Festival of the Epiphany (6 January 2019)
JoAnn A. Post
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.
All the landmarks are gone. The Schmidt’s round barn? Hauled off to a barn museum. The neighbor’s three-story farm house? Replaced by a sleek gray ranch. The corn crib at the corner? Bulldozed under newly-tilled crop land.
All the landmarks are gone.
But still, every time I turn north on County Road R14 toward Titonka, I know the way. How is that possible?
It happened again this week. I’ve been missing my Mom, so decided to start the new year with the seven-hour drive to see her. I use Google maps to guide the way, but there really isn’t any reason. Accompanied by audio books and fueled by diet coke, the seven hours fly by.
The closer I get, the less I pay attention to the road. I suppose its muscle memory that knows to turn west at Waverly, and north again at Wesley.
But what about those missing landmarks? The red barns and corn-filled storage bins, the only brick house in our township and the rickety one-lane bridge? I’ve so committed them to memory that they still guide me home. Even though only my heart can see them.
The travelers of whom we read today had no such luxuries. No landmarks. No diet soda. No NPR stations automatically programmed on the radio.
They traveled foreign roads with no GPS, ate odd (to them) local cuisine, listened only to the belching of camels and the sigh of the wind. The only thing that guided them was curiosity about an unusual star. These travelers were professors, academics from someplace east of Israel. Plodding across deserts and fording rocky streams, they followed the star wherever it went. Because they knew, experienced astrologers that they were, that the star would lead them to treasure. Not a pot of gold, but the throne of a king.
We have so fictionalized these characters that they bear no relation to the real story. Were they kings? No. Were there three of them as the song suggests? (“We three kings of orient are . . .”) Did they arrive on Jesus’ doorstep as promptly as did the shepherds whom the gospel writer Luke sends? Did they offer anything useful—diapers and binkeys—or just symbolic gifts—perfume and incense and nuggets of gold?
In fact, most of the details are unknown. That there were three of them is the stuff of legend. The timing of their visit is subject to debate—while it would have taken an enormous amount of time to travel from Persia to Bethlehem by starlight, Jesus and his mother were still in Bethlehem when the professors arrived. Was Mary pleased to see them or did she text Joseph “HELP!” when they parked their camels in her driveway?
This is not a nice children’s story, or just a loping Christmas lyric, but a tense narrative filled with offense and intrigue. These darker-skinned foreigners who didn’t speak the language or worship Israel’s God crossed the border unannounced, carrying sensitive information about a rival king. Matthew tells us that Herod and all of Jerusalem were frightened when these Wiseguys plodded into town.
Sadly, the outline of this story could be told at any time in human history. We have always both used and feared the unfamiliar Other. But these particular undocumented strangers were like the Christmas angels, they carried good news of great joy to all the people. What if Herod had turned them away?
O, star of wonder, star of night. The professors traveled on with Herod’s blessing—they sought a king; Herod sought that tiny king’s life.
The intent of Matthew’s narrative is to challenge our comfy notion that Jesus was sent to earth to save only those who were like himself—Jewish boys born to Jewish mothers who worshipped the one true God of Abraham and Moses—and later people like us who claim that same heritage. Matthew blows the quaint Christmas narrative all to pieces. Jesus is Lord not only of his own people in the little town of Bethlehem, but of the whole world and all its people. And all are welcome to worship him. Even, maybe especially those against whom we would slam the door.
But here’s where the story gets interesting. The visitors from the east were warned in a dream that Herod was not to be trusted. So, after kneeling before a diapered king, they saddled their camels and went home by another road. A road both literal and spiritual.
The literal road? Imagine how much more difficult the trip home would have been. Which roads were safe and which were populated by bandits? They could not have traveled unnoticed—their dark skin and royal robes prevented that. Who among their fellow travelers were kind strangers and which ones were Herod’s spies? How would they know which way to go? The star had dissipated long ago and they had no map to guide them. Landmarks eluded them.
And the spiritual road? They had come to Bethlehem as curious constellation-chasers. They left Bethlehem having seen not just a cute baby, but the face of God. Before Bethlehem, they had been students of the stars and teachers of the cosmos. But now those familiar landmarks elude them. And they—these dangerous strangers whom Jesus welcomed—would never be the same. Traveling home by a brand-new road.
A friend of ours was widowed yesterday. The diagnosis of a brutal cancer came just two months ago; yesterday she held her husband’s hands as he breathed his last. Her loss is without measure. He was my age. He was much loved. His future was rich with possibility. And not a centimeter of the road they traveled in the last two months was on anybody’s map. There were no landmarks, and certainly no rest stops.
And now she goes on without him, forced to travel back to her own country by another road. An unfamiliar road. An unwelcome road. A road potholed with grief and anger. A road wet with tears and rutted with regret. A road populated by well-meaning strangers and distraught friends. Who can she trust? Who will guide her? Will there be any landmarks on this dark stretch of the highway?
Yes. Because others have traveled this road before. Wise ones have traveled this road before.
Since Christmas, we have all been on the road. Mary and Joseph were forced to travel by the greedy machinations of an intemperate king. Angels swooped from heaven. Shepherds ran into town. Last Sunday Jesus and his family traveled to Jerusalem, where he lingered a little too long. And today we share the journey with Wise Ones from a distant land—different only in their country of origin and the words they use for praise, but seeking and hopeful just as we are.
None of us can return by the same road once we have encountered God. Whether stunned by grief or overwhelmed by joy or searching for a truth that has so far eluded us, once we have seen the face of God, worshipped Christ the King, we travel back to our own countries by another road.
There will be no red barns or corn-filled storage bins. No familiar bridges or well-marked intersections. All the land marks are gone. But these: companions when we stumble, sustenance when we grow hungry, welcome when we stop to rest.