On the Epiphany

January 5, 2020 — Rev. Paula Norbert


Our reading from Matthew’s Gospel about the visit of the Magi to the infant child has long been a part of the Christmas story which is told each year during this Season.  This story reads in some ways like a fairy tale; there is a star, there is a King, or actually three, and there’s a quest, a mysterious journey, a revised plan, and there is intrigue and the possibilities of a very bad outcome for this newborn child.  For all the readers in our midst, it may remind you of tales you heard as a child or stories we have read to the young people in our lives.  And this story of the Wise Ones may prompt us to think about our own quests; what kind of journey have I been on in my life?  Have there been times when I have been searching for something really important, perhaps something I wasn’t even sure about?  What’s the treasure I would bring?  It’s interesting that this story coincides with a New Year for us.  Stories often invite us to think in new ways about our lives, our journeys, where we have been and where we are going.  In fact, we might even think about what serves as the star in our life?  What beckons us forward or invites us to respond to a new quest of purpose for the new year ahead?  Let us pray,  O God of new beginnings, we ask your blessing upon us as we look ahead to a new year.  Help us to follow the star which helps lead us to new insights, new possibilities and new hope.  Amen.

Of course, the key moment in this Gospel reading is what we have come to call the ‘epiphany.’ This is when these wise ones, having traveled so far, arrive to meet the child. They are also referred to as the Magi, and in some ways, we might understand them as magicians, astronomers and astrologists, scientists, seekers.  For story writers, the epiphany is often the moment when the meaning of the story is revealed; it may be the turning point or the moment that everything hinges upon.  In real life, of course, we too may arrive at moments of epiphany, when we finally come to understand something in a new way,  or we understand something that we did not see before.

As we consider the meaning of this story today,  about these visitors who travel from one of the very places that many fear in the world right now, we may want to think in new ways about these travelers.  Perhaps we would get a better sense of the reaction of Matthew’s earliest audience to this reading about Magi from the East if we imagined a visit to our local church by religious or political leaders from that same part of the world.  And, imagine that these visitors–these strangers, so different from us–break many of the rules that we have, rules that help us define who we are as a community. These “magicians,” then, represent all sorts of problems for Matthew’s audience.

How did these strangers find their way, and get this close, to the new King of the Jews? They’re “sincere and persistent” in their search, Scripture scholar, Charles Cousar says, and, actually, not entirely “wise,” despite their experience and worldliness: “Almost naive, they seem to anticipate no difficulty in inquiring of Herod the king about the birth of a rival king.” So they “naively” set out, guided by God, looking to nature for signs and guidance. Importantly, these wise men, as learned as they were, have the sense to know that they do not have all the answers, which is perhaps its own kind of wisdom. They know that they need help on their long and hope-filled quest. They’ve interrupted their daily lives, left their countries and the comforts of home, to set out for a distant land. Their guide, that spectacular natural phenomenon, is a bright star that has led them almost, but not quite all the way, to the newborn king. How do we find our way to God?

In our lives, we may embrace some understanding about what’s most important in life and we work toward that: education, jobs, titles, a sense of security and then something happens, sickness, job loss, a break up and we need to embark on a whole new quest, because we realize that so much of what we thought would give us the answers  just doesn’t matter when we are heartbroken or struggling or seriously ill.

Years ago, a friend recommended a simple book which was titled How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else.  Book reviewer, Debra Ginsburg wrote, “At the age of 64, Michael Gates Gill found himself sitting in a Manhattan Starbucks wondering if he could afford a latte. This privileged son of the famous New Yorker writer Brendan Gill was nearly at the bottom of a reverse Horatio Alger slide. He’d been fired from the ad agency where he’d worked for 25 years; the consulting business he’d subsequently started had all but petered out; both his 20-year marriage and the affair that had ended it were over; and he’d recently been diagnosed with a brain tumor.  While he mulled his limited prospects, he was approached by Crystal Thompson, a young African-American woman, who asked him if he’d come to apply for a job. Why not, Gill thought. Some weeks later, he was hired and began his second act–the Starbucks way.

Gill soon learned that his new job was more physically and mentally challenging than he’d anticipated. An older white man, he quickly came to appreciate and rely on the kindness, professionalism and patience of his young, African-American co-workers as he worked his way up from cleaning to manning a cash register, and finally preparing Starbucks’ famed beverages.  For the first time in his life he experiences being a member of a minority trying hard to survive in a challenging new job. He learns the value of hard work and humility, as well as what it truly means to respect another person.  His life becomes simpler and as he slows down the pace of his days, he finds time to rebuild important relationships with his adult children who had not always been a priority for him over the years.  Obviously this was his epiphany, hard won, but significant nonetheless, a journey of shame, challenge, humility and fear which led him to simplicity, peace, and far better relationships with his co-workers and his own family.

In the story of this New Testament epiphany, we are invited to think about what  we hear in this story? We hear that God has sent a gentle shepherd who will nevertheless upset the powers-that-have-been. We hear that the smallest things, like a newborn baby, can terrify the arrogant, and bring them down in the end. We learn that God’s reach of grace goes far beyond every obstacle within or without, and pushes us beyond them, too.  We learn that a great light has dawned, a light that draws all people and calls us to live our lives illuminated by its truth. That’s what the Epiphany season, the season of light, is about: we hear the beautiful words, the promises in the text from Isaiah, about a light breaking forth for all of us who know what it feels like to “sit in darkness,” and we hear the call to arise and become radiant with the light of God.

Our story of the Three Kings is simple too, at least the basic version that was included in Matthew.  The Kings arrive and they see a baby in a manger; they offer their gifts.  This story has some of the qualities of a fairy tale, but it is meant to offer a richer, deeper meaning of what is of value in life, what’s worth risking the quest for.  I imagine that most of us would agree that the sooner we learn these important lessons,  the better our lives may be.