This was yesterday’s sermon for the Eve of the Epiphany, preached at Community Lutheran Church. The text was Matthew 2:1-12:
2In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, ‘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.’ 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah* was to be born. 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 “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.” ’
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then 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.’ 9When 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. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On 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. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
One of the things I loved most about growing up in the country was being able to look up at the clear night sky. And I didn’t realize that until I moved to Rockville and I couldn’t really see the sky because of all the electric lights. When I was younger, I remember going snow tubing once in Pennsylvania and leaning back on my snow tube, gazing up at the starry sky. I just thought it was perfect – the crisp, cold, clean winter air and the stars twinkling above me. And I remember feeling like there was something holy about that time – something that filled me with a spirit of worship and praise.
In this morning’s reading we hear about the magi having their own night sky experience – encountering the star of all stars. These magi show up in Jerusalem asking about the child who is to be born king of the Jews. And they don’t just ask around town, they ask Herod, who is, by title, the appointed king of the Jews. Awkward!
Needless to say, Herod is caught by surprise, and he calls together his top advisers – the chief priests, those who are in charge of the Temple, and the scribes, those who interpret the law of God – to see what they have to say about all this. They tell him the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem, just 5 miles south of Jerusalem. This revelation makes Herod shake in his sandals, as well as all of Jerusalem, because a new king not appointed by Rome is not only a threat to Herod, but a threat to the Roman Empire.
So Herod, not exactly rejoicing over this news, secretly calls the magi to go and search for the child and to let him know when they find him. He says he wants to know so he can go and pay this new child king homage, but as we heard last week, he’s really out to eliminate this potential threat.
So off the magi go, following the star they had been following from the East. Eventually, it stops over the house where the child Jesus is living. When they see him with Mary, the magi kneel down and pay him homage, acknowledging him as king, and bestowing gold, frankincense and myrrh on him.
It’s a familiar story – a great story! There are songs about it and there’s even a tradition of going around and blessing houses on Epiphany, marking them with the year and the initials of the wise men’s names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. But, there’s a couple interesting things about all this. The Bible never tells us how many magi there were. We only think there were three because there are three gifts. The Bible also doesn’t give us any names – these were added on later in Christian tradition. And, finally, while it’s really fun to sing “We Three Kings,” these people probably weren’t kings at all. Instead, they were probably astrologers and magicians from the East – maybe even Persia.
So we’ve got an undisclosed number of people from the East following a star to a king. And they must have had some doubts about following a star to get to their destination because they pull over in Jerusalem for directions! It’s only after Herod tells them to keep searching that they follow the star again. It’s like verifying your GPS isn’t lying to you by asking a local.
Still, you have to admire them. They set out from their homes, not knowing where they were going or what they might encounter along the journey, or even what they might find at their destination – and, still, onward they went. They went, following a star, knowing that stars were associated with kings. And they went to worship the king of a foreign country.
It’s made me think a lot about journeying and traveling. I have always loved learning about different countries, cultures and history – so much so, in fact, that I thought I might end up going into anthropology in college. And when I was sixteen, the travel bug bit me… hard. In my previous, pre-seminary and pre-pastor life, I worked at a travel company. Working there, I was able to learn a bit about different countries and was fortunate to be able to travel to a couple different places.
I still love traveling, and Jeff and I are blessed to be able to be headed to the Holy Land with Gettysburg Seminary tomorrow… and, yes, I still have to pack! Now, this is going to be a religious trip, focused on the land and history of Scripture. But one thing I’ve realized throughout my journeys is how all my travels have played a role in my faith. They’ve helped me to understand church history better, but they’ve also helped me to see people in a new way. I’ve realized that it hasn’t been the places so much as the people and experiences that have shaped my faith.
Speaking with Muslims in Egypt during the month of Ramadan – their month of fasting – helped me to reflect on my own Lenten practices. Realizing how far a laugh or a smile can go to break the ice and transcend language barriers has helped me think about people as the children of God in concrete ways. And I’ve been moved to prayer taking in gorgeous landscapes and spectacular feats of engineering. Having time away from the hustle and bustle of regular life and experiencing a new place has given me the opportunity to tune in to God in new, fresh ways.
That’s been my experience traveling, and perhaps you’ve experienced similar things in your travels, but I firmly believe that you don’t have to travel in order to be on a journey. We can journey even while we’re at home and encounter Christ on our way. I have seen God in the faces of people with whom I’ve worshiped. And I’ve seen God in conversations and laughter with family and friends. Maybe you’ve seen God through cooking or through creating things. Maybe it’s been through your interactions with others. Or maybe it’s been through being transported by reading fantastic books. What has God used to move you worship like the wise men?
Each of us is on a faith journey. They all take different shapes and forms, but there is one unifying factor – God is seeking us out. God led foreign astrologers and practitioners of another religion by a star to meet Jesus. Now, that’s some creative communication if you ask me! It shows that God pulls out all the stops to reach out to people and draw them from afar to be near to God. Listening to people’s stories, God’s creativity in communicating with us never ceases to amaze me, but we’ve got to have eyes to see it.
The question when it comes to our journeys is what are we seeking? Are we seeking Christ or something else? In our world, success, wealth and fame are highly prized and highly sought after rather than the radical way of Christ. Instead of listening for God’s leading in our lives, it’s often much easier to listen to what society tells us is meaningful – power, prestige, money and independence. So are we looking for Christ as we travel through life? And where do we meet him, see him and worship him in our lives?
When the wise men saw that the star had stopped, the gospel says that they were overwhelmed with joy. In the Greek, it almost seems as if the writer is falling over himself trying to describe how excited and bubbling over with joy the magi were. It says, very roughly, “and seeing the star, they rejoiced with great joy very much!” It’s a wooden translation, but you get the point – these were happy people, overflowing with joy that they had finally found the one for whom they were searching!
It reminded me of one of my family’s favorite movies: Hook. In it, Robin Williams is a grown-up version of Peter Pan who has lost the magic and become a workaholic lawyer, driven by success and blind to his family. That is, until Captain Hook, played by Dustin Hoffman, captures Peter Pan’s kids and makes him return to Neverland to get them. It is there that he begins to remember his past and reconnect with magic of life again.
The other lost boys have a difficult time seeing past the fact that their beloved leader is now grown up. But one of them takes a good hard look at Peter’s face, smoothing away the wrinkles and peering into his eyes. He then says, “Oh, there you are Peter!” He is filled with joy at this discovery of his long lost friend. And his joy causes the other boys to take a closer look and realize that their leader just needs a little help and memory jogging to get back into shape.
I’ve seen this movie a thousand times. And when I have those moments when I encounter Christ in the unexpected, or I witness God in conversations and interactions, a little voice in my head says, “Oh, there you are God!” It’s always a moment of surprise, wonder, delight and joy. I think it’s this type of response that the magi had when they knelt before Jesus and paid him homage. It’s the kind of attitude and response, we too, should cultivate in worship and in our daily lives.
Imagine if we came to receive communion that way. Following God’s call to come to the table and outstretching our hands in wonder and joy that Christ meets us there. Imagine if we entered into conversations with others, looking for God to be present there. Imagine if we remained open to God’s leading and let ourselves be moved to prayer and worship in this midst of everyday life.
As we continue our journeys, we can remember the journey of the magi. How they came from afar, trusting in a star and God’s leading, and being open to worship Jesus and be filled with joy. We can keep our eyes open for encountering Jesus in the people and places, situations and experiences of our lives. And we can remember that God never stops seeking us out or trying to reach out in creative ways to get our attention.
I’ll end with one of my favorite prayers: “O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen.
© 2014. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.