Did you know it’s Epiphany Sunday?
That is, today is the closest Sunday to the church’s celebration of the Epiphany, January 6, that denotes the arrival of the Magi to visit the newborn Jesus who they believed was the new king of the Jews.
The reality is that the Christmas stories and the nativity scenes we have seen through the years are a bit mythic. Nowhere in Matthew is it suggested that the Magi, which is the root of our English word “magician”, were kings, that they had camels, or that there were just three of them.
Take a look at Matthew 2:1-14. Three gifts are mentioned and strange ones at that. No formula, no pampers, and no onesies, but gold, frankincense, and myrrh! What were they thinking?
Well, here’s the thing. They weren’t pediatricians or midwives. They were astrologers. They studied the stars. And seeing a new star or constellation, they went to see the king it must portend.
Astrology for most of us is a strange obsession of some of our relatives.
But for many throughout history in nations around the world, astrology was and is serious stuff. Knowing when you were born and under what stars and planets mattered. You know like since Jeff was born January 29, he is an aquarian! Just saying!
And Matthew wanted to make sure we knew about this story. Why?
Because, this story is the source of some curiosity, because astrology was banned to Jews. Yet, Matthew pointed it out!
Because it fulfilled prophesy that the world would take notice of the Messiah when he came and that they, the world ,would come to worship him!
Now, the magi were a group well known to Israelities.
They were consulted by King Nebuchadnezzar way back in Babylon during the great captivity of Judah.
And even farther back, Balak called for the help of Balaam, a Magi, to curse the Israelites as they advanced into the Holy Land after leaving Egypt. Balaam failed to curse the advancing nation, and even ended up prophesying that from Israel would come a great and powerful king!
Now those Magi had come to worship this new king, the Messiah, God’s son, sent to save Israel and the whole world.
And Matthew hints that this is the epiphany, that is the “aha” moment, the realization that God has begun the greatest adventure ever. He shows it for what it is, not a cute Christmas story, but a pivotal sign that the Messiah is here!
Which is why we celebrate the Epiphany separately from Christmas and why there are twelve days of Christmas in between. The Magi didn’t arrive on Christmas! They came separately as an Epiphany!
The arrival of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords in Jesus begins God’s new work, and the Magi put the worldwide stamp on it - that this is not just the King of the Jews, this is God’s own royal son.
The one who invites us to follow him! The one who invites us to take up a cross!
And today’s scripture reading (one that is part of the lesson the Empower children are using) reminds us of something else.
While some might suggest that the Christian life is all about the social and political arguments we see in the modern news and on social media, about being righteous in simply moral terms, Jesus’ own understanding of what matters is laid out in really clear terms as a matter of what we do for others!
Talking to his disciples, he invites us to make a difference not by building churches or political teams or even by being good, but instead reminds us that at the final judgement what will matter is what we have done to alleviate the suffering in this world.
We will be judged on the basis of what we, individually and together, have done to feed the hungry, get water to the thirsty, welcomed strangers and made them part of our families and churches.
What we have done to clothe the naked, alleviate the suffering and struggle of those who are ill, and how we have visited and cared for those who are imprisoned by this life; not just behind prison bars, but behind every prison’s bars that hold incredible people back from being all that God created them to be.
You see, the one who came on Christmas…
And was celebrated by the non-Christian world on Epiphany…
Wants us to measure our discipleship not by what we know…
Or by whom we know…
Or even by how good we think we are…
But by what we have done for others.
That is what it is all about.
Christmas and Epiphany!