Rev. Paula Norbert
Epiphany: Matthew 2:1-12
I want to wish you all a happy, healthy New Year. I know we bring our collective hopes and prayers to this moment and to this year ahead. We join with all those around the world who are hoping against hope for a far healthier, better year ahead when we may again visit with those we love, hug a precious grandchild or aging parent, shake the hand of a dear friend and be together for the simple, sacred moments of our life. We hear these beautiful words from Isaiah today, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you… Lift up your eyes and look around, they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.” We listen to Matthew’s story of the wise men who ventured out to seek the child, seeking wisdom and understanding and to pay him homage. We too are seekers, seeking hope and the promise of better days, seeking justice and peace, seeking inspiration and love. Let us pray, O Holy One of light and radiance, show us your light, help us to see with new eyes your path to the source of your love. Be with us now and in the year ahead. Bless us and keep us safe. Amen.
Years ago, I took part in a day-long retreat when I was a college chaplain in Vermont. I remember that we were asked to take some time for reflection and to jot down a few ideas. We were invited to respond to this prompt: If you had to write a title for each chapter of your life, specifically, each decade, what would that be? And what would be the major events of each of those decades? After we had the time to ourselves for a while, we were then invited into small groups to share. At this point, I was just turning 30, if I recall, and many at the retreat were college students, so I shared a small group with some of these young college students…all women and we discussed what we had written. Of course, for them, they had only lived through less than 2 decades and I was closing out my 3rd. I think the title for the chapter of my 20’s had something to do with learning to live with the questions and I spoke about how life didn’t exactly unfold in the way I had expected up to that point and that it had led me to places I hadn’t always planned for or imagined. I told them how when I was younger, I thought I had it all mapped out…and then life happens and you learn to adjust. I’ll never forget the looks on their faces. They weren’t exactly thrilled to hear what I was saying, because they were in the midst of doing what I had done, planning and dreaming of what the future would hold…and here I was, the ghost of the future sharing my story, a not too welcome reminder that things may just not turn out as they were hoping. Of course, here’s the secret, maybe they were turning out for the better; maybe they were turning out just as they were supposed to, whatever that means. And, by the way, however they were turning out, I was still on the journey and learning to adapt and renegotiate and be open to the new paths unfolding…It’s now the dawn of 2021 and I can’t imagine anyone who could have dreamed of what the past year has held for all of us. If someone were to have told us a year ago what to expect in the year ahead, I can only imagine that we would have all plugged our ears and said no, no, we aren’t going to listen! It’s all too scary…it’s just too hard. And yet, by the grace of God, here we are. “In a national survey that was printed recently by the Washington Post, the top three words to describe 2020 were “exhausting, lost and chaotic.” (Washington Post) No surprise; it’s been a heavy, heavy year; physically, mentally, financially, and spiritually. Covid has wreaked havoc and caused destruction, like a tornado, meaning we won’t know the damage until we can go through the rubble.” (Rev. Terry Hershey) And we’ve learned to adapt and adjust and live with the loneliness and fear and sorrow…or maybe not. Wouldn’t it be great if someone now could visit us from 2022 and give us every reassurance that 2021 would go well, that it may be even better than we might imagine, that the vaccines were distributed, that Covid was finally laid to rest and far fewer died or made ill by this virus?
We celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany today as we read the passage from Matthew’s Gospel where he tells of the visit of the Three Wise Men or the Three Kings. Epiphany means “showing forth,” and historically, the Epiphany has included the celebration of three things, all of which are considered key moments in which Jesus’ authentic identity shows forth: the visit of the Magi; Jesus’ baptism; and Jesus’ first miracle of turning water into wine during the Wedding at Cana.
One of Matthew’s major themes is that God’s salvation extends beyond Jesus’ immediate Jewish community to include the Gentiles as well (in other words, to be open to all). The visit of the Magi foreshadows this broad message of inclusion, and together with the great commission in Matthew 28:16-20, it frames the story of Jesus’ life. Within these two bookends, Matthew’s message is clear: not only supposed insiders, but also supposed outsiders are within the great circle of divine love. This certainly is what we believe here as a community of faith, that all are included within the great circle of divine love. All are included, no exceptions.
Some commentators observe that despite how we think of the story of the Magi, popularized in the beautiful Christmas Carol, We Three Kings, this story is actually about two kings: King Herod and Jesus, the rumored “king of the Jews.” The Magi are not kings but rather “wise ones,” scholars who study the stars for signs and omens. So they aren’t “kings” – and they aren’t necessarily “three” either. The story mentions three gifts, but it doesn’t specify the number of people who carry them. Those gifts themselves are telling, however: gold for a great king, frankincense for a great priest, and myrrh for one who will suffer and die. From the very beginning, those in power consider Jesus a threat, and set out to destroy him. It’s not easy to revisit that part of the story, but it’s an important dimension isn’t it? In fact, the Wise Ones will be told in a dream not to return to speak with Herod, but instead to return another way to their homes to protect the newborn child, already a threat to those holding on to power at all costs.
As one writer observes, “this story is not a tale of three kings, then, but rather a tale of two kings, one utterly vulnerable and yet protected by divine care, the other apparently powerful and yet actually insecure, frightened, and desperate. The rest of the story – often left aside by the typical practice of ending with verse 12 (“left for their own country by another road”) – is that the holy family, too, has to flee, and that King Herod is furious. The slaughter of the innocents (Matthew 2:16-18) isn’t an incidental element in the narrative; it’s the culmination of Herod’s insecurity and rage, an exposure of the violence intrinsic to tyranny, and an echo of Pharaoh (and therefore of the Exodus, and the story of Moses). In the infant Jesus, the Prince of Peace, becomes a vulnerable refugee smuggled into Egypt. God has a very different form of monarchy in mind.” (Commentary, SALT.org)
Many Christmas cards feature a bright star hovering over the holy family, but Matthew’s story suggests otherwise. Perhaps only the Magi notice the star among the thousands of others visible on a clear night, and King Herod’s dependence on the visitors to lead him to the child indicates that neither he nor his assassins could follow the star without help. Matthew’s theme here is the hiddenness of Christ, the small and often unnoticed ways God enters our lives in epiphanies large and small. This hiddenness is a kind of divine signature: instead of “showing forth” conspicuously at the Temple, God slips into the world by way of a poor family in a backwater town. And instead of “showing forth” to a crowd of supposed insiders, God will be noticed first by strangers from a foreign land, “wise ones from the East.” God does indeed show forth – but in a hidden way.
Much like those Wise Ones, we don’t always know what our journeys will hold, do we? If we have learned nothing else from the past year, and I certainly hope that we have learned a great deal, it is that we don’t always know how life will unfold; so much is out of our control. And yet, we chart a course and we follow the stars, and we look to the light to shine along our path to guide the way and try to be open to the “epiphanies,” the ways (great and small) that God shows forth in our lives, as well as the ways (great and small) we notice or overlook those showings. Here at the very heart of the Christmas narrative, and at the outset of a new year, is a story that emphasizes how God’s love and “showing forth” extend far beyond the traditional divisions between religions and groups of people. God comes to an ordinary, humble family – and is recognized by wise ones from afar, and it is indeed these wise ones, whom some would consider outsiders, who help show us the way to that divine child and to the divinity within all of God’s creation…if we remain open to the journey.
Resources: (Saltproject.org) and Sabbath Moments