You sit here tonight – all Christmassed out, new years resolutions maybe already broken, in this weird, depressingly Springish January, where the earth never has yet been covered in the clean white magic of winter and we have to keep seeing the muddy dry brown bristling up everywhere, you sit here tonight in your ordinariness and the world’s occasional dreariness, and whether you see it or not, whether you know it or not, you are the decedents of Magi, offspring of mystery-seekers.
The Story we tell tonight is as much your story as any story you may ever hear, because tonight we tell about how God moves out of the manger and into the world, permeating our lives and every nook and cranny of this ordinary existence.
So to start, forget what you know about the magi. Magi, as in magicians. They were not kings. There were not three of them. They were not from the orient. They were sorcerers, tarot card readers, dabblers in magic, astrologers, pagan philosophers. Decidedly NOT Jewish. Clearly foreign. Foreign looking, foreign speaking, foreign thinking, foreigners.
The king of the Jews has been born, the Messiah of Israel, the chosen One of the chosen ones. And other than, as far as we know, some random rural sheep herders, and Anna & Simeon – elderly eccentrics whose whole life was on the lookout for God’s coming - nobody so far seems to know who this kid is.
That’s another thing. Kid. As in, toddler. No kings crowding around the manger with their camels tied up outside next to the sheep, fresh off an angel-drenched hillside. This journey took some time. Jesus was maybe walking, maybe talking. Mary and Joseph had been living normally in this strange miracle for some time when the knock came at the door.
The whole village coming out to see, or peeking out between the curtains on their windows, the gossip lines abuzz when the dazzling caravan of foreigners rolls into town and right up to the young couple’s doorstep.
That hadn’t been their first stop. A star hanging directly above a village is not the most precise indicator of destination. And they didn’t have google maps with the pin dropped right on Joseph’s house, number 4 carpenter lane. They, naturally, stopped by the palace.
“Where is this divine royal child?” They asked the king. “We have come to honor him!,” And they moved on from there a little stupefied that the king knew nothing of this.
What must it have been like to travel for months on end, guided by a belief, convinced by a picture of where God and the cosmos and all of history was leading you, only to find out, well, this might not be quite what we thought?
I have to admire the openness with which these summoned ones continued their search. The tenacity with which they hunted. OK, so he’s not in the palace? Fine. We’ll look for him in the streets, door to door, village to village, until we find him. How many people did they ask along the way? How many stops did they make before they found the little family? Did they stay the night in the Bethlehem Inn - perhaps tying up their camels after all in the quiet little stable out back? Did the innkeeper tell them over dinner the strange tale of the night his stable was invaded by shepherds and noise and mess and the Lord of creation?
And what when they saw him? This God incarnate, this chubby, flesh and blood boy? Overwhelmed with joy, the text says. Overcome, bowled over, engulfed in elation. Tears and laughter, universal expression in foreign tongue: before them the journey’s culmination, a lifetime’s zenith. The heavens and earth conspiring to point to this unthinkable conclusion, this drooling delight in front of their eyes.
And how was it for Mary? For Joseph? “Welcome, unexpected surprise! Unfathomable guests!”
What was he thinking when he went out to draw water for their camels and fill the jugs to wash the dusty strangers’ foreign feet?
What was she feeling when the mystical, mystified guests gathered at her table and lifted her familiar food to their exotic mouths?
Neighbors couldn’t guess what these of other language and land shared in common with the two of them. How could they know these ones were kindred in the secret, connected by the promise to which they were privy?
Epiphany: Light. Awareness. New direction. Inspiration. They sat there that night illuminated, by the star and the Light of the World.
And when the visit was over, the meeting fulfilled, the message confirmed, they packed up to return home. By another way, by the way.
Not one step of this journey could have been anticipated. So what would their return bring?
How does epiphany change you?
For one, you don’t return to Herod. Kings are nothing. Monarchs, money, power, politics, pshaw! You’ve bowed before a higher authority! You’ve glimpsed a greater reality! You’ve met the eternal mystery! What sway can the powers of this realm hold over you? You’re changed; your journey has changed. So you return home by another way.
And I also imagine you’re a little more open to the journey. A little more ready for divine surprises, for startling revelations and life-altering, course-changing encounters. Who knows when they’ll pop up next? And who can guess where they’ll take you after that?
And now that the light has come, come in the darkness, what ordinary occurrence isn’t connected to the next? What daily moment isn’t infused with the holy? What conversation or connection or situation isn’t part of God’s scheme of salvation?
I think it’s safe to assume that some of the Magi walked away from this encounter genuinely altered, and spent the rest of their lives fueled by this epiphany, open to God’s ongoing appearing, interfering, investing. Looking for it, sharing in it, spreading the word about it.
Perhaps they died fulfilled in having seen the salvation of God and believing that the whole world was filled with God’s light, and though the trajectory is often hidden, we are irreversibly heading toward something spectacular.
But I would venture to guess that others had a different experience. Light illuminates a lot of things, not all of them pretty. It puts a demand on you with what it exposes. It forces you to look at the shadows, it asks you to notice the dim places. Sometimes it’s easier to just avoid the light, to dodge it’s glare, to put your head back down, duck back into the shadows and try to regain a sense of life before epiphany invaded things and changed everything… because even though the light has come, there is still more than enough darkness to go around. So some may have chalked it up to an isolated, grand adventure and then never spoken of the event again. Safer that way.
And Mary? Joseph? When the bedding was washed and the dishes put away and the yard cleaned up of camel dung and the dust of the caravan long out of town, what did it mean for them?
How did they absorb the realization that their baby Messiah to the Jews turned out to be here for something bigger than their minds could even have conceived of, than anyone had ever imagined before? The whole world, it turned out, has a stake in this story.
For all their innumerable differences, there may have been real tears as they waved goodbye to their strange and esteemed guests from afar, real grief as they placed the container of frankincense on the mantle.
For as much as the magi themselves had journeyed to reach their epiphany, they had carried epiphany with them to Mary and Joseph, and in their meeting something happened.
They were connected, companions in awareness, brought together by Christ, and they separated now, related in a way no others yet were. Wherever their journeys would bring them all after this, they would likely never bring them together again.
And for Mary and Joseph, in the days to come - the troubling days, the ordinary days, the days that made them question the whole thing, and the days they would spend on their own dusty and fearful journey - perhaps their consolation was to look again at the gifts left behind by their visitors from a foreign land and remember that someone out there, far away, also knew the truth. And this mystery held them as well.
So, you who sit here tonight, you companions in awareness, brought together by Christ: Arise, shine! Your light has come, you epiphany-bearers, mystery-sharers, journeyers in the Story! The glory of the Lord has risen upon you. It pulls you from your seat and beckons you into the world.
The trajectory is set, the journey beckons, and your own Story, in all of it’s accidental glory and spectacular ordinariness, is a conduit of the Divine Light come into the world which cannot be extinguished. So be ready, you strange and foreign people, for nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around, seek epiphany, the presence of God that comes to us in surprising and unusually common ways, through unexpected people, every day.
And once in a while, may the delight of it all bring you to your knees before the unexpected Savior with your gifts.
Then you shall see and be radiant, you shall thrill and rejoice,
for God has come, God is here. Now and forever. Thanks be to God.