Like most stories heard over and over again, it would be easy to hear the story of the Wise Men as just the final chapter in the sweet Christmas story of the birth of the little baby Jesus. In fact, even though we know that the Wise Men visited the Christ child one to two years after his birth, we traditionally have the Wise Men appear with the other figures of the nativity scene at the manger in Bethlehem on that silent, holy night of which we sing on Christmas Eve.
So what? What difference does it make if we like to include the Three Kings bringing their gifts to the Christ child on the eve of his actual birth?
The season of Epiphany is the season of light. One of the functions of light is to uncover the truth. Without the gospel of Matthew, we might not know the truth about the Wise Men and what their visit to Jesus really meant for them and for us today. Only Matthew among the four gospel writers tells this story. But it is much bigger than the story we recall from childhood images of Three Kings dressed in many colored robes riding camels over long stretches of sand guided by the star so bright and arriving just in time to bow down and give their gifts to the baby Jesus in the manger.
While this easy- to- view version of the story of the Wise Men dominates our consciousness, it is not the story that Matthew tells. Matthew’s account is marked by brutal honesty and with a mature-audience rated script. While Matthew’s story is about the Wise Men, the name of King Herod appears five times in the 13 verses we read this morning from the gospel. King Herod was widely known and feared for his jealous personality and violent behavior. He had had three of his own sons assassinated in order to protect his power. We read that Herod was shocked with fear when he heard the news that that a new king, a rival to his throne had been born. Soon all of Jerusalem was overshadowed with anxiety as the people heard the news and imagined what impulsive, violent action might next be taken by the ego-driven King Herod.
It was before this powerful and out-of-control King Herod that the Wise Men were secretly ordered to appear. Herod did his best to deceive them with his sinister plan to have the Wise Men continue on their quest to find the child-king and then report back to him so he could supposedly also visit the child and pay homage. Instead of following out this deceitful and deadly plot, the Wise Men put their own lives at risk when after being “warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they returned to their own country by another road.”
If we finished reading the story as told by Matthew we would see in verse 16 King Herod’s name appearing once again: “when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years or under.”
This whole story as told by Matthew is a reminder that the Wise Men traveled and the child-king Jesus entered a world of treacherous evil and tremendous adversity. But in the midst of such a world, the Wise Men discovered a light so bright that they were willing to turn their backs on the power of evil and follow God’s direction.
This is the hope of epiphany: that in the midst of a world of evil and adversity we can discover a light which empowers us with the goodness of God and with new direction for living. As Christian poet Ann Weems puts it:
Creator of the Stars…God of Epiphanies…You are the Great Star…You have marked my path with light…You have filled my sky with stars, naming each star and guiding it until it shines into my heart….awakening me to deeper seeing…new revelations and brighter epiphanies.
O Infinite Star Giver…I now ask for wisdom and courage to follow these stars…for their names are many and my heart is fearful. They shine on me wherever I go: The Star of Hope; The Star of Mercy and Compassion; The Star of Justice and Peace; The Star of Tenderness and Love; The Star of Suffering; The Star of Joy. And every time I feel the shine I am called to follow it, to sing it, to live it all the way to the cross and beyond.
O Creator of the Stars…You have become within me an unending Epiphany.
One of the lessons I have learned from so many of you when facing hard times is that living with adversity and finding direction and hope in God go hand in hand. I think that when I was younger, I had the false belief that with God all things over time would get better, that following God’s direction meant that I would face less and less disappointment and hardship over the years. But now I believe that God does not so much take away adversity or disappointment, but rather works within us to face it in healthier ways. As our gospel story teaches us today, the light of Christ shines in the darkness of life, not apart from it. When we see the light it gives us strength and guidance to go on – sometimes in ways that we would not have chosen.
At the same time, there is no greater joy than bringing the light of Christ to others. We read that when the Wise Men finally saw that the star had stopped over the place where the child was that they were overwhelmed with joy. I am confident that when these men returned to their homeland, they shared their story with others. As they did so, they brought the light of Christ to their world.
There are countless ways we can bring the light of Christ to our world today. I read this past week of a Christian woman named Estella Pyfrom who after retiring from teaching felt led by God to buy a bus, deck it out with computers and desks and now drives what is known in her community as the “Brilliant Bus” which provides a safe place for at-risk children to do their homework and learn computer skills.
Another Christian, noted painter Makoto Fujimura of Japan, worked with other artists for a benefit to raise money for children in Afghanistan. At a gathering of the artists, Fujimura shared some words about the true meaning of Christmas and their opportunity as artists to create works that help bring hope into the world. Reflecting later on that event, he wrote: “I was convinced that evening in Tokyo, that Jesus invited Himself to be among these artists who may not even know His name. Some of these artists have already sensed His presence in their studios as they labored to create peace through their paintings. All gifts of creativity, like the Magi’s star, point straight to the Christ in Bethlehem.”
Bringing the light of Christ to our world is something we can do right here in Central Minnesota as well with others across the world. One partner we have in spreading Christ’s light is Habitat for Humanity. As I mentioned earlier, today after worship we have the opportunity to learn more about how Thrivent Builds Worldwide, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity International, is inviting and equipping a team from local churches to help build homes for families in Nicaragua. Whether or not you are interested in being a member of this mission team, I believe you will find it inspiring simply to attend today’s presentation and learn more about this mission project just as I was inspired when I saw the video the first time.
In addition to worldwide mission projects, there is the local work of Habitat with which our church has partnered in recent years. Tomorrow a couple of us from here will be attending a meeting to learn more about a new Habitat project bringing together Christians and Muslims of our region to build a home together. This project will reflect the light of the star that guided the Wise Men to cross boundaries of culture, race and religion to discover and share God’s love in new and unexpected ways.
Again, the opportunities we have to bring the light of Christ to our world today are countless. Perhaps the greatest obstacle is our own limited thinking and false belief that God cannot use us. To help us overcome this obstacle I end today with an affirmation written by Marianne Williamson, founder of “Project Angel Food,” a meals-on-wheels program that serves homebound people with AIDS in the Los Angeles area. This frequently used quote was first made famous when used by Nelson Mandela as part of his inauguration speech as President of South Africa. He said:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
So may our prayer this day and every day be, “God in Christ, as your light shines on us, let our light also shine.” Amen!