January 6, 2013 – Epiphany, The Mystery of the Magi
To listen to this sermon, click here: The Mystery of the Magi
Today is the very last day of the Christmas season. All the Christmas stories are so familiar to us; that’s one thing that makes them special to us – they’re like old friends, the stories of Mary and Joseph, the angels and the shepherds, Simeon and Anna, and today, the story of the coming of the Wise Men. It seems like we know these stories so well, but it is surprising how little Matthew actually tells us about the visitors from the east, and how much mystery there is surrounding them. Reading in preparation for today I was struck mostly by how many guesses and theories people have about the story of the Magi. People love to try to figure out the puzzle of what’s left out of the gospel account.
We don’t know who they were – Matthew says they were “wise men”, magi, men who studied the stars and the ancient writings, sort of a combination of priests and scientists. He doesn’t say anything about them being kings; except that we know that they brought rich gifts, and that they were admitted into Herod’s court. We don’t know where they came from – Matthew just says they came from “the East”. We don’t know how many of them there were – the number three is just a tradition, because there were three gifts. And we don’t know their names, though people have made up names for them. We don’t know what the star was that they saw in the sky. There are all kinds of theories about what the star might really have been: a comet, or a super nova, or two planets that were so close together they looked like one. We don’t even know when the magi came to the child. It seems that the fewer details Matthew gives us, the more people try to pierce the mystery by filling in the missing pieces.
In the story of the shepherds we are told that the shepherds came to worship Jesus the very night he was born, when Mary and Joseph were still in the stable at Bethlehem. And Simeon and Anna met the infant Jesus in the Temple at Jerusalem when his parents brought him to offer the sacrifices for the purification ritual, which would have been when Jesus was just over a month old. But the story of the magi is shrouded in mystery. We don’t even know when they arrived in Jerusalem. When the magi find Jesus in Bethlehem Matthew says that they went into the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. It might have been weeks after Jesus was born, or months, or more. There is so much we don’t know. And so legends and theories and all kinds of explanations have grown up around this simple story of the magi, because people want to see through the mystery and to know more.
The problem with all that guesswork is that the mystery of the magi was never about who these unknown visitors were, or where they came from, or when they came. The mystery was about what God was doing. The arrival of the men from the east was a sign that God was about to do something no one was expecting. The little nation of Israel, holding tightly to its identity as God’s chosen people in a hostile and godless world, was about to see God open the door to the very people they had always seen as enemies. Salvation was going to be bigger than they ever thought possible.
The coming of the magi was a sign that God’s grace was extended even to the Gentiles. That’s what Paul was writing about in his letter to the churches in Ephesus that we read from today: “This mystery,” Paul wrote, “is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Jesus Christ through the gospel.” We know that that’s important for us in a literal sense because for the most part we are the Gentiles. Here at St. Philip’s at least, few if any of us are descendents of Abraham in a biological sense. Even so, the inclusion of the Gentiles might seem pretty far removed from our present-day reality. It’s not something we are likely to worry about or get excited about, either one. But in truth, the coming of the magi is a sign to us in a very immediate way: because it is a reminder to us that God’s grace will always be much bigger than we expect. It is a sign to us that the very people we view as outsiders and unworthy – whether that is ourselves or people we distrust or despise or fear – those are the people to whom God opens the door of his grace wide today.
And that is the meaning of the church: that God calls the unexpected and undeserving to be his family. Paul went on in his letter to write that through the church the manifold wisdom of God is being revealed, like rays of light reflected from the many facets of a diamond, so that it will be seen even by the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. In the church God has called the lame and the blind and the poor to his table. He has offered his home to the orphan and widow. The church as God has made it is the very opposite of everything the rulers of this world value, power structures and hierarchies and social boundaries and survival of the fittest. Against all that reasonable wisdom of this world the church stands as a living monument to the foolishness of our God, who welcomes the last and the least, the unfit and the unworthy. To know the truth of that we don’t even have to look around us; we only have to look inside ourselves. It’s not about what God is doing for the poor slobs around us; it’s about what he has done for us, poor slobs that we are.
The church isn’t, and never was, a beacon of respectability and righteousness whose job it is to show up the unrighteousness of the world around us by our impressive virtue. It’s a wild and improbable celebration of pure, unexpected grace; an embarrassment of unmerited love. That’s why the Pharisees found themselves continually butting heads with Jesus. Grace went against everything they knew of the righteousness that comes by the Law, which was the only way they had ever known to seek the favor of God. When God’s grace came – free, abundant grace that couldn’t be earned – it was bigger than they could see or understand. It is very, very hard to let go of our dependence on being “good people”.
It was so hard to understand why Jesus didn’t find the Kingdom of Heaven in the ceremony and regulations of life under the Law, but instead found it in the mobs of unwashed and unlearned farmers, or, even worse, around the tables of low-lifes like prostitutes and tax collectors. But the mystery of the magi reveals that the Kingdom of Heaven can only thrive where people are able to look with amazement and humility at what God is doing: whether it is a wonderful star in the heavens, or the offer of a new life, freed from the bondages of shame and guilt. The Kingdom of Heaven could only be found where people had given up all hope of being respectable, and had let go of any illusions that they were basically “good people.” Only then did faith find the fertile soil in which the Kingdom could grow and bear fruit.
The church is a celebration of how big the grace of God is. The story tells us that the magi rejoiced with exceeding great joy when they found the house where the child sat with his mother. I don’t know what that joy looked like. Maybe they jumped up and down; maybe they laughed and clapped one another on the back; maybe they stood in silent and joyful awe. Their story reminds us of how much cause we too have for rejoicing. We Episcopalians aren’t bouncy people, generally speaking, and we don’t have to be rowdy – but it is alright to let ourselves go, just a little. We can let ourselves laugh for the sheer joy of knowing that we are loved no matter what happens. We can smile for the wonder of being brought in to the banquet of God’s love from the muck and mire of the streets. We can weep tears of joy for being gently washed clean and clothed in the sweet-smelling clothes of Jesus’ own righteousness. We can bow down in wonder as we share the choicest food and drink of the Eucharist. If we really understand how big God’s grace is towards us, we are quite right to be solemn, but never gloomy. We are right to be serious, but never, ever to be bored.
It turns out that God’s grace is bigger than anyone could ever have imagined. The mystery of the magi revealed that God’s plan was the best news the world has ever heard or ever will hear, because it tells us that we are all invited in – even the people we would rather avoid, even the people we are tempted to despise, even me, and even you, even on our very worst days. God has called us all together to be his church. We are the outsiders who have been welcomed in. We are the unworthy who have been made worthy. We are the homeless who have been adopted into the family of God. We are the joyful household of hopeless cases, brought together by his love to reveal, to every power and ruler and authority in this world, the never-ending riches of God’s mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.