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Thursday
Jan102019

Feast of the Epiphany - January 6,2019 - The Rev. Matthew Stewart

I grew up in a church-going family and so we had a similar routine every Christmas Eve. At around 5 pm, we’d have Christmas dinner and later, at 10 pm, we’d go to the late candlelight service at church. So, with some time to spare In between dinner and church, my father, who always came up with plans that would make me the family groan, would gather us for a time of Christmas carols. Now, the first year he devised this plan, he had us all play our instruments. I played the trumpet. My brother the cello. My sister the clarinet. Now, my brother he was, and is, a gifted musician. But my sister and I, well let’s just say, imagine the honkiest, out of tune, trumpet and the squeakiest woodwind, and you’re in the right ballpark. Not the most glorious of Christmas celebrations.

 

The next year my grandfather joins us. He owned a baritone recorder. So, this year, my father’s plan was for us all to play Christmas carols on recorders. My grandfather played on his baritone. My father played on a tenor. My brother and sister played on the standard soprano recorder. And somehow my father got me a sopranino recorder. It’s this little tiny thing. Even more painful to listen to than a normal recorder. I’m pretty sure all the dogs in the neighborhood were howling when five shrill, poorly tuned, recorders tried to play Angels We Have Heard On High in four part harmony.

 

In year three, my mother intervened. No more instruments. The compromise she and my dad arrived at was we would just sing. And, while none of us were Pavarotti, this was way better than the previous two Christmas Eves. Out came our little John Hancock insurance company Christmas Carol books and we sang. Now, at this point, we’re all grumpy teens or preteens and so we’re not all that thrilled with this but the one song my brother and I tolerated most was “We Three Kings.” The reason why is one of would get to sing the fourth verse…

 

“Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom;

sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.”

 

It seemed so incongruous on Christmas Eve, so gloomy and sad on Christmas, and we’d ham it up. (Singing in mock sadness) “Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.” It didn’t make sense on this night of Christmas. This night about Baby Jesus and this night with the expectant joy of gifts the next morning.  And thirty or so years later, I’m still not sure I get it.

 

There are two stories of the birth of Jesus in the Bible. We sometimes merge them together. But Luke and Matthew tell the story quite differently. Luke’s version is the Rated G one, the one we read on Christmas Eve with angels, and shepherds, and cattle lowing. Matthew’s version of the story is much different. It actually is kind of gloomy. It’s full of fear and violence and political intrigue. In the part we heard today, the vassal King Herod is afraid there is a potential rival to his throne. So, he sends these unsuspecting magi to do his dirty work. Find where this child is so he can eliminate him. The magi almost do just that but, only due to a dream, know to go home by a different road and not report to Herod. And if we were to read on in Matthew, we’d find it doesn’t get better. Herod, in his anger and violence after not hearing from the magi, orders that all baby boys  in the land be killed, and the baby Jesus only survives because his family flees south to Egypt. Luke’s story has the vibe of Harry Potter but Matthew is full on Game of Thrones.

 

So, who are these magi from the east? These pawns in this political game. It’s interesting to me because it’s rather ambiguous. In the Middle Ages, they were imagined as three kings from all across over the world. But the text says they are from “the east” and doesn’t even say there were three of them, just that they offer three types of gifts. They are called wise men in the translation today but I don’t think the Greek word magi requires that we understand them as men. The image up in our stained glass that shows one of these magi with a more indeterminate gender seems appropriate. Biblical scholars lean towards us seeing them as Persian court advisers who made their recommendations by looking at the stars. There are similar court advisors in the Hebrew Scriptures, what we used to call the Old Testament. But I think the ambiguity remains. We don’t get to know exactly who these magi were. And sometimes when a character seems ambiguous in the Bible, it is an invitation for us to imagine ourselves in that role.

We are the magi.

 

Indeed, the passage today invites to consider two paths. The way of Herod and the way of the magi. Herod was motivated, out of a fear for a loss of his privilege, to rampant violence, killing children. There are parallels with our current President, who also so operates out of a fear of the other, that he ordered that immigrant children be separated from their families and imprisoned. But, we too, of course, have some Herod in us too.

We too allow our fears to overtake us at time. We too make choices to protect our privileges at the expense of others and also at the expense of the earth. Even if we are not physically violent, we operate out of other subtler forms of violence.

 

Our other choice, the way of the magi, is better. But it isn’t necessarily any easier. It requires us to make the hard choice to leave places that seem familiar and safe and head towards the light. Star following is hard business. We do get to the light eventually and get to revel in it but eventually we need to head back by another road. When we truly come to Jesus, the only way forward is a different path.

 

A friend of mine this week shared with me this great poem by Jan Richardson that I think captures this well.  It’s called the “Blessing of the Magi.”

 

“There is no reversing

this road.

The path that bore you here

goes in one direction only,

every step drawing you

down a way

by which you will not

return.

 

 

You thought arrival

was everything,

that your entire journey

ended with kneeling

in the place

you had spent all

to find.

 

 

When you laid down

your gift,

release came with such ease,

your treasure tumbling

from your hands

in awe and

benediction.

 

 

Now the knowledge

of your leaving

comes like a stone laid

over your heart,

the familiar path closed

and not even the solace

of a star

to guide your way.

 

 

You will set out in fear.

You will set out in dream.

 

 

But you will set out

 

 

by that other road

that lies in shadow

and in dark.

 

 

We cannot show you

the route that will

take you home;

that way is yours

and will be found

in the walking.

 

 

But we tell you,

you will wonder

at how the light you thought

you had left behind

goes with you,

spilling from

your empty hands,

shimmering beneath

your homeward feet,

illuminating the road

with every step

you take.”

 

I so dig this poem because it captures so much about the story of the magi and what the life of deep faith in Jesus really looks like. The sacrifice the magi made to go the Christ Child but also the hope and curiosity and excitement they had. The freedom and wonder and blessings they experienced as they arrived. The daunting reality they felt as they were called to move forward in faith without knowing where it would lead. And the reality that, as they stepped into the darkness only responding to the gentle inklings shown to them in dream, they found the light of Christ was still there. In them.

 

When we come to Jesus, it doesn’t give us the comfort of answers. It gives us the comfort of God’s presence, of God’s light. That the light of God floods into us so we become the star. We become the light. We become the Epiphany, so full we are with the love and the Spirit of Christ.

 

Isaiah knew this reality in his time. He said

 

“Arise, shine; for your light has come,

and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

For darkness shall cover the earth,

and thick darkness the peoples;

but the Lord will arise upon you,

and his glory will appear over you.

Nations shall come to your light,

and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

 

We now rise. We now shine.  For our light has come.