January 3, 2020 - Second Sunday after Christmas
The magi saw the star; they accepted that gift and gave in response to it.
What will you do with the gift that you have been given this year?
Today’s Gospel reading is the familiar reading appointed for Epiphany, which we celebrate on January 6, the twelfth day of Christmas. That’s this coming Wednesday, and we don’t normally have a service on Wednesday, but the reading is an option for us for today, and I chose to include it because I think Epiphany is a feast to which we ought to pay more attention.
The story of the visit of the magi is a drama in five acts. Act 1 (Mt 1:18-25) describes Joseph’s dream concerning the child, act 2 (2:1-12) the visit of the magi and the actions of Herod, act 3 (2:13-15) describes Joseph’s dream warning him to flee to Egypt for safety (an ironic reversal), act 4 (2:16-18) the slaughter of the innocents by Herod, and act 5 (2:19-23) describes Josephs’ return to Nazareth (again, prompted by a dream). Joseph and his dreams play a large part in the story, but the magi are the next players in importance. Herod is the other primary character in the drama.
Who are the magi? And why do they occupy so central a place in the story of Jesus’ birth? Traditionally, one of three answers has been given about their identity: (1) they were magicians and frauds who practiced the forbidden art of divination; (2) they were a class of priests serving the rulers of Persia, and had access to power and wielded the kinds of power appropriate to their roles; or (3) they were astrologers who read the heavens and advised rulers on their plans, and their occupation was precarious, as they could pay a heavy price if their message was not to the ruler whom they served’s liking.
If the magi were astrologers, their presence places the so-called “star of Bethlehem” into a different light. The star has been thought to be the result of a supernova, conjunction of the planets as we just experienced, or a comet. But it needn’t be any of these, because it wasn’t necessarily an extraordinary celestial event, but an ordinary star seen through the extraordinary eyes of the magi. They had “eyes to see” but Herod and his scribes didn’t.
The magi journeyed straight to Jerusalem and went to Herod’s court. Perhaps this wasn’t their wisest decision. But once they visited Herod, they knew that they had made a serious mistake and did not return. In Jerusalem, the magi experienced the fear induced by a tyrannical ruler. Historically, when Herod was frightened, people died. His paranoia led to more and more extreme actions as he tried to secure his throne from his perceived threats.
It’s been noted that the magi were able to get to Jerusalem by following a star, but required some “special revelation” to augment the “general revelation” that led them to Jerusalem. Here, they required the prophets to supplement their knowledge of the star. The scribes produced a reading of Micah 5:2 that pointed to Bethlehem of Judea, one of the smaller and less important clans, and so the magi had the prophetic word as well as the celestial event to guide them.
When the magi arrived at the house where Jesus was born, they brought their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Traditional Christian interpretation has read the gifts as foreshadowing the child’s life. Gold is fitting for royalty, frankincense for priestly duties, and myrrh points to the death he would suffer. Even more important than the gifts, however, was their response to the child: “they knelt down and paid him homage” (2:11). So the magi became believers, even though they were Gentiles from the East who practiced astrology, an activity considered on the fringes and incompatible with God’s purpose on earth by the Torah.
Ironically, we would expect that the “king of the Jews”, the religious leaders of the temple, and the scribes who had devoted their lives to studying Torah to have shown some interest in God’s activities, and yet they showed none. The scribes identified Micah 5:2, which points to a town just a few miles away, but they showed no interest in checking things out. They seemed unable to translate what they read into action. Once they answered Herod, they disappeared from the scene. They lived at the center of power and didn’t care what happened at the margins. Their behavior and attitudes contrasted sharply with the faith of the magi.
Clearly God was at work not at the center of power, but on the margins; not in Jerusalem, but in a small village that carried memories of a glorious past when David was anointed there by Saul. The opening scenes of the Gospel of Matthew anticipate how Matthew’s version of the Gospel will end. When Jesus is buried, the religious leaders urge Pilate to put a guard at the tomb, lest the imposter’s resurrection be proclaimed. But just as the powers that be try and fail to prevent the birth of GOd’s child, they fail to prevent the resurrection, too. God’s purposes here on earth cannot be prevented; God’s purposes will prevail.
What is remarkable about Epiphany in my eyes is that we are not being asked to give. The magi may have given gifts, but what happened that day was them receiving the gift of Jesus into the world. They gave the gifts to the Christ child in response to the gift first given to them. God gave the gift, and the magi were invited to respond with our own gifts and service.
If we were in person today, at this point, I’d ask the ushers to pass around the offering plate and invite you to take a gift out of the plate. In the plate would be stars with various words written on them. Our congregation is filled with people who give freely of their time by baking, cooking, writing notes to others, praying, calling others, and stretching the church budget by giving what they can. We are good at being busy and “doing” for God. Today, I’d invite you to be still in the presence of God and to receive a gift from God. It might be a simple star with a word on it, but this gift is not because we’ve done ANYTHING; it is a gift out of God’s abundant generosity.
Because we aren’t in person, what I’d like to do is have each of you create a star on a piece of paper. Here is my star. From there, each of you will go to a website and spin a random word wheel. That will be your word of the year. Write that word on the star. And then do what you feel is right with the star - some people hang it on their refrigerator. Others put it by the door they use most so that when they leave the house they can be reminded of the word. Still others put it on the bathroom mirror so they can remember it as they get ready each day. What do you do with this word, you might ask… that is up to you. It is YOUR gift from God. Allow your word to speak to YOU. You might start by looking the word up in the dictionary so that you are clear on its meaning; we hear the word grace all the time, but what exactly does it mean? A word that seemed unclear at the beginning may gain new meaning as the year goes on. You might contemplate how it works in your life. You might take it as a sign to work on this aspect of your life.
Throughout the year, I will encourage each of you to share some thoughts, either briefly or at length, about their star gifts. Then we can reflect on the God who continually encourages and strengthens God’s people. Perhaps that is the delight of star gifts—they truly are a gift that keeps on giving, even long after the Epiphany season is over.
Like any other gift, star gifts can either be received with joy or discarded and forgotten. We need to be intentional about our response to our star gift. Will your word on the star be stuffed into a pocket or jammed into the bottom of a purse, never to be considered again? Or will that word be considered an opportunity—a chance to reflect on how God speaks to God’s people? What might we learn from one word? What new ideas might evolve, what treasured wisdom might resurface?
The magi saw the star; they accepted that gift and gave in response to it. What will you do with the gift that you have been given this year?