January 7, 2024 Cobleskill United Methodist Church , Pastor Anna Blinn Cole
The Visit of the Wise Men
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary, his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Don’t you just love how the church has strange and mystical holidays that no one outside of the church seems to even know about, much less celebrate. Add Epiphany to that class of holiday: holidays that don’t have a special candy aisle in the grocery story.
But actually, Epiphany for many centuries was considered one of the three biggest feast days of the Christian year, the other two being Christmas and Easter. Epiphany falls on January 6th every year and marks the end of the 12 days of Christmas. It’s the day we celebrate the arrival of the Magi- or Wise Men, or three kings- as this illustrative group of travelers have been named in various traditions. As we talked about with the children, they didn’t come on the night of Jesus’ birth in a manger, but instead were drawn to Jesus by an unusual star in the sky. They couldn’t make sense of it and didn’t know what it could mean, but they traveled anyway.
The reason this long journey and visit by the Magi has become known as Epiphany is because the meaning of the word epiphany is something like a manifestation. A revealing. Something was uncertain and unknown and then it became clearer when you looked closer.
So it was with the Magi. They saw something in the sky that intrigued them and so they followed it until it led them to a manifestation. The mystery was revealed. God was present among them in the person of a small child. It was the incarnation. God made flesh. The only thing they could do in the face of this epiphany was to kneel and worship God.
There are many interesting things about this story that are often overlooked. But one of these things that struck me this week was thinking about how long it took the Magi to follow the star. Their notification that a king Jesus had been born was a star. I mean, there are times I get a notification of something pretty important via some method like, I don’t know -the US Mail- and I think, good grief… was there not a faster way to communicate this? What century is this, anyway? These days we live in a world of instant gratification and that gives us very little concept of what it must have been like to be notified about something that seemed pretty important by an astrological change in the sky. It's like, hey, guys, there’s something different about the sky tonight. Let’s set out on foot with our camels and investigate …right away!
It just makes me have respect for the investment of time these folks put into a journey they had little to no real details about except that it seemed like the direction God was leading them to go. These folks were going to see where this star led, even if it meant being in it for the long haul.
And June and I were just talking about this yesterday at our breakfast table. It was two years later that the Wise Men arrived. Two years! We so often forget that when we see pretty pictures of the three kings by the stable. Were they traveling that whole time? Did they ever get tired? Did they ever get lost? Did they ever doubt why they started in the first place?
Realistically speaking, the answer to all these questions is probably yes. And yet they kept going. This is in the nature of an Epiphany. The journey itself was a process of looking closer. And the parts of the journey that made it long or hard or uncertain were the parts of the journey that made the epiphany at the end that much more powerful.
The wait, the anticipation, the struggle, the distance. Somehow all of this ordinary hassle was necessary for the epiphany. Revelations aren’t cheap.
When I was in college, I made a really good friend. I knew she was going to be a good friend because the first December I knew her she asked me if I wanted to go to the piano in our dorm and sing through the Advent hymns in the hymnal together. Um, yeah! Finally, someone to be an Advent nerd with: it was a friendship made in heaven.
A year or so into our friendship, Mary gave me a prayer book. It was called Prayers of Iona. “I think you’ll love it,” she said. And she was not wrong. The book has a set of prayers for Monday, morning, noon and night. And then a set of prayers for Tuesday, morning, noon and night. And you’d probably think at first pass that that sounds rather plain. Rather ordinary. But the beauty was in its ordinariness. The way each prayer woke me up to the beauty and mystery present uniquely at the beginning of a week in the morning, or at the end of the day on a Sunday. The prayer book guided me to seeing what had been there all along, but I hadn’t noticed.
About 20 years later, in March of this year, I got a phone call from another old friend. She paused on the phone for a moment and then asked, “would you like to go to Iona with me?” I wasn’t sure what exactly she meant. Like the Isle of Iona, where the prayer book was written? The Isle of Iona halfway across the world on the remote western coast of Scotland? What even was Iona to me, I wondered existentially, and why did I feel like God was now nudging me to say, “Yes, actually, I do really want to go to Iona”?
In retrospect, I knew the long journey I went on to the Isle of Iona as a pilgrimage, although I didn’t know to call it that when I began. And this is the nature of epiphanies, like the first Epiphany with the Wise Men. We don’t know what we don’t know until we have arrived at the moment of revelation.
Revelations change us and they are not easy.
It was really difficult to figure out how to leave my family and my ministry work here at the church for 10 days. It was difficult to justify spending the money it took to take such a long journey. It was difficult on my body to travel that far. And once there I got completely soaked in rain storms more than 5 different times. And yet, here is what the journey revealed.
The beauty of God is staggering and being in Iona pulled back the curtains.
Celtic Christianity which has its origins on the Isle of Iona describes the concept of Epiphany as a “thin place.” A place where the boundary between the mundane and the eternal becomes permeable. It’s as if God pulls back a curtain and we get a glimpse of the extraordinariness of God’s love and majesty and power all while standing in a place that feels ordinary, and yet thin. For centuries people have cultivated this kind of Christian spirituality on Iona. Not that the isle itself is somehow different than any other patch of land. But it’s here where early Christians allowed themselves to feel a connection between the moments of this world, the soil and rocks of this earth, the real material parts of this life, and the sacredness of God.
Trees, rocks, ocean, laughter, sheep, bread, juice, water, babies- all of these ordinary things in this life can reveal the divine. An Epiphany is not something that happened once to three wise men from the Far East who suddenly recognized God within a small child named Jesus. An Epiphany is something that can happen to each us when we too, finally understand that God is with us by witnessing a thin place. A place where God has pulled back the curtains and allowed us to see the sacred nature of the Divine that springs up all around us. In the laughter of a child. In the gift of freshly fallen snow. In the celebration of life for a beloved woman. In a struggle we’ve walked through in our lives that we don’t understand. In the relationship with a friend who keeps us going in hard seasons. In the mystery of a star word that enters our life as an unknown prayer. In any invitation to begin something new. In a meal that we still don’t understand and yet we feel such grace. In a divine baby reborn year after year after year in a manger. Epiphanies make ordinary experiences extraordinary moments. Revelations aren’t cheap. Neither are they easily forgotten.
God is with us. Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow. Always. In the quiet moment and in the grand ritual. And no matter how this revelation needs to make itself known to you, remember that there is no wrong time to start, or to restart seeking…even if you don’t know yet where you’re going.
There is no magic to Epiphany. We don’t casually observe Epiphany. We practice Epiphany. The challenge is always before us. Look again. Look harder. See freshly. Stand in the place that might possibly be thin, and regardless of how jaded you feel, cling to the possibility of God doing the extraordinary through the ordinary.
Grace and Peace,