January 9, 2022/Epiphany of the Lord
It is the end of the Christmas story, these twelve verses in the Gospel of Matthew. Along with a pregnant woman who had been barren, a virgin tapped by an angel to carry the Son of God, and a bunch of shepherds keeping an eye on a herd of sheep, these wise men are familiar characters in our Christmas play. They enter, stage right, in the last scene, crowns a little crooked and dusty, gifts shoved toward a crying baby nestled in the prickly hay.
We don’t pay these wise men – or the other characters, for that matter – a lot of attention. We nod as the story is read, crane our necks to see which child is playing Joseph this year, but we don’t really listen. We’ve heard it all before, so many times. We can tell the story ourselves, a blending of the gospel accounts that we rush through so we can get back to the important stuff like buying presents and planning parties and deciding when we’ll take down the dry, shedding tree.
But even if you didn’t pay much attention to the other stories, this one deserves your ear. This story, of wise men – or astrologers, or magi, we don’t really know what they were – is remarkable in what it tells us about the birth of the Christ child, in what it tells us about God’s way with us as people.
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” (vs. 1-2).
Wise men from the East came. Not local folk or Jewish prophets or anyone who might be familiar with what those prophets had said about God’s promised Messiah. No, these were wise men from the East. They were foreigners. They didn’t belong in Jerusalem. This was not their Messiah.
Or was it?
Because these wise men (we made up the number three; it could have been a whole posse of wise men or maybe only two) – these wise men saw a star. They saw a star because that was what they did – watch the night sky for new things, new discoveries, new epiphanies. New appearances in the heavens that heralded something remarkable. Like the birth of a Savior. The king of the Jews.
They saw a star, and that star spoke to them. They weren’t Jewish. They didn’t have the words of Isaiah ringing in their ears, compelling them to watch the skies for a sign – Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you! (Isaiah 60:1). Nature herself, God’s own creation, revealed the arrival of God-with-us to these pagan men. And they could not but go. They could not but pack for the strenuous journey, climb up on the backs of their camels, and make their way to Jerusalem in search of this newborn king.
And when the star stopped over the place where he lay, when they found him, suckling at his mother’s breast in the sweet, rich air of the barn, they were overwhelmed with joy. Overwhelmed. Unpacking their bags, they drew forth the only things they had to give him. Not very baby-friendly gifts, but gifts that spoke of their desire to honor this little one. Witnessing God’s magnificent generosity in the gift of God’s self in the form of a baby, they responded with gifts of their own. Their gifts signaled their understanding that those who would follow this One “are called to participate in this infinite generosity by giving themselves to God and others freely.”
I hope you haven’t packed away your Christmas decorations in a fit of new year’s tidiness. Because I want you to go home – or if you have boxed everything up and hauled it into the attic, come up here following worship – and look at the manger scene one more time. Really look at it. I hope yours has the full cast of characters – Mary and Joseph and the baby, of course, but also the shepherds, the angel, the wise men, and all the smelly animals. Look at this strange gathering, hovering around a barn, all focused on the same thing. All focused on a little baby. Babies do that, of course. They draw our attention. But this scene is different, somehow. The people are different. They don’t really belong together. They don’t really have anything in common. But there they are, in this place, and their faces all look – overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with joy. Because that’s what this baby does. This baby calls to our hearts, if we will really listen. This baby calls us to follow. And if we really listen, we will not be able to say no.
 William J. Danaher Jr., Feasting on the Word C/1, 215