Sermon for the Epiphany Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
That story sounds so exotic, and romantic, and beautiful, and enticing, that I almost regret spoiling it for you. And because that’s not bad enough, yes, there will be a myrrh joke. But the truth is, the so-called wise men were less than astute and they ended up stirring up a horrifying amount of trouble. The trouble starts with a detail that we usually miss but would have been an unmistakable bad omen for Matthew’s original audience. Matthew wrote with a Jewish audience in mind, and he took great pains to depict Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish history, tradition, and prophecy. Matthew’s audience would have known Jewish law well, including its prohibition and condemnation of divination, including astrology. Matthew calls the visitors from the East “magi,” a word that doesn’t mean “king,” but astrologer. He might even be poking fun at them by telling us that their two-year journey did not take them directly to their target, but rather, to Jerusalem, the symbolic and practical center of the Jewish world. Only after hearing the Word of God from Jewish religious experts are the magi able to find Jesus. And so we begin to see that while this story borders on the absurd if we focus on the literal level, it contains deep symbolic meaning that reveals spiritual truths with profound implications.
The magi reach the holy family, we might have assumed because of their astrology, though Matthew would surely have said despite it. If you were paying close attention, you would have noticed that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are no longer slumming it in some stable but are now living in a house, most likely with extended family, though still in Bethlehem. We see that even before the magi showed up, the holy family was becoming more secure in the world; symbolically, God and God’s ways are exerting more influence. We might even see a connection between the Temple in Jerusalem, and this new house of God, a humble dwelling in a very small town, and surmise that God’s reign will be one of humility and spiritual, rather than temporal, power.
The magi arrive in a state of joy and do the only thing a human being can do in the presence of God: give worship, glory and praise. First they offer themselves, kneeling in his presence, and then they offer all they have, though if the myrrh wasn’t in a tightly sealed container Mary probably would have told them to leave it outside the house. In this scene we understand that God draws all the world to himself, in order to restore the right order of things, justice and peace. God does this knowing perfectly well that we are sinners, every last one of us, and that a majority of the world’s population are not members of the Judeo-Christian faith tradition. Jesus came for all, he lived for all, he died for all, he rose for all, he offers all people his forgiveness, redemption, grace, and salvation. The gifts of the magi are but shadows, or hints, of the gifts of Christ. Their homage, in spite of their sin, reminds us that God can work wonders through anyone, and often chooses blatantly unqualified people to make it easier for the rest of us to accept the divine source and purpose of the works.
It breaks my heart when I invite people to church and they tell me they’re too sinful to come. How far have Christians veered from our true course if this is how we are perceived? The magi left, apparently after spending the night, and were never heard from again. There is no indication that they converted, or told anyone else in their country about the child king for whom they had given up so much. Perhaps Herod caught up with them. Perhaps they are like those of us who see Sunday worship as the end of our spiritual work, rather than the beginning. But of course all Christians are responsible for sharing Christ’s love with the world in both word and deed. We can glorify God in many ways, and one great one is by telling our own stories of what God has done for us, our redemption, transformation, and growth. The magi spent years making their journey; we don’t have to travel, but we are supposed to devote our entire lives to glorifying God. And we don’t need a star, for we have Christ himself as our guide. So rejoice in the epiphany that God is with us, doing great things for us, and through us. Glorify God with your whole life, no matter where your journey takes you.