Matthew 2:1-12 – The Rev. Helen Havlik
Epiphany – January 6, 2019
Christians set aside January 6—what we call Epiphany—to celebrate the Christ child’s revelation to the Magi or wise men. The Magi, representing all the people of the world, help us understand something that still seems strange to us—that God’s love, grace and mercy extend to everyone—not just a few special people, but to all of creation. Our popular telling of the Christmas story compresses everything that happens into one night. But Bible scholars tell us a couple of years pass between Jesus’ birth and the arrival of these strangers from the East. This morning I’m reading from Matthew, Ch. 2, beginning with vs. 1. Listen to these words from the book that we love.
My sister and brother-in-law gave their grandkids, Marshall and Malcolm, a gift card so they could see the dinosaurs at the museum during Christmas break. They went last Thursday—and their mom, my niece Robin, invited me to come along. Along with the dinosaurs, we also saw the planetarium show because Marshall’s kindergarten class is learning about stars. It was a good refresher for me, too—I used to know a lot of constellations but not anymore. I can still find Orion’s belt and the Big Dipper, but when the planetarium guide asked us to point to the North Star, I totally missed it. And I had forgotten that what makes the North Star so important is that it never moves in the sky. All the other stars rise and set each night except for the North Star—which is why since ancient times it’s been so important to navigation. Where we now use GPS, sailors, soldiers, people on the underground railroad—all have found their way by that star.
And the magi? Were they following the North Star or something else? We don’t know for sure but lots of people over time have tried to figure out just what star might have led them to Jesus. We also don’t know who these magi were exactly—or how many of them made the trip. Three matches the number of gifts but there could have been more magi. What we do know is that within a couple of years after a baby is born to a young couple in Bethlehem these magi come into Jerusalem. They appear to be Gentiles, pagan like the Romans, who you’d expect to have no interest in the God of Israel. But after the Jews who were exiled to Babylon came home, some of them stayed, so these magi obviously knew the Hebrew Scriptures and had read the prophets. Maybe they’d been asking questions for awhile. When they got to Jerusalem, they kept at it—asking around until the city’s in an uproar. That’s how they got King Herod’s attention. Paranoid, obsessed with power, a ruler few could match in pure meanness of spirit, Herod had his ears open for rumors, especially Messiah rumors, like the one that started as soon as Jesus was born—thanks to the shepherds. Herod’s title is “King of the Jews.” So he comes up with a plan to enlist these magi on his behalf. He calls them in secretly—and when they ask what he knows, Herod, having done his homework, smoothly replies “the king” most likely can be found in Bethlehem.
So the magi draw closer to the end of their journey. Given what little Matthew says about them, we can only guess what they think about Herod and his motives. We can only guess at their motives. Don’t you wonder why anyone would travel hundreds of miles, probably by camel, on treacherous roads just because of an unusual star in the sky? Actually, I don’t think even they, smart as they were, knew the real reason for their journey. How could they? They were wrapped up in their calculations, drawn on by their curiosity, intrigued by the mystery. It’s only after the fact, after the discovery is made, the destination reached, the life lived, that we can look back and see God’s power at work in our lives. We think we know what we’re doing. We want to be good parents, so we bring our kids to Sunday School. We want to make a difference in the world, so we volunteer somewhere. We think we’re doing it for them—and then we suddenly realize that God is doing it for us. Like those magi, God is leading us. We may not know our motives or see a literal star, but we’re responding to an internal GPS, a moral compass, that leads us forward.
Likewise, on this first Sunday of a new year, how’s your internal GPS doing? Are you following the star that leads to Jesus or have you gotten off-course? As we gather around this table, have you studied and absorbed scripture, set out in faith, opened yourself to Jesus Christ? Like the magi, do you come to this time of worship with expectation, joy even, trusting that in this sacred space, this holy time, you will meet the living Lord who is here, expecting you? All of this—worship, sacrament, prayer, study, community—is showing us the way forward, the other way home, the difference between Herod and Magi, the difference between fear and wisdom. The Magi know what Herod can never know: perfect love is so big and powerful and all-encompassing it casts out all the doubt, all the paranoia, all the fear that fills the hearts of human beings, if only we allow it to do so. So take the star you received this morning and use it as a prompt for the year ahead of us, to remind you of the path on which God is leading us. Even if the Magi and we don’t see the future as clearly as we’d like, God did and does—and in that star we find our way.