In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Remember the movie “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles”? It must have been on TV a dozen times in December. I could summarize it briefly and say it’s about the misadventures of a businessman trying to get home to his family for Christmas despite weather and a persistent pest who accompanies him…but that’s not enough really. It might help to remind you that it stars Steve Martin and John Candy…and it’s about a long series of stages of a journey both to a physical location, and a certain warmth of heart.
Ben and I took a bit of a journey this fall when we traveled to a friend’s mountain house for vacation. We had directions, and we recognized most of the landmarks, but perhaps because we were so excited to be on the trip, it seemed like it took forever. We got past Raleigh and thought, “we’re getting closer.” We exited I-40 at Winston-Salem and thought, “are we there yet?” We passed through towns and cities of varying size and got to Boone: “We must be almost there.”
At Banner Elk we started looking for the last landmark, and we knew we were just a mile or so away…until we looked at the last line of the directions: “the road up the mountain is steep, and the last switchback can be a challenge. Just put your foot down and you’ll be fine.”
It was a challenge…that’s putting it mildly. And we did indeed figure out that accelerating up the steep slope was the only way we’d make it. We got stuck, but only for a moment, and then we were at our destination, the end of our journey. It was hard work, it took a long time, to go to that place we’d never been and have the great time there that we wouldn’t have had otherwise.
I think that must be part of what makes a trip into a journey. Living here in Beaufort, I would almost never call a trip to the grocery store a journey. To begin with, it’s only a mile or so from my house. And unless you count trying to turn left onto 70 a challenge (and sometimes it really it), there’s very little hardship to it. I don’t even think of longer trips, like my trip to Virginia Beach last week, as a journey. I’m familiar with the route, I know where I want to stop (I usually get coffee at the McDonald’s in Hertford, and there’s a 7-11 in Chesapeake, the first one I pass. I love 7-11!), and there’s very little mystery associated with it at all.
It is challenge and mystery that make a journey, I suspect. Steve Martin started out on a trip in “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” but wound up on a journey. Ben and I left to take a trip, but the unfamiliar route and steep roads made it into a journey. It was a journey for us the first time we came to Beaufort; we’d never been here before I was appointed to Ann Street. Ben had been to Morehead City but hadn’t crossed the bridge, and so the last few miles of that first trip were filled with the unknown, with anticipation and no little anxiety about what it would be like.
For most of us, our journey of faith is that way. We have a vague idea of where we want to be going, but we’re not too clear on the landmarks. Some stretches are familiar ground, and on others we wonder how on earth anyone ever makes it. And when you get somewhere good, you can rest awhile, but there’s always somewhere else to go. As Aslan calls to the Pevensies in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, we’re called to go “further up and further in.” That’s our journey: we start out on a life of faith, some of us as children, others as adults. For much of the time, we have others with us to act as guides and to draw the occasional maps. For some of the time, we are simply on automatic pilot, and everything seems to go well—until there’s a bump in the road.
Which is basically what happened to the wise men. There’s not much we really know about them. Although we sing “We Three Kings”, it’s more likely that they were magi—wise men, teachers—than royalty. They were astrologers, seekers of wisdom in the stars, and they had seen such a star in the heavens! The same star that led the shepherds from the fields outside Bethlehem to the manger of that over-full inn. The same star foretold by angels. The same star some say returned this December in the rare alignment of Venus, Jupiter, and the Moon. That star, a lodestar, calling them to follow.
We don’t even know how many they were, just that they brought three gifts: gold, fit for a king; frankincense, used in worship in the Temple; and myrrh, used to prepare bodies for burial. Over the millennia, as we’ve sought to add context to the story, the tradition has grown up that there were three kings to go with the three kingly gifts. We don’t really know where they were from; some evidence suggests they were Persian practitioners of Zoroastrianism, but tradition has given us the names of Gaspar, Balthazar, and Melchior and they are often depicted as if one were from Africa, one from an Arab nation, and another from the Orient. We don’t even know how they traveled; camels make frequent appearances in nativity scenes, but one children’s story I’ve read depicts Jesus as a toddler, running into the house, calling for his mother to see the “elephunks”, too.
And then there’s the question of when they came. Because we celebrate Epiphany on the 6th of January, we sort of have the impression that the wise men came more or less immediately after Jesus’ birth and wandered into the stable minutes after the shepherds’ departure. This can’t be the case, though, because they find Jesus not in the manger, but in a house, and we know that Jesus was more like two years old. Even more than who and when, though, the question I’ve always wanted answered is “why?”
Why would these men travel so far to see the child-king of a relatively insignificant, oppressed people? What was the significance of the “King of the Jews” to these wise men? What in their wisdom prompted them to undertake the journey to go see this new king? For journey it must have been. Over mountains and deserts, through foreign lands where they didn’t know the language, until they arrived, not in the destination they might have expected: Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel. Instead, at the end, they wind up in the little village of Bethlehem, outside the city gates. Their journey must have been full of challenge and mystery, and ultimately they were changed by what they saw.
We could spend our lives wondering what it was about the toddler Jesus that prompted these wise men to come and pay him homage, acknowledging him as one with power and authority. We could ponder how they might have known, what truths the star might have told them, what their relationship to Jesus was thereafter. It is, however, our own relationship with Jesus, our own journey, that really concerns us. From the wise men we learn that he was the King of the Jews, with power and authority. In their recognition of him, the wise men leave open a door for the Gentiles to know Jesus, and to embark on our own journeys of faith.
And in knowing Jesus, we come to learn that the bumps in the road—like the one the wise men met in Herod, the ones that come in all our lives—are when we learn that we’re not alone, that even on the longest journey through completely unknown territory, we have the company of God in the love of Christ and fellowship of the Holy Spirit. In the birth of the Savior, something changed in how we know God, and it was a profound enough change that it was felt not only in Israel, the heart of God’s people, but by those wise men many miles away.
It’s not often we think about the lengths involved in the journeys of our lives and faith. We can travel in planes, trains, and automobiles, but Mary and Joseph traveled on foot to Bethlehem. The wise men traveled long distances to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem to meet Jesus. And just after the wise men left Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, they take a journey of their own, to Egypt to flee Herod’s wrath. Jesus himself begins his ministry, a three-year journey around his native land, one that leads to the cross, but doesn’t end there. And we have our own journeys, through paths that wind through family and school, careers and marriage, sickness and health, boom markets and recessions.
The change comes with the coming of the Messiah, who would not be the king of the Jews in the way that was expected, but rather, King of our hearts and lives. Christ’s coming marks a major change in the way we travel through our lives: where once people might have felt alone, now we know that we do not journey alone. I think perhaps those wise men had the first inkling, the first Epiphany, the first Aha! moment in which they became aware that there would be no more unaccompanied journeys, no more wandering alone in the dark for those who know Jesus.
I come back, again and again, to Jesus’ names. “Jesus”, according to Matthew, means “he will save his people from his sins.” “Emmanuel” means “God with us.” I think of sin as those things which separate us from God, cause us to “miss the mark” of living as God intends. When we do those things, we could be said to be going off the map. Jesus’ coming means that we don’t lose the map, don’t lose God, don’t lose the presence of love and grace in our lives. We can return, repent, and know that in fact our sins are forgiven, and God’s love is always with us. We may miss the mark from time to time, but we are never alone in our journey.
Christmas “officially” ends with Epiphany. Some people will remember older family members talking about “old Christmas” or remembering traditions about it. A wonderful lady I knew in Pricetown didn’t change her bedsheets from Christmas Day to January 6, Old Christmas. It was a big deal to her.
For us, though, Epiphany marks not an end, but a new beginning: in the wise men’s journey and encounter with Jesus, our own lives and journeys are foretold. And to steal a phrase from Brian McLaren, a noted author and speaker, everything must change in his wake. Foreign kings from wealthy nations will bow to the infant king of an oppressed people. A sense that God is distant and disconnected can give way to a new reality: God is always with us.
Our Christian year starts with Advent, with the longing for Christ’s coming, once and again. From Advent we move to the 12 days of the Christmas season, when we rejoice in the coming of the Savior. Epiphany marks a move to what is unfortunately called “Ordinary Time”. But this time is anything but ordinary. In our two periods of Ordinary Time, from Christmas to Ash Wednesday and from Pentecost until Advent, we have time to enjoy the journey, to see where it takes us, to learn to sense Christ accompanying us wherever we go and whatever we go through.
Like the wise men, we set out on faith, knowing that something important awaits us. They found Jesus at the end of their journey. For us, meeting Jesus is just a beginning, when we set out in faith to know God and to be known by God, to love and be loved, to receive mercy and learn to offer it. The Epiphany was an end to the Magi’s journey, but for us it’s another beginning. And if we need it, there will be another, and another, and another, in the endless and matchless grace of God.
In Jesus, God is with us. Always. Thanks be to God.