There’s a story of a woman who searches store after store for the perfect Christmas gift for her husband. A friend has come shopping with her, and the friend tries to help this woman find what she is looking for, but the woman shakes her head “no” at everything the friend points out. Finally, in exasperation, the friend asks, “What, exactly, are you trying to find?” And the woman answers, “I’ll know it when I see it.”
Have you ever stood in front of an open refrigerator or kitchen cupboard, looking for something to eat? You’re hungry, but you don’t know exactly what it is that you want? What will satisfy your grumbling stomach? There’s plenty of food available, but what will you choose? What do you really want? What will fill you up, and keep you satisfied for more than an hour or two? Will you know it when you see it?
Last week, we heard from Simeon and Anna, the first to recognize Jesus as Messiah without the aid of angels, dreams, or stars. They knew he was the one they’d been waiting for because of their faith alone. They knew him when they saw him. This week, we hear the story of the magi from the east, those foreign astrologers who traveled a great distance to satisfy their curiosity. It took a little more effort for the magi to recognize the Christ, but like Simeon and Anna, they also knew him when they saw him.
This is the Sunday we celebrate the Epiphany, or the revelation of Christ to the world, specifically to the Gentile world. It’s a world that is hungry for something new. Even today, more than 2000 years after the events we read about in Matthew’s gospel, the world is still looking, still seeking for the one thing that can satisfy its great hunger. Will we know it when we see it?
“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” – Matthew 2:1-12
This familiar story contains a number of details that are really quite odd. One of those details is what’s missing, because Matthew really doesn’t give us a birth story. The previous chapter describes Joseph’s concern when he learns that Mary is pregnant, and his obedience when an angel tells him in a dream to go ahead and marry her, but the actual account of Jesus’ birth is barely a prepositional phrase in the last sentence of chapter one.
Suddenly, we have magi from the east interrupting the story with a story of their own. They have seen a star, and these astrologers have determined that it means a new king has been born in Israel.
Matthew doesn’t give us very much information about these magi. Most of what we have come to believe about them is based in tradition, not the Bible. They probably were not kings. We don’t know exactly how many there were, or where they came from. We don’t know if they really rode camels, and no one knows who decided to give them the names of Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. It certainly wasn’t Matthew. We can assume they were astrologers, because they studied the night skies, and we can assume they had some amount of wealth at their disposal, because of the gifts they brought. Based on what Herod does after they leave, we can guess that it has taken them a long time to arrive in Jerusalem, so it is safe to assume they came from somewhere far away, which means they were not Jews, but Gentiles.
And here’s one more thing we know about the magi: The star they followed did not give them enough information to get them where they wanted to go. They had to stop in Jerusalem to ask directions.
Keep in mind that Matthew was writing for a primarily Jewish audience. His church was made up mostly of Jewish Christians who were struggling to accept the growing number of Gentile believers in their congregations. They wanted Christianity to stay a nice, tidy Jewish sect. And in the middle of Matthew’s story of Christ’s birth, he gives center stage to these Gentiles from the east, and lets them be the first to announce that the king of the Jews has been born. What a shock! But it gets worse.
When the magi start asking around Jerusalem for some guidance, King Herod hears about it. Herod isn’t even Jewish, and he is not a nice king. He has already killed off members of his own family to protect his throne. When Herod hears there’s a new king in town, it makes him nervous. And when Herod gets nervous, so does everyone else. When Herod is afraid, he becomes volatile, so it’s no surprise that all Jerusalem is afraid, too.
Fear is a powerful motivator. Advertisers play on our fears, assuring us that their products will help us rest more easily at night. The daily news headlines are written to shock us into a higher level of anxiety, playing on our fears to keep us anxious to learn more news.
David Lose writes, “We live in a world riddled by fear, a world of devastating super-storms and elementary school massacres, a world where innocents die everyday to preventable illness and hunger. In Matthew’s story of the visit of the magi – and the subsequent slaughter of the innocents in the verses to come – Matthew renders an accurate if also difficult picture of the world.
“And that is what is at the heart of Matthew’s … story of Jesus’ birth: the promise that [it] is precisely this world that God came to, this people so mastered by fear that we often do the unthinkable to each other and ourselves that God loves, this gaping need that we have and bear that God remedies.”
Herod’s first response was fear, but his second response was actually a pretty good one: he started a Bible study. It was Herod who made the connection between the magi’s question “where is he who is born King of the Jews?” and the prophecies of a Messiah. Herod was the first one to recognize that this new king was not just any king, but the Anointed One of God, the Christ. So he had his advisors look into scripture to find the answers they needed.
But knowing where to find the answer in scripture isn’t enough, either. The chief priests and scribes knew their Bible, but they didn’t know the Christ. The magi were looking for a human king in a Jerusalem palace. They didn’t realize that what they were seeking was God.
The magi may have been distracted by their expectations, but once Herod sent them on their way, a wonderful thing happened. They caught sight of their star. It had been there all along, but their side trip to see Herod had blocked their view. Instead of trusting the sign they had been given, they had been pulled aside by their own ideas of what a king should look like and where a king should be found. Out on the road again, they could see the star, and they were overjoyed. So they followed that star to the very place where the child Jesus could be found. Eureka. They found him. And they knew it when they saw him.
By itself, the star was not enough to show the magi where they needed to go. The detour through Herod’s Bible study had allowed scripture to speak into their lives, clarifying the blurry view they held, and pointing them in the right direction again.
This is why scripture is so important to our faith, why we read it together every Sunday in worship, and why our individual reading of God’s Word matters so much: Scripture forms us. It clears up our blurry vision and confused expectations. Scripture helps us make sense of our experience. It is the lens through which we can interpret our lives.
But scripture can only have such an impact on us when we recognize what it shows us, and allow God’s Word to work in our lives. When the magi caught sight of the star again, they were overjoyed because scripture had shown them what the star really meant. They weren’t just looking for a king anymore. They were seeking Messiah. They were looking for the face of God. And their encounter with Emmanuel, God With Us, changed them.
They went home by a different way.
Finding God requires looking in unexpected places, but it also requires interpreting what we see through the lens of scripture. God is with us from beginning to end, revealing himself in unexpected ways, including us in the family of God. David Lose writes, “Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, the living, breathing, and vulnerable promise that God chose to come live and die for us, as we are, so that in Christ’s resurrection we, too might experience newness of life.”
The question is: how will we respond? When God breaks into our lives with the unexpected miracle of grace, what will we do about it? Will we be afraid, like Herod, of losing what little power we hold? Will we go through the motions of religious activity, like the scribes and priests who searched the scriptures, but did not recognize what the scriptures were saying to them? Or will we step outside of our own expectations, and allow ourselves to encounter the living God in the person of Jesus Christ? Will we know him when we see him? Then we can say, “Eureka! I’ve found it!” And in the finding, our lives are changed forever. We go home by a different way.
Today is Epiphany Sunday, the day we celebrate God’s revelation of his only Son to the world. It is also the first Sunday of the New Year, when we celebrate all the possibilities that lie ahead of us in the year to come. As we come to this Table, where bread and cup unite us with one another in Christ Jesus, let us pray John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer for the New Year, remembering that the One we have found has also found us. Let us pray.
I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering,
Let me be employed for you or laid aside for you,
Exalted for you or brought low for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
You are mine, and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.
 David Lose: “The ‘Adults Only’ Nativity Story” for December 20, 2012 http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=1509