Sermon – January 5, 2020 – Epiphany



Well, another Christmas Day is in the books.  In the stores, all the shiny little bits and bobs that once looked so festive and bright have been marked down 60, 70, maybe even 90 percent, shoved onto out-of-the way shelves to make way for the hearts and flowers of Valentine’s Day.  Even at home, most of us have packed away the tree and the ornaments and all the other little touches that mark our celebrations, and then we’ve hunkered down to face the dreary days of winter.  Life has been slowly returning to the same-old, same-old.

But if Christmas Day is over and done, the season of Christmas is not quite finished yet—not until Epiphany comes on January 6th, when we remember the journey of the Magi.  They stride into our midst, these travelers from exotic lands, a bit weary themselves, foot-sore and travel-stained and accompanied by camels whose manners—and smell—are anything but refined.  Maybe that’s as it should be.  Despite all the Nativity sets and Christmas pageants and even the desires of our hearts, they weren’t there on the night when Jesus was born.  No, by the time they find Mary and Joseph and the baby, the angels and the shepherds and all the other trappings of that holy moment in time have long since faded away and gone back where they came from. After all, they have been on the road, following that star for something like two years, based on what they tell Herod about when they first saw the star.  And Matthew calls Jesus “the Child,” not “the baby” anymore.

That’s a long time to be out wandering in the desert, a long time to go on following nothing more than the hope and promise of a distant star.  There must have been times when the nights grew cloudy and they lost their way, when they had to backtrack and recalibrate and then make a new start.  There must have been dangers along the way—wild animals and outlaws, heat and hardship, hunger… sickness… maybe even doubt and discouragement.  To think that they simply hopped on their camels, much as we might hop on a bus or a train or even a plane, and then arrived at their destination after a brief and pleasant journey is a lovely thought, but not too likely.

The one constant for them was the star, the star that would lead them to the One they wanted to come see, come touch, come worship.  And so they kept on going, no matter what, even when they got it wrong.  At the end, they trusted their own wisdom about where to look for a king and went to the palace.  But that wasn’t where God-with-us was waiting to be found.  And so they had to look again.

The writer of Matthew just says that they finally came to “the place where the child was.”  It sounds as if Mary and Joseph had remained in Bethlehem.  Maybe they decided to wait there for a while, so that when they went home to Nazareth again, there wouldn’t be quite so many questions about how old Jesus really was.  Maybe they stayed with relatives and started to build a new life together there. Bethlehem was the city of Joseph’s family, after all.

In any case, I imagine Mary going about her daily chores, when she looks up and sees these unlikely visitors entering her courtyard.  The memory of that night when she gave birth among the straw and the animals, that night when the angels sang and the shepherds came, had been tucked somewhere in the corners of her mind, hidden under the day-to-day business of cleaning house and making meals and raising a sometimes cranky baby who toddled too close to the fire and cried when he got hurt and fussed when he was teething, a child who needed his diapers changed, a child who needed to be sung to sleep at the end of a long, long day.

The moment hangs suspended in time.  They see her, this ordinary young woman, with a toddler at her side.  A piece of her hair has escaped from the veil she wears on her head, and she absently reaches up to tuck it under the edge of the cloth again as she moves toward them to welcome them.  She worries a bit about what she can offer them, these travelers—these Gentiles—who surely must be mistaken in choosing the home she and Joseph share as a place to stop.

We don’t get to hear what they said to her, nor she to them.  Mathew just tells us that there was great joy, overwhelming joy.  I like to think that these travelers were a reassurance for Mary, and for Joseph, too, that what they had been told about this child wasn’t just something they had imagined in the months they waited for his coming, wasn’t just a dream they had somehow shared on the night he was born.  While life returned to the same-old, same-old—well, as much as it ever does after the birth of a baby—even then, in ways they couldn’t begin to see or even imagine, God was still with them; God was always with them.  Even in the most ordinary of times, when no angels sang and no shepherds appeared and one day was pretty much like another, God was still at work, still knitting stories together to make a new beginning, to make a new world.

And those Magi, those outsiders to God’s promises to Israel—well, they were part of the story, too.  They had dared to believe that God had written an invitation to them in the heavens, an invitation and a promise that this Child had come for them, too.  And in the end, all the wrong turns and the false starts and the wrong questions in the wrong places didn’t matter as much as believing in that invitation, that promise.  When they came to their star-journey’s end, they found a place of welcome, a place of hope, a place of joy, where differences faded in the light of God’s love incarnate.  All the difficulties, all the hardships, all the challenges, the times when they knew just where they were headed and the times they wandered and wished for a clue—none of that was nearly as important as finding this Child and offering all that they had to him.  Their journey and all that it encompassed was part of their gift, too.

This story is an invitation and a promise to us, too.  No matter how strong or weak our faith, there can be times in our lives when we start to wonder about whether we were mistaken about what we believed God has called us to be and do.  Oh, we may not have had angels sing or shepherds show up to visit.  But we have felt those nudges, felt that leading when a door unexpectedly opens, taken one step on an unknown path, waiting to see what would happen next.  Some of us may have been so sure that God wanted us to do some certain thing.  And then we do it, and nothing much happens; nothing changes.  Or even worse, it turns out badly, in a way we could never have imagined.  That’s when we need the Magi to show up in our lives. That’s when we need a sign that God is still with us, still to be trusted, still working things out to redeem the experience and bring something good into being.

And like the Magi, we have set out on life’s path with high hopes and big dreams, only to find that the star we thought we were following has disappeared behind a cloud and we have taken a wrong turn.  We encounter problems we never expected and need to go back and try again.  The challenges we face can feel overpowering.  That’s when we need to remember that no matter how long the road, no matter how many days or weeks or months or even years it took, the Magi—the Wise Ones—kept looking for the star to guide them, and so they got there in the end. And we can look for the light of that Star to guide us, too.  What matters in the long run is just that we keep traveling until we find ourselves face-to-face with Emmanuel, God-with-us, for when we do, we will be welcomed in, strangers no more, our lives and our gifts a fragrant and precious offering to the One who loves us and comes to make us whole.

This is the invitation and promise that comes to us in Jesus Christ, God’s love incarnate.

Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift of love.  Amen.