Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
In the name of God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The story we just heard told in Matthew’s Gospel is one of the most beloved stories in the Christian tradition; one that has been immortalized by authors, artists, and musicians. Poets like Yeats and Williams have put the visit of the wise men to verse. Longfellow named them: Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar. There are literally hundreds of art masterpieces that depict the scene described in today’s Gospel, often under the title “the Adoration of the Magi,” Botticelli and Fra Angelico among them. James Taylor wrote a song about the magi’s journey called and we are all familiar with Menotti’s opera Amahl and the Night Visitors which we have enjoyed twice here at St. Paul’s.
The surprise is that for centuries so much has been made of a story about which we have so little information and even less detail. We refer to these post-Christmas visitors at the Manger as the “Magi” or “Three Kings” yet Matthew never speaks of them as royalty nor specifies how many there were nor does he tell us exactly where in the East from whence they came. We don’t know how long it took them to get to Bethlehem and—while we picture them adoring a baby in the manger—it’s possible that Jesus was already a toddler by the time they arrived.
This is the kind of story where the facts really don’t matter and, in spite of the dearth of information Matthew provides, there is deep meaning in the passage we are given on the very first Sunday we worship in this New Year for this is one of the most ancient feasts, tracing its origin to third century Egypt. It is the Epiphany, a word that means “revelation” and it actually pre-dates the feast of Christmas and was, in fact, originally a dual celebration of the birth of Jesus and his manifestation to the world as Son of God. It is sometimes referred to as “Little Christmas.”
Mathew’s story is full of wonderful images like a star and wise men which have their prototypes in Old Testament passages. In the first lesson, Isaiah presents the promise made to the Israelites after the exile. They returned to a land that was desolate and impoverished. The task of rebuilding was monumental. It was slow and difficult.
In this setting of discouragement, the epiphany of God’s active presence in these historical events is shown forth. This presence is symbolized by the dawning of light and it is this imagery that influenced Matthew’s account of the Magi and the star.
I find particular meaning in this Epiphany’s retelling of the story of the Magi given the state of the world today. We have just left behind a year that will not be missed by a lot of people. It was a year of economic turbulence, loss of jobs and homes, loss of peace of mind and, for some the loss of hope. The story of the Magi it seems to me gives us two very different perspectives on life.
It reminds me of Robert Frost’s poem about the two roads that diverged in the yellow wood and his need to choose one over the other. The wise men had a similar choice to make. Instead of cursing the darkness, they scanned the skies for a sign of hope—for the light that would lead them to the Light of the world. Even when they discovered the star, they might have done nothing about it nor attempted to travel down the road go which it lead.
No, these seekers want something better from life. Somehow, they know that at the other end of this ordinary sign, this dazzling star which they will follow, they will find an extraordinary gift. And so, through unmapped territory, assuming its exorbitant cost and risk, they go. They begin their quest to find what they don’t know will change their lives forever.
The other perspective, the other road, is Herod’s. He is an angry, jealous, self-absorbed individual. His level of paranoia that there are people who want to dethrone him is only outdone by his uncanny ability to be such a hypocrite. Here is a man who prefers to live in the darkness, to curse it, and to bring darkness around all those who surround him.
I think we can all make a personal connection to this story. Do we recognize the profile of Herod in the world when we find one: the pessimist, the naysayer, the jealous one who will do whatever it takes to climb the ladder of success at our expense and, yes, those seemingly well-meaning people whose facade of concern masks an underlying agenda to crush our hopes and dreams?
Do we likewise recognize the Magi around us—in us? They tend to stand out because of their restless spirits, their longing to make a journey to somewhere new, to follow a star, to search for something more, something deeper, some experience of the totally other that transcends their earthly understanding. They may persevere in spite of overwhelming handicaps, have the ability to tune out the negative voices, and the stamina to continue in their excursion to follow their star and to pursue their fullest potential for spiritual regeneration and awakening.
Today we look back on the journey of the wise men, a journey made long, long ago, one immortalized in poetry, in music, and in such splendid works of art, but we also look forward to the New Year and are afforded the opportunity to ask ourselves this wonderful but provocative question: What star will we choose to follow in this New Year? What dream, what purpose, what adventure will we embark on in order to invite and welcome that same divine intervention that brought those wise persons long ago closer to their destination, to the new life they discovered in Bethlehem—to God in Christ—and to the new life that was born in them that day?
And, in order to make that journey successful, will we fight the temptation to sabotage our own best selves? Not to allow negative voices within or without discourage us, even frighten us? As we travel the road of hope into 2010, the road often less taken, will we resist the urge to silence our finest instincts? to think of ourselves as too tired, too busy, to world-weary to expect anything so refreshing and revitalizing; to overwhelmed by the impact of 2009 to anticipate a surprise epiphany of God’s love and care and grace awaiting us ahead? Or will we take the risk, leave a cocoon of what is comfortable and familiar, and open our eyes to that star’s persistent and dazzling light, beckoning us to follow it?
In 1920, poet laureate Rbert Frost wrote:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
God’s speed in your search to find and follow that star, the new light in your life this year. Remember, though, as we have learned today from the visit of the magi, when all is said and done, some journeys simply cannot be turned aside–no matter what the cost.