Text; Matthew 2.1-12
The Rev’d Colleen Clayton
May I speak in the name of the Holy & Blessed Trinity, One God in three persons.
In many parts of Europe, Epiphany is a more important celebration than Christmas Day. Since it celebrates the revelation of the Christ child to the Magi, who were Gentiles, it is the feast that is about the good news that God has come, not just to the Jews, but to the whole world, to us.
We don’t know if Matthew’s Magi are kings. Neither do we know how many they are, though we do know that they bring three gifts. The other lectionary readings paired with this Gospel, Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72, speak of kings coming to God’s glory, so that is probably where the tradition that they are kings arose.
It seems probable from the details that Matthew provides – that they came from the east and are skilled in reading and studying the stars – that they are Persian, Zoroastrian priests, worshippers of the Wise Lord.
They are certainly outsiders, of a different faith, from a different country. It is striking that Herod hears about the birth of Jesus, not through his own Jewish advisors, the chief priests, or the scribes, but from these foreigners. The ones who know the scriptures, and who should be attentive to God at work, are in fact, blind to what God is doing. When prompted by Herod’s questioning, they look for answers in the scriptures, but they do not see or understand the signs in the world around them, they do not hear God’s voice.
The Magi do not know the Jewish scriptures but they are experts in the study of the stars and they bring the skills they have to their search for God. They know that the star they have seen is special because they have spent countless nights looking at the stars. Their moment of revelation is preceded by long years of searching, accumulating knowledge and wisdom as they search.
Often epiphanies are described as ah hah! moments. They are portrayed as instants of blinding clarity, revelation and certainty. To have an epiphany, is to suddenly see and understand something that has previously been hidden. But what this way of thinking misses, is the preparation, discipline and attentiveness that provide the necessary background to the moment of sudden insight. The Magi know what they have seen because they have spent their whole lives looking for it.
And there is another important thing to notice about them. Despite the wisdom and knowledge they already possess, the Magi are humble, open to learning and seeking new ways of understanding God. Initially they make an incorrect assumption about where the king heralded by the star will be born, and so they go to Herod. But they listen to the information given to them from the scriptures, look beyond their own expectations and go to Bethlehem, to a place a long way from the royal palace they have been expecting.
That same willingness to let go of their expectations and respond to God enables them to listen and act accordingly when God speaks to them in a dream. God speaks and they change their plans, they go in a different direction.
The Gentile wise ones, are in many ways, exemplars of faith.
- they search for God, using the skills and knowledge they have
- they have developed a life-long pattern of searching and so, they are able to read the signs
- they have open eyes, ears, hearts and minds and so they are able to respond to God when their expectations are overturned
- they are humble and motivated by the desire for God
The behaviour of the Magi is what I think we would all want to practice in our own lives. And yet, these people do not belong. The Magi are not good Anglicans, they are not Bible believing Christians, they have not even been baptised!
And that is the point. In the thousands of years that have passed since that first Epiphany, we Gentiles have become the insiders. Too often we have forgotten what it is like to be an outsider, longing for God but rejected by those who are supposed to know God. This is why this feast should be so precious to us. Epiphany reminds us that those on the outside are precious to God. It invites us to look again at those we consider to be outsiders, and it challenges us to recognise that they might have things to teach us about the search for God.
The Feast of the Epiphany celebrates the wisdom and knowledge of outsiders, those who are different from us, those who do not belong. Whatever the reason for their outsider status; faith, tradition, race, nationality, gender, sexuality, or any of the other things that human beings use as categories to separate us one from the other, these are the ones who seek God. These are the ones to whom God reveals Godself.
This feast, that celebrates the wisdom of those who are not like us, presents those of us inside the church with some real challenges.
- As the tellers of Gospel stories and the keepers of the traditions, do we look for the signs that God is at work in the world, or do we want to simply turn to our scriptures to find simple, black and white answers to our problems?
- How humble are we in our search for God? It is important to bring all our skills, knowledge and wisdom to our search for God, but it is not through our cleverness that we are saved. We seek the God who first sought us. God reveals Godself to us through grace.
- The church, neither the institution nor the people in it, does not possess all wisdom or all knowledge. God speaks to those with open ears, eyes, hearts and minds, those who are willing to be surprised, those who can delight in the unexpectedness of God.
- And, it is not up to us to determine to whom God will speak or through whom God will act. We might be shocked to discover the kinds of people, wisdom and knowledge that God can use to reveal God’s presence to the world.
Epiphany reminds us not to reject wise ones who come to us seeking knowledge of where to find God. They may differ from us in every way, they may represent to us everything that we are afraid of, or cannot understand, but we need to make sure we don’t miss what they are showing us because we lack the humility to learn from them.
I have one last thought to share with you this Epiphany and it relates not to the Magi or to the baby king they seek, but to the other king in this story, the despotic King Herod.
At the end of Herod’s conversation with the Magi, he says to them, “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.” Warned by God in a dream of Herod’s murderous intentions, they do not return to him but return home by another path. Joseph, similarly warned, takes Mary and Jesus and flees with them as refugees into Egypt. Herod’s response is to kill all the baby boys that he thinks could possibly be the right age to be the king the Magi sought.
It is a story that is incomprehensible to us, though tragically, not to many people who live today in places of war and ethnic violence. But in a terrible way, Herod is right. Because he can never know for sure which is the right child, he has to treat them all as though each one could be the one he is seeking. This is what we too are called to do, to see in everyone we meet, the face of the Christ child, revealed to us at Epiphany.
It is easy to see the face of Christ in those we love. The powerful invitation of the Feast of the Epiphany is to see the face of Christ in those we do not love and to learn what they can teach us about the search for God among us. If our chief desire is to find where God is being born among us today it is likely that we will be surprised and unsettled by what we find.
The Lord be with you.