Epiphany Sunday - Our Saviour’s Atonement Lutheran Church
January 5, 2019 - The Reverend John Zachary Flack
Isaiah 60: 1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Wise men—there’s an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard of it, some of you might be thinking. Wise men—about as common as a three-legged snake. Wisdom has always been more admired than heeded, and sometimes wisdom does not seem wise when we hear it. Nevertheless, Matthew says three wise men came from the East—well, actually he doesn’t say that. He simply says magi came from the east, no number at all, no mention of royalty. A magus could be a magician, a philosopher, an astrologer, a philosopher-king, or some combination of all of those. I suppose the closest thing we have now is Elon Musk, the Tesla guy, except that in the time of Matthew, his audience, the Jewish Christians, would have had low opinions of magi, thinking of them as idolaters, worshippers of created things rather than the creator. Matthew simply does not say much about them, but has told a good story. So, just as we have reinterpreted and lengthend How the Grinch Stole Christmas, on this simple story we have encrusted many beautiful stories, not explain the story according the facts of history, but to tell a tale of faith: the stories that include names like Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior, or in earlier instances, Hormizdah, Yazdegerd, and Perozadh. Matthew does not give us the details of the magi, not their names, not their status in their home countries, nothing except two things: they were magi, and they were not from Judea. They were strangers, probably in religion, certainly in nationality. And yet they came to pay Jesus homage.
Strangers; enemies. We all know that we shouldn’t get too close to strangers. Kids shouldn’t talk to them, adults shouldn’t go home with them after they meet them in bars and clubs. They are easy to hate, to suspect, to blame, to avoid. In Tanzania and other Swahili-speaking nations, the word for white people is wazungu, which literally means stranger, and if you are white and walk around, you’ll get cat-called: mzungu! Mzungu! It’s an unsettling experience to be a stranger in a strange land, but also unsettling to see a Westerner, in his strange skin tone and absurd wealth, walk around. The world is full of strangers, over 7 billion of them, all of them yelling, warring, marrying, trading, studying one another. But in Scripture perhaps the strangest stranger is God: my thoughts are not your thoughts, God says, and my ways are not your ways. To Job, he says, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” No stranger is stranger than God—until, God took on flesh and became a common child. I think the story of the Magi is the story of strangers becoming something else, strangers becoming something even more than friends.
Human beings share the same genetic code. We share the same needs and desires. Almost all of us wish to love and be loved; to have meaning in our lives; to be free and safe; to not go hungry; to understand and be understood. And yet despite our commonalities, we still have so much trouble understanding one another. Try understanding your parents, your siblings, your friends; someday things will come in a flash of clarity, other things will always remain a mystery. All of these things undergird this story from Matthew: who will recognize the dignity of the other? Herod schemes to find this newborn king and kill it—his meaning comes from his reign and he understands the threats to his rule. The magi are unfamiliar with the customs of the place, or are as unwise about politics as they are wise about the stars. But the world is also a stranger to us—even with all the advances of science and engineering and art, the mysteries of the world deepen and expand the more we know. How many times have you felt estranged in the world? Perhaps it’s not often for you, or perhaps not. But we do not live in harmony with our world, and even in our quest to understand the world another question lurks: do we seek to understand in order to better live, or do we seek to understand in order to dominate it?
There’s a woman who once was an astrologer. She started out reading Tarot cards at parties, and gradually worked it into a part-time job to pay the bills at school. There are lots of problems with astrology, and I won’t bash it too much here. One of them is using pre-Copernican star-charts with NASA data. But she writes,
“It turned out what most people want is the chance to unload for an hour…troubles with romance, troubles at work, trouble mustering the courage for a much-needed change. I heard these stories so often I could often guess what the problem was the moment someone walked in. Heartbroken young men, for example, talk about it to psychics, because it’s less risky than telling their friends.”
She encountered, principally, the desire to understand and be understood, and underneath that desire, the desire to love and be loved. And yet, sometimes, it was easier to talk to a stranger than to friends. It’s part of our search and our struggle.
The story of the magi is the story of the promise of God becoming real: that the estranged of the world will become family, and all people will come to the God’s light. It’s a quest story, a search story, a bait-and-switch, even a comedy. No wonder it has accumulated so many legends, so many spin-offs. This is a story of the Bible that speaks directly to the stories of our own lives: the search for meaning, for love, for purpose, for truth.
Matthew says when the magi saw Jesus they were overwhelmed with joy. I like to think of them having traveled for years, losing, bit by bit, every trapping of authority and all the arrogance that comes from study, until they come to the holy family and see a little foot, a tiny hand, and the face of child and know that all they suffered, all their persistence and dedication, was worth it, and the trade of astrology and idolatry, of class and position, was worth that one moment, when against all probability and rule of the world, they saw the face of God.
We live in a maelstrom, and take it for a fact that the very notion of truth is under attack. What can guide us? What is our lodestar? Our fate is not written in the stars. Your health and happiness are not determined by the heavens. Joy comes for you in Christ Jesus, in his call, in his life, in his suffering and death, and in his resurrection. That is your way to love, to truth, to meaning: I am the way, Jesus once said. You can pay a pyschic $10 for a reading, but Jesus love is free. He gives it wholly to you.
In time, the gifts the Magi brought to the manger took on symbolic meaning: the gold a gift for the king of kings, the frankincense, or incense, a gift for a God, the perfume myrrh a gift for his death and burial in the tomb. King, God, suffering redeemer: these gifts proclaimed not the wise men, but Jesus and his gifts to us. Or others say that the symbolized virtue or a life of good works, frankincense symbolized prayer and closeness to God, myrrh symbolized the suffering that marks the Christian life in the world as it strives against sin and death. The difference is that these are not controls on us, as some imbue the constellations as having. They are gifts to us from Christ, which free us. Those gifts are ours to keep, just as God’s grace, which makes us part of God’s family, is ours to keep—to keep and to share.
They pay him homage, their light and their salvation. They worship him. So do we, for all that our Christ has done.
[Audio file follows printed text]