Sermon – January 5, 2020

Epiphany Sunday January 5, 2020 Psalm 72, Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12
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In these dark, difficult, dangerous times…I’ve been trying to keep focused on God…
And this week it’s been especially helpful for me…
To recall the words of the poet, Ann Weems – who has written:

Into this silent night as we make our weary way
we know not where,
just when the night becomes its darkest
and we cannot see our path,
just then
is when the angels rush in,
their hands full of stars.
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Jesus is born in Bethlehem, during the dark night of the time of King Herod…
And traveling by night following a star…
“Magi came from the East, asking ‘where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?’ For we saw his star at it’s rising and have come to worship him.”

Who are these Magi, and how did they know to follow that star…?
We don’t know….

How did they know the star signified the birth of one born to be King of the Jews?
We don’t know…

Who were these guys we call Magi?
We really don’t know…
Through the years we’ve made a lot of guesses – some better than others. And good guesses is the best we’ve got…
It’s very unlikely they were kings. If they were, surely the gospel writer would have mentioned this – it would be more than a detail. The idea of the Magi being kings comes from our readings from Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72 – traditional readings for Epiphany every year – that speak of kings bringing tribute and gifts to a king of Israel.
The Magi may well have been wise men in their home territory, but they certainly aren’t acting wisely in Jerusalem. Asking about a newborn king of the Jews was sure to quickly draw the attention of King Herod – who was notoriously paranoid about potential rivals. Infamous for killing one of his wives and three of his sons on suspicion of disloyalty.
Our best guess is the Magi were astrologers of the Zoroastrian religion, from Persia – modern-day Iran. Though probably not kings, they may well have been part of the royal court of Persia, acting as ambassadors for royalty – since they bring gold and other expensive gifts. And Zoroastrians are thought to be among the earliest practitioners of astrology – which, in those days was early astronomy. I picture the Magi with eyes well accustomed to the night sky – very familiar with the patterns of planets and stars… Able to notice anything new.
These are probably our best guesses… All plausible, but… we only know for sure the little that scripture tells us…

So when we ask, for example – How many Magi were there?
We’ll sing We Three Kings today, and it’s still a good hymn with much wisdom in it … But we have no idea how many Magi there actually were. The church in the West eventually decided on three, based on the number of gifts recorded, while the Eastern Orthodox church guessed a dozen. We really don’t know how many. Scripture doesn’t say… And–

So much of the story is veiled in mystery… Perhaps to help us focus on what’s essential… And among all that we don’t know, one of the few things we do know – is –
These Magi from afar (with the shepherds of Luke’s gospel) are the first to worship Jesus.
What do we actually mean by worship? The bible speaks often of worship but gives few definitions… But love, loyalty, submission and sacrifice are basics. The main commandment for Israel is ‘hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength… And you shall have no other gods before God who made heaven and earth….
Sometimes I can get hung up on even one word. This week I’ve been noticing that I’ve often favored modern bible translations such as NRSV (our Pew Bible) that say the Magi came to “pay homage” to the child… rather than “to worship” him. Technically homage can mean worship, which is why the Greek word can be translated either way. But paying homage to a person sounds more rational, more reasonable to me than worshiping a person… Which could easily be considered idolatry…
But the more I’ve thought about this the more I’ve noticed – rational and reasonable are not always God’s chosen means of communicating. And I’ve been wondering – does it make sense to expect “reasonable” explanations – for seekers following a star? (Do we need to know why we seek God? Isn’t that like asking why do we fall in love?) Isn’t holy mystery part of everything good in life?

And I’m remembering when we came home Christmas Eve late, after our second service, going back out to the car to check on something… Looking up – to see the night sky… lit up with a million stars… I stood out there in the parking lot gazing up…quietly singing O Holy Night…

Beauty and holy mystery… are a big part of what makes life meaningful…
But… reason can be wonderful too.. After all, isn’t God the author of reason, as well as the source of beauty? And isn’t it best when we can see beauty, grace, peace… and reason…. all together…in harmonious accord?

In God’s sending of the Magi – are we not richly blessed? – as we see holy mystery, and the fulfillment of scripture, and foretastes of fulfillment to come – all together in harmony… The gifts of the Magi a down-payment on Isaiah’s prophesy of the nations bringing their wealth as an offering in worship unto the God of Israel… An offering to be completed only when kings of all the nations come, bowing before God and Jesus at the end of the bible in the scroll of Revelation… And at the same time, the Magi are early evidence already – of what the apostle Paul calls the mystery of the gospel – which is God making one people out of all nations through Jesus Christ our Lord…

And – what we actually do know about these Magi following a star to find Jesus – is… This is about God fulfilling scripture – and reversing human expectations. As the wise men of Jerusalem – the high priests, scribes, and religious leaders – who know the scriptures of Israel, and name Bethlehem, correctly as birthplace of the Messiah – all evidently lack true wisdom – as they show no interest whatsoever in meeting the Messiah. (For, as it turns out, they serve Herod… more than God.)
While pagans from the far ends of the earth who are foolish in the ways of our religious and political worlds – turn out to be wise in God’s ways. As bible scholar Mark Allan Powell notes: “The magi…are depicted as persons who… seek no honor for themselves, and…gladly humble themselves, kneeling even before a woman and a child…. They are persons to whom God reveals what is hidden… from whom God derives worship (and) praise….” Wise, in other words, in the ways of God.

There’s a drastic contrast here between the “wisdom” of the conventionally “wise” and the foolish godly wisdom of the Magi.
But… The greatest contrast is between Herod and Jesus. Herod, called “King of the Jews” in the political world – who ironically looks much more like the Pharaoh of Exodus, who ordered the Hebrew baby boys to be thrown into the River Nile – as he orders the murder of all the baby boys of Bethlehem as he tries to kill the infant Jesus… true king of the universe…

A preview and summary of the whole gospel. Where the high and mighty in the world shall be brought low. And those scorned, forgotten, overlooked, and disregarded in the world shall be lifted up. As we see –

The stark night and day contrast, here and throughout the gospels – between the ways of this world – and The Way of God – who sends his Son, our King, born in a stable…. Who invites us now to join with shepherds and Magi…

Following the light of a star…
Welcoming Jesus…
Worshiping Him from the heart…
Offering our best to Him…

Remembering–

Into this silent night
as we make our weary way we know not where,

just when the night becomes its darkest
and we cannot see our path,

just then
is when the angels rush in,

their hands full of stars.

Beckoning us…
Come, follow this child…

Thanks be to God. Amen.