Happy New Year! There are lots of reasons to be glad to see the back side of 2016. Celebrities died at an alarming rate. Wars and rumors of wars continued to devastate throughout the world. Then there was the weather … And let’s not even get started on politics!
My husband was going through a box of things that had belonged to his father recently, and found some old newspaper clippings that had been neatly folded and tucked into a small box. They were bits of political commentary from the Teddy Roosevelt era. We laughed to read opinions that very closely resembled some of the invective hurled about in our most recent presidential campaign. The more things change, the more they stay the same!
Each year fills up with embarrassing examples of our brokenness. As the year draws to a close, we look forward with hope to the year that is dawning. Maybe this time we will get it right, we think. Maybe this is the year we will finally get in shape or win the lottery or get our recipes organized. We’ve had our fill of the past, but we hunger for something new in the year to come. We look for some light to shine into our darkness.
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 has always been 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.
“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 this 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. In that time, they would have been considered scientists. It’s possible they were even Zoroastrian priests. 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 probably 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 that must have been! 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. On the way to the airport, there are signs that color code our fear of terrorist attacks. The message that we live in a dangerous world bombards us constantly.
David Lose writes, “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 was the first one to recognize that this new king was not just any king, but the Anointed One of God, the Christ. It was Herod who connected the magi’s question “where is he who is born King of the Jews?” to the prophecies of a Messiah. In Matthew’s gospel, this title, “King of the Jews” is only used one other time – at Jesus’ crucifixion.
Herod’s first response may have been fear, but his second response was actually a pretty good one: he started a Bible study. 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. 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, and interpreting what we see through the lens of scripture. When Christ is revealed to us, this encounter has the power to change us, to send us in a new direction.
The question is: how do we respond? When God breaks into our lives with the unexpected miracle of grace, what do we do about it? Are we afraid, like Herod, of losing what little power we hold? Do we go through the motions of religious activity, like the scribes and priests who searched the scriptures, but did not recognize what scripture was saying to them?
Christopher Burkett writes that the Epiphany of our Lord offers us three questions to ponder:
1. How did you first come to see Jesus?
2. How do you see Jesus now?
3. How do you show Jesus?
So think for a moment, how did you first come to see Jesus, to recognize him as God’s Son, to call him Savior and Lord? (Seriously, take a moment to think about it….)
It isn’t enough to experience the Big Reveal one time, at the beginning of our faith journey. That first “aha” moment sets us on the right path, but it is still a road fraught with danger and distraction. It’s easy to find ourselves taking detours when we depend more on our assumptions than on a desire to see what God wants to reveal to us. We may find ourselves standing before Herod, when we should be looking for a lowly feeding trough. So as you have traveled your road of faith, how have you come to see Jesus in the present moment? How does Christ reveal himself to you now?….
Remembering how Christ was first revealed to us, and recognizing how Christ continues to reveal himself as our faith grows deeper, brings us to the next stage of our journey – showing Christ to others. Notice I didn’t say, “Telling others about Jesus.” How does the way you live your life reveal Christ?….
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, may we resolve to look for Messiah in unexpected places, seeing him show up in unexpected ways. And may the light of Christ shine through us, revealing God’s deep and abiding love to others. Amen.
 David Lose: “The ‘Adults Only’ Nativity Story” for December 20, 2012 http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=1509
 Christopher Burkett, PreacherRhetorica, 2014. http://www.preacherrhetorica.com/the-epiphany.html