The following sermon was preached on January 10, 2016 at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Cumberland RI. As this parish does not yet (as the rector was clear to emphasize) keep the The Feast of the Epiphany, they transferred it to the following Sunday. The lessons can be found here. The text of the sermon is copied below and a recording can be found over on SoundCloud. Head over to YouTube to watch the action unfold.
When I was an undergraduate at Rhode Island College, I studied History and Political Science. In this time I discovered a person who has become one of my all time favorite characters from American Political History. In 1977, Harvey Milk was elected as a member of the board of supervisors for San Francisco, California. One of Milk’s most famous speeches is what has become known as the “Hope Speech.” In it he encourages those around him, to use their prophetic voice to stand up for those who are oppressed by hatred and violence: to be beacons of light in an otherwise dark world. At the end of the speech Milk says:
The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great . . . And you and you and you, you have to give people hope.
That is what today is all about. Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany: the day that ends the season of the incarnation. It is a feast that has captivated our hearts and imaginations, and not only our hearts, but those of the world around us. Even the United States Postal Service has a stamp commemorating the journey of the wise men. This feast – one of the most important feasts in the life of the Church – is all about hope. It is about the light of the world becoming flesh and rooting out all places of violence, terror, fear, and oppression. It is about that message being delivered to the entire world.
In preparing for this sermon, I was struck that in almost every commentary I read, there was some scholar – some theologian – writing about the historical and scientific problems of this text. Some debate the scientific nature and historical fact of the star. Was it Halley’s Comet? Was it a star exploding and fading into the universe? Was it just a literary device used by Matthew? Other scholars debate the facts around the wise men themselves. Who are these people? Where do they come from? Why do we name them Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar? If you look at Matthew’s text, the answers to these questions are not revealed. We do not even know how many of them there were. Interpreters of the text have only assumed there are three of them because they bring three gifts – and no one wants to be that guy at the party who shows up empty handed.
With all due respect to those scholars and theologians, they are missing the point. It seems to me that the focus should not be on the historical and scientific fact, but on truth.
Here is the truth of this text: A group of men from a far off place embarked on a hard and difficult journey, they met with a terrified and horrifically violent ruler, and continued their journey until they came to the place that was revealed to them. And when they reached that place they were overjoyed, and they knelt down and worshipped the King of the Jews, the Messiah, the Christ Child – they bowed themselves in the most sincere and self-emptying way and prayed to Jesus.
Three unknown men left everything behind in search of that which would not only change their lives, but would change the entire course of human history.
Instead of turning to the Star and to the Wise Men for historical and scientific fact we turn to them for truth. For in their truth something about God, and something about us is revealed.
The Star plays a prominent role in the text we have just heard. The star is what tips off the wise men that the king of the Jews has been born. It is by the star that Herod learns the exact time of Jesus’ birth (this is really important for the story that immediate follows today’s passage). It is the star that guides the wise men on their journey to Bethlehem, and it is only when the start stops that they know they have arrived at their destination. Whatever the scientific reality of the star is, what matters for us is that the star is a symbol of our need for divine revelation to see the Messiah and king. Without this divine revelation, without the star, we would miss the Messiah. We cannot find God on our own. God must be revealed to us. In order to find the real meaning of Christmas – in order to find the real meaning of the incarnation – we must follow the star. But the need for the star only goes so far.
Our passage from Matthew ends: “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” No star is mentioned. On the way to Bethlehem, on their way to discover the newborn Messiah, the wise men had no idea where they were going and so they needed to be led. But once they saw the light of the world made flesh they no longer needed that bright star in the sky. Once they saw the child, they had an enflamed heart because of this divine revelation and manifestation and their memory was illumined because they would never – they could never – forget what they saw.
This motif of light is a powerful and profound one throughout much of Scripture, and is particularly prominent through Christmastide and the Epiphany. One the first Sunday after Christmas Day we hear in the prologue of John Gospel: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” And today, we hear the great prophet Isaiah proclaim, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.”
The coming of this light into the world is an amazing and remarkable thing. This light is the only thing that can scatter the darkness from the world – it is the only thing that can scatter the darkness and shadows from our own lives. But we have to be willing to let that light in and we have to be willing to let that light shine through us. We have to, as Eugene Peterson in The Message writes for this morning’s Isaiah passage, “Get out bed, Jerusalem! Wake up. Put your face in the sunlight.” The wise men understood this. They got up, left everything behind, and followed the star to Bethlehem.
If we read deeper into Matthew’s text, another layer is added that amplifies the importance and significance of the devotion of the wise men. When these men saw the star they knew to interpret it as a sign of the birth of Jesus, so they got up and went. What is remarkable about this, is that the wise men – those that find the king of the Jews – are not themselves Jewish. They did not have the Scriptures, the words of the Prophets to direct them, but still they saw something and were aware enough, awake enough, paying attention enough to see that something amazing had taken place. The Gospel passage tells us that when Herod calls all the chief priest and scribes, they use the words of the Prophets – they use the words of Scripture – and tell him where the Messiah has been born. All along they had the texts in front of them yet they were too blind to see. This is an important detail for Matthew. Not only does this foreshadow the rejection Jesus will face from his own people, it also points to the fact that the Messiah has come not just for one particular group – the Messiah has come for all people. The God we hear described throughout the Old Testament as untouchable and unknowable has taken on human flesh so that all people – so that you and me might be able to know, experience, and hold God in our very midst. The wise men, these foreigners, these unknown people are the ones that point us to the realities of this new relationship between God and humanity.
In fact, the entirety of the incarnation narrative is revealed by the unexpected. Elizabeth, old and barren, conceives a child; the forerunner, the one who will prepare the way. Mary, a young, teenage, unwed woman was greeted by an Angel, “Hail Favored One” and by the power of the Holy Spirit He became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man. The Shepherds – those living both literally and figuratively on the outskirts of society – were the first of hear the news of great joy. The wise men traveled from a foreign land to offer gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It was not Herod, it was not the chief priests and scribes who first heard the Good News – it was the women, the shepherds, and the foreigners.
This is something really important to pay attention to, it is crucial not only for the Gospel narrative, but for our relationship with God as well. Because, when Elizabeth conceives; when the Shepherds are filled with joy; when the wise men bow down in adoration; when Mary says “yes;” we loose our ability to say “no,” we loose our ability to deny the light that has come into the world to come into our lives. If we dare to be as crazy as the wise men we too can be beacons of light and hope in the seeming unending darkness of the world around us.
That is what’s next. That is what happens now that the wise men have gone home, now that the Christmas trees have been undecorated, now that we have finished our annual celebration of Christmas. What we do now, our work, is clear.
Howard Thurman, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader captures exactly what our work is:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoner
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among the people,
To make music in the heart.
The wise men left, they journeyed home, forever changed by what they saw and experienced in Bethlehem. We too have been to the manager, we have seen the Christ Child, we have beheld the very glory of God in our midst. Now it is our turn to return home, to return to work, to return school and show that the brightness of the star, the brightness of the light of Christ, dwells in us richly. It is our work to be beacons of light and hope in the world that the power of Christ may continue to root out darkness, fear, pain, and anxiety: That the light and hope of Christ may prevail.
We must be brave enough and crazy enough to take on and continue this journey. There are no more excuses. We can only say yes. Because the only thing this world has to look forward to is hope. And we have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come when the pressures of the world are too great. Christ is the only hope for the world. And you, and you, and us – we have to give them this hope.