Today, January 6, is the day of Epiphany. An epiphany can be an “aha” moment, a revelation of sudden insight, a revealing of truth, a manifestation of a divine being. But in the church year, it refers particularly to this story, the story of the Magi and Jesus.
It is full of everything that makes a good story :
There are the good guys – sometimes called wisemen or kings, but more accurately called Magi. The magi were astronomers. They studied the sky. They may also have been Zorastrian priests from Persia.
There is also a bad guy. We are introduced to Herod – a powerful brutal king frightened of losing power -- and willing to kill just about anyone who got in his way. Jesus wasn’t the only one. Herod reportedly killed his own sons when they seemed to be gaining too much power or popularity.
And there is a purpose for the journey. The Magi asked King Herod: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” They give Jesus a title: king of the Jews, and declare their intention to worship him.
But there is also lots of room for interpretation, imagination and wonder.
Much of what we know or think about the Magi comes from the stories and legends that have been told about these mysterious visitors. For example, because they brought 3 gifts, it was often assumed that there were three Maji. And because the gifts were expensive gifts often given to kings, it was often assumed that they were kings. We also assume they rode camels since they came from the East, probably over dry and desert land. Sometimes– they are called “wisemen” – like the translation printed in the bulletin – perhaps because they didn’t fall entirely for Herod’s trap. But none of those assumptions are in the Bible. There are no names for the Magi – although one legend names them Melchoir, Gaspar and Bathazar . And I’ve read other stories about an imagined “4th wiseman who never quite made it to the manger. It could be that none of them made it to the manger. Despite the scene depicted in many nativity scenes – including mine – most scholars believe the Magi did not arrive on Christmas night… but instead came a bit later. But we don’t know… so you can keep your “wisemen” or Magi and the camels in your nativity sets. Don’t misunderstand me - the stories that have grown up around the Magi are not bad – in fact it is good to wonder… and to imagine how it might be that Magi from the East came to worship Jesus.
This past week, Kristin, a friend of mine, asked a group of us to pick a word to think about this year. One person said: Courage. Another said Hope. I said “Wonder.” It is good to wonder… to be open to God’s possibilities… to God’s revelations to us as a congregation, to be open to how God is working in our neighborhood and in our lives. I’m going to be wondering this year – and I invite you to join me in being open to the Holy Spirit.
As for the Magi – I have often thought of them as seekers… as people on a journey to find Jesus. And it’s true… they are looking for Jesus. But I don’t think that they would have started out on this quest if something hadn’t sparked their interest, if something hadn’t been revealed to them… if they had not had an “epiphany.”
And this is what sparked my interest this past week. After all…. like people in the time of Jesus, our world too has leaders who are nasty and ruthless in their quest for power and control - they may or may not be called kings, but they are operate on the same selfish, egotistical yet childish fears. Like the people of that time, we too have an undercurrent of darkness, strife, and injustice, pain and sorrow in our world. We mourn when people we love die – too soon – like Valerie and Don and David. We can easily become discouraged when we listen or read or scan the news – especially when we hear stories of our country not welcoming the neighbor, not caring for the elderly, the veterans, the poor and the immigrant.
And yet……while the Magi were not Rabbinic scholars and they did not know the law or the culture and they had no idea what the Hebrew scriptures – our Old Testament Bible -- prophesied… after all…they weren’t even Jewish! Still they set out on a journey with great expense – because God revealed – through a star – that a great King, the King of Israel had been born. And they felt compelled to seek him.
God continues to reveal God’s self in surprising ways to ordinary people – like you and me. God reveals God’s self in the ways that God has promised - in the bread and wine of communion, in the Word of God and in the waters of Baptism… and we, like the Magi, seek him.
In seeking to follow Jesus, we won’t always get it right. We might make mistakes. After all… that’s what happened to the Magi. I never understood why, after following the star all the way from their distant country, they would suddenly stop following the star and instead ask Herod for directions.
Who knows? I like to imagine that maybe it was because it was cloudy… or maybe they got anxious and tried to travel during the day. Or maybe they just got overly confident in their own understanding. Or maybe something else. The Bible doesn’t say. And yet… despite the Magi getting off course for a bit, God continued to seek to reveal God’s self to them. Again he sent the star to lead and guide them.
Today is the first Sunday of the year… Epiphany Sunday… the Sunday that celebrates God revealing God’s self to “outsiders” and unexpected people – including Easterners with a different religion, Gentiles and… people like us. And so I would like to challenge us to do two things this year.
The first is to wonder. Wonder with me what or where may God be calling us as a congregation this year? And secondly…be bold. Be bold in seeking the one who is seeking you. Sometimes it takes the courage to take the first step – not knowing where the next step will take you.
One of my pastor friends shared an “Epiphany Blessing” with me – that I would like to share with you. Listen for the way that it encourages us to take the path of Christ with courage – not knowing where it will lead.
An Epiphany Blessing by Jan Richardson
If you could see the journey whole…. you might never undertake it; might never dare the first step that propels you from the place you have known toward the place you know not.
Call it one of the mercies of the road: that we see it only by stages as it opens before us, as it comes into our keeping step by single step.
There is nothing for it but to go and by our going take the vows the pilgrim takes: to be faithful to the next step; to rely on more than the map; to heed the signposts of intuition and dream; to follow the star that only you will recognize;
to keep an open eye for the wonders that attend the path; to press on beyond distractions beyond fatigue beyond what would tempt you from the way.
There are vows that only you will know; the secret promises for your particular path and the new ones you will need to make when the road is revealed by turns you could not have foreseen.
Keep them, break them, make them again: each promise becomes part of the path; each choice creates the road that will take you to the place where at last you will kneel to offer the gift most needed—the gift that only you can give—before turning to go home by another way.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, God continues to reveal God’s self to us through the waters of baptism. bread and wine, and the Word of God. But that is not all. God also reveals God’s self through the wonders of God’s world and the surprises along the way. God invites us to be bearers of the light that has come into the world, the light that the darkness neither understands nor has overcome.
May you be open to follow the journey, trusting that God is with you – and us – at each turn, through dark valleys and in the joy of discovering…ah ha! God is with us! Amen.
Pastor Pam Stalheim Lane
Faith-Lilac Way Lutheran Church – January 6, 2019
2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi[a] from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: 6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’[b]” 7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” 9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. NIV