Epiphany 1

Ministers can be a persnickety and cranky bunch, especially during the holidays. It isn’t the busyness that turns pastors into grumpy scrooges. Rather, during the Christmas season many pastors are affected by a bad case of liturgical purity. The primary symptom of this disease includes the refusal to sing Christmas carols until Christmas Eve. We stamp our feet and cross our arms, insisting that churches should sing Advent hymns during Advent—even though there are very few well-known and beloved Advent carols. And then the big liturgical taboo—the equivalent of wearing white shoes after Labor Day—is the practice of combining and conflating the nativity stories of Luke and Matthew. The first time I encountered this pastoral oddity was before I started seminary, when I was working as a youth minister at an Episcopal Church. Now I think I can safely say—and my Episcopalian friends would likely agree—that no minister is more likely to have an attack of liturgical purity than an Episcopal priest. Well, during a staff meeting at church one Advent, the director of Christian Education was sharing her ideas for the Christmas pageant. She innocuously mentioned which kids might play the shepherds and angels, and then noted that she had already handpicked some board members to play the three kings, the Magi that come bearing gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense.

The rector suddenly turned the seasonally-appropriate shade of purple, and ever-so-calmly explained that the three wise men could not possibly appear in the same Christmas program as the shepherds and angels. Close readers of the bible will remember that Luke never mentions the wise men at all. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is welcomed by Shepherds and angels. Matthew never mentions these character, but he alone portrays the three sages of the Orient welcoming the Christ child.

Church tradition and worship liturgy places the arrival of the kings on Epiphany, a feast of the church that is celebrated on January 6th. And really, this liturgical practice makes sense; according to the Gospel of Matthew, the Magi see the rising star that announces the birth of Christ and hurry not to Bethlehem, but to Jerusalem, asking to see the king of the Jews. King Herod consults the chief priests and scribes and is reminded that the Messiah is to be born in the city of Bethlehem. Only then are the three wise men sent on to Bethlehem at King Herod’s bidding. This is where the tradition of the twelve days of Christmas begins. A geography lesson and a bit of imagination lead the early church to celebrate the arrival of the three wise Gentiles twelve days after the birth of baby Jesus.

I’m still young and impressionable, so I haven’t completely decided if I’m going to be one of those ministers who have a fit about liturgical purity. I will say this: I appreciate that the church at least tries to celebrate the arrival of the Magi after the fact of Jesus’ birth. The days and weeks after Christmas can be an emotional and spiritual letdown if we aren’t careful. Maybe your holidays were ideal—your family reunited, your Turkey was tasty, that perfect gift you gave clearly had the intended effect. But now it’s all over, and even in sunny California, January can seem a little bleak after the feast of Christmas. But maybe your holidays weren’t so great. Maybe they reopened old wounds, or reminded you of a persistent grief. Maybe you’re disappointed that another year has come around, and the things you wish could change in your life haven’t budged a bit. Last year at this time the world was still reeling from the shock of the Asian tsunami; this year we are broken with compassion for the tragedy that unfolded in a West Virginia mine. Right about now is when even faithful Christians begin to wonder just what sort of transformation the Prince of Peace really set into motion.

Just as we are starting to wonder if our wonderment on Christmas Eve wasn’t in vain, then the Wise Men finally arrive. Their presence in the gospel is heavy with significance and charged with metaphor. First of all, they are Gentiles. The child born in Bethlehem was supposed to be the Messiah for Israel—and yet these Eastern mystics are showing up, bearing gifts for the newborn babe. The presence of the Magi reveals that Jesus Christ came to redeem all humankind, regardless of their status: Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free, to quote the apostle Paul. The Magi likely had no deep knowledge of the prophetic tradition. Their hope was not shaped by the words of Isaiah. They didn’t even know that the Son of God was to be born in Bethlehem; to the three wise men, Bethlehem was just another impoverished village buckling under the oppressive Roman government. The lineage of King David was unknown and irrelevant. Despite all of this, the Magi recognize and follow the light of Christ, opening the doors for those who are not descendants of Sarah and Rachel to recognize Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Secondly, the story of the three wise men demonstrates just how profoundly people will respond to the Christ child. The Magi are mysteriously drawn out of Persia to the city of Jerusalem. They have seen a star, and their good reputation for wisdom is on account of their uncanny and unexpected knowledge of what has occurred. When they arrive in the city of Jerusalem, they know to ask, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” For all their intelligence, the innocent question posed by the well-meaning wise men sets into motion a terrible outcome. King Herod, desperate to maintain the status quo that confers him with considerable power, will heartlessly murder every single boychild under two years old in and around the Bethlehem. How can it be that the same child can evoke such contrasting reactions in the hearts of the eastern Magi and the Jewish King? The three wise men were overwhelmed by joy; King Herod was overwhelmed by fear. The three wise men emptied their pockets for the newborn baby, generously giving him priceless gifts. King Herod devastated a generation of mothers by killing their beloved sons.

Jesus is not yet a month old, and his birth has already roused worship and violence. This is the price of the incarnation—that some people will be delighted by God’s brilliant light, and some people will do anything in their power to extinguish it. The story of the three wise men and their refusal to betray Jesus to the hands of Herod establishes the profound reactions people will have to Jesus and his ministry. These reactions will shape his life and define his death—that is, until God has the final word.

The third element of this narrative that I want to lift up today is the reason why I am so glad we celebrate the three wise men after the fact of Christmas. Their story demonstrates that Christmas is not something that happens and then is over until next year. For the Magi, the nativity of Jesus is merely the launch of a momentous journey. They experience Christmas as a rising star, a display of radiant light. The star proclaims the birth of Christ. But it isn’t a star to be admired from afar. It is a star that transforms lives. The wise men follow the light out of their own country. They follow it under the nose of the murderous King Herod. They follow that star right to the house in which Mary nursed Jesus, and they kneel before that child who reveals the gracious nature of God.

We, too, are called out on a journey. Like the Magi, we must decide if we are ready to follow the Light that draws us into the heart of God. Are we ready to resist the forces that conspire to smother God’s presence? Are we ready to respond to the manifestation of God on earth by turning everything we have and everything we are over to God?

Epiphany is not a bookend marking the final day of Christmas. Epiphany reminds us that the work of Christmas has only just begun. The child born in Bethlehem came to make us people of the Light. People willing to get up and follow Christ no matter who they are or where they’ve been. People willing to walk the path of Jesus even when that path is plagued by doubt and danger.

The Christmas decorations are back in the closet; the New Year’s resolutions have already been broken. But the Light of Christ that calls all people into God’s loving embrace burns ever more brightly. Let the wisdom and courage of the Magi be our example as we entrust ourselves to the journey of discipleship. Amen.

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