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.
Arise! Shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For some of us, to hear these words from the prophet Isaiah at the beginning of a new year is a clarion call to hope, giving us the spiritual encouragement we need to move forward into a new year with anticipation of good things to come. Arise! Shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For others, however, these words may seem to be rather empty, with the discrepancy between the proclaimed light and the seeming darkness of reality feeling like a contradiction that stretches our capacity to believe the good news. On this morning of Epiphany, we hear that God’s light has come. But the nightly news can seem to tell us otherwise, with stories of violence and war, poverty and disease, division and political dysfunction. In the midst of all that, we may ask, where is God’s light to be found?
To begin to answer that question on this morning of Epiphany, we turn to our appointed gospel text from Matthew— a story of mysterious visitors traveling from a far and distant land, following the light of a star in order to offer their gifts to a baby born in Bethlehem. It’s a familiar story, one that we’ve all heard a million times. It’s a story that maybe we take for granted because we think we know what it’s all about. I would argue, however, that it’s worth taking a closer look at this story, to read it again as if for the first time, because I believe that this age old story gives us many clues about how and where we can look to find God’s light— clues that may help us to concur with Isaiah’s pronouncement—that’s God’s light has come and risen upon those who were covered in darkness. Furthermore, not only does this text provide clues about how and where we can look to find God’s light in the world, this text also gives us one very important clue about what to do when we actually find it. It all comes back to the mysterious visitors at the heart of this morning’s story, so let’s start there.
The three wisemen. The three Magi. Who are they? There is plenty of speculation out there about who the magi were and where they came from. Most scholars guess that they came from somewhere in Persia and were likely astrologers who observed the night sky, and perhaps other natural phenomena, in conjunction with sacred and mystical texts, in order to determine that something remarkable was going on in Bethlehem. But of course that’s just a scholarly guess. No one knows for sure. And actually, we don’t even really know how many wise men there were. We often say there were three, but that’s only because they came bearing three different gifts. There’s nothing in the text that says there were three men. Some scholars have suggested there was a whole company of wise men, which would have made quite a crowd in that small little stable. But again, we just don’t know. What we don’t know about the details of this story, however, only serves to highlight what we do know, and what is really important about this text, which is that is gives us, as 21st century Christians, a road map for our own journey towards Epiphany. This text gives us clues for how to make our own discoveries of God’s light shining forth in the dark or unlikely places of the world. We may not know much about who the wise men were,\ but we can still follow their example and learn from their wisdom.
So for starters, we learn from the example of the wise men the importance of vision. One scholar suggests that there probably wasn’t anything particularly remarkable about the star the wise men followed, but that it was their unique ability to see something extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary that led them to Bethlehem. It was their study of sacred texts, along with their observations of the natural world, and perhaps even their study of the cultural movements around them, that culminated in the knowledge that something was happening and they wanted to be a part of it. And so in order for us to find our own epiphanies, we need to be willing to be like the wise men of this story— willing see the extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary. Willing to be open to the unexpected moments of epiphany that arrive in the margins of everyday life. It may not always be obvious, but if we are paying attention, we might just notice that at some point, what is happening in our lives, or in the world around us, may just correlate with what we have found in our study of sacred text and scripture. It is at that point of correlation where we begin to find those first traces of light.
But of course the willingness to see— to be open to the appearance of those traces of light in our lives— is only the first step towards Epiphany. The second thing we learn from the story of the Magi is that it’s not enough merely to be observers. It’s not enough to merely notice those traces of light—those points of correlation— and go on with business as usual. As many a contemplative soul has pointed out, it is our commitment to observation and contemplation that sows the seeds for compassionate action in the world. When the Magi realized that something extraordinary was happening, they took action. They left the safety and comfort of home in order to follow the light that had emerged. They took a chance, not knowing what they would find, but knowing that risk-taking was a necessary ingredient in seeking out Epiphany. Sacrificing time and comfort, these wise men traveled a great distance in order to offer their gifts, as well as themselves, to this poor newborn child. And so in seeking out our own epiphanies, in seeking out God’s light in our own world, we are called, when we see those glimpses of light, to rise up and to follow, to act, and to let God’s light lead us out of our own comfort zones, whatever those may be.
Which leads me to the third lesson that we learn from the story of the Magi, which is the one that is perhaps the most challenging of all. In the final words of the drama, we read that being warned in a dream not to return to Herod’s court, the wise men return home by another road. Now a literal interpretation of this text would simply acknowledge that the wise men had to take an evasive route home in order to avoid what would most likely have been a deadly confrontation with a brutal king. But as always with scripture, there is more here than what’s on the surface. Theologian James Howell makes the following suggestion— “could it be” he writes, “that Matthew is offering a tantalizing hint about life for those who have encountered Jesus? Nothing is ever quite the same. You don’t take the old road any longer. You unfold a new map and discover an alternate path.” In other words, when we truly experience God’s light, there is no more business as usual. We are called to live differently— called to return home by another road. I think that sometimes the reason why it’s so difficult for us to see God’s light, as individuals and as a society, is that we continue to try and find it in the same old places, through the same old habits and routines. We continue to try and take the same path, when maybe what we should be doing is following the voice of God’s Spirit towards something new and different.
As we embark upon new journeys in a new year, many of us may be encountering changes in our lives. Maybe they are changes in employment, health, or relationships. They may be changes in our economic or financial status. For some of us, it may not be outward change, but inward change that we seek. Perhaps we have made resolutions to change the way we live, alter bad habits, or be better parents, spouses, or friends. Regardless of what kinds of changes we may be seeking or experiencing, the example of the Magi reminds us that to truly experience God’s light and holiness in our lives, it may be necessary for us to risk leaving our comfort zones in order to experience something new. And then, we may just find, when we arrive at the source of that light, that we need to change course— we may need to travel home by another road. We may be called to seek out uncharted territory, and in doing so, we may discover unexpected possibilities for vocation, transformation, and renewal. In other words, we may just discover Epiphany. May it ever be so, Amen.