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Come To The Light To Become The Light

This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, Jan. 6, Epiphany at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. The gospel text is Matthew 2:1-12
Now, this is a story we know. We’ve seen the scene of the wise men bringing gifts to Jesus so many times in so many pageants. Epiphany is a time when we celebrate the in-breaking of God’s light in God’s way. The Magi are drawn from the east to come and pay homage to the Christ child. There are many theories as to who the magi were: from Zoroastrian priests to astrologers to magicians to kings, while some believe that the Magi were simply a literary device utilized by Matthew. They may have been any or all of the above, but the point is that they were foreigners and gentile outsiders and yet, God spoke to them through a star, through the light and they followed that light. 

Unusual astral phenomena were associated with the birth of a new ruler according to pagans of the time. There were Jewish traditions as well connecting the hoped-for Messiah to the “star out of Jacob” referenced in Numbers (Numbers 24:17). Jewish and Gentile hopes for salvation and world renewal were combined in the star imagery. Why a star? It’s what the magi looked for and understood. The sign came to them where they were. God got their attention in a way that they understood and in the place where they were at. 

The Magi followed the star’s light to Jerusalem looking for the newborn king. In their minds, where else would one find a king but in the political and spiritual capital? But the thing is, Matthew does not say that the star led them to Jerusalem, but perhaps once in the area, they assumed that’s where they should go. They assumed wrong. We need to be careful that what we do to attract people, to get their attention, does not lead to false assumptions about God, Jesus, the Christian faith and the church. 

But of course, paranoid, power-hungry King Herod was threatened by the news of another king, as were those of spiritual power. The spiritual power brokers were threatened because of their support of the status quo.  At least the spiritual leaders knew scripture well enough to direct the magi to Bethlehem. 

God gave wisdom and discernment to the foreigners. They recognized that Herod was not sincere when he said he too wanted to know where to find Jesus to worship him. Now the journeyers are back on track, following the star God provided to guide them to Jesus. 

There is joy at Epiphany. When the magi saw that the star they were following had stopped over the place where Jesus lay, they were overwhelmed with joy (v. 10).

At the end of our reading, we see the travelers entered a house. In Matthew, there is no stable. This occurred at least several years following Jesus’ birth, so the family may well have been able to be in a house by that time. 

They worshipped Jesus and gave him extravagant gifts, fit for a king. The magi “paid him homage” (v. 11), which refers to the posture of worship—bowing down and the attitude of worship. In worship, they are recognizing Jesus as the one in whom God is present. 

By now, I think the magi got it. They were warned in a dream to not go back to Herod, so they avoided Jerusalem, going by “another road” (v. 12). There is likely a double meaning here. The word translated “road” also means “way.”In Acts, Jesus’ followers were called followers of the Way numerous times (9:2; 18:25, 26; 19:9; 22:4; 24:14). By their encounter with Jesus, the magi were changed. They went home transformed by another way, having discovered the new king through God’s revelations to them by star and scripture.

Matthew’s magi represent the Gentiles. They are not wise men nor were they models of religious piety. They were magicians, astronomers, star-gamers, fortune tellers and horoscope fanatics, but Matthew makes them heroes in this first story following Jesus’ birth. The magi shouldn’t be there. They were heretics who didn’t worship the right God. They are the wrong race and religion. Having come from the east and receiving a revelation from nature; they were the first to pay homage to the king of the Jews. The wall between Jew and Gentile has been overcome. God’s salvation is for all. 

God calls us into the light so that we may become light. This text is so appropriate for Epiphany. It is a story that reveals our Messiah, our Savior, as one whose presence is a kind of power that the powerful hate. This story exposes our innate response to whatever and whoever may challenge our established and wished-for power. We are invited to wonder if we would return to Herod or go God’s way (Karoline Lewis). 

Matthew normally goes to great lengths in his writing to show how the life of Jesus “fulfills what is written” in the scriptures. But the event of a star leading the Magi to Jesus has no scriptural precedent. And so, Epiphany opens us to unprecedented outside-the-box new events that reveal the presence of God. 

The world into which Jesus was born was full of all kinds of darkness. Many lived as slaves of one kind or another. Many were dependent for their daily bread on the arbitrary generosity of those who owned most of the land. The shadow of the Roman Empire loomed over the entire Mediterranean world. It cast the shadow of ruthless conquerors. In Jesus’ day, for many, there was no hope of anything better. 

Our world is not so different than that of first century Palestine. We have our own despots grabbing for power, terrified by the prospect of losing power and willing to do almost anything to hang onto it. We have our own children in need. We too are surrounded by great darkness. Many will fall prey to manipulation. Far too many children are threatened and sacrificed to violence. But in the midst of the horror, God is still at work. God works through the various agencies of our church overseas and at home. God works through us as we share our wealth with those in need. God is fashioning us into people to do God’s work in the world.

What might this look like? To take stands against leaders who manipulate through fear. To offer shelter and sanctuary. To advocate for those who have had to flee their homes. To be those who resist oppression and violence and manipulation. 

God is at work fashioning us to be bearers of the light that has come into the world, the light that the darkness neither understands nor has overcome. God is at work making us into an Epiphany people, people of the light, people who know that the joy and grace of Christmas, is not a gift to be admired, but one to be put to work for the sake of the world God loves so much (David Lose). This Epiphany light is something we are not to keep to ourselves, but to share with friends and neighbors, with all we come in contact with.

God spoke to outsider magi through the light of a star and they followed that light. And that’s simply all God asks of us is to follow the light he has given us and in so doing, we will become the light in the darkness, which takes us back to the baptismal promises that we heard a couple of weeks ago at the baptism of Margot Claire Wickerham, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (ELW).

Resources
M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament
Alan Brehm, thewakingdreamer.blogspot.com
David Ewart, holytextures.com
Karoline Lewis, workingpreacher.org 
David Lose, davidlose.net
Brian Stoffregen, crossmarks.com. 
Sundaysandseasons.com



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