Matthew 2:1-2In 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."
Yesterday, January 6, was the feast of the Epiphany, when we celebrate the visit of the magi ("wise men") to the infant Jesus. I have been struck this year more than in years past that Matthew provides not a single shred of detail about who these people were other than the three-word (in Greek) description, "magi from the east." I've started to wonder whether that vagueness might not have been on purpose, so that we all - in all our un-defined diversity - might more easily imagine ourselves as part of the entourage of seekers who watch for the appearance of this king.
That reflection in turn started me thinking about the possibility that the roles should really be reversed for at least some of us, perhaps most of us who are in the church, the insiders. Maybe instead of identifying with the magi I should draw my primary lesson from this passage by asking whether I am actually more like Herod and "the chief priests and scribes of the people" (verse 4) who, we are told, actually know where the Messiah is to be born, yet do not themselves go and worship alongside those other visitors! Astonishing!
My likeness to these political and religious leaders rather than the magi is becoming truer all the time. Each passing year adds to the number of people around us whose lives have not included a faith background, who - like the magi - would not have been part of people of Israel (or the church). It is becoming well-known that the number of Americans who comprise the so-called "nones" - that is, people who report their religious affiliation as "none" - has now reached 20 percent of the population. Yet, we are also told that only a small percentage of "the nones" are actually atheists. More likely, they have noticed extraordinary things in their lives and in the world, things that have inspired them to ask either in cynical frustration or in hopeful excitement, "so - where is this supposed king?" only to find no one truly listening. Or else they have encountered the modern equivalent of Herod's clergy who, after reciting from their catechisms and reference books ("You might check Bethlehem"), go back to whatever they were doing before.
I *really* hope that is not me or any of us, but - again - the likelihood is increasing that in my life and work a group of seekers will come looking for directions, trying to understand some new manifestation of God in the world or in life without any prior points of reference. At that point I have two choices for responding: One is that because I did not recognize the unconventional means by which God had gotten their attention I wave them off to some little backwater town, so that God has no other recourse but to warn them in a dream to return to their homes another way. Or, after identifying the little backwater town, I can go *with* them on their journey to look together at whatever sign they thought was drawing them there, and maybe on the way hear their stories, find out more of what glimpses of God they may have had that I have not, and maybe even help fill in the gaps a bit - this is not just a king you are seeing, but God who will go all the way to a cross for us.
I think we should be a good bit more excited about Epiphany than we usually are, because it represents the first appearance in the gospel story of this crucial type of encounter that is likely to define our work and ministry together for the foreseeable future. It is a chance for us to ask these questions: If we are outsiders driven to search, will we find leaders who will walk with us to the place where the Christ is? If we are those leaders, will we recognize the seekers when they arrive and be willing to not just provide answers, but go with them?
Everlasting God, the radiance of all faithful people, you brought the nations to the brightness of your rising. Fill the world with your glory, and show yourself to all the world through him who is the true light and the bright morning star, your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one