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.Matthew 2:9
The Epiphany of Our Lord is properly celebrated on January 6th, but it can be celebrated on the second Sunday of Christmas, which is what our congregation is doing this year. When you think about it, celebrating Epiphany is a great way to begin a new year. Because this story is about people going on a journey to see Jesus, which is a great metaphor for all people of faith. We are all on a journey. In fact, we are on this journey together. To find Jesus, and to worship him. Life is a journey. And our life as Christians is a journey.
Scripture offers us many important journey stories. From Abraham being told to go to the land that God will show him. To the Israelites traveling through the wilderness on their way to the promised land. To Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem before the birth of their son. To Jesus, returning to heaven to prepare a place for us, and reminding us that we won’t get lost on our journey to him, because he is the way, and the truth, and the life.
Life really is a journey, and we are on this journey together, like the magi before us, to find and worship the Savior, who is Christ the Lord. So, with that in mind, what can we learn from the magi that will help us on our journey? Let’s take a “journey” through this Epiphany story (Matthew 2:1-12), to see what we can learn from these wise men, who traveled to find the newborn king.
The story begins by telling us that the magi came to Jerusalem, looking for the child who had been born King of the Jews. They begin this journey, in other words, by going to the wrong place. It’s the logical place. Jerusalem. Where else would the king of the Jews be born? But it’s the wrong place.
Even at his birth, Jesus is showing us that he will be a very different kind of king. And he is going to be full of surprises. And we should expect surprises along the way. As we think of our journey through this life, it is worth remembering that the magi needed more than a star to lead them to Jesus. Wise men still seek him, that’s true. But they can’t find him with wisdom alone. The stars alone won’t lead you to Jesus, no matter how knowledgeable you are.
The magi needed God’s Word to find the newborn king. And they needed the chief priests and scribes, people who knew God’s Word, to help them. So, too, for us. If we want to find the Christ child, we need God’s Word, and we need each other.
It’s true that the magi are first led by a star. And I love that, in part because it teaches us that God starts with people where they are. The magi were people who studied the stars. So God sent them a new star. I believe that God can use almost any event in life, good or bad, to get us on our way, in search of our Savior. Why not a star? But once the magi are on the way, once we are on the way, we need more. We need God’s word. We need each other. The stars won’t get us there. Whatever started us on our journey won’t get us to our final destination.
I have often thought about this with our creed. Think of our creed’s three articles, about God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. How do you come to believe in this God? I think that almost anyone can come to believe in the first part of the creed, God the Father, creator of heaven and earth, simply by observing this incredible universe of ours. But to believe in the second and third parts of the creed, to believe in Jesus, and in the Holy Spirit and the Church, we need something more. We need each other. We need God’s Word. We need the Holy Spirit working through us and through the Word to bring us to this faith. The stars are not enough.
They Knelt Down and Paid Him Homage
But, back to the Magi. They leave Jerusalem, and follow the star once again to Bethlehem, where they find Jesus with his mother Mary. And immediately, they kneel down and pay him homage. They have come all this way for one reason, and one reason only: To worship the newborn King of the Jews. They didn’t come with any kind of agenda. They weren’t looking for the answer to the meaning of life, or anything like that. They weren’t trying to get in good with the king early in his reign. They simply came to pay homage to him, and to offer him gifts. It’s a beautiful description of worship, when you think about it. We come without any kind of agenda. But simply to worship Jesus. And to offer him gifts.
The magi presented Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And let me take us on a quick detour to explain these gifts. There is a traditional explanation, which seems quite reasonable to me. Gold, first of all, is a gift fit for a king. Jesus is born King of the Jews, and so is offered the gift of gold. Frankincense is a gift appropriate for a priest. It was often used in Temple worship and sacrifices. And given to Jesus, it reminds us all that he is a priest, our high priest, who opens the gates of the Temple, and opens the gates of Heaven itself, so that we can worship his Father. And finally, Myrrh turns out to be a prophetic gift, reminding us that Jesus will one day die for the sins of the world. Myrrh was used in ancient times to prepare the dead for burial, and it was used of Jesus after his death. And so, the magi present Jesus with gifts that show him to be a prophet, a priest, and a king. A king who would die for our sins, to open the gates of Heaven, and to put an end to the threat of death.
They Left for Their Own Country by Another Road
When the magi leave Bethlehem, we read that they return home by a different road. They were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. And so, they leave for their own country by another road. I don’t know how much trouble it caused them to leave by another road. I know that when I try that, I usually get lost. GPS has made a big difference in my life. Now, at least, when I take a wrong turn, as I often do, I have a patient, electronic voice helping me to get back on the right road.
The magi returned home by another road, because they were warned not to return to Herod. But I think that their returning home by another road also has a symbolic significance. The magi, after all, are forever changed by their encounter with the Christ child. They will never be the same. They return home different people, and so it is only fitting that they go by another road.
What about us? When we encounter Christ, aren’t our lives forever changed? Surely, when we first encounter Christ in the waters of Holy Baptism, our lives are forever changed. Young or old, we go home with a whole new identity and mission. We are now children of God; citizens of another kingdom, of heaven itself, and our journey will forever take us by another road. And perhaps, every time we come to church we are changed, too. Our sins forgiven, our souls nurtured with the word and sacrament, our priorities re-arranged, we are changed whenever we spend time here in the house of the Lord. Just as the magi were changed when they encountered the Christ child.
The Journey of the Magi
In a powerful poem about the journey of the magi by T.S. Eliot, he writes in the person of one of the magi. And at the end of this poem he reflects on how he is forever changed by the journey. Here are his words:
Were we led all that way for Birth or Death?
There was a Birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death.
Is it a birth or a death when we encounter the Christ child? Is Christmas and Epiphany really about a birth? Or a death? After the magi encountered the Christ child and worshiped him, they went home by another road, their lives forever changed. In a very real way, a part of them died with that journey. But isn’t that true for us?
We are changed by meeting Christ. We die to our old selves when we are baptized into Christ. And we now live a new life, and travel by another road. Our journey is forever changed. Our route needs to be recalculated. Not by a GPS device, nor by a star. But by the Word of God. And by Christ himself, our new way and our new truth and our new life. His birth, ironically, leads to our death – the death of our old selves. Just as his death, ironically, leads to our birth – our birth into eternal life. We gather here to die and to live. To put to death our old ways of sin. And to bring to life our new ways of Christ-like living.
It is a new year, and what a blessing it is to begin this new year together. Truthfully, none of us knows what this year holds for us, or for our world. But we don’t have to. Because we know that wherever this year takes us, Jesus will be with us on the way. We have found him. We have worshiped him. And now we travel on our way, by new and unexpected roads, but always with our Emmanual alongside us.
As you and I travel through this new year together, may the one who created the stars, and gave us his only son, bless us and keep us; may the Lord’s face shine on us with grace and mercy; may the Lord look upon us with favor, and give us peace. Amen.