January 5, 2020
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’ve asked you to hear this story in a new way, in an effort to make it fresh for you. Last year, I asked you to compare and contrast Herod’s actions with the magi who come from the East. In other years, we’ve looked at what was missing from Matthew’s story, or we examined what the word “epiphany” actually 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 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 practiced a different kind of 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.
JD Walt wrote this week about the difference between blind faith and faith that sees. You should go read that piece in its entirety right now. Here’s the link. JD writes, “We live in an age increasingly anesthetized by darkness. We are all affected. It will take a great awakening to turn the tide. It will take mountain-moving faith.”
It will take the kind of faith those Iranian astrologers had, the kind of faith that looks earnestly to see the Christ, in whatever form he might appear – even that of a weak and vulnerable baby. It will take the kind of faith that recognizes Jesus in the most unlikely places, among the most unlikely people.
This is the Sunday we celebrate the Epiphany, 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.
Today 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, to see him show up in unexpected ways. And may the light of Christ shine through us, revealing God’s deep and abiding love to all.