Sermon for Epiphany on Matthew 2:1-12
Tonight we mark the Feast of the Epiphany, which closes out our celebration of the Christmas season and also bridges us into a new season; the season of Epiphanytide. Epiphany—the word means “manifestation” or a showing forth of something new. In the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, an epiphany is defined as “an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure,” and all three of those words— discovery, realization, disclosure—are very much at work in the story that Matthew tells about the journey of the Magi.
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Magi—that’s word Matthew uses. Not “wise men,” as it is often translated, and certainly not kings. Magi—meaning magician or astrologer or interpreter of dreams and other strange happenings—but he’s not talking about the sort of people who do magic tricks, write the horoscopes for the Free Press, or read palms and cards in tea shops. Magi from the East, Matthew says, and here he is probably pointing to Persia, perhaps to members of the Zoroastrian religion who had a sophisticated cosmology and a highly refined system of tracking the stars and planets. These are outsiders to the faith of Israel; people of a different nation, culture, religion, and way of understanding the world. At the very end of Matthew’s telling of the Gospel, Jesus instructs his disciples to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” (28:19) and in this he effectively unleashes the good news on the whole of the world; on all people, all nations. This is not narrowly for Israel, but is instead for all. This is what Matthew is trying to say in this story of the Magi.
“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, Magi 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.’” These star-watchers have discovered something in the heavens that has alerted them to the arrival of a new king. That’s their world-view, you see; to see something unexpected in the night skies—a bright star, a planet, a comet, perhaps—and to read it as revealing that something new and significant has happened on the earth. And so they have set out on a journey so that they can bear witness to this event, and pay homage to the king they believe has been born.
As he tells the story, Matthew is unflinching in showing that it is through their world-view, their religion, their practices, that these Magi are drawn close to the truth. If you stop and think about that, you realize that part of what he is saying here is that God can be glimpsed—however partially—even through this other way of seeing the world. Yet it isn’t quite enough to take them all the way to Bethlehem. Seeking a king, they quite reasonably go to the royal home in the royal city of Jerusalem. They will still need the insight of the Hebrew scriptures to take them the next step.
At the palace they encounter Herod, a king with a rather thin claim to the throne, and an equally thin connection to the faith of those Hebrew scriptures. The family line of the Herods was notoriously brutal, with much of that brutality turned inward on themselves, as one Herod after another attempted to hold tight that place of power. Even then, they were little more than puppet kings, allowed their throne by the Roman Empire in its management of the politics of the land.
Herod is appalled at the news of the birth of a king, because if it is true, then his own hard-won power would in time be challenged. “Calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, Herod 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.’” So to, he says to the Magi, go to Bethlehem, and when you find this child you seek return and tell me so that I do may go and pay him his due respect. Right…
Herod is not treating the Hebrew scriptures as a source of truth, but rather as a tool, a source of information to put to work for his own gains. The chief priests and scribes may know the scriptures, but here they’re not treating them as a source of truth either. They provide the information, yet stay put in Jerusalem. Maybe skeptical of the claims of the Magi? Or maybe just content to hold their roles within the system built by Herod and by the Empire.
The Magi—the outsiders—are the ones who heed the message and go. They have risked much to travel this far, and they are prepared to hear this word and risk one more leg of the journey. Well, you know how it plays out. They do go to Bethlehem and they do find the child. Away from the royal city they find the child who has been born in an unremarkable place to an unremarkable peasant couple. Hardly what they would have imagined, yet they pay him homage and offer their royal gifts. Here we see that dictionary definition of epiphany in its fullness: discovery, realization, disclosure. Their story has been marked by a willingness to set out on an arduous journey, and to receive insight and truth from the Hebrew scriptures; scriptures not their own. On that journey of discovery, there is a powerful disclosure and a whole new realization. They have seen in the face of a baby something of the face of God.
And then “warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” As you know, Herod will not sit still with this, but instead sends death squads into Bethlehem to kill all of the male children under two, forcing Mary and Joseph to flee with their child as refugees. How many times over the past century has something like this been played out, as a tyrant schemes to maintain control at any cost? When it comes to the politics of power, the more things change the more they remain the same.
It is a willingness to both risk the journey and to trust the Word that takes the Magi to their destination. That, in a real sense, is what lies at the heart of the season of Epiphanytide; that discovery, realization, and disclosure of what God is up to comes through both risk and trust.
As most of you are aware, these past six months have been very tough ones for me, marked by deep sorrow and loss. I have been given the opportunity over the first month of the Epiphany season to set out on a sort of journey, which I am aware is going to require both trust and risk on my part. A wise and trusted colleague and mentor has arranged for me to engage a month long private guided retreat, and on Tuesday I will board a plane for Halifax to begin that month. I will be living in a room at the University of King’s College, attending four chapel services there each day, meeting regularly with this spiritual director, journaling, dong directed reading, learning to write an icon, praying and simply “being.” For the most part this will all be lived in contemplative silence. In a letter I received from my spiritual director early this past week, he noted “I shall not ask you to preach or teach while you are here: this would encourage you back into what you already know and what you offer to others constantly in your ministry. Rather, this will be a time of openness to the Spirit for you without any pressure to ‘produce’.” I have also been very clearly told not to come thinking I am going to fix something, solve something, achieve something, answer something, produce something, or even heal something. No, I am to come open to receiving what the Spirit of God might offer. Full stop.
Discovery, realization, and disclosure of what God is up to comes to us through both risk and trust, but I don’t know that I’ve ever been more aware of that than I am right now, in this season. Pray for me and for my director, Fr. Gary Thorne, over this coming month. And in your own lives and contexts, try to see those places that require both real risk and foundational trust. In that you will see something of the light of Epiphany.