Sunrises and Surprises
Matthew 2:1-12 Isaiah 60:1-9
When I was a teenager, my local K-Mart sold really cool tiny tubes of paper with horoscopes on them. Do you remember those things? I don’t think I actually ever bought one, but I can still see them in my mind’s eye—little cheap plastic vials with rolled up pink, yellow, green or blue paper in them. They were supposed to unlock the future, especially when it came to romance and money, as I recall. In some ways I guess you could say that what they advertised were epiphanies—ah-ha moments, moments when suddenly you “got it.” Ahh—so that’s the answer to my relationship problem—it’s all here on this little pink scroll!
Our scripture today is about a group of men (we assume they’re all men) who used astrology and ended up with an epiphany, but it didn’t come on a flimsy pink scroll, and I don’t think it was the one they were after. These days most of us tend to scoff at astrology, of course, but we know that in Biblical times, it was high science. And whatever this star was, the understanding at the time was that a new star represented a new king. So these magi—these astrologer priests from the East—decided to follow the star and find that new king.
There’s got to be more to the story there, don’t you think? They see a star that indicates the direction to a new king … and automatically they take off on an arduous journey to go find that king?
Maybe we can attribute their taking off on this journey to their being rich and having nothing else to do—sort of like taking a cruise around the world after you’ve retired because, hey, what a cool thing to do, eh?
But this was no pleasure cruise. I like T.S. Eliot’s description in his poem, “The Journey of the Magi”:
'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
I’ve had trips like that, haven’t you? The flight is late and the attendants are tired and cranky; the only restaurant you can find seems to specialize in grease and salt; the hotel has lost your reservation …
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Folly. Craziness. Idiocy. Foolishness. Off on a difficult journey following some star in search of a king.
And why were they looking for this new king? Maybe they thought they’d get on the inside—get to know his “people.” Maybe they were like the busloads of tourists in
We don’t know what inspired the magi to make this journey, but we do know that they very sensibly stopped by
How, we ask, did they manage the transition from what they had to be expecting—the pomp and power of a king—to this scrawny infant? They came all this way looking for a great king, and what they found did not look like a great king. Surprise! But somehow they were able to accept what they found—rejoicing and worshiping this baby. And that may be the greatest gift of this story, that God gave them the grace to get past their expectations and truly see the Messiah. That was the epiphany.
Epiphany: something suddenly becoming visible, making an appearance. In Greek it has the sense of the sun rising—like the Lord coming amidst the thick darkness of the people that our Isaiah passage talked about. It’s the time when you say, “Ohh!”
The magi chose to follow God’s star and ended up with an epiphany—God’s sun rising upon them. “Oh!”
And then what? We know they went home, by a different way. God had come into their lives, and already we see that things had changed for them—they went home by a different way. In T. S. Eliot’s poem, there were more changes. One of the magi says in the last stanza:
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
The Magi returned to their places, their kingdoms, but they’d been changed. The old dispensation—the old way of thinking, the old gods—all of these were alien now. I can imagine them growing into old age, back in those palaces—shaking their heads at the people—their people—clutching their idols. And they would remember the epiphany—the awakening, the surprise—that they had experienced, and they would wonder at God’s grace.
God’s grace changes us. It makes us take new routes. And sometimes—after experiencing the epiphany (surprise!) of God’s grace—the same-old, same-old doesn’t work for us as well any more. We don’t fit in the old ways of doing things, the old ways of thinking, and the world says we’re foolish, a bit crazy, the same way the world thought the magi’s journey was folly.
God’s epiphanies change us. They make us uncomfortable with the “old dispensation,” the same-old, same-old; they send us off in new directions—God’s directions.
And God’s epiphanies bring light to our lives. Sometimes the light comes when we find a new star to follow—a new passion, perhaps. Sometimes the epiphany happens when the sun rises—“ohh!”—and we understand something differently. And sometimes it happens when we gather at the Table with God’s beloved people. Ohh!