In the whole story of Christmas, the wise men get a bum deal. We put out the nativity set early in Advent, but the wise men stay in the back room in a box until today. Even after Jesus is put in the manger on Christmas Eve, the wise men stay hidden. And today they make their final and only appearance.
Today we celebrate Epiphany Sunday, the day when we commemorate the three magi, or wise men, making their way to Bethlehem. Today is essentially the end of our retelling of the Christmas story. After the twelve days of Christmas, the magi finally make it to the manger, and see Jesus for the first time.
Their journey started long before they finally reached their destination, though. And through the centuries the story has been somewhat embellished. For instance, the three wise men have been given names: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar. Tradition also holds that they came from distant lands, but no one really knows which. Maybe one was from Persia, maybe one from somewhere on the Arabian peninsula. Maybe another from India, or even China.
But the reality is that the Biblical account doesn’t tell us any of this. It doesn’t even tell us there were three of them. It only tells us that wise men came from “the east”, and they started to ask about this new king who had been born, and they were telling everyone about this star that they had seen. And they followed it to the manger’s edge, and brought the gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Scripture also tells us that King Herod, the king over the region, heard that these guys were in town and they were looking for a newborn king. And this must have been very surprising to Herod because he was the king. And he didn’t know of any others. So he called the wise men to him and tried to find out what they knew. And he asked them to go find the newborn king and report back to him. But the wise men saw through it and knew that Herod was up to no good. And so, as Scripture says, the magi went home by another road.
So, that’s the story of the Epiphany. And it might not sound all that momentous. We tell this story, and then we sing “We Three Kings”, and then, after one day out of the box, we pack up the wise men, and the rest of the nativity, for another year and we go back to what the church calls “ordinary time”.
I think that’s too bad. Because I think there’s more to the story of the magi than we give credit for. Because even though the wise men only pop up on one Sunday, their story is in so many ways our own story. And that’s because, we’re all looking for a sign. We’re all looking for a moment of revelation. We are all, in some way, waiting for that moment that will make everything crystal clear, and give us all the answers we need. That’s what an epiphany is after all, and my guess is we all want one.
The trouble with that, though, is that we don’t always get bright stars in the sky leading the way for us. In fact, I think we rarely do.
That’s been my Epiphany Sunday sermon for every year since I began pastoring: you don’t get a shining star or angels singing or a loud commotion that gets your attention. And then last year, on this same Sunday, I was in the pulpit in Vermont and I had just said “I have never had an epiphany like that.”
And honest to goodness, right at that moment, all the snow that was on the top of the church’s roof thundered down off of it and landed right next to the church windows in a loud avalanche. And we were on top of a mountain. There was a lot of snow. It took a good while for it all to fall, and it was so loud I couldn’t even preach until it was all done.
So, you can view that two ways. One, it was just a coincidence. Or, two, it was a sign that God has an incredible sense of humor. I don’t rule either out. But regardless of what happened that morning, it made me think. And I began to wonder, what if maybe the signs are actually all around us, but we just keep missing them?
Or, more likely, what if we aren’t missing them, but we just aren’t willing to do what it takes to take them seriously?
I think about the wise men, and I think about what it must have taken to see that star, and decide to set out on that journey. Did they look up one day and just know what it meant? Or did they ponder it, and research it, and then decide “this makes no sense whatsoever, but that star means something and I’m going to follow it”? And once they started out on that journey, once they were on their way, sometimes lost, sometimes hungry, sometimes unsure, did they doubt? Did they ever want to just go back home?
And I think about King Herod too. What was it like when his peers, the other kings, came to him asking about the new king that had been born in his own kingdom? What was it like when he knew absolutely nothing about it? And how had he somehow lived under that very same star, and never realized what it meant?
I think that’s the question. Because, whether we realize it or not, I think we all get stars. Some are truly more subtle than others, but I believe God does surround us with signs. Sometimes they are as obvious as bright stars in the sky, but more likely they come in everyday clothing. The words of a friend. The nudge that comes to us in prayer. The urge we have to open our hearts in new ways. Maybe even the rock bottom we hit when we finally realize we can’t keep doing what we are doing and hope to truly live.
We have a choice when things like that happen. We can shrug them off, and ignore them. Or, we can take them as what they might well be: moments of revelation. Little epiphanies all around us.
But here’s the catch; once you get a little taste of the revelation, once you finally realize why that star looks so bright these days, that doesn’t just mean that the world around you has changed in some way. That means that you are different. And it also means that you will continue to be asked to do something different. And that can be frightening.
When the magi realized that the star meant something big was happening, they couldn’t just sit around at home anymore. They knew they had to start the journey. And they knew they would never be the same.
But Herod, instead of joining the other kings, and making what would have been a very short journey for him, he just stayed home. He chose not to take the journey that could have changed everything. One that maybe would have even changed him, and his fear.
We get that same choice. When we finally sense what God is doing all around us, when we finally get a taste of revelation, we can set out on a journey that will change us. Or, we can just stand still, and refuse to be changed.
When the wise men finally saw Jesus, they set off on their way home. But, they would never be the same again. They had taken a journey that had changed everything, and had changed them. And when they left, instead of going back to tell King Herod about it, instead of aiding him in destroying the new king who frightened him so much, they instead went home by another road.
Epiphanies, revelations, mean that we are going to be called out on new journeys in order to see amazing things. But they also mean that we are going to have to learn new roads too. Not even the wise men could be guaranteed an easy journey, not even after seeing Christ himself in the flesh. So why should it be any different for us?
But here’s the good news. And that’s that the wise men found each other on the journey. When you think about that, how incredible if that? They didn’t have texts, or email, or phones back then. A letter wouldn’t have made it in time. Instead, they somehow found one another out on the road. And together they made their way to Bethlehem. And together they were changed.
I think that’s good news for those of us who gather back here each week together. Scripture does not speak of one wise person coming to the manger. It doesn’t even speak of people coming on their own, separately. It speaks of people finding one another, and then, quite literally, finding God.
That’s not to say the journey will always be easy. But that is to say that maybe it will be better together. Maybe there’s something about what we are doing here that’s more than just getting together one hour every Sunday morning. Maybe this is the start of an amazing journey, and maybe, just maybe, we are on our way to seeing God together. Amen?