Sermon for 1/6/12: Epiphany 1
“Lord Jesus Christ, star-maker, light-bringer, King, God, and Sacrifice, your star revealed your glorious presence to the Magi; guide us, as you did them, to your perfect light. Amen.
I spent a lot of last week crying. I am telling you this not as a plea for sympathy, but because today is the first Sunday of Epiphany – and the word “epiphany” means “revelation” – and I had one on my way home yesterday. I had prepared a very educational sermon about the three kings, explaining that they were not kings, there were not three of them, and “orient” is a very vague and probably inaccurate description of where they came from. But, even though I am always happy to share what I am learning with you, when I was sitting in an airport shuttle on my way home all of that suddenly seemed unimportant. Because, you see, while it’s interesting to know who decided to include the Magi in the nativity story (it was the writer of the gospel of
Matthew), and why early Christians writers decided there were three of them (because Matthew mentions three gifts by name), and how they morphed into kings (because Isaiah prophesied that kings would bow down before the Jewish Messiah), what is really important about the story of the Magi is why they undertook the journey to find Jesus.
Two years ago a Harvard scholar named Brent Landau published a book called, “Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem.” The book is based on Landau’s translation of an ancient text, written in Syriac, called “The Revelation of the Magi.” In researching the story of the “three kings” (as we usually – and mistakenly – call them), Landau discovered the existence of a manuscript in the Vatican Library, where it had been donated by a Turkish collector in the 19th century and gathered dust since then. His seven-year labor of love translating “The Revelation of the Magi” has provided us with some valuable information about who they were and why these non-Christians are so important to our Christian story.
For me, the most important – and moving – part of the Magi’s story is what takes place before the beginning of the portion of Matthew’s gospel that we heard this morning. It is an account of who they were and what the meaning they assigned to the appearance of the star. According to Landau, contrary to popular belief the Magi were not magicians, astronomers, or astrologers; they were mystics who believed in a prophecy that had been handed down to them by their forebearers – a prophecy of “a star of indescribable brightness” that would herald “the birth of God in human form.”
This star was the same as one which had hovered over the Tree of Life in the
Garden of Eden – and like that tree, the star demonstrated the presence of God on earth. According to the Revelation of the Magi, the star first appeared in visions to these mystics in response to silent prayer and sacred devotions. Although they initially saw it as a star, it changed into the form of a “star child” who told them to go to Bethlehem to witness its birth. Each of the twelve Magi mentioned by name in the text saw a different form of this human star, “with each vision representing a different time in the life of Christ.”
Now, this expansion of the story is a little bit different – and a lot more detailed – than what we just heard from Matthew. In Matthew’s story, the Magi first approach Herod to ask him where the Jewish Messiah is to be born, and it is Herod’s priests and scribes that identify Bethlehem as the proper location. The priests quote from the prophet Isaiah, whose words we also heard today. Isaiah describes a ruler who will “shepherd my people Israel.” Isaiah’s words were addressed to the Jews, who had been removed from their homeland and enslaved by other cultures. For them, Isaiah’s prophecy heralded the arrival of a king who would come in glory to deliver them from bondage and provide them with wealth and power. You can see why Herod was not happy to hear this.
Of course, there are a lot of holes in Matthew’s story. For example: if Herod was so worried about Jesus that he wanted him killed, why did he let the Magi go off on their own? Why didn’t he send his own priests with them?
And why did the Magi have to question Herod about where the star was leading? The Revelation of the Magi may provide answers to some of these questions. The Magi approached Herod because they did not know who the star child they had seen was. They didn’t know his name, or his parentage – or even his religion. They only knew that if they followed the light of the star child they would find the human child that manifested the glory of God on earth. And what’s more – they didn’t care who the baby was. They were only interested in what that child would be. This is a crucially important point because it describes what Landau has called the “universality of Christ’s revelation.”
I recently had a conversation with a Jewish friend who asked me if I thought that there is a “war on Christmas.” He was talking about the complaints from some Christians that Christmas has been “hijacked” by nonbelievers. These Christians believe that by asking sales clerks and card-givers and public speakers to refrain from saying “Merry Christmas” and instead offer the more religion-free sentiments of “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Holidays,” non-Christians are “taking the Christ out of Christmas.” Now, this friend of mine knows very well that I am an Episcopal seminarian and figured that he was taking a risk by asking me this question. It’s a pretty controversial topic – and a very interesting one to consider, especially for Episcopalians who, as a rule, like to be inclusive and respectful of other religions and traditions. I think my response surprised him. What I said – and what I believe – is that what Americans now call “Christmas” has little to do with the birth of our savior. Don’t get me wrong; my house is littered with decorations, not a few of which involve non-Christian figures like Santa, Rudolph and snowmen – and my kids will be happy to tell you that I am the world’s pickiest
Christmas-tree buyer; but, for me, those traditions are cultural – not religious. I celebrate the holiday season publicly as many Americans do – with cards and baking and eating and decorating and gifts. But in the quiet of my heart and the company of other Christians, I experience the joy of the knowledge that, once again, God has favored us with the birth of the Christ child. We can celebrate Christmas, but we should also remember that Jesus’ birth was not about celebration – remember, those shepherds were “terrified” when they saw the angel – it was about the beginning of something new – something extraordinary.
We don’t really know what the people of the nativity story thought would happen when Jesus was born. We know that when the angel told Mary that she would bear the son of God, she submitted to God’s will – but there’s no evidence that she knew what that meant. We know that the shepherds were excited and afraid to see a savior – but we don’t know what they thought might happen when they did. For Mary, Jesus was a son. For the shepherds, he was a savior. To Herod, Jesus was a threat. But to the Magi, he was God. And, perhaps more importantly, they already knew him. Matthew tells us that the Magi had “seen his star,” but the revelation of the Magi tells us they had seen him as a star. They set out on their long, arduous, and life-threatening journey because they knew that they would see the birth of God. That is the revelation of the Magi: Jesus is not just a baby in a manger; he is not just a king – or a savior – or the son of God, although he is all of those things. Jesus is the revelation of God; he is God on earth.
So, what does this have to do with how we celebrate Christmas? What does it have to do with my epiphany? And, most importantly, what does it have to do with you? Everything. Because Christmas is about knowing who we are – and who we are is all about who Jesus is. We are not Christians because of what we say – whether it’s “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Holidays,” “Season’s Greetings,” or, like the Magi, nothing at all. We are not Christians because of what we do – whether we decorate with Santas or crèches or take our trees down before Epiphany. We are not Christians because of where we are – even if it is far away from those we love. We are not Christians because of what happens to us – even if someone we love dies. We are Christians because of what we believe – and who we believe in. And what we believe in is the same thing the Magi believed; we believe that if we follow the light of Christ, we will see God. That is what Epiphany is. It is what our epiphany will always be.
“O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may – like the Magi – see your glory face to face.” AMEN.
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