Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12
I am not a cosmonaut nor even an average person with a solid grasp of space lore. I did, however, watch the new Star Wars two times already. Given my lack of expertise in this area, and the clear need for space knowledge in this sermon I decided to ask around. Saturday morning, like all good neighbors who don’t want to go outside when it is shockingly cold, I texted my neighbor. Since our houses have a connected crawl space and I could hear them cutting through their pipes in an attempt to remedy a frozen drain line, I could have visited them without quite going outside. Despite this option, I texted—“As my nearest space expert, other than old timey ship navigation, how common is it to be given directions by a star?” I figured that since she works for NASA (specifically she makes videos for NASA) that she would have heard of such events. Her answer, received several hours later, was very practical but didn’t quite address today’s strangely acting star. It was also much different from one theologian’s answer to this question. “The cosmic signs heralding this birth should not be surprising, given that the love born in this humble place is the love that moves the sun and the stars. It is the same love that Jesus will use later to calm the winds and the sea” (Hauerwas, Matthew, 39). Likely neither of these answers is quite what we might expect or produce.
In our text we meet star following travelers. Though Matthew calls the travelers “Magi,” we often hear of them as the three kings or wise men. Because of Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72, there grew a tradition of understanding these visitors as “kings.” Magi are a much different thing than kings. “Magi… astrologers…. were a priestly class of Persian or Babylonian experts in occult arts such as astrology and the interpretation of dreams.”(Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 16) Though many nativity scenes show the shepherds and the kings in the same scene there was likely not only minutes but perhaps years between the quick arriving shepherds from the nearby hills and these long distance seekers of Jesus.
From later in the text we can imagine it was about two years. Now, I know that the kings were going far and also traveling by some form non-motorized transportation, but two years seems like a long time. I thought about Google mapping directions from Tehran to Bethlehem but thought that it might get me on some FBI list that might make my travels unnecessarily complicated. I then realized that even if these folks were indeed wise, that getting directions from a star may be a feat that lends itself to wrong turns. So regardless of the point-to-point distance perhaps their path was more wiggly.
The travelers arrive and go to Jerusalem—which would makes sense as a place to find a king. In fact, they go to the present king inquiring about the birth of a new king. King Herod consults his panel of experts and they quickly tell him where the king, the messiah, is to be born. Which raises the question: Why could the scribes so quickly figure out details of the messiah’s birth but miss the coming? One commentator notes that this could be the later writer reading a rejection by Jewish leaders of Jesus back into the text. Is this irony that the leaders in Jerusalem know so much but yet miss the big event? (In False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East—published by Council of Foreign Relations which is considered by many as the leading international affairs shop—recounts how up until the beginning of “Arab Spring”, which rocked the Middle East, almost all the experts assumed that stability was going to continue.) Producing an explanation of an event after the fact is much easier than predicting it. So perhaps we should not be too hard on them.
The traveling kings who were magicians arrive with this dramatic claim. And not only was the location confirmed but the king and “all of Jerusalem” were afraid. Why was “all of Jerusalem” afraid? Wasn’t this what they were waiting for? It could be that it was the king and his court folk who were afraid. They, of course, were doing pretty well in the present arrangement and would be nervous of a change. If this is the case it would be that “all” means those who have their opinions recorded (which continues to be the standard practice—the loudest or most prominent get recorded as the “all).
One commentator notes, that “this Herod was a puppet ‘king’ of Judea at the pleasure of Rome.” (15-16). As such a king he must instill fear to ensure stability through the maintenance of fear. If this were the case, then the “all” being afraid would be because they recognize that with a threatened king it all might hit the fan. The relatively stable, if oppressive, status quo might unravel. Which is in fact what happens a few verses later with the massacre of the innocents.
The king and his panel of experts give directions and send them on their way for the last leg of their epic journey. And they find the holy family. The Magi are overwhelmed with joy. This wasn’t their king nor their deliverer but yet they experience joy. They give their slightly delayed and rather atypical baby gifts and head on home. It is not even clear if they can or do even speak with Mary and Joseph.
Epiphany part 2:
Epiphany of the Magi always occurs on the 6th of January. Today’s passages include the baptism of Jesus which is in some traditions also included in Epiphany. In the passage on the baptism of Jesus a voice speaks from heaven. This cosmic sign allows for greater linguistic articulation. It is like moving from having no words and a few gestures—Say baby Francis who not all that long ago began to smile as a gesture of happiness and recognition—to Micah preaching a sermon last week or Faith being a librarian in a library system that has more than 7 books (according to her via text yesterday) In 2012 at least there were 1,466,010 physical books (https://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/news/housing-complex/blog/13123179/how-did-d-c-s-public-libraries-lose-1-5-million-books
Epiphany, whether the Magi + baptism of Jesus or just the wise folks, point to Jesus. In Ephesians 3:1-12 the process of revelation to Saul—which made him Apostle Paul—is laid out. These 12 verses are a bit of a digression into Paul’s credentials to his work of proclaiming the unity of Jews and Gentiles in Christ but also includes a notable shift. In both The Star to the sky watchers and The Voice at Jesus’ baptism the communication is cosmic. In Ephesians Paul is made an Apostle by cosmic revelation but then becomes an agent of proclamation. More notably for us, the church then becomes this agent of making known the “wisdom of God in its rich variety.”
7 Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power. 8 Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, 9 and to make everyone see[c] what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; 10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.[e] 13 I pray therefore that you[f] may not lose heart over my sufferings for you; they are your glory.
10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known
Cosmic communication would seem to engender confidence. Certainly, signs from the heavens, whether a ball of gas acting strangely or the voice of God, would seem to do much to bolster our oft shaky faith. In the absence of such cosmic signs, however, what are we to do? Kierkegaard addresses this need for certainty—what he calls objectivity,
“The years pass, but the situation remains unchanged. One generation after another departs from the scene, new difficulties arise and are overcome, and new difficulties again arise. Each generation inherits from its predecessor the illusion that the method is quite impeccable, but the learned scholars have not yet succeeded…and so forth. All of them seem to find themselves becoming more and more objective. The infinite personal interest in the subject (which is, in the first instance, the potentiality of faith, and in the next, faith itself, as the form for an eternal happiness, and thereupon an eternal happiness itself) vanishes more and more, because the decision is postponed, and postponed as following directly upon the result of the learned inquiry. That is to say, the problem does not arise; we have become so objective so no longer have eternal happiness” (Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 28).
I texted Faith, I texted our neighbor—communication which was generally just being a bit silly. It then occurred to me, that this is a (non-serious and abbreviated) version of how we manage the problem of objectivity in Kierkegaard and the absence of the experience of cosmic revelation. The gathered body of Christ joins in the process of discerning the will of God and proclaiming the coming of Jesus—continues the work of listening to the Spirit together through prayer and reflection.
This is not simply an odd form of democracy where we take a vote and seek to sway the other opinion. We join in the “cloud of witnesses” of those who have gone before and those who gather like us on this Sunday after Epiphany. This is serious work, remember the words of Paul, 8 … this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, 9 and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; 10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places
10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places
A cosmic task for which we have been equipped and empowered to join with the proclamation in word and action the “news of the boundless riches in Christ.”