After Jesus was born, wise men came from the east, even further east than Albemarle. Wise men, magi, were studying the heavens, looking for a divine connection to God who had flung the stars into place like so many twinkling grains of sand. And one night, they saw something strange.
These men knew the stars, the constellations, the heavenly bodies. They knew their rhythmic dance across the night sky as well as you or I might know our ABCs, and one night, something so strange and spectacular appeared off in the distance that they knew it could only be a message from the Lord of heaven and earth, who was speaking to them with a bright and intense star they had never seen before.
They set out from their home in “the East,” we don’t know where exactly, but it was probably Persia, maybe Iran, or one of the something-stan (Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc.) countries we seem to be so afraid of. Now, in our nativity scenes, we usually put the three wise men right there on the other side of the manger from the shepherds, even though we all know better. The star they saw appeared at Jesus’ birth; when King Herod is trying to figure out when this new “king of the Jews” was born, he asks the magi, in verse 7, when the star appeared to get an approximate age of the child. The star appeared at his birth, and it likely took them about two years to get there. They didn’t see baby Jesus, they saw toddler Jesus. Instead of placing the wise men at the manger, we would do better to put them off at a distance, as far away as we can get them, really.
In truth, if we were going to be completely accurate here, we would get our nativity scene out during Advent, pop baby Jesus in there on Christmas Eve as we already do, take the whole thing down and put it away, and then about two years later, move Mary and Joseph into a starter home, get a toddler Jesus figure, and have the wise men finally show up there.
Given the logistical difficulty of doing that, we may want to adopt the practice I have seen in other churches, who place them on a windowsill on Christmas Eve and then move them closer to Jesus each week until he finally gets there on Epiphany to remind us that they journeyed a long way to meet Jesus, and it took them awhile to get there. What good news for the spiritual pilgrims among us who are coming to Jesus from a great distance and taking their time in getting to him.
All along the way, the presence of God was the guide for the journey, shining in a bright and unexpected star.
There have been many theories advanced and debates had about what exactly the three magi saw in the sky. In December and January, you can watch specials on PBS and Discovery Channel about what the wise men might have actually seen. Maybe it was a comet. It could have been a supernova. Perhaps the stars and planets were aligned in such a way that they appeared to come together into some new mega-star. In truth, what it actually was doesn’t matter, because what it said to the magi is far more important.
The star shows how far God reaches to ensure that all people receive the good news of Christ’s birth. Today, on Epiphany, a strange star shining in the sky announces the Gospel to foreigners, adherents to strange religion, people who have more faith in the heavenly beings than the Holy Bible.
They came seeking the Christ after studying the night skies. As someone who is supposed to be a professional in ways that God works to proclaim the Gospel and bring people to faith, my sensibilities would prefer that they came looking for Jesus though a path that makes more sense to me. I would love for the magi to connect with God as I do, through preaching, worship, or sacraments, I would prefer that they have an encounter with Jesus through a Bible study or prayer group, I would prefer that God’s presence was made real to them through a welcoming congregation or some vital mission project.
And yet, that’s not the story the Scriptures give us. God used what they knew and what they believed to get their attention and reveal his presence to them. God reaches those who observe the glorious star at its rising, and methodically, persistently, follow it to a king, and not just any king, the King of Kings.
God didn’t bring the magi to Jesus down a path we would have likely recognized. They didn’t even have to take a confirmation class, for goodness’ sake! Despite our own preferences in the matter, the star in the sky and the magi who chased it until they found Jesus witness to the reality that when it comes to proclaiming the Gospel and bringing people to faith, it’s a bit frightening and a bit wonderful to realize yet again that God’s own work of embracing all people is ultimately more “mystery” than “formula,” and thanks be to God, God’s ways are always bigger than my understanding.
When we see God acting in a way that is different from what we might have expected, we have a choice in how we respond. We can respond with wonder and bask in the radiant light of an unexpected gift from God, or we can join Herod and his friends in responding out of a sense of fear and threat to the status quo. Herod considered himself the king; he didn’t exactly greet the news of a new king with joy. He didn’t rush out to the mall to buy a suitable gift. He conspired with his friends - the self-appointed protectors of the status quo and who had much to lose from a shift in power - in order to exterminate the threat and kill the Christ-child.
Keep reading in the 2nd Chapter of Matthew, and you’ll find Herod slaughtering all the male children around Bethlehem under the age of two. Why? Because of fear. Herod reached out with fear and jealousy just far enough to violently protect his place and preserve his power.
How about us? How will we respond? We can join Herod in not seeing God’s ever-expanding embrace and move to protect and preserve what is ours. Or, we can greet the surprising presence of God in unexpected places and among unlikely people with a sense of wonder and joy. That choice is up to each of us.
Epiphany both proclaims and celebrates the inclusive reach of God’s embrace. God’s presence has come to all who can see the stars in the heavens. The bright star in the sky shows the lengths to which God is willing to go in order to announce the good news of his presence to all the world. Likewise, the response of the magi shows us that faith is a journey that leads us through sometimes strange and foreign places to destinations unknown, yet the promise of God’s presence is both our guide and our reward for making the journey.
Today, we will gather at the Lord’s table and celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion, a place where we know we will experience God’s presence again. And here’s a secret - I don’t understand the holy mystery of God’s presence around this table any better than I understand God’s presence shining from a star. What I do know, however, is this: the mysteries of God are not for us to understand; they are for us to experience.
The only requirement to come to the table today is a desire to experience God’s presence. That’s it. It doesn’t matter where you’ve come from, where you’ve been, how you got here, or how long you’ve been here. Whether you have come to faith in a way that is decent and respectable and recognizable to the person next to you, or if your path has been anything but conventional, you are welcome here. You are welcome at the Lord’s table because 2000 years ago, a bright star brought some unlikely people to their knees before Jesus, and as unlikely as you or the person next to you may think you are, you are still not outside the inclusive reach of the King of Kings, and Jesus has set this table especially for you.
And for someone who is supposed to be a professional in this stuff, this path of experiencing God’s presence is much more familiar to me, but I still don’t understand it. I don’t understand it any better than I understand how a star in the sky was a homing beacon leading the magi to Jesus. But I do know that the presence of God is experienced here, and as we travel through strange and foreign places to destinations unknown, broken bread and poured out wine are both our guide and our reward for making the journey.