Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Inside the Cathedral Church in Lund, Sweden, there is a medieval wooden clock listed as a “must-see” in all the Scandinavian guidebooks. Twice a day, at 12 o’clock and 3, the mechanical wooden figures parade around to the ancient music of a mechanical crumhorn. In the span of 60 seconds the medieval show is complete and the figures disappear. A decade and a half ago, our family was in southern Sweden for Christmas and we tried to experience the Scandinavian traveler’s “must-see.” Against all odds, included a delayed train, we ran from the train station at 11:55, along the icy path, up the cold, stone stairs, and through the Cathedral doors just in time to see the last figures vanish into the clock. I was disappointed. My two boys, on the other hand, who live in a world of virtual reality and computer generated action figures, were disappointed that the 500 year old wooden figures could only parade around in a circle. I decided I would return for the 3 o’clock showing. Alone.
At precisely 3 o’clock, two wooden knights jousted, and then two crumhorn players began to perform the Christmas carol, “In dulci jubilo.” And so emerged the three wise men, Melchior, Balthazar and Kasper, bowing before the Virgin Mary and Infant Jesus and presenting their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. And with the final strains of “Christ is born to day” the wooden figures disappeared again into the clock. Two minutes later, a couple walked into the Cathedral. They turned to the clock, and walked closer with their guide-book. Then I heard the man say to the woman, “I don’t know how we could have missed it.”
The story of the three wise men and their journey to Bethlehem reminds me of that visit to Sweden. Oh, certainly the wise men’s arrival in ancient Palestine could have been better timed. Twelve days after Jesus’ birth is, after all, just on the edge of acceptability. They could have arrived without creating such a political stir with King Herod and the royal court in Jerusalem. More importantly, they could have chosen more age appropriate gifts. As a dear friend wrote in her Christmas card hinting that the celebration of Epiphany would be different if three wise women had made the journey instead of three wise men. “Three wise women,” she wrote, “would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, brought practical gifts, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and there would have, been peace on earth.” One thing, however, must be said. At the end of the day, the wise men were not questioning each other and pondering, “How could we have missed it.” They were there together, and were overwhelmed with joy.
It is in the Epiphany story, the story of the wise men’s journey to the Christ Child in Bethlehem, that you and I discover one of the most important lessons for those who are distant or strangers to God. Those who live at the greatest distance from God are the often the ones who seek him most diligently to learn and know Christ and his salvation. And when they do, they do not miss him. That is the journey of faith will meditate upon this day.
According to St. Matthew, the wise men’s pursuit began with a star appearing in the sky. Their story tells us something about ourselves and as well as seekers of God in every age. We may not know what we are seeking, but we are confident deep down inside that there is something out there waiting for us that offers fullness and completeness. It is also interesting to note that not one of the wise men headed out on their own. God’s faithful and seeking people, you see, need the company and strength of others, mentors, companions and guides. God’s ultimate power and presence cannot be found or reached on its own, we must travel together.
The wise men left their homes starting in the east and moving west. Together, they left home, the most familiar of places, and ventured out toward a yet unknown destination. Like any journey for the pursuit of meaning, this journey involved enduring some rough spots along the way. It was about negotiating an unknown curve or two and climbing some rugged terrain.
Nearly forty years ago, I taught geography and history in a mission school in northern India. The school was proud of its Outward Bound program in the Himalayan Mountains. The Outward Bound program provided opportunities for student to explore wilderness areas while developing personal survival skills, courage, and self-confidence. The internationally known program began in the tumultuous waters of the North Sea during World War II. The program was designed to give experience and practical skills to sailors before the battle were fought. The name “Outward Bound” is actually a nautical term used when ships leave the safety of their home harbor. One might say that the wise men were on an outwardly bound journey of challenges to make them inwardly free.
That is true for every seeker of faith. There are things in life that you will encounter that simply do not make sense, and yet you know that a greater truth and comfort is waiting for you- inside. There may be hardship and danger as well. Of course, there will be bystanders who will question your reason and purpose for making such a journey, but you know deep within that you have to keep going. For inside you too are becoming free.
Finally, like the wise men on their journey to the Christ Child you may discover that your journey frequently takes you through some of the darkest valleys. In St. Matthew’s gospel, King Herod threatened the wise men no fewer than five times. This tyrant king played a significant and yet secondary role. As in any drama, supporting roles are never meant to upstage those lead players. Your adversary may be self-doubt, disease, addiction, frustration, or death, but somehow you find the strength to keep going. But along the way, you need reminders and signs to keep you going. It is why the wise men were given a star. For you, God has given the gifts of his Holy Word, a community of faith, the witness of the saints and the sacraments.
Throughout this sacred journey, my friends, from the moment these wise men dared to look upward to the star and to look inward to their own longing; from the moment they followed the star and became outward bound, leaving the safety and comfort of their home harbor, and from the moment they were challenged by the dangers and obstacles of the forces against them, they knew that they were being changed. The wise men were becoming the faithful followers God had created them to be. They were increasingly more confident, courageous and brave. And even before they reached their journey’s end, when they bowed before the Christ Child face to face, they were committed to him.
In St. Matthew’s gospel we read, that as the wise men stood before the king and crowds in Herod’s court that they were prepared to “pay the newborn king homage.” Now that phrase may sound like a wonderfully archaic, old fashioned description of worship or respect. Indeed, it does mean to bow down and prostrate before a great authority. Oddly, the phrase occurs only four times in Matthew’s gospel. Three times in this passage, and then the fourth at the end of the gospel as Jesus ascended into heaven. By the Middle Ages, the phrase paying someone homage was a public acknowledgement in which a feudal vassal or a tenant declared himself in submission and in service to the lord of the manor. As the wise men from the East stood before King Herod, surprisingly and boldly, they declared their allegiance to the new born king, regardless of the consequences. Jesus’ disciples would do the same, at his ascension, when they took on the work of God’s kingdom.
St. Matthew never writes that the wise men ever saw the resurrected Jesus. They certainly did not see the Lord in his ascended glory sitting at the right hand of the father. The home they visited in Bethlehem was not a royal drawing room. The virgin Mary was a young peasant girl and Joseph was a village carpenter. But we do know that they were not disappointed. On entering the house, they opened their treasure chests and they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They committed themselves and paid homage to a tiny child. That is what faith is all about. Faith is about paying him homage trusting that this new born king will watch over you and protect you from all danger.
My friends, again this year, the season of Christmas now draws to a close. You are here, together with the wise men who have diligently pursued the star, so you need not ponder that you have missed it. Together with all those who seek God, no matter the distance, we celebrate the good news that in this Christ Child a light has dawned. He is the light of faith, and hope, and joy that shines in all kinds of darkness that can afflict this world. And regardless of the darkness you may be experiencing, right now, a darkness of discontent, anxiety or fear, you may be assured that you have the light of Christ, the light no darkness can overcome. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.