Monday, January 7, 2013

Follow the Light

January 6th, 2013       “Follow the Light”       Rev. Heather Jepsen

Isaiah 60:1-6 and Matthew 2:1-12

Yesterday was the 12th day of Christmas.  We all know the 12 days of Christmas song and in the past people used to give each other gifts on each of the 12 days after Christmas.  Imagine having to buy 12 gifts for each person!  I know that some families in this church continue to celebrate the 12 days of Christmas.  Today is the 13th day of Christmas, a day we celebrate in the church as Epiphany.  This is the day we celebrate the arrival of the Magi to worship the baby Jesus and that’s what our Scripture readings for this morning are about.

          Let’s take a moment and review a bit about those wise guys.  There are a lot of ideas about the Magi that have been passed down in story and tradition.  I know that I like to imagine the Wise Men in the nativity scene.  When I set my Nativity up at home, I set out the shepherds, the wise men, and Mary and Joseph, and then have them all wait during the Advent season like me.  I used to hide the baby Jesus somewhere and then put him out on Christmas Eve, but Olivia was asking for him early this year and I caved.      

Though I set everyone in the nativity at the same time, and through this is the way I like to think of things in my imagination and in my heart, in my mind I know that the wise men probably weren’t present at the birth of Christ in the manger.  The shepherds probably did come to the manger soon after Jesus’ birth but historically the Magi probably arrived sometime later.  Perhaps even when Jesus was one or two, as the text says that the Magi found Jesus in a house which was probably the house Mary and Joseph had together.  In fact, someone reminded me on Christmas Eve that when the wise men got to Jesus’ house he probably looked a lot more like Henry does today, running around and making noise, then like a quiet little babe in swaddling.

          How about some wise men facts?  Our term Magi comes from the Greek word used to describe them, magoi.  They were probably from a caste of Persian priests who were known to be able to read the stars and interpret dreams.  So, again they were not really what we might imagine, they were probably not kings like we sing about.  The Magi were more like astronomers or astrologers, who could read the signs in the heavens.  We often think that there were three of them, I know there are three in my nativity set, but the truth is that we only get that idea because they bring three gifts.  The Bible never says how many of them there are.  There could have been two of them with three gifts or maybe 10 of them with three gifts.  We really don’t know.  As time has passed, people have added meaning to the gifts, especially since myrrh is used in burial and that seems to foreshadow Christ’s death, but factually it seems as if these were simply gifts that were fit for a king.

          If we are talking facts here, we have to mention that scholars have also wondered for years about that star the wise men followed.  Some have thought it was a rare combination of planets in the sky, some have thought it was a comet, and believe it or not some have even thought it was a UFO.  The simple answer appears to be that it was none other than a unique God ordained phenomenon.  No comet, planet, or star could come to rest over the place where the baby was as the text says, unless of course it was a miracle of God’s doing.  The point is that God could direct the Magi directly to the right house, and that seems to be the emphasis that Matthew was looking for.

          So examining the facts about the wise men versus the way they exist in our imagination can actually be pretty cool.  One of the neatest things about the wise men is that they were not traditional believers in the Messiah.  They were from a foreign country and they were followers of a different religion.  The Magi were definitely not Jews who had been watching for signs of the Messiah as foretold in scripture.  The Magi were people from outside the realms of Jewish culture, and yet they came seeking the Christ.  They searched for the Christ with purpose and God guided them on their path.  More importantly, when these outsiders to the faith find the real King of the Jews, they worship him.  That is what the gifts are about.  They pay him homage with gifts, they kneel down before him, and they give him the honor due his title, King.

          As I mentioned earlier, the official name for this celebration is Epiphany.  Webster’s dictionary defines Epiphany as an appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being.  Today we celebrate the appearance of Christ to the Gentiles and to the world.  Epiphany is also defined as a sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something, an intuitive grasp of reality through something simple and striking, or an illuminating discovery, realization, disclosure, an “Ah Ha!” moment.  So, an epiphany can be two things, the appearance of the Christ and the “ah ha” moment of discovery.

          Our companion reading from Isaiah is all about this, the appearance of the Messiah and the moment of discovery.  Isaiah writes one of my favorite lines in scripture, “Arise, shine; for your light has come”.  He goes on to say “Nations shall come to your light.”  He is writing about other nations coming to the light of Israel and here we find a real connection to the wise men who were Persians coming to see the baby Jesus.  They are having an “ah ha” moment.

          So today we are all about finding Jesus and “ah ha” moments.  This is good news to us in what can sometimes be a let down time of the year.  The season after Christmas can be one of the darkest seasons of all.  Everyone has gone home, we will soon be putting our cheery decorations away, and there is nothing left for us but the long wait until spring.  The days are grey and the nights are dark.  The world around us is quiet.  This can be a difficult time.

          What better time then, for us to celebrate this story of light?  This is a great time to think about the wise men following that star to see Jesus.  The star is a symbol of Christ’s guiding light in our lives.  It is the path we follow when we seek to grow in the Lord.  To save the story of the wise men for after the New Year gives us a chance to stretch out our Christmas dreams and wonderings into this season of darkness.

          Of course, this is the first Sunday of the New Year and the time when some of us are thinking about New Year’s resolutions.  We might plan to quit smoking, to exercise more, or to lose weight.  We look at the year ahead and imagine that anything could be possible.  This is a great time for us to look to the light as well.

          Why not turn from the goals of the world around us, turn from the darkness of January, and follow the light of Christ instead?  Now is a great time to seek the babe in the manger, especially since the loud voice of consumer Christmas is finally silent.  Now is a great time to open your hearts to an “ah ha” moment, to an epiphany.  Remember, the wise men probably got to the manger two years late, so we don’t need to worry that it’s too late for us.  You and I both know that the light of Christ will continue to shine until we find our way through the wilderness.

          So, on this morning of Epiphany, I invite you back to the manger scene.  It’s not too late to look for the Christ child.  It’s not too late to have an “ah ha” about God’s love.  And it’s definitely not too late to start following that star.  As Isaiah tells us “Arise, shine; for your light has come!”  Let us go out into the world and follow the light into our New Year.  Amen.


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