Take a Different Road
First Reading Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Second Reading Ephesians 3:1-12
Gospel Matthew 2:1-12
"All kings shall bow down before him, and all the nations do him service. For he shall deliver the poor who cries out in distress, and the oppressed who has no helper. He shall have pity on the lowly and poor; he shall preserve the lives of the needy. He shall redeem their lives from oppression and violence, and dear shall their blood be in his sight." In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
When we say someone has an epiphany, it usually means a sudden revelation or insight. Epiphany can describe an ‘AHA!’ or ‘EUREKA!’ moment. In the cartoon world, a light bulb would be drawn overhead, to symbolize a great realization or idea. Today is the Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ. It begins a season of our remembering the manifestations of Christ’s divinity to humanity ... such as Jesus’ birth, the coming of the Magi, his baptism, and the miracle of turning water into wine during the Wedding at Cana. Since creation, humanity was formed with a longing to be reconciled to our creator. In the Incarnation, the Word made flesh, God kneels down to love and serve humanity, revealing God’s self, while humanity simultaneously reaches out for God. The manifestations of Christ’s divinity demonstrate God is with us, acting among us, and longs to be reconciled with creation.
Epiphany can also offer an opportunity to rescue the wise men from their erroneous places in nativity scenes and Christmas pageants. Perhaps reflecting the busy-ness of the holiday season, most of us hastily place Mary, Joseph, animals, shepherds and wise men around baby Jesus long before Christmas. And with just as much haste, Christmas scenes are packed away on December 26th. Orthodox observers of the Nativity scene wait until Christmas Eve to place Jesus in the manger. In some settings, the wise men appear on Christmas, but on a shelf across the room, moving a little closer through the 12 days of Christmas. The wise men in our nativity have been noticeably absent, until today.
These wise men, Magi from the Greek magoi, were likely Persian and in an order of a pagan faith ... probably not kings, but courtly priests ... astronomers and astrologers, but not as we think of them today ... probably general scientists and mathematicians, perhaps dream interpreters, and practitioners of magic. They came from the East, but we do not know exactly from where. We do not know how many there were, but traditionally we settle on three.
We do know they are not Jewish. We know they are decidedly Gentile. We do know the wise men are guided by a prophecy and a star. Perhaps they are seeking wisdom. Perhaps they are seeking because they are wise. Above all, their hearts are restless to find God. In this, the wise men represent all of us.
The wise men go to Jerusalem and demand, “Take me to your leader.” Their faith is certain in the prophecy they have studied and the signs they observe. “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.” This kind of talk creates fear in King Herod, the chief priests, the scribes, and all of Jerusalem. ‘King’ is a title only endowed by Rome. Any rival claim to the throne would be a threat to Herod. Such talk has subversive implications. The religious elite are supposed to be paying attention to prophesies. How could they have missed such a big event? These wise men, foreigners, outsiders, clearly not Jews, suggest the king of the Jews has been born, right under their noses.
Herod claims he would like to find this child so that he might pay homage to the new born king. In reality, Herod will seek to destroy the child prophesied to be king. The title ‘King of the Jews’ proclaimed by the wise men will ultimately be the charge against Jesus, affixed to the cross at the crucifixion, only five miles from Jesus’ birth.
The wise men continue their quest, following the star, and find Mary and the Christ child. Upon finding and recognizing Jesus, they rejoice ... a pure, appropriate, divinely inspired response. They kneel down, worship, and offer gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Whatever circumstances brought them together, the wise men seek and recognize Christ when they meet Him. As they joyfully depart, they witness to God’s plan of salvation. The wise men are warned of Herod’s intentions in a divine dream, and return home by another road. Perhaps this is to avoid running into Herod or other authorities. Or perhaps once we have encountered the living God, we are no longer the same. We cannot go on as as we did before. We are forever changed.
Like the wise men, our hearts are restless to find God. We seek to grow in the knowledge and love of God. Brothers and sisters, we must train and exercise our spiritual muscles to recognize God in each other, in our lives, and in the world. God is constantly revealing God’s self in big and small ways. The power of creation is set loose in a devastating hurricane, and God remains present as we love and pray and care for one another in the aftermath. God suffers with the afflicted and oppressed, and inspires others to abide, to share burdens, and prop each other up. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus is present as we strive to be the hands and feet of Jesus, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, and welcoming the stranger. God inspires and strengthens and gives us compassion and courage to companion the lonely, protect the vulnerable, and to speak for those with no voice. God is present in our conflict, as each unique soul, created in God’s image passionately argues, seeking to be understood. God also leads us to understand, and is present in resolution, reconciliation, and healing. God abides through our doubt, and restores us with faith. God is deeply compassionate, infinitely forgiving, abundantly blessing, endlessly loving, and radically present. God is loose in the world, inviting us to pay attention, acknowledge, and participate.
Our challenge is to seek, recognize, and respond to God in our lives. Our purpose statement is our summons. “We challenge ourselves and the world to love like Jesus as we worship joyfully, serve compassionately, and grow spiritually.” In the gospel today, the religious elite are aware of the prophecies of the coming Messiah, but do nothing. The wise men act. We are to constantly seek God’s presence. We are to strive to recognize God’s glory when we see it face to face. We are to be prepared to respond to God manifest among us with praise and worship, gifts of self and service, and love of God and others. Advent to Christmas, through Epiphany and beyond, we have an opportunity to seek, encounter, recognize, and respond to the living God. If we are fully present in God’s presence, we will be forever changed, and move forward by a different road. Amen.