The Epipany

January 6, 2016

Bible Text: Matthew 2:1-12 |

Tonight the journey is complete – the journey of those wise men who were beckoned to pay homage to a foreign king whose star they observed at its rising. But who were these “wise men”, these “kings”, these “magi”?

First of all, they certainly weren’t kings at all. That misnomer gets passed on generation after generation principally by our fondness for the song we just sang. That, and the tradition of reading Psalm 72 on the Feast of Epiphany, which describes foreign kings coming to pay tribute to the righteous king of Israel.

But the actual story in the Gospel of Matthew says nothing of “kings”. (Nor does it say that there were three of them.) It says that “magi” came from the East, sometimes translated as “wise men”. What’s significant about these magi is that they were foreigners – foreigners who practiced astrology for heaven’s sake! – studying the stars and attributing meaning to what they observed. In essence, they were foreigners with a totally foreign form of religion from the Israelites.

And yet, nonetheless, it is through their tradition of star gazing that they were drawn to Jesus. I think this is extraordinary – that God would beckon us through whatever we believe, even if it is a form of faith we may disregard in years to come. Perhaps even atheism can become a path towards faith. After all, this life is one of continual sifting – of sorting out who we are and who we are not, of who God is and who God is not. Our childhood faith gives way to an adolescent faith, and so on through the end of life. And all along the way our God can use whatever we are currently holding as true, whether it is actually true or not, as a path towards what is true for eternity.

And what of this star? What was it? Many well-intended, faithful people over the years have studied astrological history, looking for some evidence of a literal star, or comet, or something unusual in the night sky at this point in history. But I don’t think they’ve come up with anything substantial. We’re simply left with the story as it is told. But like I often say, the Bible is principally a theology book. It certainly replays historical stories, but always through the lens of theology: What does this tell us about God, and what does it tell us about being a people in relationship to this God?

On the surface, there’s something pretty confusing about this star, namely, the magi were able to follow the star for a while, then they end up in Jerusalem not knowing where to go exactly, and then – miraculously – the star is suddenly able to lead them precisely to the house where Jesus is. It all sounds rather inconsistent and implausible.

But I believe that the story is being told quite deliberately. I think this star (whatever the star was) was always leading the magi with precision. God wanted them to go to Jerusalem first, and to talk with Herod and the chief priests, because God wanted them to join the magi in their quest for Christ.

Now, we know from history as well as from this story, that Herod was ruthless. He was wicked. He killed his own children to protect his power. He was a Hitler of sorts – a fanatical and hopeless tyrant. But what if the star was guiding the magi to Jerusalem as an invitation to Herod, as well as the religious establishment, to change their ways, to believe afresh that God had not abandoned his people, but was fulfilling the ancient covenant of promise and redemption?

Herod’s Jewishness was in name only. Ethnically he wasn’t a Jew at all, and he certainly didn’t practice the faith. But he still represented the height of power in the Jewish community. And right below him in stature were the chief priest and scribes. And it was to these insiders that God first sent the magi with their alarming news: that they’d seen a star which – by their religious tradition – signified the birth of the king of the Jews.

What if Herod had responded with repentance? What if the chief priests and scribes had responded with humility – with open hearts that these foreigners might have something worth listening to? But of course that wasn’t how it happened. The chief priests answered their questions, but saw no reason to join them in their search. Herod kept true to form and slaughtered all the baby boys in Bethlehem. There was no repentance and no humility.

But God gave them the opportunity to do otherwise.

And when I think of us, as “insiders” in the church, members of a mainline denomination with its traditions and security, I wonder, how often is God sending us foreigners of sorts? – outsiders who may in fact have a message we desperately need to hear? And I’m not talking about believing every crack-pot on the street corner, ranting madness. I’m talking about the people who join us as companions in this life: the atheist we work with; the child at the dinner table. Can we be confident enough in God’s eternal truth, that we can be present to one another in humility, always listening with open hearts, that we may hear truth when it is spoken, whatever the source?

There’s something to be said for living this life with a deliberateness of spirit, in which we keep seeking God – pursuing a faith that grows with us, that keeps saying, I want more of you, God. Keep drawing me into you.

Last week I was awake early. It was still dark and the stars were out. And I headed out to the hot tub, which is my happy prayer place, where I go to pray and to bob in the water and look at the trees and the sky and the clouds. And on this morning I was simply weary of spirit. And so I prayed a spontaneous, but honest prayer – one of those prayers that is basically asking for a sign to carry on in faith. I was looking up at the sky and said, God, I’d like to see a shooting star. And – seeing a constellation that looked kind of looked like a boat – I said, And I want to see it there. And, I kid you not, five seconds later this big shooting star shot right through the center of that boat. I was stunned. I sat there for quite a while, trying to process what had just happened: Eric, you asked for a sign and you got it. So keep believing. You are not alone in this world, nor misguided in your faith.

Now of course, I don’t think that meteor suddenly sprang into being because of my prayer. I think it would have done what it did whether I prayed or not, whether I was looking up or not, whether I was in bed or in the hot tub. But the end of the matter was this: I did get out of bed to pray. I did ask God for something. I was looking up with some degree of hope. And God met me there. And, rare though these moments may be, they speak a timeless wisdom: God is at work in this world, all the time; the call of faith is to be attentive to what God is doing, and to have a soft and open spirit willing to see God in all places.

The next day I was out in the hot tub again – looking up at the same constellation (‘cause I kinda had a special thing going with it) and – again – a shooting star went flying straight through it, like God was hammering home the point, Eric, I’m for real here. Keep believing. And keep looking for me. You’re on the right path.

It was an epiphany of sorts, of stars in the night sky, pointing towards faith and hope and the mystery of a living God whose reign is as vast as the heavens and intimate as the feeble prayer whispered by a struggling pilgrim.

And the epiphany is this: God is always at work in this world. The call of faith is to seek God there. The mystery of the gospel will be revealed when God’s will mingles with our will, as one heart beating in rhythm and purpose.

Like the magi who were diligent in pursuing their ancient craft of studying the stars to find divine truth, so God is calling us: Keep seeking, keep asking, keep hoping. For my hand is at work all around you. I will meet you where you are, but I need you to seek me. 

I believe that is an essential aspect of the divine mystery of this life. We matter too much to be passive; our participation is required. It is through our dreaming that we will see God’s dream fulfilled in us and in our world.

May we, this Epiphany night, hope afresh that the God who led the magi through the desert, lead us and all God’s creation through the wilderness of our days and find at the end of our journey the Christ we have sought all along. And then may we as well bring him gifts and pay him homage.