Watch a video of this sermon here.
The gospel lesson for Epiphany is always the same, year after year. We always get the story of the wise men seeking out the infant King. It only comes to us through one author so, no matter which gospel we are following in a given year, Epiphany always brings us to the second chapter of Matthew.
Since we hear it every year, we might be lulled into ignoring this story. It’s easy to let it drift in one ear and out the other, because it’s so familiar. Each year, I try to hear this story in a new way, in an effort to make it fresh and meaningful. Some years, I’ve compared and contrasted Herod’s actions with the magi who come from the East. In other years, I’ve looked at what was missing from Matthew’s story, or examined what the word “epiphany” means.
But I wonder if the power of this story actually lies in its familiarity. The things we repeat to ourselves over and over are the things that matter most to us. So hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us in the second chapter of Matthew’s gospel, and savor these words you already know so well.
“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
From everything scholars can determine about the magi, we can safely assume they were Zoroastrian astrologers who most likely came from Persia, what we now call Iran. Let that sink in.
They brought some unusual gifts, at least by the way we think of baby gifts today. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh might not seem like the sort of thing you’d bring to a baby shower. Centuries of tradition have assigned some special significance to each of the gifts – gold signifies royalty, acknowledging that this child would one day rule as a king; frankincense was used in the temple, to signify that this child would be holy and set apart for God’s purpose; and the myrrh would have been associated with Jesus’ death, since it was used to anoint a dead body before burial.
But when you consider that these astrologers from Iran probably knew nothing of Jewish temple rituals, gold was a currency of value in every culture, and both myrrh and frankincense were valued for medicinal purposes, it’s possible that the gifts the magi brought were offered for their practical uses, more than for any symbolic value we might assign to them.
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh may sound exotic to our modern ears, but in first century Palestine, they might have just been the equivalent of gift cards, Tylenol, and diaper cream. Maybe the wise men weren’t trying to make some deep theological statement with their choice of treasures for the newborn king. They might have just been bringing gifts they thought Mary and Joseph could use immediately.
That doesn’t mean they thought this was just any baby. They wouldn’t travel for months to see just any baby. The word ‘homage’ shows up a lot in this passage. The wise men made the journey in anticipation of seeing with their own eyes how prophecy had been fulfilled. They were looking specifically for a king who would command their respect and honor, a king to whom they could show reverence, a king – not of their own nation – but a king they could serve, regardless of political or geographic boundaries. These magi from Iran were looking for more than a ruler. They were looking for God incarnate, God made flesh, God’s promise made real.
They were looking for a Being worthy of their worship. These foreigners who came from a different country and followed a different belief system were the first to recognize just how significant this birth really was. They were the first to bow down and worship the Christ. We like to talk about the gifts they brought, but the really important part of this story isn’t about those gifts. It’s the way they worshipped that gives this story its significance. Listen to that part again:
“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.”
The wise men saw the star because they were looking for it. When it finally stopped moving, they were overwhelmed with joy. They knew they had reached their destination. When they entered the house, they saw the child with Mary. And when they saw him, they worshipped him.
But notice something about these magi who point us toward Christ. They didn’t get it right at first, either. They went looking for the newborn king in Jerusalem, assuming that must be where the star was leading them. They strayed off course by just five or six miles – that’s how far it is from Bethlehem to Herod’s palace. If they’d stayed on course, keeping their eyes on the beacon of light leading them to Jesus, Herod may never have felt the threat to his power this newborn king presented.
Have you ever gotten off course? Have you ever found yourself turning off the GPS as you neared your destination, thinking “I can find it from here,” only to discover you are completely and hopelessly lost?
Has your life strayed off course, away from seeking God as you followed after things that seemed good and right, but were really just distractions from the path God had laid out for you?
Have you found yourself headed for the beautiful Jerusalem, when what you really need is in tiny little Bethlehem? Well, here’s the good news. The magi figured out they needed a course correction. And they took it. When they saw where the star had stopped over the house where Jesus was, they were overwhelmed with joy.
Why did joy overwhelm them? Why wasn’t it fear of Herod, or anger because of the detour they’d had to take through Jerusalem? Why was it joy that overwhelmed these wise men from the east? After all, they’d lost their way. They had to make a course correction to get back in the path of the star they’d been following.
Something happened to those magi when they got sidetracked, and then reoriented. Finding their star again changed them. They recognized this transformation, and they welcomed it. These Persian astrologers found themselves in a situation not very different from the situation our church is experiencing right now, when you come to think about it.
They found themselves in what author Susan Beaumont (How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going – Leading in a Liminal Season) calls a “liminal season.” Singer Jason Gray describes it in his song “Order-Disorder-Reorder” pretty well. Change experts call it orientation-disorientation-reorientation. It’s all the same thing. In order to be changed, to experience new life, we have to let go of our old ways of knowing and being – we have to let go of the old order or orientation, and allow ourselves to live for a while in the ambiguity of disorientation or disorder.
This is where the magi found themselves when they left Jerusalem. They were sure, by the old order of things, that the star was leading them to the city where Herod lived, where the Temple stood. It was disorienting to discover they were five miles off course. The city of David, Bethlehem, was an insignificant little village. Who would think to find a king there? But even in their disorientation, the magi found their star again. And when they saw it stop, they were overwhelmed with joy. Kneeling in homage before the Christ child re-oriented them in a new direction. They went home by a different road.
This period of ambiguity and confusion is a necessary part of finding our way again. We have to abide in liminal space for a while, as uncomfortable as it may be. That word “liminal” comes from a Latin word that means “threshold.” Standing on the threshold, we are neither in nor out. It is in precisely this space between what we once knew as order, and what we will eventually recognize as re-order, where we find Christ, kneel before him, and worship the one who has the power to reorder our lives in redemption and love.
Our church is on the threshold between the comfort of the past and the uncertainty of the future. We are in a liminal space right now. The question you must answer is this: Are you willing to embrace the ambiguity of being disordered long enough to step, together, into a new sense of God’s purpose for us? Can you trust, as completely as those Persian magi did, in the promise Christ offers, to transform each of us and all of us together into something new? Are you ready to head out on a different road from the one that brought you to this liminal moment, this threshold between what was and what God is calling you toward?
Because if you are, the Light of the World is shining on the way forward. Jesus is calling you into new life – not eventually, or after you die, but life that begins now. Jesus is inviting you to see the way into reordering your life around him.
Today we celebrate the Epiphany, the revelation of Christ to the world, specifically to the Gentile world. 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 who can light the way forward.
We have made it through a year filled with challenges, disappointments, and sorrows. A New Year makes us eager to celebrate all the possibilities that lie ahead of us. As we come to this Table, where bread and cup unite us with one another in Christ Jesus, how will you resolve to look for Messiah in unexpected places, to see him show up in unexpected ways this year? How will the light of Christ shine through you, revealing God’s deep and abiding love? And how will you enter the liminal space and time that leads to new life in Christ?
It is a common practice in the United Methodist Church to begin a new year renewing our baptismal promises. You may have noticed that our baptismal font has eight sides. Seven sides represent the seven days of Creation, when God created all that is, and then rested on the seventh day. But what happened on the eighth day? God got up and got back to work. The eighth side of the baptismal font represents the day you were made new in your own baptism. You represent the eighth day of Creation, as God’s salvation is revealed through you. I invite you now to join me in renewing your baptismal covenant.
January 10, 2021