This sermon was delivered by Wendell L. Griffen, pastor of NewMillenniumChurch in Little Rock, Ark, on January 10 2010.
Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7; 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
The feast of the Epiphany of the Lord is one of the three oldest festival days on the Christian calendar (along with Christmas and Easter), yet is probably the least well known. It is always observed the twelfth day after Christmas (January 6), and marks the end of the Christmas season. As today is the first Sunday after Epiphany, our worship centers around the Epiphany observance. By the way, the holiday carol “Twelve Days of Christmas” refers to the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany.
In many parts of the world Epiphany is a more prominent holiday than Christmas. In Ethiopia, where Christmas is celebrated on January 7 rather than December 25, members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church hold religious services on Christmas, January 7. The major celebration takes place nearly two weeks later at Epiphany.
In Spain, where most of the population is Roman Catholic, people dance and sing in the streets after midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Most Spanish homes and churches display a miniature Nativity scene called a Nacimiento. During the evening of January 5 (the night before Epiphany), children put their shoes on a balcony or near a window. According to legend, the Wise Men arrive during the night before Epiphany and fill the children’s shoes with small gifts.
Traditionally, in some countries, such as Italy and Spain, children do not receive gifts until January 5, the eve of Epiphany. In Spain, children leave their shoes outside filled with straw and barley for the magi’s animals and hope that presents will be left by the wise man Balthazar.
One Christian tradition holds that Epiphany celebrates the sharing of the gospel with the Gentiles, who are represented by the magi mentioned in the second chapter of Matthew’s gospel. The Bible does not specify that the magi were kings, that there were three of them, or reveal their ethnicity. That has not prevented people from imagining that there were three kings—recall the “We Three Kings” carol—based on the number of gifts mentioned.
People have also imagined that the magi were from different ethnic backgrounds and have given them names. One has been described as “an old man with white hair and a long beard” named Melchior. Another, named Gaspar, has been described as “young and beardless and ruddy complexioned.” A third, called Balthazar, has been described as “black-skinned and heavily bearded.”
Biblical historians now recognize that notions of three kings coming from different nations are not valid. What is clear is that the magi were astrologers—star searchers—who studied the heavens and believed that spiritual truths were revealed by them. How many they numbered, what they looked like, how old or young they were, and whether they were from one nation or more than one are insignificant matters.
What matters is that they were seekers on a quest for a new king based on truth they gleaned from studying part of nature—the stars. They were humble enough to admit that there were things they could not know without moving beyond where they lived. They were willing to be led, guided, directed, and—if I may say so—called from above.
These seekers noticed a new star rising in the heavens that they associated with the arrival of a new king. They came to Judea and arrived in Jerusalem hoping to pay homage to that new king. All that they learned in Jerusalem was that the reigning king, Herod, was surprised to know that anyone else existed who deserved to be paid homage. The existing religious establishment in Jerusalem could only point to Bethlehem as where the Messiah would be born. Beyond that, the seekers continued their quest alone.
So the magi headed to Bethlehem, encouraged by seeing the star again that first inspired their quest. They followed it to the Christ child, where they paid him homage by offering gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. After being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left Judea for home, taking with them the news of the new king named Jesus. Their experience reveals some important lessons.
Anyone can come to Jesus who seeks God! Seekers have existed in every age and place and era. Epiphany reminds us that God’s call to humanity and love for humanity is universal, not discriminatory. God’s love is inclusive. God’s grace does not push people away, but draws us toward Him. No matter who we may be, where we may be, or what our position or plight may be in society, God’s love calls, shines, beckons, and waits for us.
This truth is not only affirmed by the magi coming to Bethlehem. This is the entire thrust of Scripture. The whole Bible presents God as calling, shining, beckoning, and waiting for us to acknowledge who He is and how we are related to Him. And the whole Bible reveals that the people who find God are people willing to move and be moved. They are seekers! There is a restlessness about them that cannot be tranquilized, pacified, or otherwise satisfied except by following where God leads them. And the Bible teaches that God always calls, shines, beckons, leads, and waits for us to come to Him. In the magi, we see Gentiles coming to Jesus, the incarnation of God, as the result of their quest.
Because God beckons, calls, shines, and waits for all of us, and because anyone can come to Jesus who seeks God, we should not be startled when people come to Jesus who do not look like us, dress like us, worship like us, think like us, and who are different in other ways. God calls. God beckons. God shines. God waits. Anyone can respond, including anyone like us as well as anyone who may be very unlike us.
Sometimes, outsiders “get it” better than the “insiders.” The magi were outsiders to Jerusalem, outsiders to the messianic prophecies, and outsiders to the Hebrew culture. They did not have years of Sabbath observances in their background. They had no Passover tradition. They were just following the star. They were Gentiles, outsiders, and may have even been considered morally unworthy to worship in the Jerusalem temple. None of that stopped the star from shining. None of that stopped them from seeking. None of that stopped them from being drawn to Jesus.
Herod and the Jerusalem religious authorities didn’t get it. They had the Hebrew prophecies and worship traditions, but they didn’t get it. The same can apply our time and place. Sometime, our focus is so self-centered that we are unable to sense God’s call on our lives. Jerusalem had plenty of religion, but no Jesus. Indeed, the only people in Matthew’s text who were looking for Jesus were not only from out of town. They were from out of the country!
There is some good news for “outsiders” in this passage that lies at the heart of the Epiphany observance. God does not create outsiders, we do. God calls, beckons, and the light of His love can be seen and followed by anyone. But some of us who have been around religion awhile can make it seem as if God is selective, not inclusive. Sometime we say and do things that suggest that we have a special insight on God’s love that cannot be experienced unless others believe as we do, sing what we sing, pray like we pray, and know like we know. Sometime we get so busy being religious, official, established, and recognized that we think nothing can happen with God that we don’t see, know, or do first.
The magi were led to Jesus by a star Herod and the Sanhedrin either did not or could not notice. Herod and the Sanhedrin remained in Jerusalem even after the magi revealed that they were on a quest to find a new king. The magi went to Bethlehem because the person they sought was not where the insiders were, but where God was leading. The way to God does not turn on having “insider” status, but on following where God leads. The magi followed. Herod and the Sanhedrin remained in Jerusalem.
God calls seekers into new relationships through Jesus. The magi left Bethlehem having found the Christ child, but they did not return to Jerusalem and Herod. Instead, they returned home by a different route, after having been warned not to return to Herod. Because of what they experienced with Jesus, their deference to Herod changed.
Following the light of God’s love will lead us to Jesus. It will also lead us away from people and relationships that are out of step with God’s love as revealed in Jesus. People and relationships that are out of step with God’s love have no right to define our relationship to God or dictate how we respond to God. Herod was king of Judea, but he was not God. The magi did not owe him allegiance above the warning they received from God in a dream. So, the magi left Bethlehem and returned home. In doing so, they left Herod.
The truth we often ignore is that that following God will often mean leaving Herod situations, Herod people, and Herod relationships. To say that Herod had a toxic personality would be making an understatement given what we know about his murderous effort to kill Jesus. Toxic people exist, in religion and every other aspect of life. However, the love of God that leads us to Jesus will also warn and guide us away from toxic relationships and situations.
The lesson of the magi ends as it began, with the magi following God. As they did, we must be willing to go on a quest with God. Be encouraged, my friends. God has a light to guide us. Be encouraged. Jesus has come to love us. Be encouraged. Knowing Jesus will give us new insight, new perspective, and yes, new life as we journey home with God. Guess who’s coming to Jesus? Guess you?
Wendell Griffen is pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, and a circuit court judge in Arkansas. He served previously on the Baptist Center for Ethics / EthicsDaily.com board of directors.