Preached by Mark Harper at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Athens, Georgia January 6, 2019 – Epiphany of the Lord
Since we don’t know precisely what happened when the wise men first laid eyes on the baby Jesus, here’s my version. At least here’s what I hope happened. I hope at least one of them wasn’t as reverent as we usually picture them being, with slow bows and formal hand gestures and all. I would love it if at least one of the group, and there might have been ten — or twenty — since Matthew doesn’t actually say three, slapped the others on the back and clapped his hands and let out a giggle and practically fell into the crib with delight and said, “I remember when you were just a twinkle in my eye!” And then broke into a little extemporaneous lullaby: Twinkle, twinkle little star, captured my heart and brought me this far ….
It’s interesting how over time the appearance and personalities of these visitors have captured our imaginations. Who were they? Were they itinerate mystics? Or astrologers who interpreted what was happening on this planet by studying what was going on in the sky? One of my preaching professors once said they were so different from anyone else in Bethlehem that it would be like having a troupe of Elvis impersonators show up in church one Sunday. Matthew doesn’t say much about how they made their living, but that hasn’t stopped us from filling in the blanks. Painters have portrayed them as kings in elaborate robes and crowns – because who wants to go on a long journey across the desert in sensible clothes, or risk getting into an accident and having your rescuers assume you’re just one more holiday traveler stranded on the side of the road? Poets from William Butler Yeats to William Carlos Williams have set their visit in beautiful verse. Longfellow even gave them names: Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar. More recently Garrison Keillor told their story on “A Prairie Home Companion,” and James Taylor recorded a lively song about the magi entitled, “Home By Another Way.”
Interpreters of this story have also zeroed in on the gifts these visitors bring to the Christ child, the gold and frankincense and myrrh. The practical-minded among us might say Mary and Joseph would have appreciated a warm blanket, a nice meal, and maybe a shiny toy to hang over the crib so they could get some rest. But the church has latched onto the symbolic insightfulness of the wise men: the gold because they recognize the baby is a king and kings seem to go for that sort of thing; the frankincense as a kind of perfume to transform the atmosphere of this world into something more pleasing to God; and the myrrh as a substance traditionally used for anointing and embalming the dead and therefore a foreshadowing of the child’s future suffering.
But for all of the ways this story invites our minds to wander and speculate, and for all things that we simply cannot know about the nature or motivation of these strangers who felt compelled to show up, there are some key elements of the story that Matthew shares and that deserve our attention. Especially today, especially perhaps in times like these. In other words, we may never know fully who the wise men were but we can be strengthened in our own discipleship by what they did and by what their story says about the Lord and God we serve.
And one of the essential revelations we receive in today’s scripture readings about God is that God’s love and invitation for human beings to partner in the holy work of redeeming this wrecked world is so much bigger than anyone thought, or maybe continues to think. What this story teaches us is that God does not love just one corner of the earth he created; nor does God fly just one flag of one nation in the heavenly sanctuary. Instead the light of hope and grace that came into the world in this soon to be displaced and despised baby in Bethlehem was intended as a gift for all people everywhere. And so even before Jesus has taken his first step or uttered his first word, his goodness and truth is radiating to people who never heard of Abraham or Sarah. The wise men who followed that star were not Jews but Gentiles, foreigners and strangers in a strange land who found themselves being drawn into God’s story of salvation for the entire planet. Paul would later write in Ephesians that the “mystery of Christ” was that God was reconciling the Jews and Gentiles into one people so that the world would no longer be divided by walls and the fearful assumption that those who are not like us will always want to do us harm. That is the gospel message that needs to be proclaimed to all the rulers and authorities in both state and church who falsely believe that the world revolves around them and have a vested interest in keeping their subjects divided and conquered.
And speaking of rulers and authorities, the story of the wise men challenges us to consider where we place our ultimate allegiance. At the beginning of the story, the visitors from the east play by the rules and defer to the governing authorities of their host country. They immediately go to Herod and seek his counsel and have their documents and visas stamped with his approval. But since they are truly wise and not just expedient, they are attentive to holy whispers that urge them to defy the wishes of the squirrely little man who thought he was the only king in town. After finding Jesus they decide not to report back to headquarters in Jerusalem but to skip town by another road. And this decision to effectively engage in civil disobedience not only puts them at great personal risk, but connects them to ancestors of faith they didn’t even know they had, like the Hebrew midwives who refused to do Pharaoh’s bidding when they allowed Moses to live. Or even to the bewildered daddy Joseph, who chose not to follow the letter of the law and have Mary killed when it turned out she was expecting a child by someone other than him. I saw a meme the other day that said, “When your religion teaches you to hate and kill, it’s time to find another religion.” The visitors from another land had just come face to face with God’s alternative to all the other blood-stained belief systems that the world had become addicted to. And all of a sudden they found themselves being re-routed by a Spirit far more powerful than any directional device they might have come to rely on.
It seems to me that this may be the core insight of today’s story: When and if we come into the presence of Jesus, our lives get turned around. We simply cannot move through this world in the same way we once did. If we can think of going home as going to the place where God enables us to find life and not fear, then we have to go home by a way other than the routes that have been laid out by our culture and political and economic systems. We simply cannot maintain our fixation on living for ourselves alone, or travelling along the route that is most familiar and convenient. Like those visitors from the east, we are living at a time in our planet’s history when we must keep looking up and out, intensely aware that we are part of a much larger universe, that we are part of a beautiful yet fragile ecosystem that is being imperiled by our choices to pirate our natural resources for the sake of short-term comfort.
But like those magi, we must simultaneously look down and be mindful of our vulnerable neighbors who are struggling to find their way home, too. The good news is that when we come into the presence of the living Christ, we are given new eyes and hearts. We begin to see with the eyes of clarity and discernment that the Herods of this world are dangerous and do not deserve our allegiance and respect. And we begin to see with the eyes of compassion those who because of race or economic class or gender or sexual orientation are being systemically locked down and left out from the abundance that God has placed in this world. When we finally meet Jesus we will find ourselves being re-routed along the difficult but joyful road of discipleship.
And one more piece of good news: it will not be a road we have to travel alone. Again we can look to the three or ten or twenty magi and perhaps see in them a model of the community of faith that God desires. In one of her sermons, Barbara Brown Taylor imagines each of the magi individually feeling a pull in their lives for something new. There they had been, “all sitting in their own countries minding their own business when a bright star lodged in the right eye of each one of them. It was so bright that none of them could tell whether it was burning in the sky or in their own imaginations, but they were so wise they knew it didn’t matter all that much. The point was, something beyond them was calling them, and it was a tug they had been waiting for all their lives.”
And so like them, we may have each come here, come looking for Jesus, in our own way and in our own time, by our own path. Like them, maybe we thought that we were the only ones who was seeing the star. And like them, I hope we will take the time we need to experience his presence and listen to his words and feel his unconditional love. Because in this world of conditional welcome and short fuses and an avalanche of words that rip us in shreds and do not set us free, we need him. But as important as finding Jesus is, I think the real journey begins after we have experienced his presence. And mercy. And love. I think that’s when the incredible power of God’s Spirit kicks in and takes all of our individual lives and gifts and transforms us into a Beloved Community of hope and praise. And a compassionate community of service with those who have been broken. And a courageous community of resistance to the destructive powers that falsely claim authority in this world. That’s when God gathers us together and leads us home by another way. Amen.