They didn’t know exactly where this journey would take them, how long it would take to get wherever they were going, or what obstacles they might face along the way.
But they trusted in the process. And they trusted in God’s guidance. There is wisdom to be found in stepping out in faith, in trusting that God is with us on the journey as we put one foot in front of the other, even if we don’t yet know the destination. It takes courage. But that is how we learn and how we grow – by walking this path.
The magi were also wise because they adapted and changed plans when needed.
When they first arrive in Jerusalem, they go to visit Herod and they tell him of the king they seek. But Herod is quite comfortable on his throne and sees this new king as a threat. The magi don’t know the fear and violence that lurks beneath the surface of Herod’s words when he tells them to search and return so he too might worship this new king. So, they take him at his word at first. But later, they are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, not to give him any more information, but to leave for their homeland by another road.
There is wisdom in changing direction sometimes. Sometimes things don’t work out as we expect them to or hope they will. Sometimes we need to adapt – whether by choice or by the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Sometimes we need to try a different road, a different approach. Sometimes changing course is the loving thing to do.
By now the magi had learned to look and listen for, and to trust God’s leading enough that they trust this dream. Whether by dreams or intuition, there is wisdom in trusting that inner guidance that tells us we need to make a course correction.
Dreams play an important role in Matthew’s gospel. Joseph too learns to trust God’s leading in his dreams. And, as a result, he had to change plans a couple of times. He was going to dismiss Mary quietly when he found out she was pregnant, but was instead led in a dream to marry her. And after the magi visit, Joseph is also is warned of Herod’s murderous intentions and is led in a dream to flee to Egypt with Mary and Jesus. Later on, after Herod’s death, he will again be led by a dream to go to Nazareth. Both the magi and Joseph learned to trust God’s guidance.
The magi also exhibit wisdom in believing that this journey would be worth it. Their intentions were pure and humble, I think. They wanted to worship. They wanted to meet and offer their reverence and their gifts to this new king, who they knew must be special, who they believed was a revelation of God’s grace at work in their world. They didn’t have to know everything to know that much was true.
And there is wisdom in that too. One can be wise without having all knowledge. Wisdom is not about knowing everything. In fact, there is wisdom in recognizing that we don’t know everything, that we can’t possibly know everything, and in accepting that. Part of this journey of life and faith is encountering the unknown and embracing the mystery.
I love this story of the magi because it seems like Matthew is inviting us into an adventure right here at the beginning of his gospel.
What if our journey of faith is an adventure? There is no exact map to follow. On this adventure, we look to the stars and listen in dreams for God’s grace to guide us. But even though we may not know exactly where we’re going all the time, we do know to try our best to walk in the path of the one we seek – to walk in the ways of love, and service, and peace-making, and justice-seeking.
Sure, we may take a wrong turn and need to double back now and then. But course corrections are ok, remember.
And all along this adventurous journey of faith, we do our best to offer our best gifts of love to the one we serve and follow. To live into this call to love, to the best of our ability. That’s all God asks. That is the road Jesus walked.
The journey of the Magi is a good story to start us off on another new year of life and faith. But, before we look ahead, it might also help us to look back on the road we have already traveled and see how God has led us thus far. There is wisdom to be found there too. Sometimes we don’t see the whole picture until we take a moment to turn around and reflect on where we’ve been.
And the beginning of a new year is a great time to do this.
Many of you know that we have an Epiphany tradition here that started several years ago (when Pastor Dave introduced it) of drawing a card with a word for the year on it. And I hope many of you picked up cards for this year when they were available.
I picked a new card (which I haven’t opened yet), but I think I’m also holding onto last year’s word and taking it into this new year because I’m not done with it yet. My 2020 word was healing.
I looked at that word a lot over the last year. And at times it brought me frustration. Healing sure seemed to be in short supply in 2020. Woundedness, sickness, sadness, and division seemed to be much more prevalent than healing. I was struggling to find healing.
But, at some point during the year, I realized that this word was not a description of the way things were, but was, instead, a prayer. Of course, it was!
And I realized it did fit my year, after all, because boy, had I sure been praying for healing all along… praying for the healing of bodies, the healing of spirits, the healing of relationships, the healing of lives that have been turned upside down, the healing of those things that divide us. And I was praying for all the healers too – especially those healthcare workers who have been working so tirelessly to heal, to save lives and care for those who are sick.
I will continue to pray for healing this year. As I’m sure you will too. And I believe some greater healing will come. There is hope on the horizon.
But what I’ve also realized, as I’ve looked back on this year, is that moments of healing have shown up in my life, after all. Healing has shown up in the encouraging and caring love of friends and family, in the way this congregation has supported one another and stuck together in this tough time, in the creativity and ingenuity that has emerged in the world, in the way people have generously cared for others in need.
We are still in need of a lot of healing in our world, but there have also been moments of healing all along. That’s one thing I learned from 2020. What have you learned?
The story of the magi’s journey to Bethlehem mirrors our own in many ways. And there is wisdom to be found along the way. Into a new year, we journey on by faith, trusting in God’s grace to guide us.
And my prayer for all of you is that this next phase of your journey of faith may bless your life in the ways you need it to and in ways you have yet to imagine.
And may you experience God’s love in every step.