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Epiphany: Three Surprises and Three Gifts

Sermon | Comments Off on Epiphany: Three Surprises and Three Gifts

Sunday January 7, 2018 Epiphany Sunday
Pr. Bea Chun

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.

Grace to you and peace from the one who is and the one who was and the one who is to come.

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. We heard again the story of the travelers from the East who came to worship the new-born Christ Child. It is a story which some of us have heard since we were little children. Some of us have participated in Christmas pageants where we got to dress up as kings with fancy robes and crowns, bringing gifts to the baby Jesus.

With such a well-known story, there is probably not much that can surprise us… or is there?

Actually, it is a story full of surprises, if only we scratch the surface a little bit.

For example, the travelers. Who were these travelers, and what made them travel? In the 2000 years of Christianity many legends have grown around those travelers. They have come to be seen as kings, because they brought precious gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Most people might bring food or toys or blankets for a newborn child, but these travelers brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

And because of these three specific gifts, the notion arose that there must have been three kings, for the sake of synchronicity, I guess, one gift per king although the story itself does not say so. There could have been 12 travelers or more. And they could have been men as well as women.

Why did they travel? They traveled because they had seen a rising star, and from this star they discerned that a new Jewish king was born. Which means they were either astrologers or practitioners of Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest religions. It is still practiced today in small communities in Iran and in India. In ancient times, Zoroastrians had a great reputation for astrology in which they were highly advanced.

So, this is surprise No 1 – that among the first worshipers of the new born Jesus there were people of another faith. And this is not a conversion story. They came, brought gifts and left. For me, this is a strong affirmation that there are many paths to God. We do not have to compete with other religions, and they do not have to compete with us.

However, we can learn from each other, and be enriched by each other.

I myself have been so enriched by spiritual and theological exchanges with my friends who are rabbis, and I also very much enjoy reading the ecstatic poetry of Rumi who was a Sufi mystic. Rumi lived in Persia, in the 13th century, perhaps in a place very near where the astrologers had seen the rising star! Rumi was a practitioner of Sufism which is a form of Islamic mysticism. He lived so long ago, but his poetry speaks to me as if he knows my own life.

And today we heard about the Magi who did not hesitate to travel beyond their homeland in pursuit of their spiritual quest. That is something to be admired. Too often we act as if we have all the light we need within our own nation, within our own culture, within our own tradition. We are rarely willing to explore the wisdom beyond our familiar territory – even though we have so much to offer to each other.

Worse, our current leadership seeks to disengage with other nations of the world, as if we do no need them. I find this an alarming and tragic development because we need one another. Travelers cannot travel alone, and nations cannot move forward alone. For the sake of the earth we need the wisdom and support of each other.

Now, how did those travelers find their way? When I was a child, I imaged that the star went ahead of the travelers and guided them in their way, sort of like a mother goose guides her goslings. But again, this is not how Matthew presents the story. Yes, the star eventually guides the travelers, but only at the very end, when they are already very near Bethlehem. For most part of the journey they are on their own. They have to navigate deserts and mountains and all kinds of unknown terrain all on their own.

This also explains why the get the address wrong at first. Naturally they assume that the new king of the Jews would be found in Jerusalem. Plus they did not have the benefit of the wonderful navigation system which I have in my car. Whenever I make a wrong turn a voice comes on and says: ‘If possible, make a U-turn’ Sometimes I don’t want to make a U-turn; sometimes I know a short-cut, and sometimes I want to avoid a certain street, but still the system says: ‘If possible, make a U-turn’. And then I either have to make a U-turn of shut off my navigator.

But the travelers did not have such a navigation system, and so they ended up at the wrong address. It was not only wrong, but in the end even dangerous. King Herod was terrified by the news that a new king had been born. King Herod was a puppet king, propped up by the Roman Empire. He was not beloved by the people. He ruled with brutality and terror, and he was constantly worried about possible threats to his rule. He was suspicious, mean, cruel and paranoid. Later in the story we will learn that he orders the murder of all boys under the age of 2. In this way he tried to eliminate any threat to his throne, real or imagined.

But first he needed to find out more about this newborn king, and so, with lies and deception and trickery he tried to get the travelers to do some research for him. Go and search diligently for the child, he says, and then come and tell me all about it. So, without realizing, the travelers had ended up in the lion’s den.

And yet, it is in this scary and dangerous place that the travelers received the help they needed.

Because King Herod had Bible scholars at his disposal, he was able to figure out that Bethlehem, and not Jerusalem was actual birth place of the Messiah.

So, here is surprise No 2 – Sometimes help comes from the most unlikely places, from places and people we least expect. Sometimes we need to go to places and people where we would rather not go,

because it is in those places where we find the key to some of the most important questions in life.

So, thanks to King Herod, the travelers know that they have to go to Bethlehem. And once they travel towards Bethlehem, then, finally, the stars comes and guides them the way I had always pictured it when I was a little girl: a guiding star going ahead of the travelers.

And then, finally, they find the child. Not in a palace, but in a stable. And they are overwhelmed with joy. And then they open their treasure chest and offer their gifts. In this way I find that the gospel of Matthew offers me a helpful alternative to the gospel of Luke. The gospel of Luke often reads as a gospel for the poor, and in the opening chapter, in the song of Mary we are told that God has “brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-52).

I often feel uneasy when I hear those words, because I know that I am among the rich. I am certainly not a millionaire, but I have everything I need and more, and by the standards of the world, I am more than rich. So does that mean I will be sent away empty? Yes, that’s what is means. But it does not have to be a terrible and awful thing. To the contrary, the Gospel of Matthew shows how “going away empty” can be wonderful and joyful. I picture the travelers after they had laid their gifts at the feet of Jesus. Their hands were empty, but their hearts were full of joy. Their treasures allowed them to participate in the unfolding kingdom of God.

And then it was time to complete the journey. In a dream the travelers are warned not to return to Herod. In other words they are told to disobey the king.

So, this is surprise number 3 – this very familiar Christmas story, which many of us have heard hundreds of times, ends with an instruction in civil disobedience! As people of faith most of us tend to be law abiding and respectful of those in authority But we must always obey God more than worldly rulers, and so we need to discern, in how much and to what extent we obey. When do we follow those in authority, and when is it time to stop following their instructions.

So, this story has quite a bit to offer, even if only we are willing to have a closer look!

Today, we stand at the beginning of a new year. And as we enter this new year, with all that lies ahead, the Epiphany story has not only three surprises but also three gifts for us.

The first gift of Epiphany is to inspire in us an open mind, and to look beyond our own tradition, and our own culture, and to expect help even from unlikely places.

The second gift of Epiphany is to inspire us to travel and explore. And we are so lucky here in the Bay Area, we can travel and meet other faiths and other cultures. Right here at the Presidio there is the wonderful Interfaith Chapel and the Interfaith Council which offers all kinds of inspiring programs.

The third gift of Epiphany is to inspire us to participate in the kingdom of God where we may not all have gold and frankincense, but we all have something to contribute!

So, arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of God has risen upon you! Amen.