SCRIPTURE – Matthew 2:1-12 – Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:
‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Are not the least among the rulers of Judah;
For out of you shall come a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel.’”
Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.” When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.
Jan. 6, 2013
Happy Epiphany! Or is it Merry Epiphany? I don’t know that we’ve settled that question yet. But I do know today is Epiphany, the holy day observed at the end of the 12 days of Christmas. As we move through our church year from Christmas to Epiphany to the Baptism of our Lord Sunday (which is next Sunday), we are in effect learning about Jesus’ identity, who he is as told to us through the stories of his birth, upbringing and baptism.
Of the three religious celebrations I just mentioned, Christmas is obviously the Big Daddy of them all, with Epiphany and Baptism Sunday only holding significant meaning for non-Protestants or the religiously geeky, like myself. And yet, as we move from Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem toward Jesus’ death in Jerusalem, Epiphany and Baptism Sunday play crucial roles in helping us understand who babe in the manger really is.
The focus of Epiphany has traditionally been the arrival of the Magi. Well, here’s a story we all know. Three wise men – or maybe they’re kings – travel from the Orient to greet the baby Jesus in the manger, bringing with them gifts to bestow upon the new-born king. If you have a nativity set, you most likely have Gaspar, Balthazar and Melchior as part of your figurines, probably accompanied by their camels (we don’t know the camels’ names). After all, you can’t have a nativity scene without the wise men.
Well, have I got an Epiphany for you: almost every detail I told you about that story is wrong, or at least not supported by the story itself. As much as we think we know these foreign visitors, there’s actually very little that scripture reveals to us. Tradition has played all kinds of tricks with the Magi, grafting their story, told in Matthew, onto Luke’s narrative about the angels and the shepherds and the baby in a manger. We’ve given them places of origin, names, and even physical appearances. But the truth is, we really only know what we’re told in this passage, which isn’t much. We don’t their names, what they looked like, we don’t even know how many there were! They brought three gifts, but chances are there was a whole caravan of people in their procession.
We also don’t know their occupation, but we’re pretty sure they weren’t kings. “Magi” is a Persian word referring to a special class of priests in the Persian Empire. They were the professors and philosophers of their day, and they were most likely trained in what we would call astrology. That doesn’t mean they told horoscopes and gazed into crystal balls. Instead, their job was to read the stars for divine signs. That’s why they responded when they saw the star, this astrological phenomenon, following it as it led to Jesus.
So there’s a lot we don’t know, and a few things about which we can speculate. One thing we DO know is that they weren’t at the manger scene. The passage tells us they came to Mary and Joseph’s house, which means baby Jesus is probably closer to toddler Jesus. He could have been up to two years old when they visited. That’s a lot different than what we’ve come to know. When we strip clean this biblical story from all the legends that have been attached to it over the years, when we look at it through fresh eyes unclouded by Christmas convention, perhaps we can see these “wise men” for who they really are. They are like us. They are human beings on a spiritual journey, a quest for something holier and more meaningful, a search for the true source of promise and hope. They are seekers.
Now, in verse 2, something happens that I find disturbing. Before the wise men make it to Bethlehem, they make a pit stop in Herod’s palace in Jerusalem. Why? Did they need to refill their canteens? Were their camels out of gas? No. They stopped to ask directions. What worries me is that, if they are wise for stopping and asking directions, where does that leave the rest of us who are comfortable wandering around without really knowing where we are going?
The timing of this story for us is not coincidental. After all, the beginning of a new year is the perfect time to stop and assess our life’s journey, where we are and where we want to be, and whether or not we’re in need of some directions. That’s not always easy to admit, especially for those of us who pride ourselves on not stopping to ask directions, who like to think we know exactly where we’re going and how to get there. But here’s the thing: people who think they don’t need help, the Bible calls “prideful,” but people who can honestly assess their situation and ask for direction the Bible calls “wise.”
So these Magi stop in Jerusalem to ask directions from King Herod. Herod was a puppet of the Roman Empire and despised by the Jewish people. Herod was only half-Jewish, and everyone knew that he wasn’t the true heir to his throne; someone else was the real king. So Herod was constantly looking over his shoulder, and when he hears about the birth of the true King, he’s rattled. His power is threatened.
So he calls together members of his royal court who would know exactly what the magi were talking about. These people were students of God’s law and would know intimately the prophecy about the coming of the Messiah. You could throw any question about the Bible at them and they would quote a chapter-and-verse response. They reply to the magi’s question about the birthplace of the Messiah by citing the passage in Micah about the king of the Jews being born in Bethlehem.
I find this really interesting. Though the chief priests and the scribes could recite where the Christ child was to be born, they didn’t actually lift a sandal to go and see him. At a time when the Savior of the universe is born, the most religious people of the day were nowhere to be found. And yet the Magi, a group of foreign Gentiles who didn’t even believe in the Jewish God, were following the star to see the Christ child.
For those of us who consider ourselves religious, this is a warning that knowing is not the same as doing. For those of us who don’t consider ourselves biblical scholars, this story has something to say to us, too. Notice that God didn’t say to the magi, “As soon as you memorize the first three chapters of Genesis, follow that star,” or “Once you write a five-page paper on the meaning of grace, I’ve got something to show you.” God simply led them, and they followed. It was the same for Jesus’ disciples. He didn’t give them any kind of aptitude test or require them to meet any kind of criteria. He simply said, “Follow me.” You may think that to teach Sunday School or to attend a Bible study you need to fulfill some sort of religious prerequisite. But you don’t. To follow God, we don’t need any preordained knowledge or divine insight; we only need a willingness to ask directions, and sincere desire to follow them.
After arriving at Jesus’ house and paying homage, the Magi are ready to return home. But God warns them in a dream about Herod’s wrath, and instructs them to go home by another road. Detour. You plan on going on way, but you end up going another. We Lexingtonians know all about this. This is the only city in America where someone could give us directions with three different street names but no turns. “Take Malabu to Pasadena to Alexandria…” If we’re not careful, we may think we’re on one road, but we could very well end up on a completely different road, even though we didn’t do anything differently.
In fact, life has been like that. There have been so many times when I just knew where I was going and how I was going to get there, and then like a GPS system life said, “Recalculating.” Often times the new way is not where I want to go. The route I had planned for myself never included dying loved ones or illnesses. I would rather take the easy route, the straight road with no obstacles. Instead God leads us down roads with twists and turns, speedbumps and roadblocks, with only the light of the Star to guide us. Have you run into roadblocks in your life, detours that took you off your planned route? There were things you simply didn’t plan for, didn’t want: bad health, broken relationships, loss. It’s frustrating, isn’t it? “God, this is NOT what I had planned!” And yet for me, in the midst of this new part of the journey, there was peace. I didn’t know where I was going, didn’t know what was ahead, didn’t know how long it would take, but I knew one thing: when I got to wherever life was taking me, I would be home. Maybe not where I planned or expected, but because God would be there with me, I would be home.
As we start this new year together, this might be a good time to take a rest stop and check our maps. Are we headed in the right direction? Are we trying to navigate life without a spiritual compass or a guiding light? Are the roadblocks we encounter keeping us from moving forward, or are we letting God lead us down a new path, helping us to recalculate our route as we continue our journey? If there are changes to be made to our spiritual life and our relationship with God, now is the time.
Maybe that doesn’t apply to you. Maybe you’ve got it all worked out, your soul is locked in on the right path and your spirituality is right where you want to be. But for the rest of us, now might be a good time to stop and ask directions. “God, where do you want me to be? What do you want me to be doing? How do you want to use me to do your will?” I don’t know how God will answer those questions for you, but I do believe that if you are listening for it, God will answer. Because that’s where we find all the answers to life’s most important questions: in God.
So here we are, at the beginning of this new year together. What lies ahead? Probably not what we think. As we follow Christ’s shining star into 2013, I pray that each day we become a little more like Jesus than we were the day before, living in such a way that people see the image of God in us. Sometimes we forget to do that, and we get lost. That’s OK. It happens. Just don’t be afraid to stop and ask directions. After all, that’s the wise thing to do.