Today we are celebrating The Epiphany, which actually takes place on January 6. This story of the three magi is an integral part of the story of Jesus’ birth. The author of the Gospel of Luke is responsible for sharing a great deal of the story – the birth of John the Baptizer, the angel’s appearance to Mary, and the beautiful words of Mary, which we call The Magnificat, as she declared her acceptance of the great privilege and responsibility offered to her by God. It is in Luke that we learn there was a census and Joseph had to take his betrothed, Mary, who was due to deliver her first child, to Bethlehem. That event fulfilled the prophecies that the messiah would be born of the house of David, from whom Joseph was descended. Luke tells of the angel’s song to the shepherds, announcing the birth of Jesus, signaling he had come for the salvation of the Jewish people.
But there is more to the story. The Gospel of Matthew, the only other narrative which records the birth of Jesus, gives us totally different information. It tells the story of the angel appearing to Joseph and how he also accepted the privilege and responsibility he was offered by God. Upon learning of Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph initially decided to send her away, to marry her off to another man, probably someone much older. That was much kinder than having her stoned to death, the other option for women in her circumstances. But with the intervention of the angel, Joseph changed his mind, defied the customs of the society he lived in, and took Mary as his wife. He protected her and the baby and raised the child as his own son.
Matthew’s narrative does not tell of angels singing in the night sky or shepherds. He tells a story about magi from the east that followed a star and felt compelled to find the child whose birth it signified. These magi are Gentiles from distant lands. Yet they somehow recognize the importance of this child and who he will become. Matthew wants the hearers of his gospel to understand that this child, Jesus, is to be Savior and Lord for both the people of Israel and for the Gentiles. The magi also serve as an example of what it means to welcome the Christ child. They undertake a difficult journey from far away, compelled by an authentic desire to find this newborn king. Upon seeing Jesus, they worship him. Throughout the gospel narratives we will encounter others who also respond to Jesus with almost immediate trust and devotion. An epiphany is a moment in which we suddenly see something in a new or clear way. It is an insight into the essential meaning of something. This story declares the essential meaning of the birth of Jesus, that he is Savior to all humankind and celebrates all those who embrace Jesus with hearts of faith, not just the people of Israel.
When we tell the story of the magi, we tend to add several elements to their story that are actually not found in the Gospel of Matthew. In Christian tradition, the magi are often regarded as kings, even though there is nothing in Matthew’s gospel to suggest this. In countries of Hispanic heritage, Epiphany is known as “Three Kings Day” and its importance rivals Christmas itself. We also commonly state that there are three magi, and they have even been given several different sets of names throughout the centuries, although there is nothing in Matthew’s account which tells us that there were three of them or their names. As it turns out, it is even stranger that the word magi is translated as wise men in the NRSV, even though there is nothing in Matthew’s gospel that tells us that they were wise or that they were all men.
Historical evidence indicates that magi were astrologers and interpreters of dreams, especially in eastern cultures that had been influenced by Persian customs. They were not kings themselves, but some of them served as advisors in the courts of kings. It is likely that most such advisors were men, but probable that some could have been women. There is also evidence suggesting that the magi may have been itinerant, traveling in large groups that included their families — like roaming gypsies.
In the first century, some Gentiles would have regarded magi as wise. But others, especially the Israelites, considered magi to be fools. We know this from nearly every reference to them in Hebrew texts that survive from that time. So it is very likely that most recipients of Matthew’s gospel — most of whom were Jewish Christians — would not have held magi in high regard. Most early Christians would not have heard this story as being about the wisest and most discerning among the Gentiles coming with great reverence to honor the newborn king. They would have heard it as a puzzling tale, about a bunch of Eastern astrologers who were led by a star to see Jesus. They would have wondered, “What was God up to?”
Matthew was sharing the essential meaning of the birth of Christ, which is revealed in the rest of his narrative. As the story of Jesus unfolds, we see him choosing fishermen, sinners, rebels and tax collectors – ordinary people, the most unexpected people in society – to be his disciples. He tells the Pharisees, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” He commends a Canaanite woman, a Gentile, for her great faith. He tells his disciples, “Whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.” He defines heroic deeds as having concern for the least among us, and sets the example for us in his own miracles of healing.
The Rev. Terri McDowell Ott, who serves as a chaplain at Monmouth College in Illinois, a college founded in the Presbyterian tradition, tells the story of a young woman who approached her following a program on the meaning of life. She was an atheist, but curious and in search of the true meaning of life. A professor had encouraged her to attend the Christmas Convocation, a beautiful, traditional, candlelight Christmas service for the college community before they go on break. For some students it is the first Christmas service they ever attend. Emma loved the service. She had grown up attending church but had decided she did not agree with its beliefs. But she missed the sense of belonging and community. The Christmas Convocation had served as an epiphany for her. Pastor Ott suggested that she attend Monday chapel services, even if she just sat in a far corner and observed. For months she attended and gradually moved her seat closer to the other participants. Emma graduated two years ago, and Pastor Ott hopes that she has found another faith community where she feels she belongs. Although when she began as chaplain Pastor Ott doubted her ability to connect meaningfully with those students who call themselves “nones;” that is, without any faith, she has seen many such epiphanies as they become engaged in the welcoming and non-judgmental faith community that the college offers.
For Matthew, it is of the utmost importance that we understand that those whom the world often finds foolish, naïve, powerless, and/or trusting like children are more likely to open our hearts and minds to Christ. That God’s kingdom makes little headway among those of us who hoard our riches, those who, like King Herod, seek to preserve our privileged positions, who celebrate our status at the expense of others, who so trust in our own wisdom that we are blind to the way of blessing that God is making known in plain sight before us. The Kingdom of God comes to those of us who set aside the lies proclaimed by the false prophets of this world, and place our trust in the truth and love of God made known in Emmanuel, God with us. Amen.