Epiphany Sunday: The Journey

Matthew 2:1-12 (NRSV)

 1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,
2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;
4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.
8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.
10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Herod, the suspicious and cruel ruler of Israel who would do anything to keep his power, a power that was sometimes precarious considering the politics of the Roman Empire at the time, had just been visited by wise men from the East; they, in Herod’s eyes, had made some wild claim that a new king had just been born. Even when he had been installed as the ruler of this land under the advice of the Roman co-leaders Octavian and Mark Antony, and all the more the Roman Senate giving Herod the title “King of the Jews,” Herod’s power was still not solidified; Octavian and Mark Antony were on the verge of civil war in the Roman Empire. And more so, Herod was an Edomite; the Jewish people did not like him at all. The man was suspicious, sly, and cunning; he would have no problem eliminating any threats to his power.

Suddenly several wise men, some translations call them ‘magi,’ appeared on his doorstep in Jerusalem. Matthew is the only gospel which accounts for the wise men, and he only mentions ‘wise men from the East.’ Look carefully – he never specifies that there were three of them; in this passage we only have the mention of three different gifts. We can infer that with three gifts, there were three men who brought them. Regardless of the number of wise men, they arrived at Herod’s temple, catching the ruler off guard when they asked the man, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” One can imagine the thoughts that were going through Herod’s mind: “A child? A child as the ‘king of the Jews?’ That is my proclaimed title! Who is this child that threatens my power!” Herod must have taken a quick breath. His heart must have started racing. He became scared. The sly and cunning, yet ruthless and cruel, Edomite king devised a plan to maintain his power and eliminate this threat.

He called the chief priests and the scribes together, and learned that this ‘king’ was supposed to be born in Bethlehem. And Herod lied through his teeth and told the wise men, who were completely in the dark regarding Herod’s secret plans: “…to bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” But before that, he learned from the magi exactly when the star appeared.

In Matthew 2:16, the ruthless ruler, desperate to keep his power, and enraged that the wise men snuck away, disappearing without bringing any word to Herod, had all the children under two years of age in Bethlehem murdered. This was according to when he had learned the star had originally appeared to the wise men in the East. It was a horrendous act by someone terrified yet desperate to hold on to his greed for power.

But it had been up to two years since the star appeared! It was two years after Jesus Christ had been born in a manger that the wise men finally completed their journey to Jerusalem. And Bethlehem was not far at all from Jerusalem! This is quite often a fact that escapes us as we celebrate Christmas. I am going to come right out and say it because it is a bit of a pet peeve of mine – portrayals of the birth of Christ with wise men present are not biblically accurate. I apologize if I have shaken anyone with that statement. All of December I have driven past nativity scene after nativity scene and saw wise man after wise man after wise man. Half the time I was tempted to leave a note on these nativity scenes that read, “Not biblically accurate. Remove wise men please.” But in the Christmas spirit, I took a breath, kept driving, and did not leave any notes on any nativity scenes.

It should also be noted that Matthew tells us here that they were no longer in a manger at this time; Matthew specifically says “house” in verse 11. Jesus was born in a manger in a stable, possibly a cave, two years earlier. The shepherds were there; the wise men were not there. Two years later, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were still in Bethlehem and had managed to find a house, or at least a room in a house, for their small family. This time though, with the two year old child and his mother, the wise men, more than likely three of them, came at night, following a star, and gave homage and gifts to the true savior and the rightful king of the Jews.

But again, it had been up to two years! I want to stress that, because considering this, it must have been quite the journey for these wise men. They did not show up the next day after seeing the star in the sky. They did not show up weeks or a month or two later. They arrived in Jerusalem, on Herod’s doorstep, then on Mary, Joseph, and Jesus’ doorstep, up to two years after they had seen the sign that a king had been born. It must have been quite the trip! For a moment, I almost wonder what the journey was like and what kind of adventures these wise men must have had as they trekked from the East and to the house of this child, who they recognized as a king. I am reminded of J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’ and the adventures of Bilbo Baggins. Alas, I do not think the wise mens’ journey was quite like that.

We do not know exactly where the magi came from, or what religion these wise men considered themselves to be. All we know is that wise men, or magi, came from a distant land that was east of Israel. Some have suggested that they were Persians or Medes, coming from the area we know today as Iran. Some have suggested that they came from Babylon, in the area we know today as Iraq. Babylon was advanced in astronomy and would have been constantly studying the night sky. Some have suggested that they came from an area even further east or southeast of Persia. Some have suggested that one of the reasons these wise men even knew about this prophecy of a king being born in the first place was in fact because they were from the Babylonian part of the world.

Over 500 years earlier, the Israelites were exiled in Babylon; many Jewish prophets and scribes were in this part of the world. Still, many Jews stayed in the area around Babylon after the exile was over. A prophecy regarding the birth of a savior would have, more than likely, found its way into a Babylonian or Persian religion at the time; these empires had the habit of incorporating pieces of different religions into their own religion. And the Babylonian Empire was conquered by the Medes; the Medes, conquered by the Persian Empire. And if they were from somewhere in Persia, modern day Iran, which is further east than Babylon, modern day Iraq, a journey that would have lasted two years would make sense.

Nonetheless, whether they were from Babylon or from Persia, these wise men recognized a sign from God. They traveled across deserts and mountains, and contended with who knows what else – possibly wild animals and thieves – all the while carrying their treasure chests. They showed true determination to respond to God and travel such a long distance over several years – all to pay homage to a two year old child for a single night in a house in the small town of Bethlehem. Not only is this instance more than likely the human savior’s very first ministry to the gentiles, but it shows the devotion that these wise men and magi had to worship a savior. They were not Jewish by any standard. They were not one of God’s “chosen people.” They were gentiles in every definition of the word.

And these gentiles recognized a sign from God, and came to worship the Christ, giving a two year old child gold, frankincense, and myrrh. I am seriously impressed that these gentiles made this extremely long, arduous journey to worship and show such reverence to a king of the Jewish people when he was so young. Even when Christ grew up and began his ministry, so many Jewish leaders, priests, and scribes did not want to recognize him as the Messiah.

The wise men made a journey, but God also made a journey. Today is Epiphany Sunday. On December 25, the Western Church (Protestants and Roman Catholics) celebrates the birth of Christ. The Eastern Church (Orthodox Churches) celebrates Christmas a couple weeks later near January 7; the difference in dates is because the Western Church uses the Julian calendar, while the Eastern Church uses the Gregorian calendar. Regardless, for the 12 days following December 25 (including Christmas day), the Church actually celebrates Christmas. The carol “The 12 Days of Christmas” is not just a song; it has real significance. Christmas actually ended yesterday! It did not end at 11:59 p.m. on December 25; it is not just a single day deal and we are done. And we all know that the season of Advent is when we prepare for and anticipate the birth of Christ in the four weeks preceding Christmas.

January 6, the day after the 12 days of Christmas are over, is Epiphany. It is a day when the Church recognizes the manifestation of God in human form, specifically to the gentiles, such as the wise men, and it is also a day when the Church recognizes the baptism of Jesus by the John the Baptist; again, it is a day when the manifestation of God in human form is made known!

We have talked about the wise men’s journey, but God made a journey as well. God sent his son, Jesus Christ (who is also God – the trinity is a difficult concept to grasp; nonetheless it is a sermon for another time. But I would be happy to have a conversation about it at any time if you have questions), as a means of redeeming a broken creation from the devastating effects of sin. Sin, disobedience to God, separates us from God and disconnects us from his Spirit. There is no way to regain a true relationship with God, a relationship defined by a connection of holy love, and a relationship which was originally intended to exist unbroken between God and humanity, except through Christ. Sin is a result of the broken world we live in. Ever since the first disobedience of Adam and Eve to God in the garden, the world has been broken. Sin, greed, and selfishness have proliferated out of control and there is no escape, except through the Christ, this same king that the wise men visited when he was such a young child. Only through recognizing the life, death, and resurrection of Christ can we be restored to God in a relationship of love. And then the love of God can infiltrate and begin to fix the brokenness of this world.

As I think about God’s journey to this broken world in the form of a human, I believe the opening verses of John’s gospel offers the best summary. He writes:

John 1:1-14 (NRSV)

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2 He was in the beginning with God.
3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being
4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.
8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.
11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.
12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,
13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

God has sent his son, Jesus Christ, on a journey. It was a journey that began at the moment of creation, to make his son known to humanity, and a journey that was made complete with the manifestation of God in human form in the person of Jesus Christ, fully human and fully divine.

And the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior, the true King, made this journey so that the world, not just the Jewish people, but gentiles all over the world as well, like these wise men who trekked so far from the East, would know God. It was so that all the world would know the love of God. It was so that all of humanity would learn how to love God, love people, and love creation. It was so that this world, a world broken by sin, would take another major step in being restored and being fixed. This would come only through Jesus Christ.

The Christ, the Messiah, the Savior, the King – whose birth the Church has celebrated for the better part of the last two weeks, and who today we see that he has come for all people of the world to be restored to God – Jesus Christ came to rub mud in the blind man’s eyes and to bring sight to those who could not see (John 9:1-12). Jesus Christ made the journey so that the man paralyzed and lowered through a rooftop could be told to pick up his mat and walk (Mark 2:1-12). Jesus Christ made the journey for the bleeding woman who barely touched the edge of Jesus’ cloak on a crowded street so that she could finally know a true healing power (Matthew 9:18-26). Jesus Christ made the journey so that he could speak to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42). Jesus Christ made the journey so that he could show love to the outcast leper when he cleansed him from his disease (Luke 5:12-16). Jesus Christ made the journey to raise the dead Lazarus to life (John 11:1-44) and to bring a father’s dead daughter, his only child, back to life (Luke 8:40-56). Jesus Christ made the journey to cast out the demons called Legion from the demoniac who was running wild in the countryside (Mark 5:1-20).

And Jesus Christ made the journey for the wise men, who made their own journey from so far away in the East to worship and pay homage to the true King.

And Jesus Christ made the journey so that he might die on a cross as an atoning sacrifice for the world and rise again three days later, conquering death and sin for all people.

And Jesus Christ made the journey for you and me. Jesus Christ made the journey for your family members. He made the journey for your sons and daughters, your fathers and mothers, your brothers and sisters, your friends, and your enemies. Jesus Christ made the journey because he loves you, and because he wants to love you with everything that he is, and because he wants each of us to love him with everything that we are. Jesus Christ made the journey because he wants to be in a relationship with every single one of us. Jesus Christ, the one who was there at the creation of the world, the Word who became flesh, the light who cannot be overcome by darkness, wants to offer us healing from our ailments, our sicknesses, and our sins. Jesus Christ wants to heal our blind; Jesus Christ wants us to see when we cannot. Jesus Christ wants us to walk when we cannot. Jesus Christ wants to raise you and me out of death and into life. Jesus Christ wants to give us hope and love, and to show us what that means in each of our lives. Jesus Christ wants to love us. Allow him to love you.

Each one of us is on our own journey in life. We may be on a trek like the wise men, to worship the Savior and the King who has made himself known to us. We may be on that journey, but might be discouraged or falling away. We may even be headed in the complete opposite direction of Jesus Christ, whether it is on purpose or whether it is because we feel that there are circumstances way beyond our control. We might be trying to trudge up a mountain that seems way too steep, or we may have lost our step and be falling down that same mountain. We might be crossing over what seems like a never ending desert. I do not where each one of us is today; only you can know where you are. It is a matter between each one of us and God.

But regardless of where each one of us is on that journey, or whatever direction we are headed in on that trek, God wants to meet us wherever we are. God sent his son, Jesus Christ, to meet the world where it is, broken in sin. Christ showed healing, love, and restoration to the blind and crippled where they were, and he desires to meet you where you are on your journey today. Christ ministered to the Jews and the gentiles; and here with the wise men we have the very first instance of God revealing himself to the outsiders – the gentiles.

Christ is the manifestation of God to all people, and he desires to meet us today, where we are on our journeys. Today is January 6 – Epiphany Sunday; allow Christ to be the manifestation of God and the manifestation of his unchanging and eternal love in your life.

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