Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, a day the Church celebrates each year on January 6th (which happens to fall on a Sunday this year). The word “epiphany” means “appearance,” “revelation,” or “divine manifestation.” In Eastern Orthodox churches, the focus at Epiphany is the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God that takes place at his baptism in the Jordan River. In the Western tradition, though, the Feast of Epiphany became associated with the story of the magi or wise men, the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. And so our gospel reading today comes from the second chapter of Matthew.
We so often associate this story of the wise men from the East with Christmas pageants, with three youth wearing crowns and dressed in bright, shiny strips of cloth. Of course, true to the biblical story they each carry a gift – creative replicas of gold (which, according to tradition, represents Jesus’ royalty), frankincense (an incense used in religious services and so symbolic of Jesus’ divine nature), and myrrh (a fragrance used in burial rituals and so thought to represent Jesus’ mortality). In Christmas pageants, the three wise people walk down the aisle with lots of pomp and circumstance, kneel in front of the baby Jesus, and then leave amid smiles and good feelings. It’s all fitting for a Christmas pageant. But it’s not an entirely accurate portrayal.
If we take a closer look at the second chapter of Matthew, we see that: (1) nowhere does Matthew tell us that there are three people who come from the East (we assume that there were three people because Matthew tells us of three gifts), (2) nowhere in the biblical translation that we read does Matthew say that these three wise people from the East are kings (scholars have suggested that these men may be astrologers, or Gentiles influenced by Jews who remained in the East after the Babylonian exile, or even Zoroastrian priests – after all, Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest religions and has its origins in Iran), (3) nowhere does Matthew say that Jesus was still an infant when the magi arrived (the fact that Herod later issues the command to kill all babies two years of age and under means that Jesus could have been as old as two when the magi arrived, and Matthew speaks of them arriving at the house where Jesus was and not a stable), and (4) nowhere does Matthew speak of the Magi’s journey as peaceful or
Instead, we see a story full of risk, darkness, greed, and ultimately infanticide – all things that would be absolutely inappropriate to act out in a Christmas pageant, all things that stem from fear. Fear of what?
Well, east is the direction from which many of Israel’s conquerors have come – Assyria, Babylon, and Persia. And so it’s been suggested that, perhaps, uninvited strangers from the East brought up memories of oppression and exile and that this caused fear in Herod and the people. But that wouldn’t have to be the case. That people of prominence might come from the East and bow in the presence of a babe born in Bethlehem could actually have been seen as a great reversal of the past, and that these people would come and bring gifts with them could have been seen as the fulfillment of the prophecy in today’s passage from Isaiah – “nations shall come to your light,” “the wealth of the nations shall come to you,” and “they shall bring gold and frankincense.” The people of Israel could have celebrated this reversal of power and the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesy, but that is not what happens.
Before going to see the new king that has been born, the wise men must get some information from the religious establishment of Israel. After all, the visitors from the East know the timing of the birth of the king of the Jews, but it’s the chief priests and scribes – those who hold the tradition and scripture of Israel – who know the place where the Messiah is born. When the wise men ask, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” Matthew tells us that King Herod “and all of Jerusalem with him” were frightened. It’s not the visitors from the East that scared them; they were frightened by this child born in Bethlehem. And it wasn’t just Herod who was scared; it was the whole town – all the people. Why?
Well, the wise men seek Christ, but it’s been said that “the one thing the powerful seek more than anything else is to remain in power.” With the arrival of the magi searching for the Christ child, Herod knows that the world is changing. Power is shifting. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes that the wise men went to Jerusalem, the logical place to look for the king of the Jews. They only missed the location of the Christ child by nine miles, but the difference might have seemed more like a thousand. It was the difference between finding God in the powerful halls of the palace in Jerusalem and finding God in a smelly, animal-filled stable in Bethlehem. In choosing to be born in Bethlehem, Brueggemann writes, God reveals that kingdom of God “is not about security and prosperity but about vulnerability, neighborliness, generosity, a modest future with spears turned into pruning hooks and swords into plowshares.” Yes, with the arrival of the kingdom of God, power is shifting. The whole definition of power is shifting. That is sure to scare King Herod; after all, he has cast his lot with the Roman Empire. It is also sure to scare other people in Jerusalem who have aligned themselves politically with the coercive power of Rome.
Sitting here today, the Roman Empire seems a world away. But it isn’t. It’s as close as nine miles, maybe as close as next door, or even as close as the next choice we make. I can’t help but think about the times that we choose empire over the living Christ – times we rest comfortably in a sinful status quo instead of upending it, times when we live from a place of scarcity instead of believing in the abundance of the kingdom of heaven, times when the arrival of strangers from a foreign land reveals that our hearts are more fearful than welcoming. Empire is alive and well in our world today.
But as there should be in every sermon, even here there is good news – there is gospel. If God came into the world in first century Palestine – a time of domination and oppression and false peace, then God certainly comes to be present with us today. That’s what the season of Epiphany is about at its core – the presence of God being revealed to us in the most unlikely places, at the most unlikely times, in the most unlikely ways, even in the most fearful of hearts. We never know when and where an epiphany will take place. And once we do come face to face with that revelation, with Jesus, everything begins to change. We can’t help but leave the encounter a different person, to (in a sense) go home by another way.
I’d like to share with you a poem by Madeleine L’Engle called “First Coming”:
He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.
He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. He did not wait
till hearts were pure. In joy he came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.
He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!
 Kathryn Matthews, “Sermon Seeds for January 6, 2019,” United Church of Christ website, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_january_6_2019.
 Niveen Sarris, “Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12,” Working Preacher website, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_january_6_2019.
 David Lose, “The ‘Adults-Only Nativity Story,” Working Preacher website, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1509.
 William Bueggemann, as quoted in San Williams, “The Geography of Christmas,” University Presbyterian Church website, https://upcaustin.org/sermons/the-geography-of-christmas.
 Madeleine L’Engle, “First Coming” in The Ordering of Love (Colorado Springs: Shaw Books, 2005) 242.