Welcome to a new year, friends, of wondering, of wandering, of learning our way through Scripture together. It’s been two whole weeks since I was last with you for worship, and although I missed gathering with you, visiting family and friends was a good and holy disruption to my normal routine.
This morning, we’re in the gospel according to Matthew. Today, we’re celebrating the Feast of Epiphany, celebrating the day when the magi from the east encountered Jesus for the first time. Our nativity scenes are a little misleading in this regard—they didn’t arrive right after Jesus was born. Instead, they would have arrived when Jesus was about two years old. But a running, screaming toddler Jesus is way less cute and contained than a newborn, so we contemporary celebrants tend to lump everyone together at the manger scene.
There’s a lot going on in this chapter, so we’re going to dive right in.
Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12
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.
Y’all know by now that I’m a bit of a language nerd, so bear with me for a moment. In the ancient world, particularly in ancient Greek, there were no punctuation marks, no exclamation points, no bold or italic fonts to create emphasis in writing. Can you imagine if you had to text without exclamation points or emojis? How would you get your idea across?
So in order to emphasize something, they would either use repetition, like Isaiah does when he says “comfort, comfort my people,” or a particular writing structure. This is one of those structures, called a chiasm. It creates a sort of literary funnel, a way to organize themes in an A-B-C-B-A pattern. Writers used this to highlight the idea in the center and emphasize the ideas on either side.
In this particular passage, we begin and end with the wise men, or magi, traveling to and from Jesus. One step further, we begin with Herod’s terror at the idea of a King of the Jews, and end with the magi’s celebration of Jesus. This highlights the contrast between the two.
In the center, however, is the quote from Micah: ‘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.’”
This is the epiphany.
This is the sudden revelation from God that is very suddenly a threat to the established order of things. Because if Jesus really is the King of the Jews, then Herod is not. If Jesus is the ruler who is to shepherd Israel, then Caesar is not.
Until this moment, everyone in this passage, maybe with the exception of Mary and Joseph, are running on autopilot. Both the magi and Herod make assumptions and decisions based on their experiences and habits and traditions. We are creatures of habit, and we will continue doing the same things in the same way unless we’re interrupted—in this case, they encounter a sudden and inexplicable revelation. An epiphany, you might say.
The magi, or wise men, or three kings, depending on the translation you look at, are astronomers and astrologers. They not only studied the stars, but they assigned a particular meaning to how the stars and planets moved across the night sky. The appearance of a new star was a big deal, so they made some calculations and assumptions…and set out. They head for the highest-ranking local ruler, because certainly he would know where to find this new king.
They eventually reach Herod, who was caught completely unaware—he had no idea this threat to his rule was growing right under his nose, and he didn’t know he was expecting visitors. Meanwhile, he was trying to eliminate threats from within his own palace. Not only did he marry ten times, but he also had a penchant for assassinating anyone who he thought might try to overthrow him. Including some of his own sons.
Both the magi and Herod would go searching for Jesus, but with very different ends in mind. One sought out this child who didn’t follow conventional rules filled with wonder, awe, and worship. The other sought to eliminate the disruption, to preserve the established order of things and his own status, power, and way of life.
Epiphany is the opposite of autopilot. An epiphany breaks in. An epiphany comes suddenly and without warning. It cannot be planned for. It cannot be contained or controlled. It can only be welcomed or rejected. We can make room, or we can try to hulk-smash it.
Is there room in your life to be disrupted? Room for surprise and delight?
Is there room for listening, for dreaming, for God to tell you to follow—or to go a different way?
In just a moment, I’m going to invite you to make room to listen to God and follow Jesus in this new year through a very particular practice called ‘Star Words.’ You may have noticed that I have an extra gift bag with me this morning. In this bag are stars.
Each star has a word on it. You don’t get to pick your word—the star will, like a wand, choose you. Think of it as the opposite of a New Year’s Resolution, in which you try to correct some defect in yourself, and receive instead this gift, to carry with you throughout the year.
Take a star—take it home with you, and put it somewhere you can see it. On your bathroom mirror, on top of the coffee pot, as a bookmark in your daily devotional, on your computer monitor. The word on your star may not make sense to you at this point. You may not even like it; but watch for it. Reflect on its presence in your life this year. It may break in like an epiphany. It may slink in like a barn cat.
This weekend, I prayed over each one of these stars—that it would find its way to precisely the right person, to guide them in the way of Jesus.
My hope is that like the star that guided the magi, this word may guide you this year.
May it surprise you in the best ways, may you wrestle with it and poke at it—and may it poke back at you.
As we gather at Christ’s table, we arrive with the same revolutionary patience as the magi. We come seeking the Christ, and we will find him here.