Festival of the Epiphany of Our Lord, January 7/8, 2017
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA + The Rev. Roy Almquist
Moving quietly and majestically, they appear out of the dimness of our human imagining. At first they are just undulating shadows. Eventually we see their form in the eyes of our faith tradition. They are quiet, they are regal, and they are mysterious. They contribute as much intrigue and delight as the angels, the shepherds, and the baby in the manger. They announce that this blessed child belongs to the whole world.
Today we celebrate, a day or two day late, The Feast of Epiphany. As we do so, we hear Matthew’s account of these Wise Men or Magi from the East. The Magi fascinate us also because they do not fit into this tiny stage of hill village and humble stable. Their sophistication clashes with this simplicity, their prestige sits uneasily beside the vulnerability of child and family. They are urban in a rural world, affluent in the midst of poverty.
Through the years Christian believers have seen these Wise Men glide into view on those great ships of the desert, the camels, exotic beasts that silently carried men and cargo across deserts and other arid places, needing little food nor water, brilliantly designed with wide, leathery feet that protected them from the heat of the sand and shifting softness of desert paths.
The Wise Men are Matthew’s contribution to the Christmas story. Luke never mentions them. In Luke we find no Magi, no guiding star, and no glorious gifts … only ordinary shepherds from Bethlehem who briefly heard the song of angels on their hillside. If Luke is the great story teller, Matthew is the rabbinic teacher who tells us things we need to know … even if aspects of the story are unpleasant.
In reality, we have two Epiphany stories … one for children and the other for adults.
The children’s Epiphany story focuses on the camels and the robes and the wonderful gifts that were given to Jesus … no longer an infant, no longer in a stable. The coming of the Wise Men completes this story of the Savior’s birth.
The adult version of the Epiphany reminds us that a note of fear and opposition to Jesus existed from the very beginning. Matthew tells us that King Herod did not receive the news of a newborn king with joy, rather we are told that Herod was afraid and … all Jerusalem with him. [v.3].
We do not need the Bible to tell us that powerful people seek assurance that they will remain in power and their vanity will be fed! History supports this truth and current events would concur. This is what makes what is happening in the United States right now so amazing … the peaceful transfer of power from a sitting President to a President-elect, a revolution determined not be mobs or guns or armies, but by constitution, tradition, and calendar.
Herod was a very bad person, and what made the Wise Men wise was their intuition that they should not let the King coopt them with his corrupt scheme for securing his power. So it was, Matthew tells us, that, after finding the cherished child and honoring Him, they left for their own country by another road. [Matthew 2: 12]
Fear is a powerful force. This adult version of the Epiphany story moves quickly from that glad and golden moment, called the Adoration of the Magi with the presentation of the gifts … to the dark and horrific response of an insecure monarch … the fear-driven violence ordered by the king, the killing of … all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under. [Matthew 2: 16]
Matthew’s account is a sober reminder that the slaughter of the innocents is as close as the evening news or the morning paper. From an Istanbul nightclub on New Year’s morning to the baggage claim section of the Fort Lauderdale International Airport, the innocent die daily for no apparent reason. We live in a world riddled with danger and fear, and the innocents continue to suffer.
I am convinced that Matthew paints the story of Jesus’ birth with these darker strokes precisely so that we can see the glory and the beauty of what God had done for us in sending Jesus into the world to be a sign of God’s love. We must remember that God so loved the world … the whole world … that he sent Jesus, the Word become flesh and dwelling among us. The Wise Men remind us that Jesus did not come for just a small group of people in Palestine … he came to be the Light of the World.
For that reason I have always opposed any attempt to localize, domesticate, or nationalize Jesus. Such endeavors, no matter how well-meaning, are patently wrong. We must remember … particularly in a place like the Chapel that has always had a strong expression of our nation’s history … that there is no such thing as a “Christian nation.” People are Christians … and this nation consists of individuals of varying faith traditions with the fastest growing religious orientation those who would check … none of the above!
The Wise Men came from far away … challenging us to be open and compassionate toward those who come into our midst from other places. The Hebrew Scriptures are clear in a unified call for God’s people to show compassion for widows and orphans and sojourners, foreigners in our midst.
My wife and I have always felt a strong calling to reach out and embrace people who come to us from other places … which is, I believe, the central meaning of the Epiphany:
In the past we have hosted five Rotary exchange students in our home;
Serving a congregation in northern New Jersey in the 1970s we hosted a Vietnamese refugee family of seven people, actually having them live with us in the parsonage for six weeks until their home was ready;
As a Lutheran bishop I encouraged relationships with churches in Tanzania, Africa, and the Czech Republic, enabling exchange and new friendships.
Shannon has always supported the Volunteer English Program to help new people learn our language … she recently took on a new immigrant from Japan. So let us, like the Magi, bow our knees and give to the Lord the best that we are and the best that we have.
As we embrace a New Year, I hope we can extract some inspiration from this story.
As the Wise Men had the courage to move into the unknown, so may we have the determination to embrace some new ideas and different understandings that may come from outside of ourselves. Faith is always a call to travel to a place outside of our comfort zone and to try something new for the sake of the Gospel.
As we prepare to embrace a new era in our national life, let us gain inspiration from the Wise Men. May those of you who are delighted with the election of the new President express your pleasure by working in small ways to strengthen our nation and lift up those who are in need. May those who are disappointed with this new direction in our national life, simply double your determination to live out your values and moral commitments by practical acts of service and sacrifice … not be merely moaning and complaining.
Let us, like the Magi, bow our knees and give to the Lord the best that we are and the best that we have. AMEN.