Epiphany of the Lord
Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12
“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.” The star of the Christ has risen, and the glory of God Emmanuel will be revealed this day by math-loving, star-gazing, camel-riding, travel-weary followers of Zarathustra. Somehow, I missed that detail of prophecy in my Old Testament classes.
Those wise men, those magi, so at home, so comfortable, in our Christmas stories and Christmas pageants. We’re so used to them, we’ve given them a number, names – Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar and appearances – they are traditionally portrayed one with European, one with Asian and one with African features. The gospel provides none of those details. We forget they were pagans, taking their religious cues from the stars, not from the Jewish prophets. They were scientists, studying the ways of the world, particularly the ways of astrology, a respected science of their day. These scientific followers of an exotic religion were the first to recognize the Christ child. God met them on their own terms. God used their own faith, their own knowledge, and nature itself to draw them to Himself. As Miguel de Cervantes Saavadra reminds us, “Many are the roads by which God carries his own to heaven.” With the magis’ journey the reality of God among us becomes the story of all God’s people, not just the chosen ones of the Hebrew scripture. Their story is one of the limitless and sometimes unexpected reach of God.
The author of third Isaiah, from which today’s Old Testament reading is taken, writing 6 centuries earlier, knew nothing of the baby to be born in Bethlehem. Isaiah wrote to another another time, another people, but nonetheless drafted a message of inclusion. Isaiah lived in a world divided. This part of the book of Isaiah was written in the 6th century BCE. The jewish exiles were coming back from Babylon. Jerusalem was in ruins, conditions were extremely harsh and conflict was rife between the people who had stayed in Jerusalem rather than going into exile, and people who now returned from exile. Isaiah wrote in stirring beauty of the glory of God and the gifts of God, not for those who stayed, not for those who returned, but for all God’s people, all the nations.
Paul lived in world divided. On the one hand there were the jews, and on the other hand there were the-people-in-the-world-who-aren’t-jewish, otherwise known as “Gentiles”. Paul, as Saul, travelled the first part of his life’s road firmly in the camp of the jews, persecuting any threat to that culture and that way of life, most especially anyone following the nascent Jesus movement. With his own epiphany, his own revelation on the road to Damascus, Paul came to understand the mystery of Christ, the “boundless riches of Christ”, and to proclaim them to jew and to gentile, in other words, to anyone who would listen, “to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things”.
We live in a world divided. Republican and democrat, conservative and liberal, haves and have nots, religious and irreligious, radicals and moderates, criminals and law-abiding citizens, us and them, me and everybody else. We live in a real world with real threats and ugliness and danger. The wise men travelled hundreds of miles through desert following a rising star and the call of their hearts expecting to meet a king. They knelt in the must and the muck of a dirty stable and paid homage to the Christ child. Paul left a very secure job as a torturer of infidels to spend his life in poverty and in jail in order to proclaim the good news of Christ to all. Herod protected his own. His own wealth, his own power, his own life. Herod’s life revolved around protecting Herod and the status quo.
Do we imitate Herod, sharing his fear and pouring ourselves into self-protection? Or do we dare risk a few steps along the path of the magi, finding God in the unexpected places? Do we declare with the prisoner Paul the promise of Christ to all? Would we welcome all the world, and I do mean all, in the name of the Christ child? I quote Shel Silverstein, children’s author and Playboy artist (I did mention that God speaks in limitless and unexpected ways, did I not?) Will we proclaim with Mr. Silverstein, “If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire…Come in! Come in.”?
That welcome means risking a journey, spiritually. It means risking change. Change is a fearful thing, is it not? People may look at us funny, wonder why, turn away if we suddenly shift from being one of “us” to welcoming “them”. Dickens told a basic truth in the person of the transfigured Scrooge, a character who had certainly followed a journey.
“Some people laughed to see the alteration in (Scrooge), but he let them laugh, and little heeded them, for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed, and that was quite enough for him.”
On Christmas Eve, Lynn said, “Let this church in this place be the manger where new light enters the world. Let us embrace the child born in our midst. We have, each and every one of us, come from far and wide to be here together to greet him.” Today is the Feast of the Epiphany. Today we celebrate the light of Christ, the road of the Magi to pay homage to him, the radiance of God’s love expressed through Him. As we travel our own roads, live our own transformations, may we carry that very light out into the world, and may the hearts of all the world laugh and sing and dance in the light of Christ.