It’s good to be back with you this morning, and to see many of you back from travels around the country and the world. Abbie and Eve stayed in Kansas all week for some extra time with the grandparents and are flying in tomorrow.
The month of January takes its name from the Roman god Janus. Janus was the god of doors and gateways and also beginnings and endings. He is depicted as having two heads, gazing off in opposite directions, looking behind and looking ahead. This feels like a pretty accurate image for how I experience the coming of January. My family has always had a thing for looking back at the past year together and then looking ahead to what is coming up. Abbie and I have carried on this tradition ourselves and we usually do this on a car ride as we’re going to be with family for the holidays, which we also did this year.
Today we are entering a new season of the liturgical year: Epiphany. Epiphany means to show or make known or reveal. The expectancy and hope and watchfulness of Advent are giving way to the revelation of God’s love in the gift of the Christ child. What we have been waiting for has come. Here at the beginning of Epiphany we look very similar to the two headed Janus. We are still looking back at this past season and Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, and what it means for us, but we also begin to catch a glimpse of what’s coming up, the life and ministry of Jesus, the one who would come to be known as the anointed one, the Christ.
So, with our backward looking face, the birth of Christ…. Our gospel readings have been coming from Luke. In Luke, the birth of Jesus is a local event. The only other people besides Mary and Joseph to be with the newborn Jesus are shepherds from the region around Bethlehem. And everyone involved is quite poor. Mary and Joseph’s baby Jesus has an animal feedbox for a crib and the sleep-with-your-sheep-in-the-field shepherds were known as one of the dirtiest groups of folks around. In short, Luke’s nativity story is about local, Jewish peasants.
Matthew tells a different part of the birth story. The main characters in Matthew’s nativity are people of high social standing, and some of the characters come from half way across the world following a sign in the sky. Matthew chapter 2 vv. 1-2. “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we have observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.” So we have Herod, a king. The King of the Jews, having already ruled for 30 years. He as powerful and his actions affected Jews all throughout Palestine.
Matthew also introduces us to magi from the East. Magi weren’t kings, but they easily could have been members of a royal court. Advisors to a king. They were astrologers and drew their wisdom from the sky. In the chaotic and unpredictable ancient world they studied the patterns and cycles of the ordered universe. Magi appear in one other place in the Bible: in the book of Daniel, where King Nebuchadnezzar asks the magi of his court to interpret one of his dreams. Here these magi have observed something unusual in the sky and are drawn toward Jerusalem.
Matthew gives Jesus the title “king of the Jews,” spoken through the mouths of the magi.
So right away in Matthew’s account we have a powerful king who has been around a while, someone who is born a king, and a group of people who are of considerable influence in a distant kingdom. This has a notably different focus than Luke’s account.
Predictably, and somewhat humorously, Herod the powerful king experiences the birth of the tiny baby Jesus as a threat. The kind of power Herod held was the kind that tries to keep others out of power, not the kind that seeks to share power and build others up. Having Herod in the story crashes the party of the peaceful nativity scene. We are reminded that behind this joyous gift to the world there are authorities and forces that would rather grasp onto their own power than accept the kind of power this king has to offer.
But, in looking back at Jesus’ birth through Matthew’s eyes, the main focus is the fact that distant Gentiles, non-Jews, are coming to acknowledge the true kingship of Jesus. In Matthew the birth of Jesus is immediately signaled as something of universal importance, far beyond a local revelation. This particular passage is always read at Epiphany because the magi are the first Gentiles to honor Jesus and open the way for all the rest of us Gentiles and all of creation to come to the light of Christ.
If it was a star that led the professional star-gazing magi to find Jesus in the world, then I wonder what it is that leads a professional school teacher, or an engineer, or a mother, or a social worker, or a student to find Jesus in the world. The magi, no doubt, had been doing what they do on a daily basis, or nightly basis in this case – looking into the sky. And looking deeply into what they understood best in the world, the stars, they are drawn to Christ, and they find him. For all of us other Gentiles, involved in all sorts of professions and activities, is there a way for us to find Christ by looking deeply into the part of the world that we understand best?
Barbara Brown Taylor speaks of the every day things of life that surround us as being sacraments that bring us to the altar to worship God, much like the stars brought the magi to the cradle to worship. Here is a quote from her: “ A gardner’s altar may be his garden, where sacraments of seed and bud contain the grace of God’s life-giving power; a painter’s altar may be her easel, where sacraments of canvas and oil evoke the grace of God’s creative genius; a father’s altar may be his lap, where sacraments of children exhibit the grace of God’s love…a physician’s altar may be her examining room, where sacraments of other people’s bodies remind her of kinship with creation. A word processor’s altar may be his desk, where sacraments of software and computer printouts mark his participation in the human effort to communicate. A truck driver’s altar may be the cab of his truck, where the sacrament of his citizen’s band radio connects him to other human beings who do not wish to be lonely.”
The distant traveling magi finding the way to Christ in the stars points to the wide open world where the holiness of God dwells in the stuff of our daily lives. Looking deeply at what we are doing, we are drawn to the altar, to Christ born in the world right in front of us.
The journey of the magi, and our journey of discovering Christ in the familiar things that surround us, fits with the imagery that was read from the prophet Isaiah. “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
Isaiah says darkness covers the earth and we’re usually blind to the light of God that is with us in stars and meetings and commutes and putting the kids to bed, and running around from event to event. While we were in Kansas we experienced a little bit of darkness covering the earth, with everyone in Quinter losing power two days before the new year. As of this morning, Abbie’s parents are still without power. So after 6:00pm or so we were pretty much in the dark. Fortunately Abbie’s parents had a couple oil lamps for us to light and find our way around the house. We had to huddle around the lamps that were literally our only source of light after the sun set.
So once we discover that light that is Christ that is present with us, it starts to lead the way. And Isaiah says it has a kind of magnetic effect. By living with this light of holiness that we see in the world it becomes something that others are drawn toward.
In the nativity according to Matthew, the magi are symbolic of the whole far flung world coming to the light of a God of compassion, of justice, and of steadfast love who is known in the visible every day world. The light of Christ that was born in Bethlehem is a light that provides guidance for a whole darkened world – to the lowly and to people in places of power.
We have a little unfinished business to wrap up with Maya Angelou’s poem, “Touched by an Angel” and she’s the one who helps us make the transition from the backward looking head of Janus to the forward looking head. So let’s look at that final stanza now.
We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
We dare be brave
And suddenly we see that love costs all we are
And will ever be.
Yet it is only love which set us free
Looking back at the birth of Christ is like the second line here: it is “the flush of love’s light.” A light for Jewish peasants, a light for the distant traveling magi, and a light for all humanity in all walks of life. I hope that in the Advent season somehow in some way you were able to experience this gift of light, of holiness. This week I appreciated hearing the CD recording of Keith’s reflections during last Sunday’s sermon and some of the different ways he experienced God thoughout Advent. I hope each of us have some kind of renewed hope and sense of God offering Godself in a new way to us and that we can continue to look deeply into what is around us and be led to Christ by what we see.
Now we briefly start to look ahead, the other face of Janus and the seasons of Ephinany, Lent, and Easter, the life of Jesus as a revelation of God and what that means for us. Maya Angelou’s poem does not end on a sentimental note. “Suddenly we see that love costs all we are And will ever be. Yet it is only love which set us free.” We know enough about what is coming up to know that Herod’s intuitions about Jesus being a threat have some truth to them. Love costs all we are. In the weeks ahead Jesus will speak a lot about cost. The road of discipleship is challenging. The child in Bethlehem is also a threat to us, a gracious threat, a threat to everything in our lives where love does not reign. Every crevice of our hearts where we have not allowed love to enter, where we are holding on to bitterness, or pride, or unforgiveness.
Following this child will be costly, but “it is only love which sets us free”. Epiphany acknowledges both faces of Janus. Our journey with the magi begins at the cradle and glimpses ahead, however briefly, to the path of the cross.
It’s time for some silence and I invite you to reflect on any of these words, or to just be still and quiet in the presence of Christ’s light.