January 7, 2024 ~ EPIPHANY
Rev. Beckie Sweet
EPIPHANY! An Announcement of Stellar Proportions! A revelation of the Most Holy! Actually, yesterday, January 6th, was Epiphany, but we are celebrating today. This is one of the few celebrations in the Christian year where the same scripture text is read year after year. Perhaps, like the Christmas narrative from Luke 2, the power of this story actually lies in its familiarity. Isn’t it true that the things we repeat to ourselves over and over are the things that matter most to us?
This text is from Matthew’s gospel, the only place in holy writ where we find the account of the journey of the Magi to find the child who has been born to be King of the Jews. And while we know the story well, there is context with which we may be less familiar.
From everything scholars can determine about the Magi, we can safely assume they were Zoroastrian astrologers, who most likely came from Persia, what we now call Iran. Let that sink in for a moment.
They brought some unusual gifts, at least by the way we think of baby gifts today. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh might not seem like the sort of thing you or I would take to a baby shower. Centuries of tradition have assigned some special significance to each of these gifts: gold signifies royalty, acknowledging that this child would one day rule as a king; frankincense was used in the temple, to signify that this child would be holy and set apart for God’s purpose; and myrrh would have been associated with Jesus’ death, since it was used to anoint a dead body before burial.
But when we consider that these astrologers from Iran probably knew little or nothing of Jewish temple rituals, gold was a currency of value in every culture, and both myrrh and frankincense were valued for medicinal purposes, it’s possible that the gifts the magi brought were offered for their practical uses, more than for any symbolic values we might assign to them. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh may sound exotic to our modern ears, but in first century Palestine, they might have just been the equivalent of gift cards or savings bonds. Perhaps, more than making a theological statement, the magi were trying to bring useful gifts for the Holy Family.
But this was not the celebration of just any baby. The Magi had traveled for months just to see this baby! And the word “homage” shows up a couple of times here. The Magi made the journey in anticipation of seeing with their own eyes how prophecy had been fulfilled. They were looking specifically for a king, who would command their respect and honor, a king to whom they could show reverence, a king they could serve. The Magi from Iran were looking for God incarnate, God made flesh, God’s promise made real. They were looking for One worthy of their worship. These “foreigners” who came from a different country and followed a different belief system were some of the first to recognize just how significant this birth really was.
Sure, we like to talk a lot about the gifts that the Magi brought. But what is most significant in this story is that the Magi, those considered privileged from another land and culture, came to worship the Christ Child.
There is something else we should notice about the Magi, who point us to Christ. They didn’t get it right at first. They went looking for the newborn King in Jerusalem, assuming that must be where the star was leading them. They strayed off course by just 5-6 miles, as that is the distance between Bethlehem and Herod’s palace. If they’d stayed on course, keeping their eyes on the beacon of light leading them to Jesus, Herod may never have felt the threat to his power that this newborn King presented.
Have you ever gotten off course? Has your life strayed off course, away from seeking God as you followed after things that seemed good and right, but were really just distractions from the path God had laid out for you? Have you found yourself headed for the beautiful palace in Jerusalem, when what you really needed was in tiny little Bethlehem?
Well, there is good news. The Magi figured out they needed a course correction, they went back to following the star, and when it stopped over the house where Jesus was, they were overwhelmed with joy! We all go off course sometimes ~ either due to our own decisions to seek out the powerful and influential in the world, or through the circumstances of life. Sometimes we get stuck in the traditions of the past that once seemed so glorious. We may be standing on the very threshold of God’s future for us, and all we can see is what is behind us. We quit looking for the light of Christ, and just see shadows of the past.
The Light of the World is shining on the way forward. Jesus is calling you into new life – not eventually, or after you die, but by a shining light that begins NOW. Jesus is inviting you to see a new way forward!
Today we celebrate the Epiphany, the revelation of Christ to the world. Even today, more than 2000 years after the events we read about in Matthew’s gospel, the world is still looking, still seeking for the One who can light the way forward.
We have come through times filled with challenges, disappointments, and sorrows. A New Year makes us eager to celebrate all the possibilities that are ahead of us. As we come to the Table of Christ’s grace, where bread and cup unite us with one another in Christ Jesus, how will you resolve to look for the Messiah in unexpected places? How do you expect Christ to show up in unexpected ways this year? How will the light of Christ shine through you, revealing God’s deep and abiding love?
Today, we can be agents of God’s Epiphany to someone! Let’s go!