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A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • Copyright 2016 All Rights Reserved
Epiphany Sunday/C • January 3, 2016
Among the figures that populated my grandmother’s nativity scene, none were more impressive than the Three Kings. Made of carved wood and painted in bright colors, the Kings sat on camels linked together by gold colored chains and they had little treasure boxes that fitted behind them, boxes which opened and could be made to contain real treasures: bits of gold from the chocolate coins my grandfather gave us or some other thing that became a treasure just by being secret. I never cared much about the cattle or the sheep or the fat little shepherd boys but my brother and I played with the Kings until their chains broke and one of the camels lost a leg. Even broken, their gold almost rubbed off, the Three Kings seemed to contain the real wonder of the nativity just as they contained our treasures. Obviously we weren’t alone in our fascination. The fascination and emphasis we put on Christmas is unique to our culture; Eastern Christianity, most European Christians and the rest of the world spend far more time on the celebration of Epiphany than on Christmas. It is their moment for gift giving and reflecting on God’s gifts. Too often for us, Epiphany comes as an after thought to Christmas: a time to finish vacuuming the pine needles and get back to normal. Today I want to call you out from the normal to a story that promises to let your heart swell with joy and invites us to wonder.
Perhaps it’s best to begin by putting the creche figures back, letting go of the stories that people have made up, and seeing what Matthew tells us about the Magi. Magi means “Wise Ones”—and that’s what they are; only later did a legend grow up that named them and called them kings. The Magi were astrologers: watchers of the sky who look for meaning in the stars, relating patterns in the planets to prophecies. Suddenly one night they see some conjunction, some stellar event in a region of the sky called the House of the Hebrews and their prophetic books tell them that there is a special king expected in the land of Judah. So they go: packing up, joining a caravan, just as settlers once crossed this continent by waiting in St. Louis for a wagon train. They take the ancient caravan route, the route that Abraham would have traveled, the route traveled by merchants and slaves and conquerors for thousands of years and about a year or so later they come to Jerusalem.
What does it feel like when you get somewhere after a long trip? Maybe you were in the car for days and the wrappers from old hamburgers and drink cups litter the back seat. Maybe your airplane finally lands and you impatiently wait for the aisle to clear, grab your stuff and hurry into the airport only to realize you’re not sure which way to go. Once arrived in Jerusalem, surely the Magi would have found rooms in some tavern, cleaned up, hired a translator, made an appointment to see King Herod. This is a small country they’re visiting, after all; they themselves are from a richer, older capital. Stil,l visiting a King is serious business. They are there, but not all the way there yet. Last October, Jacquelyn and I went to Spain. We flew for what seemed an endless time until we landed in Barcelona. But Barcelona wasn’t where we were really going; that was a little town somewhere up the coast. We just assumed we could get directions but the directions were in Spanish. Thank God for the kind woman who spoke Spanish and told us how to find the train station!
The Magi need directions for the birth place and they just assume that since this is such an important event, the King will know all about it, will know how to get there. I imagine them putting on their best robes, their finest first century version of a power tie and business suit, eager to get the final directions to complete their long trip. Now they wind through the narrow streets of the city, fending off beggars and peddlers; now they come to the palace and various staff pass them from one to another until finally they are part of a line to see King Herod. Finally they are there, called forward. There must have been some ritual greetings, like the President and a foreign leader doing a photo op. Finally, they ask: “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.”Silence. Herod looks at his advisors, who turn away. Some meaningless greeting, some vague words, must have been said to put them off. “Please enjoy our hospitality while I consider this question.” All we have is Matthew’s comment that Herd was frightened and called his smartest advisors together to ask the same question: where is this child? They read the prophets and tell him Bethlehem’s the place. So Herod calls the Magi back in, this time secretly. He tells them Bethlehem, tells them to find the child and come back and report.
The story offers two reactions to the birth of Jesus. The Magi come to pay homage. They don’t know Jesus, they don’t know anything about him. They just know that something about him makes heaven shine in a new way. Something about him lights up life. They want to see more of this light; they want to give thanks for it. They’re come in wonder; they come with gratitude symbolized by gifts. The most important detail about them isn’t the robes or the crowns or even the gifts. Matthew’s readers would have passed right by those things that grab us and seized on something we miss: they are gentiles. They are outsiders, people from outside the covenant of Moses, people who don’t eat kosher or observe any of the customs of good Jews. They’re outsiders and yet they come in wonder, simply seeking the light God’s shining on this moment.
Herod can think only of securing his own position. He wants to know where Jesus is so he can pursue his own plan, his own goals. The conflict that will bring Jesus to the cross is already in motion right here, right from the beginning: cross and crown are at war right from the start.Just outside the boundary of this story, Herod will do what the powerful always do: use violence to prevent change. Power always seeks to remain powerful. Herod is the ultimate insider, just as the Magi are outsiders. So right from the beginning, God is using outsiders, visitors, to shake the foundations of God’s people, to change them, to open them so God’s purpose of spreading the light of love can move on, move forward, move outward.
This story asks us the same question the old spiritual asks: Which side are you on? Put another way, What light lights your life? The word Epiphany means manifestation or showing forth, as a light shines. The light in which we walk, the light that lights our lives, does show and it does make a difference. We know this about color and light: sit in a red room, psychologists tells us, and you somehow become more aggressive. The same is true of your life: the light in which you see things is a matter of decision. One camp song says, “I have decided to follow Jesus”. What have you decided? What purpose drives your journey? The Magi and Herod both go to Bethlehem but only the Magi come in wonder, seeking God’s wonder; only the Magi see Jesus. Herod comes with soldiers, power, violence but Jesus is gone by then, escaped by God’s hand. Now today lots of people show Jesus’ name around for their own purposes. Like Herod, they have their own agenda and only see how he might fit their needs. But still, now as then, there are people, often excluded, who come in wonder, who see the light of God’s love. And God wonders: where are we going? where will we go? Amen.