Epiphany. We love to love Epiphany, or at least I do -
and my guess is you do too. The Magi we read about today only journeyed from
the East once, but many of us probably feel like this is a well-worn path that
the church travels every Christmas. We have been here before. We have looked
under every rock, peered around every corner, and explored the nuances of this
story so many times that perhaps we are tempted to put our worship, our Bible
readings, our carols, and our Epiphany celebrations on auto-pilot and casually
allow ourselves to bask in the familiar light of the star of Bethlehem and the
visitors it draws from afar.
Yes it is too true - the story of the Magi's journey is
well known. Most of us can stand
up and say "been there, done that" today. Epiphany, Journey of the Wise Men,
Three Kings Day - though most of us have probably heard the sermon that they
were likely not kings. Wise-men, sages, astrologers - yes; and didn't we debate
the number of Magi in recent years; whether there were three Magi simply
because we know there were three gifts?
Ahh - and the gifts themselves - fun topic for preaching
and Sunday School classes. Three gifts, like late Christmas gifts that we get
to open today so that we can discuss and analyze them for their symbolism. Why
gold? Because Jesus is King? Why frankincense? Because it was used in worship
and points to Jesus' divinity? Why myrrh? Because it was used in embalming and
it anticipates Jesus' death? Ahh - the wonder of Epiphany - the adventure of
the star-gazers from the East - the picturesque snapshot of a bright star
leading the way - the image of people bending the knee in worship and homage.
We love to love Epiphany; but perhaps this year we should
be careful not to let our familiarity distance
us too far from this text's warning and terror. Let's not forget that the
journey of the Magi set off a chain of events that led to the horrific massacre
of children in and around the town of Bethlehem.
Let's not forget that though angels sang, shepherds worshipped, and Magi
journeyed - Herod plotted and schemed and all of Jerusalem
was frightened and panicked.
If this story teaches us anything, it teaches us that
Jesus stirs things up - even as a baby - before he ever muttered an
intelligible word, before he had preached his first sermon, before he had
broken his first Sabbath observance, before he has challenged social customs, violated
Jewish protocol, or turned over tables in the temple. Jesus' presence alone
challenged the status quo, stirred up political unrest, caused people to leave
their jobs, and prompted others to pack up and things and head to unknown
That is the Jesus I want to know. That is the Jesus I
want to worship today. Not the one who can be reduced to a bumper sticker
slogan; not the one who TV preachers promise will pad my pockets if I will pack
their pews; not the one who affirms me, conforms to my way of thinking, agrees
with my politics, and assures me that everything will be OK if I will just do
the right thing. I am not interested in that Jesus. I hope you aren't either -
because that Jesus is the false Jesus.
I want the Jesus' of Matthew' gospel today. I want to bow
down and worship the God who broke into this world and turned it upside down. I
want to journey with the Jesus who is not content to leave me as I am; who
challenges the sins I have come to love; who takes issue with my petty
prejudices and shortcomings; who illuminates my darkness and reveals me as the
fallen sinner that I am. I want to listen to the Jesus who says that following
him might be dangerous, it might cost me something - the Jesus who says "follow
me and your just as likely to end up a refugee in Egypt
with little to your name as you are to end up in a home with the ability to
make ends meet.
Phillips Brooks touched on this real Jesus in his carol
"O Little Town of Bethlehem":
the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. Fear. It
was all over the place that first Christmas. Herod's fear, which represents all
those who greet Jesus coming with growing anxiety that this coming kingdom
might clash with our way of doing things, our claim to be the final authority
of our own lives and author's of our own destiny; the fear that Herod and all
Jerusalem shared with him - that this Jesus might just turn their world upside
down, challenge their gods, uproot their lives, expose their insecurities, and
remind them of their mortality, their dependency, and their fragile claims to
power and authority.
Fear. It was all over the place that first Christmas.
Fear that God was doing a new thing, which would be bad news to people who
liked things the old way. Fear that God was coming to support change rather
than be allied with the status quo. Fear that Light coming into the world meant
that the false security and safety of darkness was on its last legs. For many,
Jesus was the sum total of everything they feared about God, about religion,
and about life.
But, as Brooks points out - hope was also all over the
place that first Christmas. The hope of spiritual seekers - people without
Torah, without circumcision, without covenant promises that search for truth
among the stars and are still led to the universal truth of Jesus Christ for
the whole world. The hope of Israel
- that in Jesus is the fulfillment of God's promises to Abraham, David, and the
prophets. The hope of all humanity that secretly longs for salvation, for
purpose, for meaning, joy, and for true happiness.
That is the Jesus we discover in Matthew's gospel today -
the Jesus of God - the Light that came to vanquish darkness - the One who was
fully God and fully Man at once - the One who came to change the world and who
desires to start by changing you and me. The One who, when received and
welcomed in faith leaves the seeker "overwhelmed with joy." The One in whom the
"hopes and fears are met - and where meek souls will receive him still - the
dear Christ will enter in."
Let us pray:
O, holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell;
O, come to us abide with us, our Lord, Emmanuel.