We, like the Magi, are called to seek Jesus in the world. We trust that the Triune God is leading us and knows us well enough to call us in ways that we can recognize.
Vicar Emily Beckering, The Epiphany of Our Lord; text: Matthew 2:1-12
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
All of the great wise men of history have made their discoveries. Here are a few: Sir Isaac Newton: the Laws of Motion and Universal Gravitation. Benjamin Franklin: electricity. Ibn al-Shatir—not Copernicus—planetary motion.
And there is a fair share of wise women, too. Marie Curie conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. Maria Mitchell discovered a comet and that sunspots were an independent phenomenon and not a type of cloud. Barbara McClintock: the technique for visualizing maize chromosomes and for microscopic analysis to demonstrate many fundamental genetic ideas.
And the Wise Men whom we hear of on this and every Epiphany? They are credited for discovering the Star of Bethlehem. These Wise men—or Magi—these astrologers are the only ones, it seems, who notice this star and pay attention to what it means: a king is born to the Jews. But they are not Jews; their questions to Herod convey this. Although they understand that a significant king has been born, they do not know where or comprehend fully what this king means for the Jews. What they do know is this: a king unlike any other king has been born and only one thing can be done: they must travel to meet this king for themselves.
It would have been easy for them, upon seeing the star rise, to celebrate their own cleverness. It would have been easy for them to take credit for the discovery of this star and use it to bring themselves glory and recognition by interpreting its meaning in front of kings and rulers in their land. It would have been easy for them to record this sighting and their interpretation of the rising star, and then move on to making their next discovery. It would have been easy—reasonable even—for the Magi to do any of these things. It would have made much more sense for them to record their findings and move on, or to rejoice among themselves, than it would for them to pack up and set out to find this king without knowing exactly where they were going or what awaited them along the way. It would have been safer—smarter according to most wisdom—to stay put.
But they do not. This revelation demands a different kind of response from them; they are not content to go on with their lives as usual. They must see this king for themselves. They are moved to make a journey, and a long one, most likely, in order to be with this king. They move toward this star even before they completely understand it, even before they know exactly where it is leading them or what difficulties they might face along the way. They go out, searching, trusting, and moving forward toward the sign given to them.
By responding in this way, these Magi, these outsiders show us insiders the way of discipleship.
They teach us that the good news given to us, the good news that we have heard throughout this Christmas—that God loves us, has come to live with us, to be with us, and has made us God’s own children—all of this good news cannot stop with our hearing it. We cannot be content with cherishing this news in our hearts, or with letting its only effect in our lives to be that it fills us up today so that we can return to business as usual tomorrow. The discovery of the birth of Jesus draws the Magi out of the comfort of everything that they know, and draws them toward Jesus. They realize that they really only have one option: they must trust the sign that they have been given and follow it. They must go where this king is.
The beckoning that God extends to the Magi is the same call that we receive. There is really only one option open to us as well: we must go where Jesus is. We, too, are called out of ourselves, called out of safety and security, called out to seek our Lord Jesus in this world, and to follow where he leads us. We do not live faithfully if we do not go out where we are sent or follow where God leads us.
As is true for the Magi, responding to God’s beckoning will lead us on a path that is not without danger. By setting out to follow the star, and seeking the newborn king, the Magi expose themselves to unknown threats: threats like the potential wrath of Herod, and the dangers of robbery and exposure in the wilderness along the open road. Certainly, if we are following where God leads us, then we will also encounter the dangers of this world because the way of Christ, as we know, is the way that leads to the cross.
But following this beckoning will also lead to joy that we could not have fathomed. The Magi would not have been able to experience the joy of being in the presence of God if they had not set out on the journey or if they had allowed obstacles along the way to deter them. If they had allowed the fact that the Jews in Jerusalem and Bethlehem—this king’s own people—did not recognize him, to make them doubt the star that they themselves had witnessed, they would not have beheld the joy of being in God’s presence.
If we learn any wisdom from these Wise Men, it is that in our life of faith together, we as a congregation must seek God in the world in order to be with our Lord, even when this seeking goes against our reason, requires us to make different decisions than business models would suggest, or calls us into uncharted territory. In order to respond faithfully to the Word that Christ has come into the world, we must go out into that world to be with him.
If we take this call on our lives seriously, then the question becomes: how will we know where Christ is or where we are being led? In response to this question, the story of Epiphany gives us very good news. The way of faith, the power to move forward and to follow Jesus where he is, doesn’t begin with us. The Wise Men were given the star as a sign: God was able to call them in a way that they could recognize.
In the history of Israel, it was not typical for God to communicate God’s will or Word through the stars. Instead, God most often spoke directly through people like Moses, King David and the prophets and preferred to be known in the context of relationship with them. By contrast, astrologers, diviners, and interpreters of dreams are often spoken against in both the Old and New Testaments. According to the whole of scripture, those who study the stars or dreams for meaning are not to be trusted, and God’s people are commanded not to participate in these practices so that they will not be led astray to worship false gods. Yet, for these Magi, these astrologers, God uses what they know to draw them to the One whom they don’t yet know. God uses the stars to reach these people who study the stars. God gives dreams to warn these people who interpret dreams. God speaks to the Magi in their own language.
These Wise Men might not have known God, but God knew them. God knew their ways and their hearts, and God knew how to get through to them. God saw to it that these people from the East were drawn in close to their king and savior so that they too might know and see and love the God who loved them. It wasn’t the Wise Men who made the discovery after all: they didn’t find God. When they saw the star, they were the ones who were found.
We, like the Magi, have also been found by God and drawn into God’s own family through Christ. Although we can never comprehend the mystery of God, and we might not yet know where God is leading us or what form our ministry in this city will take, we do know that we belong to a God who knows us. We also know from the prayer and discernment of our visioning process that God is calling us to work. We don’t have to have all the answers or everything figured out before we set out into this work because God knows us and God knows how to reach us.
This is not to say that this is all about us or that God feeds into our preoccupation with ourselves. Rather, in telling us this story and giving us this gospel, Matthew testifies that the Creator of the universe and all of its stars is also the God who comes to us as this baby, and the God who has the hairs of our head counted. This God knows us well enough to know how best to reach us. As God did for the Hebrews with the prophets and with the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, and as God did for the Magi with the star over Bethlehem, God will also lead us and call us in ways that we can recognize. We will know the sound of God’s voice.
God the Father is out ahead of us, ever-drawing us in, God the Son, our bright and morning star, guides us by his light, and God the Holy Spirit will give us both the wisdom to recognize Christ and the strength to follow him.
We do not yet know what the new year will bring for us here at Mount Olive or where we might be led. We know only that God is leading us, God’s love is supporting us and that our God goes out before us and with us. That is enough. With that, we can go out with courage.