Matthew 2:1-12 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 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.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘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.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 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.” 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. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Well, we did it! We managed to move through Advent, Christmas, and the 12 days of Christmas. And that brings us to today – Epiphany and the beginning of the Epiphany season – which ends on March 6 with Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. April 21 is Easter, then Pentecost and then Advent again. Yes, within 12 short months we recognize the expectation and waiting for the birth, then celebrate the birth, witness the life, ministry, trial, execution, and resurrection of Christ. Full circle once more.
Today’s observance is of the time following Jesus’ birth where it is recorded that three magi followed a star that led them to the infant Jesus. The 12 days of Christmas ends with the story of gift giving: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Perhaps you’ve seen or heard the recent joke that after the three wise men left, the three wiser women arrive bringing fresh diapers, casseroles for the week and lots of formula. (clergycoaching network) Bringing what they need was really the point of the joke. That joke on Facebook, however, brought 3.5K shares with 136 comments. People were insulted that the women brought diapers and baby formula. What about clean hay or clothing they asked? Really? Really, it is only a joke. Good thing God loves us just the way we are because we can be a pretty weird people.
Some scholars believe the gifts are more symbolic and point to Jesus’ death. Others believe that the very generous gifts were given out of a response to the very generous gift God gave humanity in the form of a babe. Others believe that these were just typical gifts offered by these foreigners during their travels. And many households around the world share gifts with one another on Epiphany based on this story – rather than because of a Santa on Christmas Day.
The Epiphany season – a gift for us to embrace. There is also another definition of the word epiphany from the Cambridge English Dictionary: “A moment when you suddenly feel that you understand, or suddenly become conscious of, something that is very important to you.” Those are generally the “Aha!” moments we experience in life – those wonderful light bulb moments that gain us new understandings and insights, and often wisdom as well. This is one of those stories.
“Some years ago, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an article by Dr. Paul Ruskin on the Stages of Aging. In the article, Dr. Ruskin described a case study he had presented to his students when teaching a class in medical school. He described the case study patient under his care like this:
‘The patient neither speaks nor comprehends the spoken word. Sometimes she babbles incoherently for hours on end. She is disoriented about person, place, and time. She does, however, respond to her name… I have worked with her for the past six months, but she still shows complete disregard for her physical appearance and makes no effort to assist her own care. She must be fed, bathed, and clothed by others.
‘Because she has no teeth, her food must be pureed. Her shirt is usually soiled from almost incessant drooling. She does not walk. Her sleep pattern is erratic. Often she wakes in the middle of the night and her screaming awakens others. Most of the time she is friendly and happy, but several times a day she gets quite agitated without apparent cause. Then she wails until someone comes to comfort her.’
After presenting the class with this challenging case, Dr. Ruskin then asked his students if any of them would like to volunteer to take care of this person. No one volunteered. Then Dr. Ruskin said, ‘I’m surprised that none of you offered to help, because actually she is my favorite patient. I get immense pleasure from taking care of her and I am learning so much from her. She has taught me a depth of gratitude I never knew before. She has taught me the spirit of unwavering trust. And she has taught me the power of unconditional love.’ Then Dr. Ruskin said, ‘Let me show you her picture.’ He pulled out the picture and passed it around. It was the photo of his six-month-old baby daughter.” (sermons.com)
Did you just have an aha moment like I did when I read this? What was the picture that came to mind when you heard this story? Or who was in that picture? For me – it reminded me of my grandmother in later stages of dementia – certainly not a six month old child. We all have our own personal epiphanies that lead us to deeper truths.
And now, back to the Epiphany story. If you’ve been listening close enough you’ve probably realized that Herod was really not a very nice man – or king. He is fearful of this child and the threat he poses. Herod tries to dupe the wise men into telling him where this child is so he can go pay homage to him as well. And we know that’s a lie.
But to me, the most interesting part of the story is that the magi pay attention to their dream, rather than to Herod, and do not to return to Herod, but venture home by another way. How often do we have such clear dreams? And if we do, how often do we have the wisdom and courage to follow them? Ronald Grubb wrote: “Do not ask God to guide your footsteps… if you are not willing to move your feet.” (Ronald Clark Grubb, clergy coaching network)
I have been with you for a little over nine months as your interim minister. I have learned a lot from you during this time of discernment. I have witnessed your wisdom and your faithfulness and your courage. I have seen how you care for one another and I know how much you like each other.
And through this time I have seen how willing you are to embrace others in this household of faith and to share the joy you experience here and I’ve seen how you continue to also seek spiritual growth. And I’ve see how you are also willing to birth something new in your midst – to take a new way, so to speak. What that may be is not seen clearly at the moment, but you are willing to go another way than the way you always have – and like the wise men – that takes wisdom, and that take courage, and that takes faith as well. So much today speaks to us of wisdom.
Even the Lakota Prayer for Guidance we read asks that we be filled with the virtues of fortitude, generosity, respect, and wisdom “to help my people walk in the path of understanding and peace.” Wisdom – “Do not ask God to guide your footsteps… if you are not willing to move your feet.” (Ronald Clark Grubb, clergy coaching network.)
On the second day of 2019 John Edgerton, Associate Pastor at Old South Church in Boston wrote the UCC Devotion for that day based on James 3:13: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility born of wisdom.” Edgerton wrote: The core of my Christian faith is that I don’t need to earn God’s love. It is a gift. I know this to be true all the way down to the soles of my shoes.
But publicly telling people “God loves you” doesn’t work as evangelism any more. Talking about God’s love will not bring people in to church, because God’s love has gotten a bad name. In fact, a recent Pew study showed that when people under 30 were asked what word comes to mind when they think of church, 93% said: ‘meanies.’
Edgerton continues: “Alright, there’s a possibility that I made that up. But I only made it up because the actual responses are much more depressing. And nobody needs to start their day like that.
It’s a drag, but it’s true. Telling people that God loves them doesn’t cut it. We have to show them, instead.
With handmade Pride Parade banners and installing a lift to the chancel and making restrooms gender inclusive and giving away land to a community garden and putting solar panels on the roof and crossing borders to stand with asylum seekers and with deeds done in humility born of wisdom: we have to show people what God’s love is. That’s how people will learn about the good news—if we live it out right before their eyes. (And I say, People of God, that is what you already do.) Edgerton closes with a prayer: “Holy God, plant in our spirits a zeal for Your love, that we might declare it with our whole lives.” And to that I add:
May God grant us the wisdom to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.
Copyright DMC 2019