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….”
When I was in college I desperately wanted an Epiphany. That may sound odd. Most college kids want a car or a date with the person they have a crush on or to pass all their exams, and I liked all of those things too, but at the top of the list was this very odd word: Epiphany. I wanted one more than anything.
This is what happens when you are studying theology. You assign big words to things that really don’t require big words. Because, really, I think a lot of college kids want an epiphany. They just call it by another name.
Epiphany roughly translates to “striking appearance”. And it’s just a fancy way of describing a moment when all of a sudden things make sense in a new way. It’s sort of a spiritual breakthrough. You finally get to a place where you know something, and you know what direction to go. It’s like the proverbial lightbulb finally going off.
In college I was trying to figure out whether God wanted me to go to seminary, and into the ministry, and I desperately wanted some definitive guidance. And I wanted it to be dramatic enough that I would recognize it when I saw it. In my head I think I visualized something like a lightening bolt that would stop me in my tracks while music played all around me. And so I spent a couple of years searching for my epiphany.
Today’s story is about another Epiphany, in fact, THE Epiphany. You’ve all heard the story of the three wise men, or the three magi. And you know the hymn: We three kings of orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar, field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star…
Three wise men, or kings, went to Herod, the king, and asked where this new king they had heard about was located. Herod had no idea, and he was scared, so he tried to trick them by telling them to find out and then come tell him so he could worship him. But all Herod really wanted to do was know where he was so he could eliminate the threat to his own kingship. And so the three magi took off and started to follow a star, the star of Bethlehem, until it stopped over the place where Jesus had been born.
When they finally found the new king, it must have been a surprise. They probably expected that they would find a wealthy family with a child who had everything, and an adoring crowd. But instead they found a poor child, in a manger, and without much else. If I were in their position, I might be asking myself, “Did I come to the right place? This doesn’t look like a king?”
But, somehow, that’s when the wise men had an epiphany. And they found the king in the most unlikely place. Scripture tells us that when they did they were filled with joy and right there, they kneeled down and honored him, and gave their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. And afterwards, now wise to why Herod wanted to know where the baby was, they left and went home by another way.
They also went home transformed. They went home having seen a new truth, and a new light. They went home as people who had had an epiphany.
Sometimes, contrary to what my college self thought, epiphanies don’t come easy. They don’t come in the expected places. And they don’t happen the way that you think that they will. When the wise men came to Herod, they went to the most logical place. Of course the king will know where the new king is, they thought. But when he didn’t, they had to strike out on their own, follow new signs, and look for something incredible in the most unlikely of places.
I don’t know what I was thinking in college, but I think I thought that one day I was just going to get a clear and indisputable sign. Maybe I’d be walking to English class and thunder would clap and God would speak to me and say, “okay…fill out those seminary applications.” But of course that never happened. Instead, gradually I felt led to just keep going, to keep investigating, to keep praying, and to keep trusting. I, of course, did go to seminary, and I look back now and see that God was leading me there the whole time, sometimes quietly, but always persistently. The epiphany I wanted to happen in one moment of glory happened gradually and all around me.
That’s the thing about epiphanies. Sometimes you have to work for them. I tend to see our faith journeys as a whole as gradual epiphanies that are unfolding all around us. We rarely get the big moments when everything makes sense, but if we look closely we do get signs along the way. They come like guiding stars in the sky. Companions on our journeys. Moments where we find joy and understanding in the most unlikely of places. And we are transformed by it.
I think about the wise men and what it must have been like for them. There were three of them. This isn’t in Scripture, but by tradition in the church we give them these names: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar. As the legend goes, Melchior was from Persia, Caspar from India, and Balthazar was Arabian. There have been other traditions too, some saying that one of the wise men came from as far as China.
But to me, it doesn’t matter where they came from. What matters is that they joined together on their journey, and they found something greater than themselves. They, quite literally, found God.
When we are at our best, that’s what we try to do in church. And the group of companions on the path is always growing. That’s true today because today we are welcoming new members. Three of them, in fact. Now, I don’t know which is Melchior and which is Caspar and which is Bathazar, but I do know they have each taken their own path to get here.
And so have we all. And now we are here, on this journey together. Looking for the signs. And looking for Christ in all the unexpected places.
I’ll close with this. When I was asked to interview in person to be the pastor of the church I used to serve in Vermont, I drove up for the first time in the middle of winter. It was snowing, and the town was literally on top of a mountain. The roads were horrible. And after the interview I turned on my GPS and started to drive home. I went down one snowy, woodsy country road, and then another, and finally I ended up at a sign that simply said this:
“Your GPS is wrong. Road closed in winter months.”
Later, when I moved there, I learned that someone put that sign up because the road became impassible in winter, and too many people believed their GPS and ended up off the road, needing to be hauled out by a tow truck. I laughed at the sign when I saw it, but I turned around. And once I knew the area, I was grateful for it.
Sometimes we go about our lives listening to a faulty GPS. It gives us easy directions, but they aren’t always the best ones. Sometimes we need companions on the path who hold up signs of caution, signs of encouragement, and signs of hope. And along the way, we help each other to stay on the path, to stay hopeful, and to stay reminded of the fact that each of us is loved by God. We are called to be signs for one another.
That’s what church is all about. Epiphanies rarely come quickly, and when they do come, we rarely get there by ourselves. The three wise people who journeyed to the manger knew that. And, in our hearts, perhaps we know that too. And maybe that’s a big part of why God has called us here together. Amen?