Feast of Epiphany
Year B RCL
January 6, 2019
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 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.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by 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.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 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.” 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. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
The King James Version and most English translations call them wise men. In Greek, the language from which these versions emerged, they are called magi – magicians. And the observation that they followed stars would strongly suggest that they were astrologers – persons who looked to the stars as a guide for how to live. That few translations refer to the three magi as astrologers – though most biblical scholarship would consider this portrayal accurate – indicates the squeamishness of the translators to choose a word so firmly associated with pagan or non-Christian thought.
I’m not a great champion of astrology. I barely know my sign. But I’m in sympathy with Arthur C. Clark who said, “I don’t believe in astrology; I’m a Sagittarius and we’re skeptical.” So I’m reluctant to scoff at astrological divination. We are all just trying to find our way and we look for all kinds of signs to guide us.
King Herod, one of the “client kings”, the lackeys that the Romans chose to rule in their stead, saw the birth of a child labeled “King of the Jews” as an immediate threat and plotted to have him killed. Wisely, the magi, saw through Herod’s claimed desire to “pay homage” to this child Jesus, and so they “left for their own country by another way.”
“Home by another way”, that’s the title of a James Taylor song I’ve always liked:
Those magic men the magi
Some people call them wise
Or oriental, even kings
Well anyway, those guys
They visited with jesus
They sure enjoyed their stay
Then warned in a dream of king herods scheme
They went home by another way
Yes they went home by another way
Home by another way
Maybe me and you can be wise guys too
And go home by another way
We can make it another way
Safe home as they used to say
Keep a weather eye to the chart on high
And go home another way
It’s interesting how in the popular imagination, not just in modern times, but from about the sixth century, the three magi have been associated with kingship. In fact, during the Christmas season we often sing the hymn, “We Three Kings”. It’s curious that in the Christian tradition that we would expect kings to pay homage to the Christ child. I suppose Christianity is better legitimized if kings come to pay homage to our religion’s central figure – shepherds and mere “wise men” don’t carry the same authority. And somehow all of our contemporary “would be kings” seem to think that paying their respects to the Christ Child is the thing for them to do as well.
I heard on the news last week that all but one member of the U.S. Congress claims to be a part of a religion. Almost all of that group find it necessary to pay homage to the Christ child. It’s like all our politicians observed this star rising in the East and decided to hitch their wagons to that star. I haven’t been warned in a dream, but like the three wise men, I’m a little skeptical of a politician’s desire to pay homage.
If I saw a political platform based on peace, love, compassion, and justice for the refugee and the poor, I might not be so suspicious. It would be nice to hear politicians invoke the name of Christ a little less and, instead, embrace the principle of love for your neighbor, a principle common to all the world’s great religions, not just Christianity. Maybe we could hear them echo the words of the Psalmist we heard this morning: “defend the needy, rescue the poor, crush the oppressor.” These are the campaign promises that the Psalmist expected from a King, “That he may rule the people righteously.”
In this morning’s epistle we learn that Paul, writing from prison, had a revelation. Some insight into the mystery of Christ. It was revealed to him that “Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ”. Paul understood that the gospel wasn’t just for people like him. His Epiphany was that God’s love is for everyone.
These three magi came from the East. They were Gentiles – not someone you would expect to pay homage to a Jewish King, especially one born in a stable. That these travelers from the East were present at the birth of Jesus tells us something important about the universality of the love Christ offers. The nationality, the culture, the language, the belief system these wise men brought with them would seem to separate them from this Jewish family huddled in a stable. But when they saw the child, with Mary his mother, all those differences were erased and they were overwhelmed with joy.
Today is the celebration of the feast of The Epiphany – the moment when the church recognizes the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles and, thereby, the universal scope of the Gospel. I had my own epiphany about this universal sense of the gospel a few years ago. I’ve shared this story with some of you before, but I think, on this occasion, the Feast of the Epiphany, it bears repeating.
During the four years I attended seminary, I was assigned to work at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas. The church was historically black and remained almost entirely African-American, from it’s founding in 1941 until the early 80’s. The change began slowly. Some of you have heard of the vibrant music scene that is an important part of Austin’s character. Austin City Limits brought Austin music to the national consciousness. As part of the city wide music consciousness, St. James launched an annual event, a weekend of music called Jazz at St. James. They held concerts on Friday and Saturday night, music workshops for children on Saturday, and a Jazz Mass on Sunday. White folks showed up for the music, looked around and thought, wow, this is a cool place. And many stayed – drawn by the music and the deep sense of spirituality. In combination with the beauty of the ancient liturgy, a sense of timelessness prevailed in worship. The openness of the church to white and black alike, attracted members of the gay and lesbian community, who also felt at home there. It wasn’t long before we began holding a Spanish mass as well.
The Epiphany came when I first stood at the altar and looked out over this sea of people who were rich and poor and black and white and brown and gay and straight – and it looked like the Kingdom of God. It was an epiphany not unlike the appearance of these three foreign magicians from the East to the Christ Child. The epiphany was a sign that Christ’s coming wasn’t just meant for a tiny Semitic tribe of wanderers, but that all the world might be saved.The epiphany was a realization that we are all indeed oneand that we all share in the divinity of Creation.