Today is Epiphany, the celebration of the coming of the Wise Men to see the infant Jesus. If you were here on Christmas Eve, you’ll remember that I said that the shepherds and the Wise Men did not both arrive on the night that Jesus was born. In Luke we heard that the angels told the shepherds about Jesus the same night that Jesus was born, and they responded by running to see the child that had been laid in a manger. Today we hear from clues that Matthew gives us that it was some time after Jesus had been born that the Wise Men arrived in Jerusalem, asking where the new King of the Jews had been born. The church has known for a long time that these two things did not happen on the same night, and therefore designated Christmas as the time to celebrate Jesus’ birth and the arrival of the shepherds, and Epiphany, 12 days later, to celebrate the arrival of the Wise Men. It is only in recent times that Epiphany only gets celebrated in the church if it falls on a Sunday, and so Christians have felt the need to squeeze the shepherds and the wise men together in Christmas pageants, in order to make sure that the wise men are included. And so, this year I’m very happy that Epiphany falls on a Sunday, so that we can focus our full attention on the story that the Gospel of Matthew tells.
So, who were these Wise Men from the East? Well, let’s start by talking about some common misconceptions about them. First of all, we don’t know how many wise men there were. Tradition names them as three because they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But Matthew does not give us a number, which means there could have been two wise men bearing the three gifts, or there could have been fifteen of them, each bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Next misconception: the wise men were not kings. They were astrologers/astronomers: the two terms were synonymous in those days. They tracked the movement of the stars and planets as astronomers do today, but they also believed that the movement of those stars and planets influenced the personalities and fortunes of human beings. So, when they say, “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,” it means that the star they saw rising moved in such a way and came to such a position in relation to other stars that it meant a king of the Jews had been born. It’s the equivalent of an astrologer saying today that because a certain star moved to a place relative to a constellation that you were born under that you will have bad luck in the coming year. These wise men were guys who scientifically tracked movement of stars and planets but also, not so scientifically, predicted fortunes based on those movements. The final misconception about the wise men is that they came from the Orient. They didn’t, or at least they didn’t come from what we consider the Orient today. Scripture tells us they came “from the East,” most likely the area of Persia or Babylon, which we know of today as the countries of Iran and Iraq. If you remember from our journey through the prophets, the Jewish community was exiled to this area in 586 BCE, and many stayed there even when they were allowed to return to Jerusalem in 539 BCE. It’s possible that these wise men thus had contact with the Jewish communities there and heard their stories, including their prophecies, and incorporated that into their own astrological lore.
Now that we’ve examined who these wise men were and where they came from, the next question is, what do we do with their story? Because, even though it’s fun to imagine who these guys were and to celebrate their coming to worship Jesus, there is a dark side to their story. And the first question that many of us ask is this: Why, if they were following the star, did the wise men stop in Jerusalem and not go directly to Bethlehem? Well, as Matthew tells us, the wise men were unaware of Micah’s prophecy that a leader of Israel would come from Bethlehem, and they knew from their contact with Jewish people that Jerusalem was the holy city of the Jewish people. So, where else would they find the one who was born King of the Jews? And where else would they inquire about him except at the palace of the current king, Herod? And although that makes sense, in so doing these supposedly “wise” men alerted a very dangerous, paranoid, and cunning king that there was a potential new threat to his power.
Usually on Epiphany, we get only the first part of the story: the Gentiles come to worship Jesus, the newborn king, and they bring him rich gifts. We like this part of the story. We hear sermons on how all the world, symbolized by these strangers, will come to worship Jesus. Or, we hear sermons on how costly the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh were, and how we should always give the best that we have to Jesus. Those are good messages to hear, and I believe that I have preached those messages at one time or another. But we almost never hear the aftermath of the visit of the wise men: they go back to their country by another route; an angel warns Joseph in a dream to flee with Mary and Jesus; they run to Egypt; Herod, enraged that he has been tricked by the wise men, orders all of the baby boys 2 years old and younger to be killed. And don’t think that the soldiers only killed the babies; remember that the mothers and fathers would have fought to protect their children and would have gotten themselves killed in the bargain, too. Remember, also, that in this little town of Bethlehem lived many of Joseph’s family. Jesus would probably have had aunts, uncles, and cousins who were killed in this massacre.
The definition of the word “refugee,” is “a person who flees for refuge or safety, especially to a foreign country”. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph become refugees in Egypt. Scripture is not clear on how long the family lived in Egypt. Depending on when in Herod’s reign this happened, it could have been one year or it could have been several. The family may have used the gifts the Wise Men brought to get established in their new country. If Jesus was around two when they ran to Egypt, his earliest memories would have been of that country. His parents would have told him that Egypt was not their home, and when he asked them about their extended family, Mary and Joseph may have just shaken their heads with sadness. And then, just when Jesus would have gotten used to life in Egypt, Joseph takes the family and returns to Bethlehem. Only, when they get there, they find out that another member of Herod’s family is ruling, and, again fearful for their lives, they flee to Nazareth. Think about the effect all of this instability would have on a young child, even one who was the Son of God.
The Gospel of Matthew paints Jesus as the Messiah and as the Son of God, but also paints Jesus as a refugee. Jesus’ family fled violence; they left their extended family behind in Bethlehem to face Herod’s soldiers. As Christians who follow this Messiah who started his life out as a refugee, this should make us mindful of those who are fleeing violence in their own countries, whether it is those on our southern border or those who are fleeing violence in Syria, so close to where Jesus, Joseph and Mary were from, or those who are fleeing violence elsewhere in the world. Most of them do not want to leave their homes, but feel they have no choice if they want to survive. As Christians, we are called to welcome them as we would welcome Jesus, and not to use them as pawns in political games of power.
But more than that: because Jesus knows what it’s like to be a refugee, he can identify with the suffering that we human beings go through. When our children in our schools are shot at, Jesus knows—intimately—the grief that we experience, and he mourns with us. When evil things happen in our lives, Jesus knows what that feels like. He is with us through it all; he mourns with us, he rages with us at the injustice in the world, he knows what it’s like to feel frightened and insecure, and he is there beside us to encourage us to keep going and to give us the vision that one day, the kingdom of heaven will come in its fullness and all will be well once more. Jesus truly is Emmanuel, God with us.
Epiphany is about the revealing of Christ, first to the Wise Men when they found him in his family’s home in Bethlehem, but even more so, to all of those who seek him. It is about seeing Christ not only in the church building (as I talked about with the children this morning), but it is about how Christ reveals himself as being in and with those who are suffering: the hungry, the thirsty, the poor, the stranger, those who are sick, the immigrant, the refugee. Epiphany is also about letting the light of Christ shine from within us as we go about our daily lives. So in all of your interactions, remember that Christ is both within you as well as to be seen in those around you. And remember also, when you are overwhelmed by the bad things that are happening to you, to those you love, or in the world around you, that Jesus is Emmanuel: God with us. Always. Through both the good and the bad. Amen.