Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7,10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
For the Sundays of Advent and Christmas we observed the three kings, moving toward the manger, not in any particular hurry. But they do move ever closer, irreversibly, irretrievably, and forever toward the presence of Jesus. The three Kings were certainly non-Jews, Gentiles, who believed - for whatever reason - that the star that they followed would lead them to something new, prophetic, and life-changing. Did they know that they would find a baby? Maybe. But nothing could have prepared them for the bright light shining on them from Jesus, eclipsing the star, and calling them into rethinking everything they thought they knew. First, then the wiseman: all who come to see what God has brought into the world are amazed, transported, and hit with some reality of God doing a new thing. Our movement toward the crib moves us to and beyond the child Jesus to the actual promise of God’s new revelation. Our redemption is nigh, our life is ready to begin, and may be called to begin a new journey or path, because of what we have experienced or seen.
I’ve often thought about these three wisemen or kings. In our three figures, they certainly look like kings or very important people. These men were most likely sages, prophets, astrologers, etc.; more likely that than kings; VIPs. They are so mysterious, we know nothing about them, other than they were from the East, maybe Arabia, maybe Iraq…we don’t know. And we struggle, as we often do, with the mystery things, so it is no surprise that the Church has assigned names to the three wisemen: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar – impressive names befitting important personages. And we are left with the question: why did these VERY IMPORTANT PERSONS leave their distant land based on some ancient prophesy that in a small little village, in a not much bigger country (Palestine), a child would be born? Children are born every day. A child is born who would be and do what? The notion was enough to set these men in motion to travel afar, following a mysterious star to find a child who would be no ordinary child.
They could not have expected to find God Incarnate, could they? The fulfillment of not some middle eastern prophesy but the promise of the God of Israel to deliver the people from their sins and lostness. They move toward Bethlehem, guided by a star, bringing fine gifts fit for a king but what do they really expect to see? When they see the child, are they moved by His presence? Luke tells us that they leave by another road – not the road they came on, but a different road – what happens to them? Are these first non-Jews to experience the presence of God among us changed? Many more questions than answers.
I have been a huge fan of English poet W.H. Auden for many, many years. He moved to America at the beginning of the Second World War and became, for all intents and purposes, an American. He joined the Episcopal Church. And I have just finished reading one of his most ambitious writings, For the Time Being: A Christmas oratorio. For the Time Being wondrously explores the reality that we are all living in the anxious-filled time between the Incarnation of Christ and the return of Christ, to judge the living and the dead.
And the piece is filled with angst, doubt, and not a little darkness. And it covers the Advent with the Annunciations to Mary and Joseph, the Nativity, the presentation at the temple, the Epiphany and the Slaughter of the Innocents by Herod. What I wanted to share with you, because I think it captures the essence of the Epiphany, which we celebrate today, is in a section on the Shepherds and the Wisemen called ‘The Vision of the Shepherds.’ And the wisemen, in Auden’s telling, say,
“Through shifting gorges... In vacant crowds and humming silences … counting the miles, and the absurd mistakes … O here and now [at the manger] our endless journey ends.”
These far and well-traveled men of importance find, in the Incarnation of God – the Christ child – a place for their restless hearts to stop and stay. They have found what they are looking for, in Jesus. They have found a home for their spirits to be at peace. And as they travel home on a new road, their lives are grounded in Jesus’ perfect innocence and profound revelation of God’s love. They have arrived home, even as they begin their journey back to the east.
The shepherds of Auden’s drama of the Nativity story says that they have never traveled any distance from the place they were born in and have lived in. They make a routine path through the grasslands where their sheep graze, never making it very far. They’ve never been anywhere or done anything. Yet, one of the shepherds cries out, after the angels have gone: “Music and light, have interrupted our routine tonight…And swept habit from our hearts. O here and now our endless journey starts.” These uneducated shepherds see in the Child, the new movement of their lives. As the wiseman’s wandering ends, spiritually, the shepherds are just beginning.
Who were these people? Wisemen? Shepherds? Maybe we should ask, who are we? Are we people who are watching and waiting for something to happen to us? Are we moving toward a fresh reality of Christ’s coming? Are we seeking renewal? And if we find renewed spirits, hearts that can rest in Jesus and be invigorated and excited, too, are we then moving away from that place, rejoicing, hoping, sharing the reality of what we have seen, heard, and experienced in the goodness of God’s Son, born in us again this day?
So, in the Nativity we find our home in Christ, a love that makes us a prisoner (a word Paul is fond of using) – bound and grounded in the reality of a love like no other love. Gazing into the face of Jesus we find the boundless riches of God, which fill us and set our hearts on fire and start us on a new journey. That is Epiphany. We search for something in the world that tells us that God loves us. WE find it in the reality of Jesus which always charts a new course, beckoning us down a different road. In the Christmas and Epiphany miracles, Christ makes God known to us and what we discover is that forgiveness, hope, and union with God are not only possible but actually desired by God. That knowledge set us down a new path, a new road, the road less traveled, the road of not-always-easy-travel…leading us toward not only God but walking together, and inviting others along the way.
We need not start a new life, a new job, a new relationship, as a result of encountering Christ in the manger. I am relatively certain that the shepherds continued to be shepherds. Isaiah 60 declares, Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. We cannot embrace that reality – that is Jesus - and not be changed.