When I was in elementary school I collected baseball cards. I’d use a little of my allowance to buy a pack, and I’d throw away the horrible, hard gum and then I’d carefully organize the cards, first by team, and then alphabetically by player before taking any duplicates and trading them with some of the guys in my class. I ran a shrewd baseball card operation.
Later I outgrew them, and the cards ended up boxed in our garage. After college my parents sold the house I’d spent the most time in growing up, and moved to Virginia. And when they got to their new house I never saw the cards there, so I figured they had just been thrown out over the years and I didn’t give it much thought.
But last week, as you know, I went down to visit my parents in Virginia. They’re getting ready to sell the “new” house that they’ve lived in for over 15 years now, and move into a newer house my oldest sister is building. And my dad said “hey, we found these boxes…you need to look through them when you come down, because what you don’t want we’ll donate.”
And there, at the back of a closet, unopened for decades, was my box of baseball cards.
Growing up my dad had told me stories of the baseball card collection he had lost. When he had deployed overseas his family had unknowingly thrown away everything from Babe Ruths to Ted Williams. He’d always wondered what those would been worth. And so, pulling the big box of cards out of the closet, I figured I’d hit the jackpot.
So, you might be wondering what this has to do with the Gospel text for today. This is a familiar story. Three wise men, or kings, or magi, followed a star until it brought them to Jesus. The Bible really doesn’t tell us much about them other than that they were in some way wise and powerful, and that they came to Herod, the king of the region, to ask about the new king.
As you can imagine, Herod was not excited to hear this. He was the king, after all. He didn’t want any kind of challenge to his authority. And so he came up with a plan to find out more, so that he could destroy this king. He told the magi, “Go find him, and then come back and tell me how to find him. That way I can go worship him myself.”
Sure, say the wise men. And they kept following the star until they found Jesus and Mary. And they knelt down and gave him the gifts they had brought: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We know this part of the story well. We sing the verses of “We Three Kings” and we remember those gifts.
But that’s not the best part of the story. To me the best part is this: remember how Herod wanted them to come back and tell him everything? An angel warns them what Herod is really up to, and so in order to protect Jesus, and themselves, they end up going home “by another way”.
I’ve always loved how Herod gets out-smarted. He thought destroying this new king would be pretty simple. Just send someone else out to do the hard work, have them report back to you, and then take advantage of their trust in order to destroy the threat.
But the wise men don’t play Herod’s game. Having met Jesus, having figured out that there was something special about this child, they listen to the angel, they see the signs, and they change their game plan.
I’ve often thought about the wise men’s journey to see Jesus. I’ve thought about how treacherous that must have been. First, the three had to find one another. Then, they had to follow this star to a place they knew nothing about, in order to meet this newborn king that looked nothing like a king. They surely got lost at times. Certainly they grew tired. They were far from home, and navigating by faith.
But as much as I’ve thought about the journey there, I’ve never thought much about the journey back.
I’ll bet that as the wise men were getting close to Jesus they felt a sense of relief. “Okay, we’ve made it…now we will go and pay homage, and then we’ll just go back to Herod’s place, hang a left, trek across the desert, retrace our steps and go home.”
But when the angel told them what was happening, all their plans had to change. They couldn’t go home the way they knew. They had to find a new way.
In the church year, Christmas lasts for 12 days. Twelfth Night is on January 5th. But on January 6th, or the Sunday closest to it, we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. This is our commemoration of the day that the Wise Men finally made it to Jesus.
The word Epiphany literally means “manifestation” or “appearance”, and in this context it means Jesus Christ, God in human form, appearing to humanity, as represented by the three wise men.
When you and I talk about “having an epiphany”, though, we might think of it more in terms of having a sudden and brilliant understanding of something. A breakthrough moment, so to speak. “I finally understood how to do calculus” or “now I know what I’m supposed to do with my life”.
Those two meanings of “epiphany” sound so different. But, when you think about it, they’re really not. Because whether you are seeing God’s love with us for the first time, or you are finally getting something, the reality is this: you understand something amazing in a new way, and you are changed by it.
You will never be the same again, and you will never again go home exactly the same way as you always have before. You have been changed, and your world has been changed. And suddenly going back to the things demanding your attention, the Herod’s of the world with their tricks and their traps, hold no power over you anymore, and you know that you can’t go back.
Down in Virginia my dad and I opened up that big box of baseball cards. We pulled out the cards that looked the most promising: the Mark McGwire rookie cards. The Cal Ripkens and Wade Boggs. The Nolan Ryan all star cards.
And then came the moment of truth. I typed the cards’ information into Google, and waited on the results, expecting to have struck gold. Or, at least a little extra cash.
But here’s what I found. I would say that late 1980’s baseball cards, even the most coveted ones, are a dime a dozen. But, honestly, that would be cheating the dime. In fact, you could buy an entire year’s mint-edition, complete set of hundreds of cards online for about $30.
And so Dad and I laughed about that box, stored untouched for about three decades. The one that had survived multiple moves, and taken up closet space. My nine year old self, who painstakingly organized team after team, would have been so disappointed. My investment had been worthless.
Except it wasn’t.
If I could go back in time and talk to myself on the day I boxed up those cards for the last time, I think I’d say this: “These cards…they’re not going to be worth much someday. But, pack up that box anyway. Because years from now, on a winter’s day when Dad is 84, and when you are visiting from far away, you are going to open it. And you are going to sit with one another, and talk, and laugh. And it’s going to be worth it. That’s the epiphany that you will have years from today.”
Sometimes the blessings we expect are different than the blessings we get. Sometimes what we get is even better.
By the next time I see my parents, they’ll be living somewhere else. I’ll literally need to go home by another way. But, it will still be home.
The story of the Epiphany teaches me that God’s path for us is always changing. Where we end up isn’t where we always expected. What we end up with isn’t either. But if we pay attention to the signs on the journey, and we are open to where the road leads, we might just find something that is greater than we could have imagined. Amen?