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. – Matthew 2:1-12 (NRSV)
What a happy story! But this isn’t the whole story.
As we reflected on Christmas Eve, Joseph and Mary were not with their family and friends when Jesus was born. They didn’t know when they were going to be able to go home again — and certainly didn’t expect to spend some time in Egypt fearing for their lives first. And then there were the Romans and the taxes. It’s the same for our wise men.
These astrologers from some other country, culture, and religion saw a new star in the course of a night’s work. As the scientists and historians of this time, they document this new star which signifies something important has happened. Maybe they set out on their own accord, or maybe the head wise man picks the guys he can best do without for a while and tells them they need to go on an unexpected business trip.
They didn’t get on a plane and fly business class to Jerusalem. Their journey would have been arduous. We don’t know exactly where they came from, but if they came from the East, they needed to go through the desert. In addition to finding food, water, and shelter, they probably also needed to fight off dishonorable types that would want the gold, frankincense, and myrrh they were carrying with them.
They didn’t know exactly where they were going — just following the star. Their trip would have taken some time. Maybe not the two years between Jesus’ birth and when they arrive in Jerusalem, but they would have been away from their family and community for a long while. I imagine they missed out on a lot births, weddings, graduations, and funerals that meant a lot more to them than a king they didn’t know.
When they arrive in Jerusalem, they begin to ask around for this new king of the Jews. Clearly they hadn’t been properly briefed on the situation in Judea. The current king of the Jews did not have a new baby at his palace. And this particular king was not the type of guy who welcomed competition. Herod had already killed members of his own family to secure power.
And this wasn’t just any new king. The wise men might not have known it, but a new king of the Jews born in Bethlehem had a special name: Messiah. Despite Herod’s good acting and the story that he wanted to worship the new king, too, the wise men had walked into a political and religious hornets’ nest.
It’s probably a good thing Herod kept this quiet, because the Romans wouldn’t have been excited about news that the Jewish Messiah – who was to overthrow their occupation and make Israel a world power – was here.
Maybe the wise men fell for Herod’s “I’m the Messiah’s biggest fan” routine, but I think anyone with any discernment abilities would have felt the tension and danger when they were brought in for questioning. Thank goodness, God spoke to them in a dream so they could find another road out of Jerusalem.
But this isn’t the end of the story. The lectionary doesn’t go on to include what happened when the wise men went their merry way on a different road. If we keep reading in Matthew, we find out about Herod’s murder of the innocents (Matthew 2:13-16).
The wise men’s song, “We Three Kings of Orient Are” must have been written by someone who saw the story on social media about the star, the gifts, and filter-enhanced selfies with Jesus.
In fact, this passage in Matthew is like someone asking what you did for spring break and you tell them about the food, beach, and scenery but leave out the details about the food poisoning, the jellyfish stings, and how your money and ID were stolen when you left them for “just a minute” to watch the sun set on the beach.
The epilogue to the wise men’s visit seems appropriate as we look back on 2020. It reminds us that life isn’t our Facebook Story or Instagram feed. We do have nice things and nice stories, but there is usually more to our story.
This doesn’t mean that every good story has some dark, shadow side. Rather, we can have a good story even though it might not be perfect. 2020 is like that — except that we tend to tell the bad rather than the good. 2020 will live in infamy. I don’t need to recount all the terrible things that happened, but 2020 will have repercussions that will extend into 2021 and beyond. These bad things all true, but it’s not our entire 2020 story.
Beautiful things happened in 2020, too.
Babies were born, people were married, students graduated. People learned new hobbies, intentionally connected with one another, and found new ways of being together. We became more aware of structural racism, started seeing the people we take for granted, like store clerks, and began to realize how interconnected and dependent we are on one another. In a year that was the opposite of a Hallmark Christmas movie, we learned that we could adapt in a hurry and find new ways to persevere.
As we turn the calendar to 2021, we have come to Epiphany, the special name the Church has given today. Today, on Epiphany, the Church celebrates the manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles. Despite the arduous travel, the danger with Herod, and the death of the innocents, there is still good in this story. Jesus, Light of the whole world; Good News of great joy for all people — made known to all people.
Epiphany is our reminder that God is playing the long game. It took two years from the time the star became visible to when the wise men finally came into the presence of the king. But Epiphany also reminds us that God is active in the present moment — warning the wise men and Joseph to keep them from harm.
We continue to participate in God’s long game of salvation. Every present moment is part of our journey to come into the full presence of Jesus. Like the wise men, we will face difficulty, fear, and tragedy along the way. But in the same way, although it might not be a star, we continue to have the light of Christ to guide us. And we might not have nighttime dreams of God providing us with specific guidance, but God does guide us though Scripture, our faith community, and the Holy Spirit within us.
2021 will probably not be the year we have all been waiting for. There will be the beautiful and the terrible. The hope, peace, joy, and love of Advent are not behind us until December rolls around next year. We carry them with us as we continue our journey.
On Epiphany, we celebrate that in the midst in our imperfect story of all that will be, the Light still shines. The Good News of great joy is still for all people. As we go forth into a new year, let us persevere in sharing light and joy so they will continue to be made known in the world. Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. – Isaiah 60:1 (NRSV)On Epiphany, we celebrate that in the midst in our imperfect story of all that will be, the Light still shines. The Good News of great joy is still for all people. #Epiphany #Jesus #Light Click To Tweet
Jesus, Light of the world, we give thanks for your presence in our lives. Even when we cannot see it, you are still shining, guiding us on our journey. Teach us to believe this in every circumstance. And in our believing, may we make your light incarnate to the world around us as we persevere in life’s journey. Amen.