Welcome to the season of Epiphany. The season of illumination – where we announce God’s light as revealed and radiated throughout all of creation. So don’t put away your Christmas lights just yet. Keep them up for a couple more weeks. They remind us of this season of light. It is fitting that we have a reading from the Gospel of Matthew, which has a particular infatuation with light, beginning right here in our story of the wise men for today.
The whole story gets started because of a light. A star shinning like a diamond in the sky. But what is almost more amazing than this star dancing in the moonlight is the people who first saw that star. Those three kings or three wise men, however you like to call them. But you know, nowhere in the text are they referred to as kings. And nowhere does it say that there were three of them. We are so familiar with this story that we forget what it actually says. And it doesn’t say much about them. All we really know about these so-called wise men is that they are different. They are different. They come from another land. The East. They are foreigners. They are non-religious. They are not Jewish. They don’t worship in a temple. They are astrologers and magicians who watch the sky. So you can see how that’s the particularly amazing part of this story. That this guiding light leading to the Christ child would be revealed to these men who are different then everyone else. And that they become the ones who point it out to the rest of the world.
So these wise men – who knows how many – see this star shinning and they follow it all the way to Jerusalem to the palace of King Herod. They come up to King Herod and they say, “Uhh…have you seen the king of the Jews? We’re looking for the child born king of the Jews.” Now that takes guts. To walk up to King Herod, the king of the Jews, and to say, “Have you seen the king anywhere?” And notice how King Herod responds. He becomes frightened. And so does all of Jerusalem.
The bible says that love casts out fear. But the opposite is true as well – fear casts out love. Think about it…it is hard to love when we are afraid. And often we are fearful when people who are different than us come into our life. Too often we become afraid of what their presence might mean. We are afraid of the change they might bring. And as a result, it makes it very difficult to love those who are different than us.
I’m not saying Herod wasn’t right to be afraid. The wise men are coming to point to the One with ultimate power. A new king who will outlast Herod – a child born in Bethlehem named Jesus. Who rules not with power and might, but with unconditional love and forgiveness.
So then, King Herod who is now afraid of these men speaks with the religious ones, the chief priests and the pastors. Who didn’t see this star in the sky, by the way. Together they learn that this child must be in Bethlehem. So King Herod sends these wise men to Bethlehem to find this child born the king of the Jews. They go and on their way they keep following that star in the sky until it stops over a house. Not a stable, mind you, so this is probably a couple months or years after Jesus’ birth. They enter the house of Mary and Joseph and they kneel before Jesus. These non-religious, non-Jewish, magicians, who are different come and kneel before Jesus. Pointing the way to the Christ child.
God uses people who are different – these so-called wise men – and they become the ones who point us to the Christ child.
This is a story about how God’s embrace is getting broader and broader and broader. The grace and love and activity of God reaches far beyond any boundaries that we might set up between who is inside and who is outside. The God found in the Christ child and in the story of the wise men reveals that there is no longer insider or outsider. All are welcomed into and participate in God’s saving grace for the world. This is the way of God.
Which then begs the questions, who are the people in our lives who are different and maybe even stir up fear in us and might God be revealing Christ to us through them?
A couple of years ago, on a winter Sunday morning, I decided to go to a church I had never been to before. The church worshipped in a school auditorium. So I pull into the parking lot of the school, close to the front doors. And as I am walking in, all the way over on the other side of the parking lot, I see a Muslim man. A man whom our culture has told me to be afraid of, just like Herod was afraid of the wise men. And this man has two beat up traffic cones and is standing beside what I assume was the cheapest van he could afford. And in the driver’s seat of the van was his wife. He was teaching her how to drive. I watched them for a couple of minutes and even though I knew nothing about them, you could get a sense of their story. Here was a husband and a wife, in a foreign country, just trying to get by. Perhaps they fled violence from their homeland. Perhaps they fled poverty in search of a better life. I don’t know their circumstances. But here was this man, compassionately yet quietly, teaching his wife how to drive, probably so that she could find work. About an hour later, when I walked out of church, I realized that I experienced Christ more fully in watching this Muslim man care for his family than I did in going to church. He was a foreigner who was a different religion than I, and his ordinary act pointed me towards Christ.
With God, there are no insiders or outsiders. God’s grace and love for this world reaches far beyond any boundaries we might set up.
Last year, an Owatonna businessman suddenly found himself out of gas on Highway 35 heading back into town. It was about 11:30 at night. He didn’t exactly want to call his wife to get her out of bed to come and get him. All of a sudden a rusty old car pulls up and two Latino men step out. In broken English, they ask him if he needs help. He tells them that he is out of gas and needs to get to a gas station. “We’ll take you,” they say. The whole time, this man is feeling a little uncertain and afraid. Really, God? Can I trust these men? Is this safe? Well, he goes with them. The two men end up paying for his gas and on the way back, he learns that when they stopped to help him, they had been going in the opposite direction. Which means, they turned around at the Medford roundabout to come back for him. In the end, when he tried to pay them for what they did, they declined, saying, “No, no. We are from Owatonna and we are Christian. We wanted to help you.” And then they were gone.
With God, there are no longer insiders and outsiders. God’s grace and love for this world reaches far beyond any boundaries we might set up.
And so, I wonder, where do our boundaries need to be stretched? Who is God inviting us to welcome into our life as a way of growing our own circle of love? Where is God pulling on our hearts, making them bigger and bigger so that there is room for more in there? Our theme for this year is Feeding Body with the Love of Jesus. What type of bodies, what type of flesh and blood people is God calling us to reach out to and feed?
Is it the lost driver on your street with a different skin color than yours and poor English? Is it the kid at school who acts and dresses a little bit different than everyone else? Is it your gay family member who no one really speaks to anymore? Because the truth is, just as Christ lived and died for you, just as you are today. With all of your fears and failures, insecurities and inadequacies. Christ lived and died for them too. Just as they are.
We are all in this story, but I don’t know what part each of us plays. You might be the insiders, the Herods and the chief priests. The ones who are afraid of those who are different and fearful of what their presence in your life might mean. Or you might be the wise men. The ones who are different and foreign in someway. Either way, I hope and pray that all of us leave here changed and different. Because today, God comes to you speaking a word that declares that you are not an insider. And you are not an outsider. God’s grace and mercy and love for this world extend far beyond any of our imaginations. There are no longer insiders and outsiders; we are all tangled up in God’s grace, now and forever.
One last thing. Did you notice what the wise men did when they left Jesus? They went home another way. That’s what happens when we encounter Jesus and we are transformed. Our whole life is rerouted.
So, this morning, as a way of living out your faith, as a way of participating in this epiphany story of the wise men, I invite you to go home a different way. If you usually head east out of the parking lot, go west. If you usually go west, head east. If your home is north of here, drive south for a couple of blocks. Who knows what you will see. Either way, you get to see a new piece of this world and the people and creation in it, that God loves so much. Thanks be to God. AMEN