a reflection on the Epiphany of Our Lord
Matthew 12:1-8 [9-12]
This is a reflection on the first part of this scripture lesson on the Epiphany of Our Lord, which also lines up with the first part of our congregation’s mission statement: The “Walk the Journey” part of “Walk the Journey, Worship the Christ, and Witness with Joy.” Our congregation’s name happens to be Epiphany, and it turns out the magi who come to visit Jesus can help us understand what living that mission might look like. There are important clues about the journey of faith and walking the way of Jesus which the magi reveal in their own experience.
First of all, the journey of faith in Christ is for all people, and so there will always be others different from us alongside of us. There’s a lot going on this story, but that’s probably the most staggering piece and ground-breaking piece of information we get from it: Jesus is for all people. He was born to be a light to the nations. He is born a Jew, and therefore within a very specific culture with a very specific history, but the first people to visit him and worship him are these strangers from a country or set of countries that isn’t even named. They come from off the map somewhere.
I remember when we had that huge map of the Richmond Metro area a couple of years ago and people were supposed to put a pin in the map where they lived and I came in one Monday and someone had put a pin way off the bulletin board. They were from Louisa County or north of Ashland or something, a place beyond the scope of our map. That was the magi. The exact location or culture they represent is not all that important. The point is they are clearly not of the Hebrew culture or religious identity, and for you and me that might be a simple point we take for granted, but it is a big deal. In a time when the world was very tribal and people stuck to their own languages and clans above almost everything, for these foreigners to be led to Jesus to pay homage to him was earthshattering. It was a sign of hope—that the God who had long been seen to stick primarily to the fortunes of one group of people was now saying, “All y’all are welcome.”
Some would say our culture is becoming tribal again. People are sticking to their own kind. They are associating with people who believe the exact same things they do, who share the same backgrounds and worldviews. But those who have been claimed by this newborn King are called to walk this journey of faith with people of all tribes and clans. It may be more important now than ever that we claim this Epiphany vision. God is drawing everyone to Christ, and we want to be a congregation that reflects that. Strangers from the east. Strangers in the West End. People we’ve known our whole lives. People who are sitting in front of or behind us today that we may never see again. And in Christ’s grace strangers become friends, because that is what he calls us. We receive each other and let ourselves be ushered into God’s presence, offering our varied gifts in his service. And we travel on.
Another thing we learn is that the journey of faith is fueled by questions and being drawn into a sense of wonder. This is often a difficult one for the church to remember because we do have dogma and doctrine. There are a lot of answers swirling around in here, lots of certainty. Pastors and church leaders, especially, can come off as speaking with a lot of certainty. And Scripture is a solid foundation, no doubt. People do come to church seeking to build their lives on some trustworthy, constant truths, and they are here. After all, the magi can only find Jesus once they become certain (from Scripture) of where he is.
However, the questions and the wonder should always remain, never silenced, because our questions about God and about life’s meaning are important. They give life to each step. Notice the only thing the magi actually say in this story is a question. It is essentially “Who is he?” or “Who are we looking for?” They don’t know his name and they don’t know where he is, but they let those questions guide them. They don’t give up. They press on.
It’s Herod who is afraid of the questions. He doesn’t like this mysterious presence afloat, wherever it is. He feels threatened by new prospects, and all of Jerusalem does too, so satisfied, perhaps, with the status quo. And so he seeks to stamp the questioning down.
It is interesting to me that these magi are likely the scientists of their day. They understand astronomy and navigation. They possess great minerals and elements of the earth. Science is built on questions and seeking answers, and it’s fascinating that these are the people drawn to worship Jesus. It can be so tempting to think that science ends humankind’s search for God, but the experience of the magi suggests that isn’t so. We find science can’t answer all of the questions in life that are worth asking. There are some questions that only a journey based on faith and mystery can do that.
In William Butler Yeats’ poem called “Magi” that is about this story he refers to Jesus as the “uncontrollable mystery.” I think that a fulfilling faith journey remembers that Jesus is uncontrollable. We can’t control what he does with his life, or the people he chooses to associate with. We can’t control the way he wants to love us and forgive us, either. So strong it is, his love for us. We can ask questions, though, and that helps us behold his uncontrollable mystery.
The third thing this story shows us is that journey of faith is never a straight line. It is often called “the straight and narrow,” and in some sense that is a good way to describe it, but in the grand scheme of things we need to be prepared for detours and obstacles. They are part of walking the journey, at least for now.
The star is fascinating, but it is probably not the most constant or helpful way to lead people. There’s been a lot of speculation about what the star actually was—was it a comet? Was it an alignment of planets that looked especially bright, being so close together?—but the reality is that stars are only visible when the sky is dark. That means the travel happens when it is night. In the dark spaces and times of our lives when God is going to lead, but we need to be willing to move then.
The magi also end up at the wrong place first, and they get the right answer from an unsuspecting source. How many times in your faith journey has this kind of thing happened? These kinds of things are typical in this journey of faith in Christ. The path often seems clear and easy, but at other times it seems to disappear.
It happens at the cross, of course. God’s own journey in the Word made flesh knows the pain of obstacle and detour. Just as road to Bethlehem first goes by Jerusalem, the path to God’s glory first goes through the humiliation of death. We wind up at the cross of Jesus, disappointed in our sinfulness, sure of God’s absence, emptied of our confidence in ourselves. But God finds a way to respond, to resurrect the journey. The cross is the true star that guides us on the twisting, turning, exciting path of faith. It is a source of comfort and hope: God has passed this twisting, turning, dying way too.
And so, to conclude, the story of our Lord’s Epiphany can teach us at least three things about this journey of faith that we walk. All people are drawn to God. Faith is fueled by questions and mystery. Detours and obstacles are part of it. But God is always guiding, always creating a way where there is no way. That is what it means to walk the journey.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.