The first Sunday in the season of Epiphany
Isaiah, Chapter 60: verses 1-6 Arise, shine, for your light has come
Matthew 2: 1-12 The Visit of the Magi
Opening Prayer: Holy One we give you thanks for the stories from our faith tradition we hear this first day of the season of Epiphany, the time in the church calendar when we deliberately focus on how you make yourself known to us in Jesus. Be with us in our ponderings as we reflect on them together and on their various shades of meaning. Amen.
In some churches, the story of the visit of the Magi happens as part of the larger story of the birth narrative of Jesus on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
In other churches, an entire Sunday morning service is devoted to its celebration as here this morning.
What a very fine tone our hymns set as we celebrate the beginning of the season of light of God’s love being revealed in our midst!
That tone and our shared memories of seeing trios of children (or sometimes even our own older and wiser gentlemen here at Knox) dressed in bathrobes and homemade crowns, bearing treasures boxes of symbolic gifts worthy of a royal birth add to the celebration of this festive day.
Throw in maybe even a few wooden or cardboard camels from Christmas pageants and Epiphany Sundays past and we have a sumptuous tableau on offer this holy day, yes?
Then there are our own collections of Christmas cards and mementos replicating artistic renderings of the story of the Magi that embellish and reinforce a particular understanding of the story of the Magi.
But, wait a minute, where did we hear in the story this morning that there are only three kings and their attendant camels making the long journey?
Where did we get the idea that there were only three gifts?
And, was there really a star in the night sky that these wandering ones followed for over two years?
Were the folks in leadership of the travelling band all that necessarily wise?
And was the destination really a manger in a stable out in the backwoods of Bethlehem?
Questions, questions and more questions abound!
Looking more closely at this morning’s reading through the lens of the gospel according to Matthew, we acknowledge our own enhanced understanding the story based and reinforced by on own collection of Christmas treasures portraying the story in sentimental and less than accurate ways.
In the very same way, we acknowledge our tendency also to gloss over some of the less savoury aspects of the story.
For example, while we treasure our collection of all things sentimental related to the story, we would do well to acknowledge some of the grittier realities of the story. Surely this retinue of travellers would be noisy and dirty and smelly-after all, long distance travel in and around the regions of first Century Palestine would have been anything but antiseptic and serene no matter how much our collections and memories would have it be so!
It is very likely, too, that there were more than just the three travelling companions. Surely there would also be women and children and others to support the basic needs of the lengthy journey as well?
After all, somebody had to be attentive to all that setting up camp, making meals, etc. etc. And who would miss a chance for the journey of a lifetime?
We know, too, from our own social media culture the many jokes that there indeed could or should have been more practical gifts on offer than the lavish ones we focus on in our story.
Turning again to the words in the story to ground us, we see there is no mention of only a trio of travellers.
There is no mention of camels, and no babe in a manger in a stable.
Instead, there is deliberate mention of itinerant wise men, astrologers, scholars of the night sky feeling compelled to follow a star from its rising in the east all the way to Jerusalem.
There is mention of their purpose as they come seeking a new king, a child king they name as King of the Jews.
There is mention of them asking that very question of those they first encounter on arrival into Jerusalem and then asking the same question of the incumbent imposed king of the Jews, Herod of Antipas.
There is mention of a sense of fear and foreboding in this part of the story as Herod calls for his advisors, the chief priests and the scribes to bring their knowledge to bear on the coming of this one whom these foreigners seek.
There is mention of the prophet, Micah’s words that the Messiah, the Christ, a shepherd King is to be born at Bethlehem.
There is mention of Herod secretly meeting with the Magi and his need to know the exact timing of the appearance of the star they have followed. This act presumably taken so as to gain more information about the Holy One’s location.
There is mention of the need for them to go and to search diligently for the child so that he, Herod (ruthless leader appointed by the Roman authorities) can go and do the same.
There is mention that immediatley upon their agreement to do Herod's bidding, the travelling astronomers head out into the night's darkness only to be guided by the very star that had brought them to Jerusalem.
Moving their feet to its rapid movement, they are overjoyed when the star stops over the place where the child was to be found just five miles from Jerusalem at Bethelehem.
There is mention of their overwhelming joy at achieving their goal as they encounter Jesus, now grown into toddlerhood and found (not out of doors on a bed of hay) but rather, behind doors with his mother at their home in Bethlehem.
There is mention of how they come to share their precious gifts carried over such a long journey.
And there is mention of those foreign ones’ awareness and need to abandon their commitment to Herod ensuing from a dream warning them to return home by another road.
If we were to read beyond the verses on offer today, we would learn of the Holy Family’s immediate needs to flee Herod’s wrath and we would learn of Herod’s edict for all children in and around Bethlehem to be killed. All this to safeguard his own authority, his own need to maintain his power base.
But, those are stories for another day.
For us gathered here this day, we are left with the story of how it was foreigners who were first led to the site of Emmanuel-God with us at Bethlehem.
We are left with the awareness of their precious gifts offered in homage to the embodiment of God’s Holy love in Jesus, the Christ.
We are aware of how very appropriate such gifts of gold would soon be for the Holy Family's flight ot Egypt for safe keeping as refugees; gifts of anointing Jesus’ feet for the time will be needed; and gifts for the embalming of Jesus’ body when his life would reach its ultimate end.
But, for today, we want to stay with our celebration of the start of the season of Epiphany, the time in the church calendar when we celebrate the coming of God to us through Jesus.
And, in the midst of celebrating we want to hold all of that in tension with our own too human needs, like Herod for power, for acceptance, for recognition, for praise, worth and value.
Let us stay with the thought that, like the Magi, we, too, are called to journeys of sharing with others the revelation of the light of God’s holy love-God's holy love made known to us just as it was to those intrepid foreign travellers willing to risk following the rise of a star in the night sky all the way to its conclusion at Bethlehem.
Let us stay with the awareness that right from the get-go, Jesus’ life will be one of itinerancy and threat.
Let us stay with the sure knowledge that God is in the middle of all the light and all the shadow, in all the darkness and secrecy, and in all the malevolence and foreboding.
Let us stay with the awareness that God is in the beginning, the middle, and in the end of the journey and that God invites us through these stories from scripture to travel together as seekers and as followers, to trust our instincts, and our dreams, and sometimes to travel home by another road.
Let us continue to pray on how the power of the actual words in our stories from scripture might continue to inform our life together on this the first Sunday in the season of Epiphany. This, even as they overlap with all our precious memories of a more sentimental and culturally embellished versions of the story.
“On Epiphany Day we are still the people walking. We are still people in the dark, and the darkness looms large around us, beset as we are by fear, anxiety, brutality, violence, loss-a dozen alienations that we cannot manage.
We are-we could be-your people of light.
So we pray for the light of your glorious presence as we wait for your appearing; we pray for the light of your wondrous grace as we exhaust our coping capacity; we pray for your gift of newness that will override our weariness; we pray that we may see and know and hear and trust in your good rule.
That we may have energy, courage, and freedom to enact your rule through the demands of this day.
We submit our day to you and to your rule with deep joy and high hope.”
May it be so, amen.
*“Prayers for a Privileged People” Epiphany, p. 163 Walter Brueggemann, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 2008.