Theme: Change: seasons and lives
Let us pray.
Most holy, Lord God, we gather at this time of year to celebrate an epiphany, an epiphany that was seen, not by rulers, not by the Jewish religious authorities, but by foreigners, aliens, who discerned that something great, something amazing was happening in human history; remind us of this great event that not only changed history, but has changed our very lives, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
We are told that Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem when Herod was king of Judea. Somewhere around this time, some magi or astrologers and dream interpreters came from Persia arriving in Jerusalem. We are not told how many there were. These are important people in Persia, but not in Judea. For Jews, they are outlaws, in that, their profession is outside the Jewish law. They predict the future! Devout Jews would have nothing to do with them.
The men asked, “Where is the child King of the Jews?” Their use of astrology gave them information of a significant birth. They came to worship a Jewish king, which is in itself an odd occurrence. Why would foreigners travel a long distance to worship a king? (Not that kings didn’t encourage their worship. There was no difference in ancient times between church and state.)
The magi’s presence tells us that Jesus is a king worthy of worship for all people and not just the Jews. The magi saw his star in the east meaning that they were in the east when they saw the star. The direction of the star is not stated. The people of Jerusalem seem to be unaware of the star.
The magi say they have come to worship a King of the Jews. This is also peculiar. Why would Persians worship a Jewish king who is part of the Roman Empire? Persians were enemies of Rome which would have made entry into the boundaries of the Roman Empire problematical. There is something more here than just a desire to worship a King of the Jews.
Everyone who heard the words of the magi were troubled, including King Herod. Herod had a great deal of power, but he always wanted more – a disability among many people who wield power. Herod was ruthless to anyone who threatened his throne, real or imagined. Some scholars looking for a king would set Jerusalem on red alert. People will soon die.
When Herod first heard that these visitors had arrived, he probably assumed that they were in Jerusalem to see the great King Herod. When he found out they were looking for another king, Herod’s humiliation must have sparked a boiling rage. This prompted Herod to inquire of his experts where the messiah was to be born. Herod already made the assumption that an anonymous king, recently born, must be the messiah.
So, Herod called for a quick and private meeting with the magi to learn more about this star the magi had charted. Herod directed them to Bethlehem and asked to have the child’s location told to him so that he, too, may worship the child. The magi who were lost and asking directions in Jerusalem (perhaps they were wise women because what man is going to ask for directions) now suddenly find their way via the star to the exact location of the child. What a capricious star!
They knew that they were in the right place at the right time, which is always a good feeling to have. They were overcome with joy. The ancients knew that when a star of a king reaches its zenith, it signals the beginning of that king’s reign. The magi are not visiting a child who will be king, but a king who has begun to rule. They went into the house finding the child and Mary. No sign of Joseph. Maybe he was at work.
The magi worshipped Jesus. Then they dropped off the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold is a gift for kings. Frankincense is burned by priests in religious acts. Myrrh can be used as incense, but it is also used in ointment form in the preparation of bodies for burial. Now, researchers are indicating that myrrh is a health food supplement. The cross looms in the background of even the birth stories of the one who is priest and king.
The magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod and quietly slipped out of town. The only people to acknowledge the beginning of Jesus’ rule are aliens. In this birth, the nations are being drawn to the Light of God.
The magi had no assurance of how the story would end. What they saw was an economically disadvantaged child being held by a young mother. This was not a scene that would inspire future success. Yet the magi had the faith to experience unbridled joy. What they saw was a great deal of hope.
Jim Taylor writes, “The Christmas cactus on our kitchen counter has burst into bloom again. Its vivid pink blossoms defy the murky skies outside.
“I wonder how it knows to bloom at Christmas and Easter. I know it has something to do with amount of light. Except as the hours of outdoor sunlight lessen, the hours of indoor artificial light increase.
“Here in the northern hemisphere, that little Christmas cactus seems out of sync with the rest of nature. Everything else – including me –is in retreat. The hummingbirds have flown south. Trees and garden plants would do the same if they weren’t rooted so deeply into the soil; instead, they withdraw their vitality and hunker down to wait out the winter.
“And we humans insulate ourselves from the inhospitable world outside with padded coats and mittens, with heated homes and extra blankets...
“And when, I wonder idly, does a Christmas cactus bloom in Australia? Does it still mirror the Christian festivals? If it blooms in June and September, can it still be called a Christmas cactus? . . .
“But the Nativity stories have come to be associated with the turn of the year – winter (solstice) in the northern hemisphere, when the slow slide towards darkness reverses itself, when the days start getting longer and warmer again.
“British poet T.S. Eliot, a devout Catholic himself, took a midwinter Christmas for granted in his poem, the Journey of the Magi.
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey...’
“The faith story, similarly, focuses on (solstices) in our lives – turning points, for reversing our desire to insulate ourselves, to withdraw, to cling with mittened hands to the urns of ancient certainties.
“After presenting a variety of images from the Magi’s travels, Eliot asks:
‘...Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?
There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt.
I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different;
this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us,
like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.’
“Christmas does indeed celebrate a birth. But as every parent discovers, a birth is also a kind of death. Familiar patterns of life come to an abrupt end as the newborn infant takes control of sleep, leisure time, and even bank accounts.
“Eliot was right. Christmas (which leads to Epiphany, Jesus’ and ours own epiphanies) also calls for a kind of death – a giving up of old selfish ways, turning away from worn-out assumptions, starting life over in a different mind space.
“Are you ready for that?”
Text: Matthew 2:1–12 (NRSV)
2 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 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.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.