Epiphany, Year A
Readings: Isaiah 60:1–6; Psalm 72:1–7, 10–14; (Ephesians 3:1–12); Matthew 2:1–12
On a cold winter's morning a husband and wife were listening to the radio during breakfast. They heard the announcer say, "We are going to have 20 to 25 centimetres of snow today. You must park your car on the even-numbered side of the street, so snow plows can get through conveniently".
So the woman went out and moved their car as instructed. A week later while they are eating breakfast again, the radio announcer said, "We are expecting 25 to 30 centimetres of snow today. You must park your car on the odd-numbered side of the street, so the snow plows can get through." The woman went out and moved the car again.
The next week they are again having breakfast when the radio announcer says, "We are expecting 30 to 35 centimetres of snow today. You must park..." And then the power went off.
The woman was upset, and with a worried look on her face she said, "I don't know what to do. Which side of the street do I need to park on so the snow plows can get through?"
Her husband replied, "Honey, why don't you just leave it in the garage this time."
This is the time of the year when we can joke—about women following directions, perhaps, about men not asking for directions. There were no maps. Who knows how long those magi wandered around before they knocked on Herod’s door?
Then we could joke about what the gifts would have been if the three visitors had been women. You get the sense, reading the gospels, or any of the New Testament, actually, that no one’s joking. About anything. For them, it’s intense.
A man was coming out of church one day, and I was standing at the door as always to shake hands. I pulled him a bit to one side, and said to him, "You need to join the Army of the Lord!" He says, "I'm already in the Army of the Lord, Pastor." I said, "How come I don't see you except at Christmas and Easter?" He leaned in and whispered, "I'm in the secret service.” I’m joking. No one has ever put it that way.
Being Christian, or at least participating in a community such as this one, at this time in the history of the world, allows certain freedoms, and a certain perspective, that our forebears did not enjoy.
“Arise, shine; for your light has come.” (Isaiah 60:1a) Where is the child, where is the person who can make this happen? Arise. What is that? Get up from my…despondency? Self pity? Fatalism? Cynicism? Arise.
Shine. Instead of…what? Glowering? Moping? Weeping?
What is it you need born into your world, your life? World peace? Inner peace? Less loneliness? More justice? Redemption?
Who is Isaiah talking to? Who is the gospel of Matthew talking to? What kind of salvation do they need, and how does that speak to us? Isaiah chapter 60 is in the later part of Isaiah. The author is celebrating with the people taken hostage six decades earlier by Nebuchadrezzar of Assyria. Cyrus, of Persia, is now in charge, and has a different policy, one of good will. Hostages can go home. Not only will the descendants of the captives go back to their broken down country, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” Restored Israel is going to be a beacon in the world.
Matthew is talking to Christians in a Roman world. Several empires have come and gone in the six hundred and fifty years since Cyrus. The Roman empire has made their emperor into a god, and insisted everyone under their control worship him. With some exceptions. The Jews, for instance. They are so resistant to Roman religion for so long, so willing to spill their own blood in futile fights against well-armed troops that it seems easier to let them have their own religion. By the time of Matthew’s gospel, perhaps around 95 years after Jesus’ birth, people who take Jesus as their Messiah are seen as troublesome by Romans and Jews. The Christians won’t worship the emperor either, but they don’t have an exemption, like the Jews. And they’re spreading, growing in numbers.
That was then. Since those days, Christianity got into bed with empire. Not good. Then recently it got kicked out, and participation fell dramatically. It’s true, the plunge in attendance can leave a long time member feeling a little disoriented. Where’d they all go? Is it something we said? What do we do with all this space?
This is an exciting time to be Christian. We’re not the state religion anymore, and that is excellent. We don’t have to justify what the state does, or give it some kind of spiritual cover. And no one feels like they have to go to church these days for social reasons, so anyone who’s here is pretty interested in the message, the mission.
We know the story about the three wise men is all made up. The gospels are put together by people looking back at Jesus.Great people have to have significant births and early lives. Obviously. These stories were common then. Supernatural experiences, descended from gods, miraculous signs or escapes. We’re still prone to look backward at the early days of the great hockey player, the great leader. See, they were destined for greatness! So ninety or a hundred years after his birth, with no photos, no yearbooks, no living witnesses left, people rummage through the Old Testament for references to the Messiah instead. How will Messiah come? How will we know? What are the signs? They find mention of a young woman having a child, a certain town mentioned, camels, nations coming to pay homage—a collection of images. And so we have these competing stories from Matthew and Luke about the birth of Jesus.
No matter whether every detail is exactly right. The question for all of us at the heart of the story is still the same, still true: Where is the child? Where do we look for that which gives meaning? Who is Messiah for us? Beautiful questions.
There is a legend that the Magi were three different ages. This is what happens to the story of prophets. Rich details are added. Intensity may be lost. Back to the legend. Gaspar was a young man, Balthazar in his middle years, and Melchior a senior citizen. When they approached the cave in Bethlehem where baby Jesus was, they first went in one at a time. Melchior found an old man like himself. They spoke together of memory and gratitude. The middle-aged Balthazar encountered a teacher of his own years. They spoke passionately of leadership and responsibility. When Gaspar entered, a young prophet met him with words of reform and promise. The three met outside the cave and marveled at how each had gone in to see a newborn child, but each had met someone of his own years. You see how the legend suggests that words of reform are things you leave behind when you gain middle age? Anyway, what conversation might you have with Jesus?
We’re not just following orders, moving the spiritual car from one side of the road to the other or something. We’re trying to build a dream, God’s dream. There had never been a time just like this. And it’s still true, there is no map where we’re going. We’re not secret agents, undercover. Sometimes we have to wear the many sins of historical Christianity, but we keep other people’s disappointment, their anger in perspective. We have changed. We are setting a new course. We have seen what we can do as a group, how the Spirit can move when we dream with God, and share our vision.
The thing about those magi—after they had found what they were looking for, they were warned, in a dream, not to go back to Herod. They went home by another way, as Matthew puts it. Pay attention to brightly beaming stars. Keep looking for the child. Epiphanies come again and again. Think about the gifts you bring. Pray for places such as this. Be ready to be changed by God’s dream, and to work for change.