One Facebook friend from my high school era has grown to be the wonderfully eccentric adult he had begun to blossom into even in our teen years. I see Peter Van Erp every 5 years at our high school reunions, but cyber technology has allowed me to check in with him through his Facebook posts. Peter was actually a bit odd in high school and as an adult his oddities have made him quite interesting. Even in high school when most people’s insecurities forced them to blend in with the crowd, he thought and even dressed outside the box. Peter is also active in his church in Providence RI. I know this because he posts things about his faith on social media. And he also has a sense of humor about religion as well.
For the past 12 days he has been moving the three wisemen of his nativity set around parts of his house on their way to visit the manger. His descriptions of the epic journey through the different rooms showcases his creativity. As they passed over a table of photos of his relatives, he wrote that they were passing the Shrine of the Ancestors…. another day they were in a Christmas cactus and he wrote that they struggled onward through the cactus wilderness… and still another day they were on a glass top table which was ‘the perilous Desert of Ice’. People commented wondering why they had not reached their destination yet and he explained that they had a long journey to reach the stable. To one person, he quipped, ‘Don’t you remember your confirmation classes!’ I can hardly wait until I go on Facebook today which is actually Epiphany, the day we celebrate when the magi finally got to Bethlehem and visited the baby Jesus and see if they are actually kneeling before the baby and paying him homage.
Listen now to the Biblical account of these magi’s journey as told in the Gospel of Matthew.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men[a] from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising,[b] and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah[c] was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘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[d] my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men[e] and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 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.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising,[f] until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped,[g] they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
It is Epiphany…. The 12th day of Christmas where we celebrate the arrival of the Magi, these mysterious people from afar, who come bringing gifts to a baby in a manger. It is one of the holidays in the Christian year which is so rich with symbolism and meaning that a preacher can preach a different theme every year. There is Herod… his paranoia over the power of a baby and his scheme to find out where this new king of the Jews is located. There is the star and its arrival and its meaning to the magi and to us as we look for things to guide us in our modern day. There is the meaning of the visit from people from different nations signaling that this gift from God will have international and interfaith significance. And we celebrate Epiphany around the calendar’s New Year, which has significance for us as we look to new directions in our own lives. Yes…. Epiphany is significant!
So, this morning I thought we might look at the story and think about the decisions that these men made on their journey from their decision to leave to their decision on which way to return to their homes after visiting the baby Jesus.
It is commonly thought that these three men, these magi, were from different cultures and countries and were possibly followers of Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest religions of our world. They had knowledge of astrology and had obviously been watching and waiting for something to happen in the heavens that was a sign from God. And a star appeared which seemed to move across the heavens and it set in motion a journey they were to take together to see where it led. From the account in Matthew, it seemed that they knew that their destination was going to be to meet the child who would be the King of the Jews, but that they were not sure where the star would lead them…. But, it could have been that they did not even know exactly what they would find when they got to the place to which the star would lead.
So, the first question we modern minds must ask is how could a star guide them? The account suggests a moveable star, however the stars in the sky, in my experience, are fixed. Well…. After a bit of research, I found an article in which an astronomer Michael Molnar described how the combination of our planets location and other astrological events (the right planet rising before the sun) would have suggested to ancient astrologers a regal horoscope and a royal birth. Molner believes that the wise men were, in fact, very wise and mathematically adept astrologers. They would have also known about the Old Testament prophesy that a new king of the Jews would be born and were probably watching the sky for years. So, they identified a powerful set of astrological portents that happened about the time of Jesus’ birth and decided it was the time to set out to meet the new king. In-other-words, something big happened in the sky that led them to believe, the event they had been waiting for, had arrived. Molner says it was not that they followed a star, but the stars gave them the time to set out on their trip to meet the new king.
And what a decision that would be. Perhaps there were more magi on this watch than just three and only our three Biblical wise men had the faith and strength of conviction to take a possibly dangerous journey into a foreign land without the knowledge or invitation of the powers that be. So…. the first question is why? Why did they go and not others? Surely the wild sight in the sky could be seen by others? Why they were able to act on their beliefs and others did not? Why did they have the strength of purpose and belief to follow their conviction, not even knowing the whole story of what and where they would go?
They arrived in Jerusalem asking where this newborn, this child who would be king of the Jews was to be found. And the word of their quest and arrival into Jerusalem got back to King Herod who asked to meet with them. Herod had heard of the child’s birth in Bethlehem and he then recruits these foreigners to do a little espionage for him. He tells them which city to find the child and asks them to report back to him about this child and his whereabouts. And they set off again and they found the baby Jesus and it is said they were overwhelmed with joy. I love that description. Think about the times in your life you have been overwhelmed with joy and imagine these men like that. They kneeled before him. They gave him gifts. They paid the child homage which is a word not used by us today. Homage is to show respect, honor, worship, or acclaim. Its historical roots had more to do with acknowledging the lordship of another. If the word is an accurate description, we know that they recognized in Jesus the future and power of his place on earth.
And then the last line in the story in Matthew tells of a choice the men made which was of great significance. They chose not to return to Herod and tell him about their visit and its location but to return to their own countries on another road. In-other-words, the defied the King. They had been recruited by Herod to find this child who was seen as a threat to his power and they chose not to do what they were tasked to do. And this, my friends, is huge. Nowhere in the Gospel account do we hear that these magi traveled with guards, with an army, or even with their own weapons. It was like a group of college professors and high school science teachers on their own in a foreign country….. And they make a decision to protect this child and defy the civil authorities and powers. Pretty risky. I’m guessing they returned home at a fast pace looking over their shoulders the whole time.
What impresses me is the strength of character and conviction, the power of their nerve and bravery, of this small group of academics. Yes, they had most likely been waiting for this astrological sign of a new leader for a long time and then it occurred. But they then set out on a journey not knowing where it would lead and they even risked their own safety in going against the civil authority because of something they believed was greater. These foreigners…. these people from the outside, become our models for living out our faith.
The magi were indeed mysterious people. We don’t know that much about them and they don’t play a role in the rest of the Gospel account of Jesus’ life. But they serve as a reminder that our faith calls us in to action and that sometimes God calls us to do things outside our comfort zones. I used to have a yearly retreat with the deacons of my last church. Because of the number of elderly members, part of their job was to help me with visitation of the 40 or more homebound members living in nursing facilities around the city of Cleveland. Many were frightened at first to visit the elderly members. We were a large church and they did not know them or how to engage in conversation. I always said to pray first. God does not call us to ministry and then abandon us in our work. And they found praying for guidance and strength did work. And it will work for us in the ways God calls us in ministry in this New Year. How will we respond to the Hunger Issues of our community? Where will God call us as we continue to advocate for earth care and environmental concerns? How can we be Christ’s hands and heart to the woman and her son who escaped the gangs of El Salvador and are now living down the street from us in sanctuary? God calls us in directions that we do not chart. And as disciples to a God who loves us and calls us to love others, we must answer in an affirmative way. A new year…. 2019….. and I personally can’t wait to see where God will be calling us. And I pray that we are called, we will be able to answer like those brave magi did so long ago. Amen.