January 5, 2014 – Epiphany Sunday

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, Magi 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 Magi 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 worshiped him. 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.

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Epiphany (Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:2-6 – these readings found below)  Matthew 2:1-12   Seeing into believing

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In the words of pastor-poet Howard Thurman –

“When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock… (now–)

The work of Christmas begins…

Epiphany begins on the last of the twelve days of Christmas… and runs til Lent. Epiphany, the day and the season, is actually older than Christmas, and for several hundred years was a bigger event than Christmas in the church year.

Epiphany, in the language of the church, means seeing, not just with the eye, not necessarily even with the eye…but seeing something of the mystery of God in the birth of Jesus…. the revelation of the incarnation… the coming of Christ into the world.

The coming of the Magi is always the gospel reading for the first day of Epiphany. These visitors from afar have come to symbolize those who’ve been in the dark about God’s purposes… now coming to see…

As if seeingrecognizing – matters perhaps as much as the fact of the holy birth.

(When bright and beautiful snow is falling…snow on snow… What if no one notices this miracle of God’s creative grace, shining in silent splendor? Is the miraculous really happening, if nobody notices?)

Maybe the miraculous is always miraculous? I’m not sure – but – I am pretty sure scripture is telling us – that our seeing of God’s grace and beauty at work is more than strongly recommended. On some level our participation in the work of God seems to be required for God’s saving work to be fully fulfilled.

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Speaking of participation… A few weeks ago I got to play one of the Magi in our Christmas Pageant (in Bourne). My role was to walk, with Brian Jackman and Jay Martitz, up to the manger, bow down there, and lay our gifts before the infant Jesus. No speaking lines, not much pressure. A humble role, and one I’ve played before. But acting the role always does seem to help me reflect on the story. Being in the play reminds me to go back to the script, consult study bibles, and be reminded that often how we think the story goes is a result of folklore and tradition, more than the gospel.

We Three Kings of Orient are, for example… These visitors from afar almost for sure weren’t kings. The Greek word magi can mean priests, astrologers, or possibly wise men –  ‘Kings’ would really be a stretch… And we three kings is a wild guess. The Bible says nothing about three visitors – only that there’s more than one… And the Bible says nothing about of-orient-are – only that they’re from the East – more likely Persia in the Near East – rather than the far-east we call the Orient… And judging from Herod’s attempt to kill all children in Bethlehem up to age two  (reported later in this same chapter), scholars think the Magi’s visit came months after the manger scene, with the shepherds long-since gone…

But we’ll sing the song today anyway… because… I’m pretty sure the number of visitors doesn’t matter… I’m pretty sure the Magi not being kings matters only a little… I’m fairly confident the exact timing of the visit doesn’t matter much…And exactly how far from the East the visitors came…matters little.

What does matter… is that these guests from other lands let us know the good news of Jesus Christ is for all people…

What matters is how the Magi model faith and joy as they follow the star to Jesus. What matters is how their faith is working, as they bow low and worship infant Jesus, and give gifts… (Gifts foretold in Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72, where kings of nations bring gold, frankincense and other gifts to Israel.)

What does matter in the story of the Magi is this theme of all the nations returning to the God of all creation – a story that begins with God creating the heavens and earth – a story still being fulfilled in the last chapters of the bible, where kings of all nations bring gifts to the new Jerusalem…

It can get overwhelming to try to track all the themes that show up here today in this short half-a-chapter – which may be why the apostle Paul speaks repeatedly of “the mystery of the gospel.”  Mystery not meaning who-did-what-crime-why in a detective story.

Mystery in a much older sense of the word – like the mystery of snow falling softly, making all things as if new – easy enough to explain on one level – next to impossible on a deeper level…

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On one level, it’s not difficult to follow, as St Matthew, with a few carefully chosen words, gives insight into the behavior patterns of King Herod, the chief priests and scribes, the people of Jerusalem, and the Magi themselves…

The holy baby the Magi seek to worship is of course not seen as good news by King Herod. Which shouldn’t surprise us. Kings and rulers tend to be paranoid and power hungry – this seems to come with the turf of hardball political life. As Rome’s vassal king, ruling over Judea, Herod was called “King of the Jews.” Now here come strangers looking for another king with his title. Of course he’s going to feel threatened. (If the Magi were really wise men, they’d have done research on King Herod, and quickly learned what everyone locally knew – that Herod had killed one of his wives and several of his sons whom he thought might be after his job. If they’d done the research, they’d of thought twice before speaking with Herod.)

More surprising (perhaps) is the reaction to this news of an infant Messiah on the part of the chief priests and scribes. They know the scriptures well enough to go quickly to Micah chapter 5, which speaks of the village of Bethlehem, where King David was also born. They know the scriptures – but they show no interest whatsoever in going to see for themselves. Which speaks volumes.

We’re also told all Jerusalem is frightened (or highly disturbed) along with cruel King Herod – at the news of an infant Messiah-king – a subtle clue, perhaps, that fear of change can feed into the hands of evil doers… who sometimes need only the passive consent of the governed… to get away with murder…

Which leaves us with the Magi – who certainly don’t look wise – (exposing the holy family and the children of Bethlehem to great risk).

Yet it’s only these mysterious characters from afar who reveal the biblical pattern of hope…

The Magi start out following the star in faith… though without much wisdom… They come to Herod, seeking information about the child who has been born… gravely endangering Jesus and the children of Bethlehem…

It’s only after they see Jesus that the Magi start to act wisely… Having met Jesus, now they’re able to receive a word of warning from God in dream. Now they head home, transformed by their encounter with Jesus. No longer looking to worldly rulers for directions. Navigating now by the light of Jesus, the bright morning star who illumines the humble path of faith, hope and love…

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And like the Magi of old – when we glimpse the holiness of Jesus, our lives  change. When we see Jesus, even for a moment, our lives can be changed forever.

And like the Magi, the deeper I get into the Jesus story, the more I realize how unwise and foolish I can so often be. The more I ponder the story, the more I see  how much I need to be engaged in calmer, quieter, deeper hearing of the word of God…

Once in awhile I come to an epiphany experience as a sudden “ah-ha!” moment of recognition. More often, epiphany’s a slower process… a gradual growth of sight and awareness…that comes only with prolonged practice of prayer, and listening, and bible study, and worship, and trying to do things Jesus says to do… counseling with other Christian believers…

Opening ourselves fully to God – can be a bit like watching snow falling – trying to notice, on the one hand, each and every snow flake –

at the same time, trying to see all the whole of the holy brightness encompassing all –

neither of which can we ever do wholly completely (of course) – yet – only in trying, it seems – are we able to enter deeply into God’s way of seeing – in which all things are indeed made-new…

It’s only when I linger long, looking to Jesus…

looking to what God has done… and what God is doing still –

Only when I spend time giving thanks to God, again, and yet again…

Only when God’s own patience…. seems to get a hold of me…

Am I made ready… to hear the rest of what the poet has said –

“When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock… (now…)

The work of Christmas begins –

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among people,

To make music in the heart.”

(Thanks be to God. Amen.)

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Isaiah 60:1-6

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

Ephesians 3:1-12

This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.