Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The festival of Epiphany is celebrated around the world in a variety of ways. In Slovakia and in Central Europe people sing carols, and walk from house to house marking with chalk the front door with the sign of the cross, the numbers of the new year, and the letters CMB. The letters recall the traditional names of the three kings Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, but they are also an acronym for the Latin phrase Christus mansionem benedicat. Christ, Bless this House. In France, mothers bake a royal cake with a little toy doll in the center. Whoever finds the toy is the king for the day. In Greece, the Orthodox priests bless the waters. And in Russia, they cut a hole in the ice so people can be blessed by dipping themselves into the freezing waters. My favorite tradition is that of Spain and Latin America. Children go out on January 5th to find the greenest blades of grass, and they place these in a shoebox or a basket under the bed along with a bowl of water, in hope that the camels of the three kings will stop at their homes on January 6th, and bring them presents just as they brought gifts to the Christ Child.
For some the story of Epiphany, the mysterious star, and the Wise Men from the East simply reads as the wistful epilogue to the Christmas story. But for me, Epiphany offers something more. I love the story of Epiphany and I love the star. I love singing loudly and robustly, “We Three Kings of Orient Are” and the “The First Noel.” As a missionary, the Epiphany was a reminder that Christ is the true light of the world and that all the nations are invited to come to him. But there is something personally attractive about the story of the Wise Men that speaks to me. Of course, I love the story of Jesus’ lowly birth in Bethlehem, but I must confess I don’t feel a strong connection to the shepherds camping on the hills of Bethlehem or to the heavenly angels. I do, however, feel a kindred spirit with the Wise Men from the East journeying from afar and using their knowledge to come to Jesus. Theirs is a story of scholarship, intelligence and mystery.
According to tradition, the Wise Men returned to the East, where following the death and resurrection of Jesus, a worship cult arose at their burial site. The bodies of the three kings were transferred to Constantinople, and then in the 4th century to Milan in Italy. Finally in the 12th century, the relics of the three kings were moved to Cologne, Germany. To this day, the remains of the Wise Men are interred in the Cologne Cathedral in the largest reliquary in Europe. And atop of the spires of the Cologne Cathedral there instead of cross there are stars. But have you ever wondered: What really happened to the Wise Men immediately after they left Bethlehem? How were they changed by their Christmas experience? After all, the Wise Men had followed the star, and were exceedingly joyful at their journey’s end. So did they live happily ever after? They certainly didn’t remain long in the star’s “royal beauty bright.” What was the lasting vision and effect of that elusive and mysterious star.
Perhaps there’s a bit of the Wise Men in each one of us. In early January, when it’s time to drag out the Christmas tree and to straighten up the house and to get back to school and return to work, are we not like the Wise Men going back home to their own country? Hopefully, there is a vision of the star that stays with us and inspires us throughout the new year as well.
This morning, let me share with you three thoughts drawn from the story of the Wise Men and the Christmas Star. First of all, God often comes shrouded in mystery even today to wise men and women. Second, wise men and women face just as much danger in this world as the poor and lowly. And third, wise men and women should always be prepared to go home by another way.
So let us begin with the conviction that even today God come shrouded in mystery. Albert Einstein, one of world’s greatest minds, once said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.” It is that mystery, that wonder, that capacity to dream that we celebrate today. The Wise Men followed a mysterious star that they believed would lead them to a newborn king. In the ancient world, the occurrence of a star or a constellation of stars was often associated with the birth of a notable person. So having seen the star, the Wise Men set off to worship him. In scripture we read that the Wise Men followed the star until it stopped over the place where the child was and “they were overwhelmed with joy.” The Wise Men knew they were in the right place. They had arrived at the place where the divine and the human met. They had arrived at the place where heaven and earth come together. “Yes, this is it.” And they “fell down and worshipped him.” That is the wonder of the star. God comes shrouded in mystery.
There are many today, however, who are too scientific and mathematical to place their trust in mystery. They prefer their faith to be logical and rathional. How can you trust the witness of a book written nearly 2000 years ago? Knowledge should be nicely ordered with regular rules and judgments. There is no mystery needed. Indeed, if there is mystery, it cannot be trusted. I wish they had read another of Einstein’s writing. “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle. I prefer the latter.”
Second, wise men and women face just as much danger in this world as the poor and lowly. It was no big surprise that King Herod was troubled by the visit of the Wise Men, as was all of Jerusalem. Herod was a tyrant who feared the loss of his throne. He would kill any potential prince or nobleman. Herod frantically plotted to destroy the poor newborn king who threatened his throne. Herod began by inviting the Wise Men to a secret meeting. One thing I have learned over the years: never trust secret meetings. “Go and search for the child,” Herod told the Wise Men. “…that I may pay him homage.” Herod had no gift to bring. He intended only to use the Wise Men. “When you find him, get back to me so that I can worship him too.” When the Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem, they were overwhelmed with joy. They knew that they had arrived at the place where they were meant to be, the place where they could say that they were at home.
But at that moment, the Wise Men had a decision to make. You see, as soon as they stopped in that place of overwhelming joy, they remembered their secret meeting with Herod, and they knew that they had to make a decision. At that moment, they were caught in between their joy and their fear. Should they trust the mystery of an elusive star or the rigid order of a king?
Contemporary Herod’s still exist. We watch helplessly as international terrorism explode across our lives. We hear the macho game playing of our leaders under the giant shadow of conflict and rumors of war. And we sense that the nations are out of control, reeling toward some hideous nightmare end. There are contemporary Herods who would destroy the young and innocent. Contemporary Herods are all those people, institutions, and cultural assumptions that kill the childlike wonder in us all. Herods inside or outside us always say … “It can’t be done … there is no way … you must never take a chance … everything you do must be useful and efficient … imagination is worth nothing … playing is wasteful … do not follow stars.”
In these moments, of danger, Wise Men and Women must reach beyond this world for hope and trust and choose. You have to take a chance – you have to make a commitment before all the evidence is in – before the T’s are crossed and the I’s are dotted. We do not know that the Wise Men ever saw the resurrected Jesus. They did not see the Lord in his ascended glory sitting at the right hand of the Father. The home they visited was not a royal drawing room. The Virgin Mary was a young peasant girl. Joseph was a village carpenter. But led by their hungering for knowledge and truth, sustained by God’s mysterious revealing star, they took a chance: they committed themselves to a tiny child. The Wise Men took a chance and worshipped him. In moments of danger, we must make a choice. To choose the way of fear, or the way of hope. My friends, God offers the mystery of his star as a sign to give us hope and encouragement.
Finally, the story of the Wise Men and Women must be prepared to go home by another way. We really don’t know what it was like for the Wise Men when they arrived back home. In scripture, we read that God spoke to the Wise Men again through the mystery of a dream. After the shimmering splendor of the star’s light and the wonder and mystery of the new king’s birth, the world must have seemed rather mundane- like going back to work. And after all that…did it make a difference back home on Monday morning, taking out the garbage, changing the diapers, paying the bills, riding the bus, calling on the clients, planning the birthday party, and all the thousand and one things that it takes to live.
And what about the truly anxious moments- the doctor’s diagnosis that seems less than optimistic, the sorrow of the empty chair at your table, the marriage that is still like walking on egg shells. The message of the Wise Men is that in the painful, dark moments in life, God’s mysterious presence inspires us to discover new directions. For the Wise Men, it was about going home another way … about avoiding Herod. God used the star to reassure them on their journey. My friends, the promise of the Christmas star which led the wise men to Jesus is that God will use equally mysterious ways to inspire and encourage you- if you are open to it.
So what will be the occasion of mystery in your faith? In my mind, it is when like the Wise Men you allow yourself to be exposed to the presence of God, to be surrounded by the company of fellow believers, to be captured in prayer, to be embraced in his holy sanctuary. Most likely you will not see a guiding star rimming the horizon, nor will you be greeted by a host of angels on a hill overlooking the city. God will remain veiled to you and by his Holy Spirit and, he will tap you on the shoulder through Word and Sacraments. Not overwhelming your intellect- for then he would violate your integrity, but simply whispering into the ear of your soul and gently persuading you to have faith and to be of good courage.
It is said, that life is a journey. The Wise Men knew this truth more than others. It is my prayer this new year, that you might become more and more like the kingly Wise Men of old … searching, seeking and following the radiance and brightness of God. For at the journey’s end you too will be met by a Savior who knows you, and loves and cares for you, more than you know and love yourself, and he will offer you his overwhelming joy to comfort you all your days. Amen.