Yr C ~ Epiphany 1 ~ Matthew 2:1-12
Here are the broad strokes of this very famous story – a story that we usually mess up the details about and probably miss the big message of.
It’s the story of the three kings – except that they weren’t – who come to visit the baby Jesus in the stable – except that they didn’t.
How do you like the story so far?
The story begins “after Jesus was born” but it gives no indication that it was on Christmas, or even that it was on Epiphany (which is when tradition tells us it happened – which is what we’re celebrating today). It could have been some time after, maybe weeks.
So, sometime after Jesus was born his family was said to have been visited by wise men from the East – possibly Persia – and not necessarily 3 wise men (there could have been two or twenty for all we know), who were definitely not kings and definitely not named Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior. (That’s purely from the hymn – and you ought to be wary of taking too much theology from musicians!) (j/k).
They were Magi, which is Latin for wise men and where we get our word magician from. Magi are something like a cross between astrologers and astronomers, so they were like mystic scientists!
So these dudes and their entourage showed up out of the blue and started talking about this star they were following and asking all around Jerusalem about a newborn king. It was pretty naïve to think the reigning king wouldn’t be upset to hear of a rival king… and it also apparently upset the people too. I mean imagine a gang of foreigners coming to your country and asking where to find the new king!
Herod catches wind of this and consults the priests and scribes about Messiah prophecies (strange that he wouldn’t have known them – perhaps an indication that not everyone was breathlessly waiting for the Messiah to come), and the religious guys loosely quote him Micah’s prophecy about a coming Messiah being born in Bethlehem. Obviously that worried Herod, of course, so Herod called the Wise Guys in for a little chat about this star they were talking about (notice that apparently neither he nor any of the religious types could see this star).
Herod directed them to Bethlehem and asked them to bring him back news so he could pay homage to the new king too (which we know is bunk, and they probably did too) and the star magically appeared again for them. The star led them and stopped right over Joe and Mary’s place – although Joseph is not mentioned. They went in and saw the child with Mary, knelt down, paid homage (or worshipped him), and gave him three curious gifts: gold symbolizing royalty; frankincense symbolizing the priestly (incense is called the “odour of God’s presence”); and myrrh which is a burial spice signifying sacrifice – not your typical baby shower gifts.
And then comes, for me, the most important line in the whole story – a verse that we usually just skip right over.
It says they would’ve returned to Herod but were warned in a dream not to, so “they left for their own country by another road.” (We’ll come back to that one!)
Ok, that’s how the story goes (with some correctives); now let’s think about what the story means. We usually talk about the “kings” that recognize Jesus as royal, the gifts (which set up our whole Christmas gift-giving thing), and the miraculous star that guides the wise men to the holy child. But I’m not going to talk about any of that.
Instead we’re going to look at 5 profound spiritual truths that this story teaches us.
The first is that the light of Christ reaches beyond the confines of “church”.
The season of Epiphany is all about seeing the light. It is the liturgical season of the ‘aha’! And what this story reminds us of is that the light of God is not the sole purview of any one religion.
Who does the light appear to in the beginning of our New Testament? The marginalized (Mary and Joseph), the outcasts (shepherds), and outsiders (the Magi). This is a radical theological idea – a big aha! read on