6 January 2013
First Baptist Church, Lawrence, Kansas
I would like to invite you in these next few minutes to wonder with me.
I offer an invitation to wonder at the final piece of the story that makes up our nativity scenes.
Perhaps you’ve had enough. Perhaps your decorations are neatly – or not-so-neatly – packed away, the scraps of paper, ribbons and bows have long been taken to the curb, and maybe even some of the new toys are already looking not-as-new anymore. Perhaps Christmas has once again left you weary, exhausted, ready for the Ordinary.
I know. I get it.
And we’re almost done.
Today is Epiphany. Today, after the 12 days of the Christmas season, we welcome the Magi into our nativity scene. A story of angels, shepherds, virgin births, and cattle stalls is already full of wonder. And as we greet the Magi and their strange and yet strangely appropriate gifts, I would like to offer an invitation to wonder.
In Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ birth – in fact in the final bits of what we know of Jesus’ infancy – we hear reports of some unexpected visitors. We don’t know exactly how many, or where, exactly, they came from. Truthfully, we don’t even know if they were all men. But let’s not split hairs. What we do know is that visitors from the east traveled towards Israel, looking for a king.
Translators have yet to reach any real agreement over how we ought to understand the word “Magi”. Were they magicians? Were they kings? Were they wise men – learnéd in the sciences?
What we can discern is that the Magi were nothing if not scholars – astute observers and analyzers of the past, of the heavens, of the world around them. They knew things. And yet, nothing they could have studied would prepare them for the journey the strange star that rose in the east compelled them to take.
Their intellect, if not their wisdom, drove them to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, where King Herod reigned, and the chief priests and scribes gathered to pass on religious doctrine and dogma – it would be here in Jerusalem – here they assumed they would find their answers.
No sooner had they stepped into the palace did they realize how, shall we say, unhelpful Herod and his cohort would be. Yet, the cat was out of the bag. They asked their question:
“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”
And then stated their purpose:
“For we have observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
What they had assumed these political and religious leaders would already be attuned to, turned out to be a surprise. They clearly caught Herod off guard – the king’s responded out of fear. After consulting the priests and scribes, and the priests and scribes, after consulting their texts, confirmed what the visitors had said. They remind them of the words of the prophet:
“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.”
Wonder with me at the juxtaposition here between the Magi and King Herod and his Bible scholars. While the priests and scribes have their scrolls, they have neglected to look up. The Visitors from the East, meanwhile, glancing to the sky, have understood deeper than any text could possibly communicate.
More than that, the priests and scribes, and Herod, when confronted with the truth of the prophets, reject it entirely, defensively. They held all they needed to know, but somehow continued to miss the point. Wonder with me today about the ways that we continue to “hold the truth in our hands but miss the Living Lord.”
And so the Visitors continued their journey, no doubt frustrated at the detour they took through a hostile palace. They continued to follow the star, the same star they saw rise in the east, that same star would lead them to Bethlehem, to the house where they would find Mary, Joseph and Jesus, the child by now likely crawling, if not toddling around.
Wonder with me for a moment at the Magi, the most surprising of all those who came to adore the Christ Child. Scholars by vocation, and worshippers of the stars, they followed something deeper within them, compelling them Westward, eventually to Bethlehem. They did not know what it all meant, and they certainly did not know how the story would end.
What they did have was prophetic knowledge, the gift of a star, and hope for a king. What they weren’t expecting to find was a messiah.
When they reached Bethlehem, all they would find would be a poor family, and a child, held by a teenage mother. By any rational assessment, this scene would not bode well for success of some future Kingdom. Yet, as theologian Shelley Copeland writes, “by grace, the magi had the faith to experience unbridled joy. They beheld the substance of things hoped for and humbled themselves to worship the gift of God.”
Wonder with me at the absurdity of this story. The wise men, the Visitors, had no sooner entered the house, Matthew tells us, than they knelt down to worship – to pay homage to this child. Wonder with me at the absurdity of Jesus as King – of Jesus as messiah.
The Messiah – the King of Kings, come to earth as a child. Pastor James Howell reflects on this absuridty: “If Jesus is king, there is something upside down and just plain unkingly about his royal bearing. Poor fishermen stood as his court, his standard was a cross, his boast was not iron-fisted dominance but tender love. Little wonder King Herod was “troubled”. All who cling to power, all who lust for dominance, are in for a headlong tumble before this Christ child.”
After having knelt down before this child-king, the Visitors opened their suitcases. They had brought gifts for the child. They didn’t bring teething rings, or designer outfits, or Dr. Seuss books. They brought strange and precious gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Indeed it is this piece of the story where we get what has become the most central of our Christmas traditions – gift giving.
Wonder with me for a moment at what we have done to the story of the magi – we focus on their gifts, and think about all the gifts we’d like to have, and even in our better moments, we focus on the gifts we’d like to give to other people. The Magi have been transposed into some sort of mythical Santa Claus figures. This all seems to suggest that the focus of the story is on the gift giving. The focus of the story is, in fact, the child.
Wonder with me at the gifts they bring. The Visitors aren’t giving gifts like we think of at all. In fact, their gifts might seem utterly ridiculous if we really think about it. What has a baby to do with gold, perfume, oils for anointing? They are not gifts for the young Jesus to enjoy, to play with for a season. But rather, “they are symbolic of the grandeur of all of creation being gathered at the feet of the Lord of it all.” Wonder with me at the gifts of wise men, who traveled a long way, and brought the only things they knew to bring – precious gifts, the most precious things they could find, to offer up to a King. If we hadn’t realized it yet, it is the gifts, at last, that tell us all we need to know about the identity of this child.
And then wonder with me at the closing words of today’s passage:
“And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the Magi left for their home by another way.”
Home by another way. A captivating idea, isn’t it? (So captivating, even James Taylor wrote a song about it.) Truth is, the magi may have taken another road home out of sheer realism – they knew that to return through Jerusalem would be a certain death wish.
And yet, as all good English majors are wont to do, I think there’s a deeper, more symbolic message at work in Matthew’s narrative. What happened after the wise men left the manger? What happened after they had said goodbye to the quiet teenage girl and her strong husband – both clearly obedient to some wonder left unspoken – beyond mere comprehension? What happened to them after they had knelt down, placed their gifts, and smelled the crown of the baby’s head? After they had held the infant skin of the Living God dwelling among them? Even if it were safe to do so, could they possibly return to their homes by the same route? Nothing can be the same after that.
We each have our pathways to the manger – some of us come by rote – out of sheer habit year after year. Others of us come not sure what we will find, following something’s prompting. Others come looking for one thing, and are caught off guard by the Christ we find.
Yet if we are open to what God has placed there – that God has placed God’s own self, in human form – we too, will return home by another way. We all have our own nativity stories to tell. Nevertheless, we “all are present due to the prompting of God, who initiates our asking, our seeking, and our finding.”
Wonder with me for a moment about how we might be changed. How might we reach out and embrace the very flesh of the living God, and be changed forever?
And let’s tell the truth about this change – this is not a comforting shift in our reality – not altogether so. There is a good reason angels greeted Mary, Joseph, shepherds, over and over with the words “Do not be afraid!” For there are all kinds of reasons we might be fearful. And maybe we ought to be fearful.
We can no longer be at ease once we have encountered the Living God walking, talking, eating, drinking among us. Nothing can be the same once we, like the magi, embrace the reality of God’s incarnation – God’s dwelling in our own ordinary, everyday existence.
One piece of the radical message of the magi – is that everyone is welcome. Visitors from afar – all seekers are welcome in the presence of God. In fact it is God who calls and compels all of us into God’s dwelling.
Wonder with me what it would look like if our faith were placed in the truth of a God made flesh, rather than formula or doctrinal checklists. What would the Christian church look like around the world if all of our walls came down permanently to welcome all visitors, even – or especially – those who have been traveling paths that look radically different from ours, all in search of their hearts’ true home?
Wonder with me as we look for Epiphany in our common everyday experiences. Are we too busy figuring out the formulas that we miss the star shining brightly over our own heads? Do we focus too much on the need for singular Truth, that we overlook the myriad ways that God is already revealing God’s self in our world?
One of English poet T.S. Eliot’s most well-known poems is “Journey of the Magi,” a meditation on both pieces of their journey – a long winter’s journey to find the child, and then the return home, changed, shaken. The narrator reflects:
…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.
Wonder with me alongside the Magi at this kind of birth that ultimately points to death. But we would rather not. We would rather not jump so far to that conclusion, to Jesus’ conclusion. So much of the story surrounding Christ’s birth points to death – to the dying of old ways, to the death of previous kingdoms and powers, the death of all our assumptions.
According to Eliot’s poem, the Magi realized, if they were to accept what they had seen, it meant a “hard and bitter agony,” as it meant a complete shift in the lives they had once lived. Like the magi, we are called to wonder at a God who calls us to unease, who calls us to discomfort.
The wonder of God’s incarnation is not in success and fitting in, but rather it is in embracing the mystery of the ultimate truth of God’s hospitality, God’s welcome, and God’s incarnation. It is not supposed to be an easy truth, but it is supposed to be a transformative truth. And like the magi, we are called to return home down unfamiliar routes. We are to pull out new maps, find strange paths to make new. Paths that leads ultimately to our home in Christ.
Wonder with me at a messiah who calls all people back to him, regardless of the boundaries we would like to draw. The Magi point us to the truth that God’s embrace, God’s grace is far more about the mystery and wonder of it all than it is ever about whatever formulas we might ascribe.
We can choose to embrace the mystery of Christ’s presence alongside the Magi or to can choose to “join Herod in not seeing God’s ever-expanding embrace, or feeling threatened by it, and instead giving way to just plain fear.”
Jesus continues to show up – to be hidden in plain sight. Jesus continues to make himself and his Kingdom known to us in both ordinary and unexpected ways.
Where will we continue to look for Epiphanies of the Christ in our world?
We now leave Christmas behind, and enter now into a season of Epiphany – the season of light. John proclaims in his gospel that this light does not flicker; it doesn’t come and go – rather, Christ’s light is the eternal light – full of grace and truth. His light outshines all darkness. It’s downright miraculous.
It’s a funny sort of miracle isn’t it? That God came to us, through a teenage girl, in the form of a baby, lying in a manger? That Visitors from the east followed a light in the sky to reveal this child as the Messiah?
We put our faith in this funny sort of miracle. And we marvel at its beauty and its truth.
Each Advent we wait for the miraculous. And Epiphany is the proclamation of that miracle – that we worship a God who dwelt among us. But we are not to wait idle and passive. Instead we ought to see ourselves as willing participants in God’s presence among us. The call of Epiphany is to remain open and ready to nurture the Incarnation that we might receive more and more fully the light and life dwelling among us.
Perhaps this year we will move forward from the decorations, gift wrap, and celebration with a posture of wonder – maybe this year we will “live in hopeful anticipation, … cupping our hands in prayer, scrunching our faces against the vault of heaven in holy expectation that God will meet us in beautiful, mysterious ways.”
May we, too, go home by another way.
 James Howell, Feasting on the Word, Year B, volume 1, p. 214.
 Shelley Copeland, Feasting on the Word, Year B, volume 1, p. 216.
 Stephen Bauman, Feasting on the Word, Year C, volume 1, p. 216.