Happy New Year! Christmas trees may be slowly coming down, decorations put away or in disarray, cookies reduced to crumbs and diets begun, but the Christmas season did not officially end until yesterday, with the celebration of Epiphany. Epiphany comes on the 12th day after Christmas, and brings us the story of the visit of the magi to the child Jesus. I think it’s worth to extend the season one more day to lift up what has been once considered one of the greatest feast days of the Christian calendar.
Epiphany, which means revelation, lifts up the journey of those mysterious figures, the magi, and been popularly known throughout history as wise men, astrologers, court officials, even three kings, as the well-known hymn, “We Three Kings of Orient Are” immortalizes. Our experience of Christmas is not complete until we explore the visit of the three kings, the consequences of that visit to the child Jesus on ultimately for us. In their story lie the challenges and clues for how we are to move forward from Christmas into our New Year, 2018. For we, like the magi, are called to a people of the journey, a people bearing gifts, a people bringing truth to power, a people who face crisis with faith, a people who discover joy in worship; a people whose trek draws them close to God, the creator of that bright shining star and the whisperer of dreams.
The gospel of Matthew records part of the birth story of Jesus. However, if we study Matthew closely, we see that a crisis of faith bookmarks the birth of Jesus. It is in facing these crises of faith that we discover what epiphany, or the revelation of the birth of Jesus Christ, means for our lives.
So, today we need to take a big step back to see the overview of the entire birth story in Matthew. At the beginning we recall the impact on Joseph, husband of Mary, when he first hears the news of Mary’s pregnancy. Engaged, but not yet living together as husband and wife, Joseph learns Mary is carrying a child not his own. This knowledge sends Joseph into a crisis of faith. What betrothed man wouldn’t be stunned, filled with pain? The Gospel tells us that Joseph plans to call off the marriage, divorce her quietly, and send her away. For a man raised in a traditional patriarchal culture, Mary’s unexpected pregnancy struck at the heart of what Joseph knew to be his honor as a man, as a Jew, a husband and father. He even could have had Mary killed – and Jesus, the promise, along with her. The text says he had resolved or reflected to divorce Mary – the core root of this word, is anger, wrath, indignation, or rage. Joseph was hurting. Still, he didn’t want to harm her, so he went about to fix things quietly.
Through a dream an angel appears to Joseph – Joseph, son of David – the angel says, pointing out his lineage back to the greatest king of Israel. Do not be afraid. Joseph discovers he must humbly put aside everything his cultural and religious upbringing has taught him. He must trust in this angelic message. We have no words from Joseph. Just his actions. After the angel’s words, Joseph takes Mary as his wife, and names the baby, Jesus, as he the angel instructed, when he was born. The crisis is averted by the leap of faith Joseph takes. Perhaps not understanding, but accepting, he becomes the foster father of Jesus.
But Joseph’s is not the only crisis of faith in the great Christmas story. Today we also hear of one person who does not receive the news of Jesus’ birth with joy, wonder or curiosity: King Herod. Matthew tells us that the journey of the magi takes them straight to Jerusalem, to the very palace of King Herod. They are in the final stage of their journey less than 10 miles away from Bethlehem. They have come as far as they could with the guidance of the star and now they need help. Of all people they should end up consulting, it is King Herod. Herod: known for his paranoia, sociopathy and cruelty. He is called a “murderous old man” in ancient texts. So, before this notoriously jealous, bloodthirsty King appear these exotic foreigners and their unusual request: “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.”
Herod is alarmed. In fact, the text says he becomes frightened. He summons all the chief priests and Jewish leaders who are also stirred up. They experience an agitation of the soul with a word that John uses to describe Jesus’ state of mind the night before his death. Profoundly agitated. Deeply upset.
How is it that the news of a birth can threaten them so? It incites a crisis – right to the top echelon of leadership in Jerusalem. Theirs is a crisis of faith that this new upstart will remove them from power and challenge their way of life. Herod meets with the magi and gets them to tell him when the star first appeared. He instructs them to return to him afterwards, so that he too might pay him homage. It is not homage on Herod’s mind but homicide.
Herod’s crisis of faith is similar in some ways to Joseph’s. The birth of Jesus threatens to disrupt the proper order of things; how power and privilege are supposed to work. Joseph has to accept and love a child not his own progeny. Herod is faced with an up and coming ruler not of his own choosing and not within his power to manipulate – someone who might supplant him on the throne. Unlike Joseph who was open to dreams and the advice of angels, Herod closes down, gives in to fear. When the magi don’t send word back to Herod, he reveals his hand and resorts to murder of the male children under two in Bethlehem; forcing Joseph and Mary to take Jesus and flee with Jesus to Egypt. They become refugees while the children left behind in Bethlehem are slaughtered.
So, two crises of faith. Both rooted in turmoil and suspicion. The first resolved with faith and hope. The second resolved in fear and death.
In the midst of all the crisis of faith of Jesus’ birth, we encounter the magi. Was there a crisis of faith for them when they saw that star in the sky? We do know that they represented the learned, the scholars of the east. They were members of the priestly class of ancient Persia, given to the study of the esoteric; adept at dream interpretation and divination. It would have been very easy for these magi to dismiss this star as having no relevance for them. They could have stay home, safe and sound. Yet they didn’t. They traveled a journey some say of up to 1,500 miles. It was a long journey. It took months if not years. These Magi had their own epiphany. They had an inkling of something much greater than humankind has experienced before was happening – of the Divine not limited by national or cultural boundaries; a God who would draw all diverse peoples together in a bond of love.
This was the epiphany of the magi. The epiphany that inspired of Joseph. The epiphany that threatened Herod. The kind of epiphany we need today.
So, our Christmas story begins and ends with a crisis of faith. We must ask ourselves: have we been confused or shaken to the core by the birth of Jesus? Has our encounter with the Christ Child upended our world? Have we rediscovered that we have gifts to offer that we never knew of? That our in-the-rut routines can be replaced by irrepressible joy?
Epiphany us: can we believe we are loved so much, that we mean so much to God? Can we believe we can love so much – so powerfully -- to give so much of ourselves to make this love alive in the world? What does the love of Christ expose in us about how we live our lives? The passage would lead up to the crisis of faith that keeps us from embracing the light of Christ. So what we must discern for ourselves is that as we leave the Christmas season, have we been changed? Has our faith deepened by the encounter with Jesus? Has it been the same old, same old, or has our faith been shaken to the core by the nativity of Jesus Christ?
Epiphany awakens the crisis of faith. We can let the teachings of Jesus – the love of Jesus -- shine a light on how we live. Can we struggle like Joseph and take the great leap of faith to let Jesus be the center of our lives? Can we emulate the magi – who begin an unknown journey beckoned by a star, be gift bearers, joy-filled as a result of the process of seeking Jesus?
So, the question for all of us today is: will we leave Christmas a different people? The magi did return home but they took a different road. The encounter with Jesus had so transformed them that they took a different road, as a way to turn their back on King Herod. They chose Jesus instead. So as the Christmas winds down, we are asked, what evils do we need to turn our back to? What fears do we need to let go of?
This is what Epiphany would have us do. Choose Jesus. The Jesus who leads us by faith into foreign places. The unknown terrain of our hearts we never knew existed. The light of Epiphany that challenges our way of thinking and living. Like Herod and Joseph, we might find our lives turned upside down. This may cause fear. Or anger. Like Joseph, we might be tempted to walk away. Like Herod, we may want to strike back. But like the Magi, we might just embrace the journey to discover a new place, new people, who teach us to worship in new ways and upon us wellsprings of joy in our heart.
Whatever the challenge may be or what crisis manifests, the light of Epiphany leads us away from fear into a faith that transforms us. A faith that trusts the journey. A faith that faces evil but turns away from it. A faith that bears gifts. A faith that finds the divine in the most ordinary. A faith that worships. A faith that finds joy. A faith that goes home changed, discovering that there are many ways to find home in this world.
journey. Let every challenge, crisis and opportunity expose the fear and overcome it. May we find ourselves moving deeper to faith. May we discover joyful service. This year, may we know more deeply the love manifested in Christ Jesus – The light of the World. May that Epiphany Star shine brightly this whole year long – as we travel home by a different road – may it be a road of faith, enlightenment and joy throughout 2018. Amen.