Epiphany (sermon 1/4/15)

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.- Isaiah 60:1-6

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In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “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.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘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.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then 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.”

When 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. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.  – Matthew 2:1-12

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A few weeks ago, I mentioned the movie “Ghostbusters,” which featured the actor Dan Aykroyd. Another one of his films that most of you have probably seen is one that often plays around Christmastime due to its story line is “Trading Places.” In this movie, Aykroyd plays a rich, well-heeled commodities broker who’s got the world in his hands, while Eddie Murphy is a poor, down and out small-time con man. As the story line unfolds, Aykroyd’s bosses – two ultra-rich brothers – make a bet to see if, given the proper alterations in the circumstances of these two, if Murphy’s character would become just as successful and respectable as Aykroyd, while Aykroyd’s character would sink to the depths of poverty and crime that Murphy’s character was living. If you know the movie, you know that eventually, these two meet up and learn what’s going on and they set out to seek revenge on the two rich brothers who have set them up. While they’re trying to figure out how to get their revenge, Eddie Murphy’s character says “You know, it occurs to me that the best way to hurt rich people is by turning them into poor people.”

It was  pretty astute point. It does seem that many who are rich or otherwise powerful spend an awful lot of their efforts simply holding on to that power; doing whatever they can to maintain their control over things. And that becomes an important part of what’s going on in today’s gospel lesson.

This is Epiphany Sunday, when we read about the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus. The word epiphany refers to a revelation, an awakening, or an unveiling, and today we observe just that kind of revelation that God made to the Magi – that the long-awaited Messiah had come into the world, in the person of the infant Jesus. At some point after Jesus’ birth, maybe even up to a year or year and a half afterward, the Magi travel to find the baby Jesus – which makes me wonder how they found him in Bethlehem, instead of back home in Nazareth – surely Joseph, Mary, and Jesus would have gone home by then. In any case, the Magi are following a star to find him, and for some reason the star first takes them on a short detour to Jerusalem, where they receive an audience with Herod. And in a great literary foreshadowing of the end of Jesus’ life, when Pontius Pilate puts the sign on his cross, the Magi tell Herod that they’re seeking the one who was born to be the king of the Jews. It’s interesting that the Magi never said they were looking for the predicted Messiah, the Christ, the specially anointed one of God; they just said they were looking for a child who would become king of the Jews. There would be many people who would be the king, without being the Messiah, including the one they happened to be speaking with at the moment. But as soon as Herod hears it, he goes into power-protection mode. He doesn’t want to end up broke and out of power, in the same boat as the two rich brothers in the movie. To Herod, there’s only one king of the Jews, and it’s him. But he’s caught off guard by the Magi. He’s supposed to be the one in charge, the one in power,the one who knows everything, but nobody’s told him anything about this special birth. So he calls his cabinet of advisors together to ask them about it.  And even though the Magi only say they’re looking for the king of the Jews, Herod senses there’s something more at work here than that, so he asks his religious experts where the Christ, the Messiah, is supposed to be from when he comes. So they quote a passage from the prophet Micah, saying that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem. With that knowledge, Herod sends the Magi on to Bethlehem a little town about six miles away as the crow flies, maybe nine miles by road, and with the guiding star’s GPS recalibrated, they follow it on to Bethlehem. But as we know from the story, Herod’s got his own agenda. Eventually, Herod believes that there’s a clear and present danger to the status quo that has him at the top of the food chain. This newborn would-be king poses a significant existential threat, so Herod makes a pre-emptive strike by killing all the innocent males of Bethlehem under two years of age, collateral damage in Herod’s attempt to preserve the current order. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves in the story; let’s get back to the Magi.

We don’t really know much about them, really; there are only a few verses in the scriptures that mention them at all. The scriptures don’t tell us how many of them there were, but over the years Christian tradition came to say that there were three of them. We came up with names, and even races, for them. In Christian tradition, the Magi were sometimes considered kings, just as it says in the hymn. When they aren’t called kings, we call them “wise men,” a term so ingrained in Christian tradition that, even though translators know that isn’t what “Magi” means, many English translations of the Bible, including the one we read from this morning, still translate it that way. And that’s a problem, because if we think of the Magi this way, we’re going to miss something important that Matthew wants us to see. So if they weren’t kings or “wise men,” what were they?

Magi were people who studied the sky; the movement of the stars and planets; in sort of a blend of astronomy and astrology. They were part scientists, part fortune tellers, part sorcerers. Our word magic comes from the same source. Magi were highly trained in their vocation, and to the rest of the world, I suppose they would have been considered intelligent, even wise men, people to look to for answers. But to the Jewish people, Magi would have been considered anything but wise. The Hebrew scriptures warned them to never engage in the astrology, divination, or what they’d consider witchcraft or sorcery, all these things that were the Magi’s stock in trade. Instead, the Hebrew scriptures said to look to God, not to all those things, for answers. In short, even though the rest of the world might have considered them wise, the Jews would have considered the Magi to have been foolish. Just coming into contact with them would have left them ritually unclean and defiled. They would have been considered evil, if not downright demonic, and Matthew’s author knew that.

But that was precisely the point he wanted to make. The coming of the Christ, the Messiah, is the inbreaking of a new world order, a new cosmic order. It’s the beginning of a breaking down of all divisions, and a disruption all established powers in favor of the kingdom of God. To Matthew, there are only two kings in the story, Herod and Christ, and Christ has come into the world to challenge the civil empire’s claim to ultimate power. To Matthew, the wise men in the story aren’t the Magi, they’re Herod’s political and religious advisors. Matthew is trying to make the point here that rather than going through the channels people might have expected – through the powerful, through the religious experts and leaders – God chooses to reveal the news of Christ’s birth to Magi. Outsiders. Foreigners. People who were engaging in some of the worst kinds of blasphemy and sin spelled out in the scriptures. These are the people that God reveals the birth to, and who God draws into the story themselves.

Did you get that? Because really, I think that might be the biggest, most important point of the story of the Magi. Yes, Matthew is making a literary parallel to the passage from Isaiah that we heard this morning, as a validation of Jesus as the Messiah through the offering of gifts of gold and frankincense, but even more importantly, Matthew is making the huge news – the radical, stop-the-presses, Fox News Alert proclamation that this new thing that God is doing in the world is really for all the world. Not just the Jews. To all the world. And as shockingly as this story tells it, the very first Gentiles that God draws into this story, which is no longer just for the Jews, are these Magi – people whom the righteous Jews and the Jewish scriptures would consider to be among the worst and dirtiest of the world’s sinners.

This is all really, really good news for all of us. God reaches out to humanity, to the world, not through the rich and the powerful. Not through the established religious leaders and experts. But rather, to the outsiders. To the everyday people. To those that the religious establishment and all polite society would turn their noses up at. And that the God who opens the doors of salvation and reconciliation to even the scripture-scorned Magi, reaches out to us, too. Each one of us who would stand condemned and damned by one or another part of scripture now have the hope and the promise, seen in God’s actions and sealed in Christ’s birth, of God’s own acceptance and welcome.

An awful lot of Epiphany sermons focus on the gifts that the Magi brought to the baby Jesus, and encourage us to wisely use the gifts that we have for God as well, throughout the coming year. If I hadn’t just written a newspaper article that made that same point, maybe this sermon would have run along those lines, too. But instead, realize that yes, we’re supposed to offer our best to God as a sign of our devotion and worship, just as the Magi did. But even when we don’t, the same God continues love us, and to reach out to us, and to welcome us, today and every day of this new year and beyond.

Thanks be to God.

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