A congregation of the United Church of Canada
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!
We’re only at the very beginning of the story of Jesus and already there are incredibly unexpected things – a manger instead of a palace, a baby instead of a king, and now foreigners (outsiders) instead of insiders “see the light”. And they didn’t just happen to see the light and wander over to see what the fuss was about. The story makes it clear that God sent the light after them. God drew these outsiders to Jesus. God cast the light for any who would see it and respond, and the insiders missed it and the outsiders came running.
At this point Jesus has done absolutely nothing – no teaching, no healing, nothing (apparently he didn’t even cry as a baby! LOL) – and yet we already know that things are going to be very different, and that his light will not be contained by the usual religious containers (neither guardians nor doctrines). The light of Christ calls to the very people that nice, refined, rule-following religious types rarely associate with – the marginalized, the outcasts, and the outsiders.
Our question? How does our light reach beyond the confines of our church?
How are you personally shining God’s light (or how are you letting God’s light shine through you) into the lives of the marginalized, the outcast, and the outsider – or even into the lives of your family, friends, and neighbours? – Let’s try starting there and see what happens!
The second big spiritual truth from this story is that some people see the light brightly and it guides them, and others apparently can’t see it. It’s right there in the first couple of verses. The Magi see God’s light and are drawn by it, while Herod and the religious insiders are oblivious to it, or are threatened by it. For whatever reason the Magi saw the light and followed. (You can never predict who might get the God thing and who will refuse to see it.)
Remember, it was a star for crying out loud.
The implication is that it was right there shining brightly in the sky for all to see, but not all see.
Isn’t that our experience of God too? Isn’t God’s light and Presence as clear as day to you (sometimes, if not all the time) and yet people around you haven’t got a clue what you’re on about? (or what you’re “on”!)
But even if you can see it that isn’t enough. The story doesn’t say that these astrologers saw a dazzling light in the sky, made a detailed note of it in their ‘sky-watch journal’ and then went and had a cup of tea.
It says they saw the light AND FOLLOWED IT!
Anyone can notice God’s Spirit moving, the difference is whether you choose to follow it, to let yourself to be drawn to God by it. The Magi were moved to embark on a great journey once their attention was caught.
Our question? Do we see the light of God’s Presence?
If so, are we following it?
Are we allowing it to draw us ever deeper into the heart of God?
Are we courageous enough to let it guide us into “foreign lands” like the Magi did?
The third big spiritual insight in this story is that sometimes the spiritual can explain things that are beyond the scientific or the powerful, and sometimes deep truths can come from unlikely or unconventional sources. In verse 4 we find the great and powerful King Herod calling for his chief priests and scribes to shed light on a question his power cannot answer, and then he has to turn to an even more unconventional source in the Wise Men to learn more about his own cultural heritage.
And get this – the Magi represent the scientific ones in this story. They are WISE men, after all. We may think of astrology as silly horoscope stuff, but these were the scientists of their time. The Message bible calls them scholars instead of Wise Men.
So this is a story of a group of scholars, of scientists who were drawn by a movement of God’s Spirit, who came seeking an answer to a question that their science could pose but only a spiritual experience could answer.
Some questions are simply beyond the realm of science or power.
Some questions can only be approached through spiritual experience.
What about you? What kinds of questions have you sought answers for only to realize that faith was the right place to seek?
And how many of your family or friends or neighbours are spinning their wheels looking for insight in the wrong places while you’re sitting on a light that might illuminate their path?
The fourth spiritual truth this story teaches us is that encountering the light produces joy, worship, and gratitude.
Matthew 2:10-11 “When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
When they finally progressed past just noticing the light, or chasing the light, the Magi were overwhelmed with joy when they encountered the source of the light that had drawn them. Imagine their journey, filled with sand, and struggle, with bewildered passersby and an irritable king, and finally after investing so much of their passion, seeking so hard, and yearning so fully, they have a personal experience of and in the Presence of God. It’s no wonder they are overwhelmed with joy. And their legs wobble and their knees bend as they are awestruck by the encounter. And they are moved to worship, and to express their gratitude tangibly for having “seen the light.”
That’s what an encounter with the Holy Presence of God does to a person. I hope it’s doing it to you today, and that it will again tomorrow, and the next day.
You can’t force a God experience.
You can’t manufacture one, or buy one off the shelf, or order one from Amazon. You have to live it like the Magi did.
Notice the light, dare to let it draw you, make whatever journey it asks of you, don’t let yourself get waylaid by opposition or indifference, and follow, follow, follow until the source is revealed for you. It’s not a magic formula (but it is a Magi formula!), and if you follow those kinds of steps you’ll encounter God and you too will be overwhelmed with joy and moved to worship and gratitude. I guarantee it!
And now here’s the big one – the greatest spiritual truth revealed in this famous story – the truth that too often we miss because we’re distracted by the dazzle of the tale.
Matthew 2:12 “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”
That’s awesome! After seeing the light you travel “by another road” – you journey in a new Way. A new Way!
After you encounter the source of the light of Christ you are somehow changed, transformed, enlightened. It is basic logic that after such an experience you’ll be different, you’ll see things differently. Even if you wanted to travel on the same old paths you always trod you wouldn’t be able to, at least not in the same way.
This, for me, is the big insight of this story, and the purpose of the season of Epiphany – to make us go ‘aha!’ and to help us journey on “by another road” – to travel the renewed path that is freshly illuminated for us.
We have all just journeyed through Advent and Christmas.
We waited for the light to come, and then we joyfully celebrated its coming.
We have seen the light!
We have made the Magi’s journey.
It started a month ago and took us over all kinds of strange terrain, focusing our attention on God’s presence while the world was distracted by Rudolph and Frosty and eggnog and whatnot.
But we were on a journey toward the light:
– a journey that reached beyond this place and included the marginalized, the outcast, and the outsider, that was open to anyone of any or no faith who wanted to travel alongside us
– following the star that was as plain as day but apparently not everyone could see
– realizing that some things are simply beyond science or power to explain
– basking in the spiritual joy of worshipping the renewal and rebirth of the light of Christ in our midst, and being moved to profound acts of gratitude and generosity such as contributing over $6,300 to the water project in Pikangikum
– and now we’re here today…
It’s the start of a new calendar year, but we’re celebrating something even more significant.
It’s the beginning of our journey onward, but we’re travelling by another road.
We are people of Faith who have encountered the light of Christ and experienced the Presence of God.
We are renewed.
We have experienced and are experiencing the transforming light of Christ.
We are having an Epiphany!
We will journey on by another road.
What will that road look like?
Where will that road lead us?
Who will travel alongside us?
Who might we shine God’s light upon as we glow on our Way?
I don’t know any of those answers, but I’m looking forward to where this road will take us in 2019, because I know it will lead us ever deeper into love of God, love of others, and love for one another, and I wouldn’t want to travel by any other road.