In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “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.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ” 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 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. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Today we celebrate Epiphany! The time of “aha,” of new insights, of revelation as to who Jesus is and of God’s presence in the world! And the gospel text for this important day is one most people are pretty familiar with—the coming of the magi. What do you do with a story most people already know? In celebrating the Epiphany, hopefully you do something new, insightful, revealing. An epiphany about Epiphany.
Magi in Jesus’ day had no business visiting the Jewish Messiah. These people would not normally have been welcomed. The shepherds were bad enough: smelly, rude, rejected outcasts who spent their time not with other people but with animals. But at least they know who God is. At least they have some sense of worship and God’s ways.
But these magi were about as far from pious Jews as you could get. Magi were not “wise men”. They weren’t kings. They were everything that a God-fearing person tried to avoid. They were pagan, chicken-bone reading, star-gazing magicians. Their faith was not in the God of Israel, it was in tea leaves or chicken gizzards. They knew nothing of God, nothing of the promised Messiah, nothing of worship.
So they come all this way in order to offer gifts to the young King of the Jews because they saw a star. That wouldn’t make sense to good Jewish folk, because every good Jew knows that God doesn’t work that way. We know how God works. Through the law of Moses, through righteousness, through obedience.
But God reached out to these magi in a way that worked for them, made sense to them. They weren’t Jews, so God didn’t call them in a way Jews would understand. Instead, God led them in a way that would make pious Jews squirm. It was different because it was for these foreign pagans, so they could experience the presence of God. That’s how far God is willing to go. That’s how radically inclusive this God is.
How many of us have arguments with other Christians about where God stands on some issue (even other Lutherans. Even other ELCA Lutherans. Even other members of LCM!)?
I work hard to try and align myself with God about hot topics like Syrian refugees, presidential politics, immigration, or same sex marriage. But then I have a discussion with another person who has also aligned themselves with God on those issues. And we completely disagree.
Like most people, I simply assume I’m right. I’ve studied and paid attention to God on these issues. If you disagree with me, you simply have to be wrong about God! You couldn’t know God’s ways as well as I do. Because God could never work the way you are saying. And I know that because I know how God works. Right? Right?
Which is exactly what all Jerusalem was saying when these magi came looking for the new king. They don’t know God like we Jews do. God would never reveal God’s own Messiah through a star. That’s ungodly!
Yet God did. And God does.
Whenever God does things in ways that are outside our experiences of God, or outside of Lutheran thinking, or outside our sense of righteousness, or–let’s face it–outside of what we believe to be godly, it can be a bit unnerving or uncomfortable. Too often our response is to just deny God’s activity. But God is about calling all people, loving all people, revealing grace to all people, forgiving all people.
Even people who hear things differently.
Even people who need different signs of God’s presence.
Even people who aren’t the least bit interested in being part of a Lutheran congregation.
Even people who aren’t Christian, or who don’t believe in God at all.
God shines a star for them; reveals God’s loving, gracious presence for them. God can do it in ways that may not make sense to Lutherans.
The magi, led by God through a star to the newborn Messiah, make it hard to judge people who have different theologies or different perspectives on God, the Divine, Allah, Spiritual things. Because God does things for others that wouldn’t make sense to me. And God does things that I may disagree with or think are godly. Sometimes we have an ungodly God.
But that would be my problem, not theirs. And certainly not God’s.
This is the celebration of Epiphany! The time of “aha,” of new insights, of revelation as to who Jesus is and of God’s presence in the world. This is the celebration of Epiphany, and God is revealing something new in the world. It doesn’t have to seem godly to us. It just has to be God doing it. Happy Epiphany.