[This sermon was prepared for January 8, 2017, but icy streets kept us from worshiping that day. It was given on January 15.]
When Neftali gave the sermon about two months ago he was careful to make sure that the words of the Bible passage could be understood by the children in the mid-years of school. I found that an admirable style of sermon. I am not going to imitate it, but I invite the children to listen for at least the first few minutes while I talk about the wise men who came to the place where Jesus was born. After that they can bury their noses in their reading material.
Prayer: O Holy Spirit, lead us in this New Year to find new ways to understand your world and new ways to render service in the name of Christ. Amen.
Who needs an epiphany? But first, what’s an epiphany? The everyday definition of epiphany is: a moment when you suddenly feel that you understand, or suddenly become aware of, something that is very important to you. (Cambridge Dictionary online) An epiphany is usually considered a good thing, a turning point in a story when you start to see how the story is going to end. An epiphany changes the person or group that experiences it. You might have had a small epiphany when you opened the most mysterious of your Christmas gifts.
Isaac has chosen for today the lectionary passages assigned for Friday, January 6, two days ago. Thank you, Isaac. That day is properly called Epiphany, or Twelfth-night, when tradition has it that the wise men, traveling on camels, arrived at Jesus’ birthplace 12 days after Jesus was born; Friday the sixth was 12 days after Christmas.
The word “epiphany” does not appear anywhere in the Bible, but we always use it to describe the story in Matthew 2:1-12, where the wise men come and make what we think must have been a life-changing discovery of the birth of Jesus. Any of us would also have been changed by being one of the first persons at the place where Jesus was born.
We can get a musical idea of the long trip the wise men made. In Leipzig, Germany in the year 1723 Johann Sebastian Bach was named cantor, or chief musician, in the leading Lutheran church. A major part of his job was to provide music for the worship service each week. When Epiphany came he wrote music that begins by helping the congregation imagine a camel caravan, loping along over the desert. Here it is…
[JSB Cantata BWV 65, 1st mvmt. No. 65 is on CD IV-17, starting at track 22]
The wise men are sometimes called Magi. Isaac says that Caleb once asked him where words come from. What a good question! In this case the answer is interesting: add the letter “c” to the end of “Magi” to make “magic.” The two words “Magi” and “magic” come from the same source; the Magi were considered magicians or sorcerers in their country.
Matthew never tells us how many wise men made the trip. We assume there were three wise men because they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Frankincense is an oil, easy to smell, that is considered to have various healthful properties, both breathed in and rubbed on the skin. Myrrh, another oil, has several uses, one of which is to reduce the evidence of aging in skin. Isaiah the prophet mentions frankincense, and myrrh is mentioned as early as Exodus ch. 30, where it is used as a holy anointing-oil. Both frankincense and myrrh come from particular trees.
When Amahl and the Night Visitors program is shown on TV, I strongly encourage the children and parents to watch it together, because it’s a wonderful story about the wise men and a little boy whose house they visit along the way to Bethlehem. Unfortunately, it is considered a Christmas program, when Epiphany weekend would be exactly the right time for it. Now you will have to wait almost a year.
Matthew talks about wise men. Today we consider them astrologers, men who studied the stars and made guesses about the meaning of what they saw. I emphasize that they made guesses; astrology has never been a science. The science of the stars is called astronomy.
The idea of a new or spectacular star to mark the birth of a great leader was not only used in Christianity. Alexander the Great lived in the fourth century before Christ. On the night when he was born, astrologers saw a brilliant group of stars and said that the destroyer of Asia had been born. (New Interpreter’s Bible) That was a good guess, because Alexander’s armies conquered lands from Greece to northern India.
Taking Matthew’s account at face value, the wise men or astrologers came to Jerusalem and asked people on the street how to find the newborn king. We might wonder how this happened, because they came from far away, and would hardly have had any reason to learn the local Jewish language. They did not go to King Herod himself; Herod had to gather together the Jewish authorities and be told that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Evidently Herod’s daily intelligence briefing didn’t do the job.
Herod the Great was Jewish, but from a region some distance from Jerusalem. His soldiers conquered the local people and Herod became their ruler under the Romans. Herod had only two main jobs: collecting taxes for the ruling Roman emperor, and keeping the Jews from starting trouble. We can be sure he had spies keeping their eyes on the people.
The wise men are sent from Jerusalem south to Bethlehem, so they can see where Jesus was born. Here is Matthew 2:9. “When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.” This does not seem right. The star led the wise men from east to west to get to Jerusalem. That makes sense, because the rotation of the earth makes the stars appear to move across the sky from east to west. But Bethlehem is south of Jerusalem, so that the star had to turn a corner and start south. But stars don’t turn corners. This part of Matthew’s account is not quite believable.
in Bethlehem the wise men find Mary, Joseph and the newborn child, before whom they kneel down to show their great respect. Their trip has been a tremendous success; finding the new king is their Epiphany, their moment of discovery. The Jewish world is about to experience a transforming event, and they are among the first people to learn about it. It’s a good reason to call them wise men.
Look at Matthew 2:12. “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” The dream shows God working behind the scenes, though God is never mentioned in the story. (New Interpreter’s Bible)
The Epiphany text comes from Matthew’s gospel. Matthew wrote mainly for Jewish readers, to connect them to the story, so we expect him to write about the importance of the Jewish people. Thus the opening of today’s story is totally unexpected, almost shocking: Before anything is said about any Jews, Matthew starts talking about foreign tourists who came to Jerusalem to find the newborn king. This shows us something of great importance: the Christian message, the story of Jesus, was for everyone, Gentile and Jew, right from the start. This profound conclusion can be our epiphany, the truth that when we discover it, holds the greatest meaning for us.
That the Christian message was for everyone also comes from today’s passage from Ephesians 3:6., which reads “… By means of the gospel the Gentiles have a part with the Jews in God’s blessings; they are members of the same body and share in the promise that God made through Christ Jesus.” (Good News Study Bible)
The wise men traveled in search of something unknown to them. They had their Epiphany. What are we seeking? My argument today is that we all need epiphanies as individuals and also surely as a congregation. The wise men looked toward the sky and traveled toward the west. Where do we look? Do we travel?
Some possible epiphanies — transforming experiences for us — are:
- a financial epiphany, i.e., a clear vision of what we could become if we had more money to work with, and how to get it. We could transform ourselves as an active congregation by setting a high goal and working hard to meet it. That will lead to other epiphanies:
- a foreign relationship of some sort. I mentioned this in my sermon last August. For example, there are now more Mennonites in Africa than in the USA. We are no longer the big fish in the global Mennonite pond, and it should be stimulating to make some new acquaintances.
- Participation in refugee resettlement in some local way; the refugee crisis is perhaps the most pressing human need in the world;
- Strong participation in the MC USA assembly in Orlando next summer. I think the big assembly can present us an unusual opportunity.
- Selecting someone to serve with Christian Peacemaker Teams is an attractive possibility. For example, short-term teams of 5 to 14 days travel to crisis settings to protect human rights, engage in public peace witness, and report to home churches. We ought to recruit and support someone to join a team.
We can surely assume that the capital-E Epiphany, the trip to Bethlehem, changed the lives of the wise men to some extent. Our own epiphanies can do the same for us as individual followers of Jesus, and as a body of believers who are committed to advancing the kingdom of heaven on earth. May we have our epiphanies in this new year.