A sermon delivered by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va., on January 6, 2013.
The Epiphany of the Lord
The only two Gospels that tell the story of Christmas are Matthew and Luke, and they tell it in different ways. Luke tells us about the night Jesus was born, when Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. He tells us about shepherds abiding in the fields, and a heavenly host of angels singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men.” Matthew, on the other hand, tells us about wise men from the East, who followed a star on a journey that would have taken weeks or months. When they got to Bethlehem Jesus was no longer a newborn, but a little boy, a toddler, peeking out from behind his mother’s skirts. On this day—Epiphany—the church typically shifts its attention from Luke’s Christmas story to Matthew’s, from shepherds and angels to wise men and the star, singing, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”
Years ago a dear woman named Anne McConnell gave me a book called The Story of the Three Kings. It was a handsome book, beautifully illustrated, and in it Margaret Freeman re-told the story of Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior, as it was written by John of Heldesheim somewhere between 1364 and 1375. Because Anne McConnell gave it to me I felt I could trust it to be true. She was a brilliant woman, with an I.Q. of 180. Surely she wouldn’t steer me wrong. So, I opened the book excited by the idea that now, at last, I would learn the real story of the three kings.
According to Heldesheim, the story begins in India, where one of the ancient prophets had predicted that one day a star would “spring out of Jacob,” and a man would “rise upon Israel…and be lord of all folk.” And all the great lords and all the other people of India had been looking for that star ever since the prophecy. They kept watch for it on the highest hill in India, and the more they watched for it, the more famous it became, so that not only in India, but also in Chaldea, the people were watching and waiting for this same star.
When it finally appeared no one was disappointed. The way John of Heldesheim tells it this star began rising on the same night and the same hour that our Lord was born, and it was like a second sun it was so bright. It ascended above this same high hill in India, and all that day it stayed fixed in the same spot. When the sun was most high and most hot, Heldesheim says, “there was no difference in shining betwixt the star and the sun. And the star had in it the form and likeness of a young child, and above him a sign of the cross; and a voice was heard in the star saying: ‘Unto us is born this day the King and Lord that folk have long sought. Go then and seek him and do him worship.’”
Well, the three kings— Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior—acting on their own and quite independently of each other, made up their minds to follow this star. Each of them came from his own part of India, and made great haste, and somehow ended up in Jerusalem at exactly the same time. Heldesheim says, “And notwithstanding that no one of them ever before had seen the other nor known of him nor his coming, yet at their meeting each of them with great gladness and great reverence kissed each other and made much joy. And though they were of divers languages, yet each one of them in accordance with his understanding spoke all one manner of speech.”
And so it goes, miracle upon miracle, as these three kings, splendidly attired, accompanied by a vast entourage, guided by this magnificent star, make their way to Bethlehem, and fall down at the feet of Jesus. At least that’s the way Heldesheim tells it, and that’s what can happen to a story if you tell it over and over again through the centuries—it gets bigger and bigger, like that fish that broke your line just before you pulled it into the boat—the truth is stretched, the details are enlarged, the facts are embellished, until it is hard to recognize the real story from which the legend grew. What I would like to do this morning is get a little closer to the real story, which is no less miraculous.
In 1976 New Testament scholar Raymond Brown published a book called The Birth of the Messiah which was an absolute masterpiece of research and writing. In that book he tracked down everything that could be known about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth including what could be known about the wise men and the star they followed. The star, he says, could have been a supernova—one of those fiery explosions of a star that can be seen even in the daytime—but he admits that those are very, very rare. It could have been a comet, and many people have speculated that it was Halley’s Comet, which passes close to the earth once every 77 years and would have been visible in the night sky around the time of Jesus’ birth. Or, finally, it could have been the conjunction of three planets—Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars—an event which occurs only once every 805 years and which also occurred around the time of Jesus’ birth. The latter, Brown believes, is most likely, especially since that conjunction would have taken place in the constellation of Pisces, a constellation which was often associated with the Hebrew people. Someone could have made that connection.
But who? Three dandified kings from India? Probably not. Brown describes a priestly class of ancient Persians called magi who were said to have the power to interpret dreams. “In the following centuries,” he says, “the title was loosely applied to those adept in various forms of secret lore and magic” (in fact, the words magic and magician come from the same root). The magi in the story Matthew tells were probably astrologers, who would have studied the stars closely and interpreted their meaning. Something like this conjunction of Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn would have been right up their alley, professionally speaking, and I can almost hear one of them saying, “It’s in the constellation Pisces, which means it concerns the Hebrews.” And another adding, “Ah, but it involves Jupiter, which suggests a ruler of some kind, possibly a king!” And so on and so forth until they made up their minds to go see for themselves. Not Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior, mind you, but an unspecified number of magi (Matthew uses the plural form of the noun: there were at least two; there might have been twenty!). And I’ve pictured them not so much as kings, but as something more like college professors—faculty members of the astrology department at the University of Persia—making their way across the desert on borrowed camels, wearing tweed jackets with leather elbow patches, pipe smoke trailing out behind them.
Now, as far as we can tell the star didn’t have the form of a child in it, or the sign of a cross above it, and it didn’t beg those who saw it to come worship the newborn king—that’s the stuff of legend. And the ones who came were not three resplendent king of India, traveling with huge camel caravans and meeting each other for the first time in Jerusalem—that’s the stuff of legend, too. And yet we can conclude with some degree of certainty that something happened in the night sky so strange, so unusual, that it brought an unspecified number of ancient astrologers to ancient Israel, who naturally came to Jerusalem, the capital city, bearing gifts and looking for the newborn king.
That sounds almost like a miracle, doesn’t it? Almost, except that that sort of thing happened on more than one occasion in the ancient world. For example, Brown says that when King Herod finished building Caesarea Maritima in 9 B. C. envoys from many nations came to Palestine with gifts. In A. D. 44 Queen Helen of Adibene converted to Judaism and came to Jerusalem with bounteous gifts for those affected by the famine which had devastated the land that year. In A. D. 66 Tiridates, king of Armenia, came to Italy with the sons of three neighboring Parthian rulers. Their journey from the east was like a triumphal procession. The entire city of Rome was decorated with lights and garlands, and the rooftops filled with onlookers, as Tiridates came forward and paid homage to Caesar Nero. Afterward, the historians claim, “he went home by another way.” And at least one of the historians refers to Tiridates and his companions as magi.
You can see how that story might have gotten mixed up with this other one, the one Matthew tells: how a handful of college professors might have become “three kings,” and how their economy-class trip to Palestine might have turned into a “triumphal procession.” The real story was probably much less grand, but, at the same time—and please hear me out on this—much more miraculous. Suppose it was just a few magi who made their way to Jerusalem? And suppose that when they got there they had to ask for directions? (one of my female colleagues says this is how you can tell they were wise men; the other kind won’t ask for directions at all). And suppose that, once they got pointed toward Bethlehem, they stopped at the first house their “star” seemed to be resting over. And suppose that, inside that house, they found a carpenter and his wife, and a little boy named Jesus, playing with wooden blocks on the floor? Nothing miraculous about that, right? There may have been a dozen such homes in Bethlehem. No, the miracle is this: however they got there and whoever they were, when these magi looked on the face of that little boy they saw the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
My church in North Carolina had a regular ministry to a nearby trailer park, and one of the trailers was rented by a family from Mexico. I used to stop by from time to time to see the children: Jose, Jessica, Fabiola and their little brother Juan. I remember going by once on the Saturday just before Epiphany, when I had been working on this story from Matthew’s Gospel, getting ready to preach the next day. I knocked on the door and one of the children opened it but then, here came Juan, who must have been about a year-and-a-half old at that time. He had sparkling brown eyes and a heedful of black, curly hair, but on this day he had gotten into some Christmas chocolate that was smeared all over his cheeks. He looked up at me with a big grin and I thought, “That’s what Jesus must have looked like when the wise men came—about that age, with the same curly black hair and sparkling brown eyes, and maybe even a little chocolate on his cheeks.” Still, all I saw was a beautiful little boy. The wise men saw something else:
They saw the Son of God.
That moment of recognition is the moment we call Epiphany—when God’s light shines on what is most ordinary in our world and reveals it as extraordinary. And when that happens it is always a miracle. Matthew says that the magi “rejoiced with exceeding great joy” in the moment of their epiphany. They whooped and cheered, the fell on their faces and worshiped, they offered their very best gifts. In other words they made complete fools of themselves in the presence of this little boy because a light had come on for them: God had reached up and pulled the little chain that allowed them to see the extraordinary in the ordinary.
On this day—the Epiphany of the Lord—we pause long enough to reflect on that long-ago miracle. But we also pause long enough to realize that smaller epiphanies are going on all around us, all the time. It could happen today. Some sixth-grade boy in this room, who has been hearing about Jesus all his life, could suddenly see him for who he really is. God could reach up and pull that little chain and the light would come on—and what was once just an interesting character in the Gospel stories could become for this boy the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. It could happen for a ninth-grade girl, a middle-aged man, an elderly woman. It happens all the time, everywhere. And part of what we celebrate on Epiphany is the fact that Jesus didn’t come only for the Jews, but also for Gentiles like us, as represented by those wise men. What we learn from their story is that in this little boy named Jesus God was offering salvation to the whole world, to anyone who had eyes to see in his Son, a savior—
Christ the Lord.
I’ve got a map at home that shows the majority religions in all the countries of the world. Islam is represented by green, and most of North Africa and the Middle East is that color. China is sort of a lavender color, which means that most of its people are religiously unaffiliated, at least so far. Hinduism is tan, and it’s the majority religion in India and Nepal. Judaism is blue, and it’s the majority religion only in Israel. But then there’s Christianity, represented by red, which is spread over all of North America, South America, Europe, and Australia. The southern half of Africa is red, the Philippines, and Russia. Although it’s more prevalent in some places than in others, Christianity is everywhere, and just looking at that map makes me feel like it’s happening—the gospel is being carried to the ends of the earth, and people are responding to the good news about Jesus, and little by little his Kingdom is coming.
It reminds me of a thought I had years ago, when I was still a youth minister. I had been to a Friday night football game and I thought, “God could have done it that way. He could have set up floodlights all around the planet as if it were a football stadium, and then, when the time was right, flipped a switch and lit up the world.” But he didn’t. Instead he brought this one little baby into the world, and a few people were able to see in him the glory of God, and to tell some others who told some others. It reminds me of our Christmas Eve service, where we borrow the flame of the Christ candle, and use it to light one candle after another, until the whole room is lit up and the light of Christ is shining on every face. And that’s when I usually say: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God, and all things were made through him. Without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and this life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never been able to put it out”
This is the good news of Epiphany: that the light shines in the darkness. It may not be a lot of light, and certainly not as much as we would like, but by God’s grace it is enough to see in Jesus the Son of God, the Savior of the world.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.