January 6, 2019
Epiphany is special this year because January 6 falls on a Sunday, and I’m kind of church geeking out, because it feels energizing- a new year, a fresh season, and at Gathered at Five we are going to set aside a few weeks in January to continue thinking about starry skies and manifesting light.
In Epiphany we remember the magi, wise men from the East, who traveled a long way and followed a star, looking for a baby they didn’t know but had heard rumblings and prophecies about. And we too embark on a crisp winter journey that flows into twelve months full of possibility and the opportunity to start all over, anticipating the unknown.
The New Year can feel like a lot of pressure, though. Maybe that’s why Epiphany is so welcome. Thankfully this season is not about losing weight or self-improvement. The magi might have felt some pressure, though, from Herod, when they arrived from the East seeking Jesus. In reality, they most likely came sometime after Jesus was born, as word would have needed time to spread in those days. But it didn’t take long for Herod to hear about why they were in town.
It’s interesting to consider where they were from and who, or what they were seeking. Jesus, obviously. But, the wise men were educated- curious about the world and willing to go to great lengths to discover its wonders. Scholars think the magi were from Babylon, which if you know even a bit of Bible history is where the people of Israel, the Jews, were in exile for forty years, though centuries before this time. Their best-educated guess is that the non-Jews, the gentiles, picked up on certain things from the people of Israel during their decades-long stay in this foreign country. When the Jews eventually left for the promised land, the thought is that at least some of them must have stayed behind in Babylon, continuing to practice their Judaism, and having a lasting influence on the gentiles they encountered. The magi were, possibly, inquisitive enough about the Jewish way of life- having obviously memorized some of their scriptures that they quoted to Herod- to check out the rumors they had heard about a Messiah. Or, maybe they wanted to discover more about this God of the Jews, a God of love and justice, so different from the Gods they knew.
The magi follow the light of the star, but eventually have a run in with Herod. They weren’t his constituents. We’re not sure they owed him anything. But Herod probably intimidated them. The wise men’s interest in Jesus, a baby called Ruler of the Jews, tipped off Herod’s radar. Someone else being called ruler, King? Ding, ding, ding! It was a threat to his leadership, though the response seems oddly over-reactive when you think about it, since Jesus was just a baby born to poor parents. Nevertheless, Herod finds the wise men in secret, and triangulates them into being his spies. It seems petty, but Herod’s reaction should not go unnoticed.
This story is a character study. It’s a microcosm version of all that humans are capable of- what they hope for and what they can quickly devolve into if left unchecked. We are all a mixture of the magi and Herod. When we hear about love and hope in the world we’re willing to traverse long distances to witness it for ourselves. We are willing to give ourselves over to it, in many ways. The magi brought amazingly generous gifts to a boy they had never met, and Mary and Joseph welcomed these foreigners into their home- it’s the human spirit at its best, lavishing bounty and hospitality on one another. At our core, these are the people we long to be, who we were created to be. But, then there’s the flip side- our brokenness, sin, if you want to call it that. Herod’s power-hungry, maniacal behavior is shallow. He has the position, but no wisdom to show for it. His roots brush the surface of the ground because he lacks a depth of understanding. He is afraid because he cares more about the safety of his status and position than someone else’s perspective. Jesus is a threat to Herod’s establishment.
You know, I don’t usually like to bring myself into sermons if it makes me look bad. But, believe it or not, comparing myself to Herod seems like the right opportunity. Because I’m more like Herod than I want to admit. At my worst, my own power is threatened by weakness, too. Which seems so illogical, right? But, it’s true. I react to small things. My anxiety can go through the roof if I over analyze and get competitive, assuming the worst of people, worrying about minor details that I think I can micromanage and control. I’m really fun when I’m like this, by the way- lacking self-awareness when my ego and privilege and identity are questioned. If I’m not one-upping someone than who am I? If I’m not trying to do or be the next best thing what will I become? Friends, these are good questions for therapy, but you get my point. Shocker that I’m not perfect, I know.
The magi probably weren’t perfect, either. Case in point, they forgot to bring some curious women on their trip. But they were eager to see something beyond themselves. They hear about a long-hoped-for ruler from their Jewish friends- friends they have come to know and trust- so they follow a star to get there. But, something happened in their visit that changed them, and when they left they didn’t go back to Herod to give him more fuel for the fire. They decided to go home by another road.
For the record, I see myself in the magi, too. Though, being self-deprecating is funnier. But, I also see refugees and immigrants. I see illegal aliens and children at the border. I see women, actually. And all people who are tired of being belittled and condescended to by the Herods of the world. People who are smarter than the powerful think and sick of their narcissistic anxiety and pathetic need to control the already powerless. The magi have an epiphany- an experience of God that validates their foreign lives, their hopes and dreams. They go home by another road because they want to manifest that. That moment. That kind of God.
Scholar Karoline Lewis says, “Anything less relegates these star-seekers as only pawns in a narrative outside of their agency. But, no. The birth of Jesus says this cannot be. They are witnesses to what witness means. They demonstrate what trust looks like. And they embody holy resistance to those powers and empires that are threatened by everyone and everything that might call them into question.”
Remember when the story said Herod was fearful and all of Jerusalem with him? Power like that breeds fear- fear of the other, fear of people who are different. But, the magi get validation, affirmation, 100% welcome from their visit to Jesus. They become part of a community, and are wanted, known and loved. And this encounter is what led the earliest followers of Christ to believe that Jesus was the Messiah came for everyone- not only for the people of Israel… Even beyond the acceptance they receive, they are given a new way of life. They might have had a chance to gain “power and recognition” by going back to Herod and spilling the beans about where exactly Jesus was- a tempting offer, for sure. But as they learned, it wasn’t genuine, and it wasn’t enough, and it wasn’t better than the light that was shed on the beauty of their own lives. In the presence of Jesus they were the ones given the greatest gift- of being able to simply be themselves.
Poet Mary Oliver tells about the magi’s visit as a journey of self-discovery. That through Jesus they learn who they really are. She writes,
“…little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
The stars began to burn
Through the sheets of clouds
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world…”
This is Epiphany. A journey of self-discovery that draws us outward. For the magi it was hope realized. An experience of welcome. An affirmation that love wins. A new path forward. And a chance to manifest God’s light.
As we, too, stride further and deeper into this new year, what will our Epiphany be? And, even more importantly, what will we manifest? We know what we are capable of, or at least I do. I am adept at fear, control, and feeling threatened. Thank you, anxiety. But I know my heart aches for something more. For the stars to burn. To hear the sound of my own voice manifesting God’s hope into the darkness of a broken world. I am worth more, created for more. And so are you. So are we.
Here’s a good way to think about it. Maybe you are an Epiphany. Maybe your life is meant to be one aha moment after another- full of awe and love. If we all thought of ourselves, and one another that miraculously, wouldn’t the world be so much brighter?
So, in this New Year, and on this day of Epiphany, may you take the road less traveled and go home by another way. May your manifesting sound familiar, like the beauty of your own God-given voice, whispering or shouting or laughing about how wonderful it all is. A baby born. Born to make us gentle, merciful, compassionate, and to resist the temptation of meanness and judgment. May you welcome the stranger and visit the powerless with unbelievable generosity. And may you be kind to yourself when the allure of power gets the better of you. Because your Epiphany has taught you that God’s light will always bring you home.
Thanks be to God for that. Amen.