A sermon for the Sunday after the Epiphany, 2022
On the cusp of the year, late in the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, I composed an email withdrawing from a retreat that had been postponed from Easter 2020 to Easter 2022. The travel seemed too uncertain for me to have any confidence in booking it, and had I got there, the landscape of the week looked so different from what I had expected when I first paid my deposit in 2019 that I no longer recognized it.
As I posted somewhat wryly on Twitter that evening that it seemed the perfect way to round out 2021, and a friend commiserated, I found myself telling her, truthfully and to my own surprise, that it was all good; that letting go of those plans allowed me to enter this year open to whatever shape it takes, rather than needing to bend and bind it to my own will.
I have been learning from the wise ones who visited Jesus in his infancy, who came from the east looking for the king whose star had risen to show them the way, who expected to find the glory and the mercy and the justice of God made manifest, and found these things in a child in the humble town of Bethlehem.
Humility, flexibility, creativity, faith in the reach of God’s mercy: these are the gifts that the wise ones offered me on the cusp of the year.
Humility. These may not have been kings but they would at least most likely have been members of the courts of kings, revered and wealthy in their own right, enough to travel with treasure chests, enough to impose upon Herod in his palace, bringing and seeking news of a Messiah.
William Barclay, in his commentary on Matthew, writes that, “just about the time Jesus was born, there was in the world a strange feeling of expectation of the coming of a king. Even the Roman historians knew this.” They wrote of a “firm persuasion” that from Judea would arise a universal empire.[i] The magi were not deterred by the vassal state of Judea under Roman rule. They did not despise their former conquest, nor demand whether they could not have grown a new king at home instead. They had humility, not only to set out seeking this new king in a foreign land, but to petition Herod’s court for information, and when they found the child, not in Jerusalem but in the backwater of Bethlehem; not in a palace but who-knows-where; not wrapped in silk robes but in mean swaddling clothes, they had the humility to kneel before him anyway, sure that God knew what God was doing, and that from such small beginnings God could change the world.
Having the humility to recognize God in the person whom we least expect to reflect God’s image; to set aside our expectations and to look instead for God’s incarnation: that is one lesson from the wise ones.
Their flexibility and creativity in finding a new road home is also rooted in humility. Rich men are often used to getting their own way. These men were willing to try a new way. In order to protect the Christ-child and his family, they set aside their courtly privilege and took the side route, skirting Jerusalem and Herod’s dining table, eschewing the King’s Highway, following the peasant tracks through the countryside and camping out in unexpected places, new oases, on their way back out east.
They say that necessity is the mother of invention. Finding new ways to travel old paths, or finding new paths to old goals, or setting out for something entirely new and unenvisioned: these are not only the challenges of a church during a global pandemic, but they are the work of the inventors, the engineers, the artists.
On the Feast of the Epiphany my son was driving home to Georgia when he got caught up in the snowstorm around Lexington, KY (he kindly gave me permission to tell this story). At one point he was diverted off the highway and found himself on a side road made almost impassible by an immovable obstacle. Cars were trying to pass by on the verge, trying to keep moving to avoid getting snowed in all together. Motorists had to get out and help each other, pushing cars past the blockage to keep things moving while they waited their own turn to get by. Sometimes a diversion brings unexpected grace amongst its frustrations. Sometimes, some of us get to be the unexpected grace.
The hospitality of the desert is long-established. Only by the kindness of communities and of strangers and the sharing of the rare springs does one survive such a harsh environment. The wise ones must have met with such oases of grace on their unfamiliar road home. Perhaps they left some gifts themselves, gold to match the hot sand.
Making a way where none is visible is a specialty of our God, from the Red Sea to the wilderness, from the journey of the magi to the marches of freedom movements, from the flight to Egypt to the streets of Euclid.
The faith that the magi had – these pagans, these heathen astrologers – in the breadth and reach of the mercy of our God; they knew that they were not excluded from God’s justice, which is mercy. They knew that they were beloved. If not before, they knew it when they saw that Christ-child, and knelt before him, guided to his feet by a star as if by an angel of the Lord.
When they dreamt of God, they listened to their dreams. They knew that they were, as much as anyone, the objects of God’s loving care. They found a new way home.
The Feast of the Epiphany is a new year of sorts for us, the people of Epiphany. Who knows what this one will bring. But if we are able to keep our hearts and minds and expectations open; if we deploy the gifts of humility, creativity, faith that the magi, the wise ones have taught us, then we may find unexpected grace, unlooked-for epiphanies, the glory of God waiting for us to stumble upon it as the year takes shape, growing like a child, full of curiosity, wonder, and delight.
[i] William Barclay, The New Daily Study Bible, Volume 1: The Gospel of Matthew (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 31
Image: Adoration of the Magi, Konrad Laib, early 1400s, photographed at the Cleveland Museum of Art (detail)