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The Eve of the Epiphany of the Lord; Matthew 2:1–12

The time is a little more than 2000 years ago. High on the plains of Persia a scholar, we would call him an astrologer or the Greek name magus (plural magi), is intensely studying the night sky. There was no doubt about it anymore. Night after night it has appeared in exactly the same place in the West. Now the scholar is sure; a new star has appeared in the heavens.

New stars do not simply appear; they signify the happening of a great event. But what? The scholar consults even back then ancient writings. There can be only one explanation for this new star; all the ancient authorities agree; the long-awaited King of the Jews, the King who will restore the children of Israel to their former greatness, has been born. This is an event unique in history, this new star can not be simply recorded in the astronomical records, this star demands a response. And so the scholar prepares for a journey, a journey that will be long and hazardous, a journey to see this new-born King.

Other scholars have observed the new star, have reached the same conclusion, and have come to the same decision. Gradually, their paths converge; they discover that they are moving toward the same goal, and in time a small caravan is on its way towards Jerusalem, since where else would a King of the Jews be born.

It is a great, long journey. The distance to be travelled is many hundreds of miles. Much of it is through rugged and mountainous regions, and over waste and desolate deserts. All supplies have to be carried on beasts of burden – donkeys and camels; a sure but slow way to travel. The progress each day will be one or two tens of miles at best, and over the roughest of the country even a handful of miles will be considered excellent progress. Nor is the land the only enemy. Much of the journey is through Arabia, a country of hostile tribes, nations known as thieves and cut-throats. Travel will be safest by night, quietly stealing by the tent-villages of the robbers, but progress will be even slower. It will be cold too at night, in the mountain passes and on the deserts, and scorching hot during the day. The country and the climate will take its toll, animals will perish along the way, and will have to be replaced at the infrequent inns along the caravan routes, at prices far too high. Yes, it is a great, long journey, and a difficult one too.

But, journeys do end, and in time the caravan of scholars from the East arrives in Jerusalem. Such visitors are rare, and will attract attention in any case, but this group quickly becomes the subject of talk all over the city because of the question they are asking. “Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and we have come to pay him homage and to bring gifts to the new king.”

Strange question, and a strange reason for visiting Jerusalem, for no one there knows that a king of the Jews has been born. But these are learned scholars, knowledgeable in the ancient wisdom of the stars, and their story has to be taken seriously. If they claim to have seen the star of a new-born king of the Jews, then almost certainly such a king has indeed been born. This is troublesome to the authorities in Jerusalem, and even more troublesome to King Herod the Great, when he comes to hear of it. If indeed such a birth has happened, it could only be the birth of the long-awaited Messiah. And if the prophesies about the Messiah were true, then his birth will spell doom to the power of Herod, and to all in authority under him, and will bring a great and violent conflict with the Roman occupiers who prop up the puppet government of Herod in Jerusalem.

And so Herod consuls with his own scholars and priests, and learns that the Messiah would have been born in Bethlehem, not Jerusalem. He quickly devises a plan for dealing with this threat to his power. Summoning the visitors from the East, he determines exactly when this new king has been born, and then sends them to Bethlehem, to search out the child, and report back to him. Once found, the child can be swiftly dealt with, and the threat to his power and the stability of Roman rule eliminated.

The scholars from the East continue, travelling the short distance (only about 10 miles, an easy day’s journey) to Bethlehem, with the star they have been following guiding them directly to the house they are seeking. There they finally reach the goal towards which they have been struggling for many weary days and nights. They kneel before the young child Jesus, and Mary his mother, and they offer the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh they have been carrying with them for the entire journey. Then as quickly as they had arrived, they leave, to travel the many weary and dangerous miles homeward; but in a dream they have been warned of Herod, and they avoid Jerusalem.

That’s the Epiphany story, the story of the visitation of an unstated number of wise men, actually astrologers or magi, to the young Jesus. Only the bare outline appears in Matthew’s Gospel, the details that create three kings with names and even specific skin colour in our creche, along with camels donkeys, have been added by tradition, albeit some of it very early tradition. I want to draw your attention to one feature of this story that is easily missed in the detail. It is this feature that makes this story universal, rather than a charming tale from the past. For you see, this is not just a story about the Magi, and Jesus, and Herod, it is a story about us. This story is about human nature and how we react to the new and the unexpected.

There are two personality types in this story; the scholars, and Herod and the authorities in Jerusalem. To both comes the news that something extra-ordinary has happened, that a new chapter in history is about to begin, and these two personalities react very differently.

To the Magi came the message of a new birth through the light of a new star. No matter how bright the star of Bethlehem was, it would still only have been one small point of light among thousands of other small points of light in the immense heavens. Yet the Magi saw the message, the new, in that one small point of light, and were willing to make a great sacrifice in order to see for themselves and reverence the new life that the star had proclaimed to them.
Herod, too, hears of the new life, but Herod’s response is very different. He does not welcome the news of this Messiah, rather, he plots to kill the new life. Where the Magi saw a baby to be visited, a baby to be paid homage, a baby to which to bring gifts; Herod saw a threat to be eliminated.

These two responses to that which is new are not confined to a few verses of Matthew’s Gospel. They are our responses. When we look at ourselves and at our world, we see that there are Magi and Herods within us, and among us. Whenever we become aware of something new, we may respond with a desire to go and see, or with a desire to deny and destroy, and sometimes, conflicted within ourselves, both.

The same is true of our world. There are Magi among us, who eagerly look for signs of the new, and at great sacrifice go and welcome it. And there are Herods among us, whose first response to change and the new is to deny it, suppress it, kill it, do away with it. And these roles are unclear, for sometimes some Herods act like Magi, seeking to destroy some new things while welcoming others, and sometimes some Magi turn into Herods.

The Epiphany story tells us which is the preferred response. For 2000 years the story of the Magi has been told; how they travelled a great distance at great personal sacrifice to welcome the new- born Christ. Legends have grown about them; they have been given names, skin colour, elevated to king status, and even their final resting place is reputed to be Cologne cathedral. Although neither Jews, nor Christians, the Magi have entered the list of heroes of our faith. Herod the Great, on the other hand, despite his undoubted accomplishments (which only historians remember), is known by everyone who has ever heard the Christmas and Epiphany stories as a murderer of young children.

There is something to be learned in this Epiphany story. To the Magi, God announced the birth of the Messiah with the light of a star. They saw that faint message, and followed its call over many hundreds of dangerous miles. They welcomed the new child, and brought him gifts. They were open to the call of God to come and see what God had accomplished in this birth.

For us, too, the call of God to new life may be as faint as the glimmer of a star. Following this faint call may seem as long and as dangerous as the journey from Persia, through Arabia, to Bethlehem. Yet we are called to follow, trusting that God will continue to guide us, and will eventually bring us face to face with our particular child of Bethlehem, before whom we can kneel and pay homage, and to whom we can bring our gifts.

Only we, each one of us alone, can discern the faint glimmer that is God calling us to something new and different. And only we decide whether we will be a Magus, and follow no matter where we are led, or Herod, and deny and destroy that which is new, and cling to the old. The Epiphany story shows us which response brings us to new life.

Copyright ©2023 by Gerry Mueller