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At the beginning of Advent, we talked about stretching out Christmas for weeks or maybe even months before the actual 25th. You may be thinking that we’re stretching Christmas out now! We took our time getting to the manger though, and we’re going to take our time lingering if not at the manger, then with the infant Jesus. This is Epiphany. The end of the 12 days of Christmas which started on the 25th. Epiphany. Revealing. In the song, of course, we sing about what my true love gave to me. In our story today we’re talking about gifts that are given. We’re talking about people who prostrated themselves before an infant. An otherwise normal-seeming infant. We’re talking about something being revealed.
The revelation is that everything has changed. You hear people say things about keeping the Christmas spirit going year ‘round. What would it mean for us to be finding Christ year ‘round? What would it mean to come away from Advent and Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and all the things that we’ve been looking at and sitting with over these weeks and for nothing to be the same? Nothing to look the same?
If you know me you know that I derive no small amount of pleasure and amusement out of small things. In the church calendar the times between Advent and Lent/Pentecost, and then Lent/Pentecost and Advent again are called Ordinary time. I always found that funny – imagine calling time “Ordinary.” I found out just recently (and numbers are not really my number one thing though I can make my way around numbers). The reason it’s called Ordinary time is that the Sundays are marked by ordinal numbers – first Sunday after Epiphany, second Sunday, etc. etc.
There’s nothing at all ordinary about Ordinary time. Everything has changed. Something momentous has happened. Something momentous to the point where it’s noticeable in the stars. We’ve called the Magi wise men and kings. Later use of the word in the Bible denotes magicians. It’s generally thought that they’re astrologers from Babylon. Those who looked for signs and portents in the sky. There was a lot of that kind of thing going on in that age – looking to the sky for signs and portents. The sun and moon and stars continued on their courses. They made things orderly. When something out of the ordinary happened it was notable. A light has appeared. You can read things about how it’s been conjectured that the star they saw was Halley’s Comet or a confluence of stars. You can 'conject' all you like if that’s your thing, but the point here is – the order of things has been shaken up. Something new has happened.
It’s no longer simply about an endless cycle of seasons, or an endless cycle of wake up, get through the day, go to bed. Or an endless cycle of you’re born, you live your life, you die. New meaning has come into the world. New news. Nothing would ever be the same. As we start a new year and come away from Advent and look forward to these weeks of so-called ordinary time before Lent, wouldn’t you like to be engaged in this new thing? Maybe in a new way. A chance to re-commit ourselves to this king that we follow. A chance to get down on our faces before him again, or maybe for the first time.
To follow the example of these Magi. Tradition says there were three and we named them and everything but we don’t really know how many there were or what their names were. They were part of a group -a caravan - that was large enough to attract attention when it arrived in Jerusalem. It was the time of King Herod. A half-Jewish half-Idumean client king installed by the Romans. A man known as Herod the Great for all the things he built. A man who once sold off part of his wealth to help with famine relief – because people are rarely all bad or all good right? A man who was insanely jealous of people who might take over his throne. A man who sought to hang on to the power that was his at whatever cost.
The coming of Christ has shaken things up. Christ has shaken up the natural order of things. It’s troubling for Herod. It’s troubling for all of Jerusalem. What might this mean? Political instability? Economic instability? Where do we look for our stability? We have three reactions here in our story. The first is from Herod whose reaction to the good news is outright hostility. This must be stamped out! The second is from the chief priest and scribes. They had the good information. It’s in Bethlehem that the king is to be born! They don’t go looking for him themselves though. If Herod is hostile the religious leaders are indifferent. They’re happy with their traditions. They don’t want things to be shaken up.
This is the underlying question of the story. This is the underlying question of our lives and everyone’s lives. To whom do we look for salvation? Where do we look to be saved, to be delivered? How do we feel about things getting shaken up?
For the Magi, they followed the light. You can’t help but think of the people of Israel here. These travellers were following a light by night. A pillar of fire by night led them. They were travelling together. They were seeking something better. There was an expectation that better days were ahead. There were a lot of claims going on about what would bring better days. The Emperor, known as the saviour of the world. Political power. Influence. Economic power. Money. Or maybe it’s best if we just numb ourselves in the various ways that we numb ourselves and never set out in the first place.
In the middle of this, we have the Magi following the light that would lead them to Jesus. The light from this star shone on a group of people to whom you might not expect Jesus to be revealed. They needed outside help of course. They needed a little direction – a scribal assist. They needed guidance – they needed this light that went before them that announced that something new had happened, was happening, would happen in the person of this little child. “Stop here,” the sign said. Stop.
Simply stop. Isn’t it good to stop?
This is what we’ve been talking about doing these past 5 weeks. Stop and ask God to illuminate things in such a way that we see as God sees. That we see with eyes of faith. With the eyes of our hearts enlightened that we may know the hope to which he has called us.
They were overwhelmed with joy. We talk about being overwhelmed. Usually, it’s not a good thing to be overwhelmed. May we be overwhelmed by nothing but joy as we look into the face of God with us. They saw the child with his mother. There’s nothing unusual going on here to the untrained eye. Just a child with his mother. It’s thought Jesus might have been about two or three here. Picture it. A young boy a little smaller than little Ethan comes out, a little unsteady. Toddling as infants do. Unsteady. Wobbling maybe as Mary looks on, wondering no doubt what is going on.
Before this little boy they get down on their faces. Our NRSV Bibles have “knelt” but the word is more a descending from on high and getting down prostrate. Head on the ground. Do you ever do that? I feel I should do that more often. They present gifts fit for a king. Gold. Our King. Frankincense. Used in the temple. Used by priests. Myrrh. Used to anoint a body at death.
What an example for us from some people who might have been deemed least likely to provide a good example. Magi from a place far outside the land of promise. Do you ever feel that about yourself? How could God use me in his grand salvation plan? How could God use me to point to Jesus? The answer to this question friends starts with us getting down on our faces before him. We’re going to be talking over the next few weeks about how we practically do that. May God give us the will to respond in this way. To find Jesus in the most unlikely places. We’re only able to find him because he’s made himself known because he has found us. May God give us the will to take hold of that for which Christ has taken hold of us. We do this together of course, as we travel along in our caravan.
In the middle of our trip, Christ makes himself known. There’s nothing unusual going on here to the untrained eye when we gather around this table and eat small pieces of bread and drink grape juice out of small cups. It’s around a table that Christ makes himself known, isn’t it? With eyes of faith, this table becomes the place at which we are invited to stop and meet Christ the same way that those magi stopped and met the Christ child. To figuratively get down on our faces before him with joy and call him our king, our priest, our sacrifice. To get down on our faces and offer ourselves. What a way to start the New Year! A Happy and Blessed New Year to you all.