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The Epiphany, January 6, 2013

“Look at this new star that has risen,” said one astrologer to his fellows. The other astrologers came and saw the star too. “A great king must have been born,” they said, for cosmic events were supposed to portend the arrival of a new and powerful ruler. At this time, astrology was seen as a science, and Babylon was a center of this field, so these men probably came from there. They noticed changes in the cosmos, like new stars and novas and comets, and predicted what they might mean. In spirituality, they were probably Zoroastrians. “Let us follow that star,” said some of the wise men. So they packed what they would need for travel and the caravan began to move. Tradition says there were three of them, but nobody knows. Matthew never mentions a number; it was assumed because there were three gifts. The Scriptures do not tell us they were kings either, but this has become part of the story, possibly from the prophecy in Isaiah 60:1-6 that says kings will come to the brightness of Israel’s dawn. So we have some wise men traveling west, following a star.

The wise men surely did not follow every star that appeared in the heavens, so why this one? What was the pull of this star that made it so important to follow it as it moved across the sky? The pull was initiated by God, who was inviting Gentiles to come see the revelation of God’s love for the whole world in Jesus. These men who went were spiritual seekers and they knew somehow that this king was a spiritual one, a special one, an important one that would shake the world order as they knew it. They brought gifts with them of gold, frankincense and myrrh, traditional gifts for royalty and again mentioned in the Isaiah prophecy.

After a time, the wise men arrive in Jerusalem. Since the star signaled the birth of a great ruler, they didn’t begin to follow the star until after Jesus was born. Another part of the traditional story that does not come from Matthew. They were not there at the birth. They did not see God’s light represented by angels as the shepherds did. Matthew makes no mention of the shepherds, nor of the birth except in passing. The wise men had their own light of the star that led them to Bethlehem. God revealed God’s Son first to Israel and then to the Gentiles in order to bring an end to the divisions between people and give everyone the opportunity to be part of God’s family.

When they arrive in Jerusalem, they go to Herod the king and ask about the child who has been born King of the Jews. They want to pay him homage. Herod was troubled by hearing of another king and if Herod was troubled, Jerusalem was troubled. Herod had murdered three of his sons so they would not threaten his rule, and Jerusalem wondered what he might do this time at the mention of another King of the Jews.

Herod called together the chief priests and scribes who looked in the Scriptures for information about the birth of a Messiah. They found it in Micah 5:2, which says Bethlehem is the place where one will come from who is to rule in Israel. It is very important to Matthew that the prophecy of the Messiah come from Jewish Scriptures. In addition to the Isaiah passage we read, there is another passage in Numbers that says a star shall come out of Jacob and a scepter shall rise out of Israel to rule. It is fitting that the kings need to hear about this prediction from the Scriptures. They have had only the star to follow, and they need more specific information. It is ironic, however, that the people who have the Scriptures do not acknowledge the new king. Herod plans to kill him of course. That is why he asks the wise men to report back to him.

When the wise men get to Bethlehem, the ruler is there. Jesus is a toddler, who would rather have had a teddy bear or a box to play with than the gold, frankincense and myrrh that were brought. The wise men offer their gifts and kneel down and worship him. This is again a sign of their spiritual hunger and understanding of what they are seeing. Even if they went on trips to see all the kings the stars had foretold, they would not have worshipped them as they did Jesus. Their spiritual hunger was quenched in his presence. They felt they had reached their destination and been fulfilled.

When they were ready to head back home, they took a different way because they were told in a dream not to return to Herod. Herod flew into a rage when he heard this and had all the babies under two in and around Bethlehem killed, such was his fear of a competing ruler, even if he was only a little boy.

God invited the wise men to come and see Jesus, and they responded. They were persistent, and they reached their goal. They were prepared with gifts for the King of the Jews, and they knew he was worthy of worship. After they had been filled by the grace and love of God, they went home by another way.

We can learn some lessons from the wise men. Thomas A. Pilgrim suggests three: Keep Christ as the object of your devotion; give him the best that you have; and let your life take a new direction.

It is difficult in our time – as it has been in any time – to keep Christ as the single object of our devotion. There are so many competing objects, from spouses and families, to achieving success in the workplace, to ensuring our financial security, to being a rabid football fan. There is nothing wrong with having interests, and certainly there is nothing wrong with loving our families and friends. But above all else we must love Christ. The wise men made a concerted effort to get to Jesus, and we need to focus our efforts on getting to know Jesus, too. The Scriptures are a good start. The authors, inspired by the Holy Spirit, tell us in prophecy and in actuality about Jesus and what he has done for us and continues to do for us. God issues us invitations to come to Jesus all the time, which we should take the time to listen for. We need to trust God as the wise men did.

What can stand in the way of making Jesus the object of our devotion? Fear. Like Herod was afraid and hostile, we can find ourselves lacking in faith and angry with God when something bad happens or when we are called to place our Christian values in opposition to our cultural values. We need to continually reach out to receive Jesus and to serve others, no matter what the consequences.

As the wise men brought their best gifts, we should bring ours to Christ. What are our best gifts that Christ has given us? What tangible and intangible skills and abilities do we have to help build up the kingdom of God? Each of us has something we can do. We also have our time we can give and our treasure. It is easy to overspend our best gifts on other things that are not serving Jesus and his kingdom at all. We need to reorient our priorities if this is the case.

Finally, we can let ourselves be led in a new direction as the wise men did. Letting go of control is very hard, and letting it go to Someone we may believe in but not trust very much is even harder. To let our lives be changed by our interactions with Jesus the King, we have to let go and let God. Whether it is in dreams or words from other people or bible studies or nature, God will take hold of us and send us by a new way that will be for our good.

The Epiphany season is about the manifestation of God’s glory as revealed in Jesus Christ, who is God with us. The season is designed to help us see the Messiah and be changed by him from believers into trusters. Just as the wise men were, we are all seekers, Christians or not, looking for a spiritual home, looking to have that hole in us filled by God’s love and grace. We are called to make ourselves available to receive the revelation as the wise men did and not react hostilely toward it as Herod did.

Epiphany is also about God’s widening of God’s embrace to cover the whole world. The wise men were the first in a long line of Gentiles to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and King, At the beginning of Matthew is the story of the wise men; at the end is Jesus’ command to the disciples to go into all the world and baptize.

God’s revelation of Godself in Jesus, the Messiah, is for everyone. Like the invitation to the wise men God sent by a star to worship the king, God draws each one of us to God in Christ. Let us allow ourselves to let our life take a new direction according to God’s leading.

AMEN

  - Rev. Ann Barker

 

Work cited:
Thomas A. Pilgrim, The Light of Bethlehem Shines On, “In the Darkness of Suspicion, There is the Light of Devotion”