Sermon for Day of Epiphany -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. -
Sometimes what seems impossible happens. I have always really liked the wise men of the story of Jesus’ birth and, when you think of it, the story of the wise men visiting the baby Jesus is one of the most improbable stories in the Bible.
I am a proud graduate of Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Like many ELCA-related colleges and universities, Muhlenberg has an annual festival Advent service for the college and community. It is such a popular service that they must do it three times to allow all those who wish to attend to take part. The service follows the Kings College Christmas Service of lessons and carols and features special music by Muhlenberg’s choirs accompanied by all sorts of instruments. It is always a highlight of the year for students and others in the Allentown community.
Every year a freshman and a senior student get to read one of this service’s lessons and I was honored to be this reader in both years of my time at Muhlenberg. The college president always reads the second to last lesson, the story of the wise men visiting baby Jesus, today’s Gospel lesson.
During my freshman year the service came during a tough outbreak of the flu on campus. Nearly everyone, including the college president, came down with the flu right at the time of the service. But, somehow, President Jenson persevered and was able to be part of the service and read his assigned lesson. Or, at least, he tried to read the lesson. We held our breath since Jenson’s illness was obvious, but he started out quite well. Then, he got to the part of this lesson near the end with the wise men’s gifts for the baby Jesus. Jenson read, “opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, Frankenstein and myrrh.”
Only made me like Jenson and this text even more!
The Bible story of the wise men is one of the more improbable Bible stories. What you heard read today and see in your bulletin is the sum total of everything in the Bible about the wise men. Nowhere in the Bible are they called kings. There is no mention of three or camels. While our Nativity Scenes picture them with the shepherds at the stable, this text says they visited Mary and Baby Jesus at a “house.” Joseph is not in this story.
The text calls them “wise men” which some translations footnote as “astrologers” from the Greek word “magi” from which our English word magician comes. They are not named in the Bible, although tradition has named them Melchior (from Persia), Caspar (from India) and Balthazar (from Ethiopia in Africa). Some connect their knelling before the baby Jesus to the beginning of the practice of kneeling in Christian worship. Others connect their gifts for the baby Jesus to our custom of giving Christmas gifts. Their gifts are unusual – gold, of course, would be most helpful to Jesus’ poor family and tradition suggests Joseph may have used this gold for their travel expenses when they fled, just days after this visit, to Egypt to keep Jesus safe while King Herod killed all of the children under the age of 2 in the Bethlehem area. Myrrh was used as an anointing oil and frankincense as a perfume. Some have suggested that gold symbolized Jesus’ kingship on earth, frankincense symbolized his godliness and myrrh, often used in embalming, as a hint at his death to come.
The Day of Epiphany, January 6, “Three Kings Day,” which we are celebrating a couple of days early this year, this day is celebrated in many cultures. Some of you know the Louisiana-begun tradition of the “King Cake,” a ring-shaped cake into which a figurine of baby Jesus is often placed. My Puerto Rican friends talk of wonderful family gatherings and noisy all-night partying. My favorite singer, James Taylor, even recorded a “three kings” song in 1988, “Home by another way.”
Lots of wonderful traditions and stories.
But, with only one short Bible mention, lots of legends, and no independent historical evidence, it is a fair question to ask if the Magi were real? Did they actually make their way from a distant land in the East some 2,000 years ago, following a mysterious star all the way to Bethlehem? And did they really bring the Child Jesus those gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh?
These are good questions.
And these questions are not without folks who try to answer them. Every year around this time astronomers, both amateur and professional, offer some innovative scientific explanation for the appearance of the star. An unusual conjunction of planets, they most often explain. And reputable historians will be happy to tell you that soothsayers and traveling shamans were undoubtedly a colorful and important element of the ancient world. Then as now, people wanted to understand the deeper meanings of life.
One of the scholars I read in preparation for this sermon, the Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus, suggests that the Magi were real or, at least, we should give them the benefit of the doubt.
And Hegedus asks what it means to be “real” anyway? Perhaps the Magi are as real as real gets. After all, when you stop to think about it, there are a lot of people in our contemporary world who could stand to get real. We meet them at work and at the mall, sometimes even in our own families. And most of us, if we look at our own lives, would have to admit that our lives are filled with the unreal and with our own fair share of improbabilities – events and happenstances that we could hardly have predicted before their occurrence. Yet, here we are – in the flesh, with our all-too-real contradictions and accumulated paradoxes.
So, perhaps a small troop of mystics or sages arriving from the East are not so odd or implausible as we might at first think. The Magi were, to be sure, outsiders in most every sense of the word – gentiles, non-Jews, after all, surely as incongruous and out-of-place as anything or anyone could be in the heartland of the ancient Jewish world. And most likely, if we read between the lines, they were clairvoyants and magicians of sorts and rich. How else explain those gifts, costly in any age? For all we know, the Magi may well have been the David Copperfields, Criss Angels or David Blaines of their day.
Yet for all that, their agenda was deceptively simple and straightforward: to find the King of the Jews, to worship him and to bring him their gifts. And it is this simple agenda that leads them from their own far-off land to King Herod and beyond on an unlikely journey of discovery and epiphany.
What could be more real than that?
Epiphany remains for us in our own age an astonishing sign of the hardly believable yet very much real – God’s wisdom masquerading as human weakness and folly. For, as we readily see, God’s eternal wisdom is found not at King Herod’s magnificent court, but rather in the humble village home of a small and vulnerable child and his parents. Perhaps it does take show-business-like conjurers – themselves no doubt masters of surprise and the unexpected – to recognize the real in the impossible.
There is, of course, always a fine line between the real and the impossible. And sometimes, what seems impossible does come to pass. Think of recent historical examples: Who would have, could have, predicted what an obscure Argentinian Roman Catholic Archbishop, who we now know as Francis, would do in just a short time as the Roman Catholic Pope? In my own lifetime, I have also seen the fall of both the Soviet Union and the Apartheid regime in South Africa, both led by mass movements of Christians and both in their final transition with little loss of life. And both something I did not believe possible, or, at least, not possible without major bloodshed. Others would add the election of an African American as President of the United States to this list. And would anyone have predicted the progress of marriage equality across this country at the beginning of 2014? Sometimes what appears as impossible does come to pass.
There are wise men – and women – among us still.
But if there is a fine line between the real and the impossible, there is sometimes an even finer distinction to be drawn between true wisdom and our own self-deceptions and doubts. We must admire the persistence of the Magi making their way methodically and sure-footedly across wilderness and desert, seeking an out-of-the-question reality they were certain had come to pass. Few of us are so sure of ourselves and our paths. Too many among us never even dare leave home.
Then the Magi, their task accomplished, return home from their journey “by another road” as the gospel tells us, “home by another way,” as James Taylor sings, and have not been heard from since. For all we know, they may still be on their way. For all we know, they may be journeying among us here and now in our congregations and communities, bequeathing to us from time to time their precious gifts of wisdom, knowledge and understanding – gifts that remain as rare today as gold, frankincense and myrrh in any age.
Perhaps that is why the church has given us this special festival day of Epiphany, to celebrate the wondrous and amazing things in our own lives. And to give us courage to follow, in our day, the star of the Magi as it leads us – just as it did them – to Bethlehem and the Child Jesus.
I believe the Biblical wise men, the Magi, are improbable and maybe even impossible, yet still real. And, real or not, the wise men lead us once again to Jesus who is very real and very much with us and among us, on this Day of Epiphany and all days. The Magi help us see the impossible yet real in our own lives. Their story helps us also have the courage to follow Jesus in all times of our own lives. This day and all days.
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
Impossible Yet Real
Sermon for Day of Epiphany
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
January 3 & 4, 2015
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica