Sermon by the Rev. Marek Zabriskie on Sunday, January 5, 2020.
Today, we celebrate Epiphany, which marks the visit of the Magi. The Feast of the Epiphany actually occurs on January 6th. In many places around the world, presents are exchanged on Epiphany rather than Christmas, because the twelfth day after Christmas is when the Magi brought their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ child.
This is one of the most beloved stories in the Bible. It is only told in Matthew’s Gospel, and for Matthew it is the focal point of the birth narrative. Every year, it is reenacted in countless Christmas pageants. Choirs and congregations sing, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” My brothers and I used to belt out a slightly corrupt version of this hymn, “We three kings of orient and tar, come smoking a rubber cigar.” And we laughed as only foolish boys can laugh.
This cherished story inspired “The Journey of the Magi” by T.S. Eliot, who lifted the first five lines of his poem directly from a sermon preached in 1622 by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, whose sermons he read and whose writings inspired his own conversion.
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
Eliot wrote his poem in 1927, reflecting on his own long, spiritual search. Later that year, Eliot was baptized at the age of 39. His poem reflects his own religious conversion. It had been a long journey for him to the baptismal font. He was raised a Unitarian. Later, he studied Eastern religions at Harvard, before seeking his spiritual roots in England. Like Eliot, I suspect that many of us have been on a long, spiritual quest until we find the place where our hearts can rest.
This biblical text is pregnant with meaning. But what does it reveal, and how are we to respond? The story of the Magi is full of activity. Journeys are made. Meetings occur. Prophecy is brought into play. Emotions range from adoration to murderous wrath. At the center of the whirlwind is a child. He is the still point around which all of this activity revolves.
There is much to unpack and much to decipher. Nothing in the story tells us that there were three Wise Men. This seems to come from the fact that they brought three gifts. Nothing tells us that they were kings. This might have been deduced from the Psalmist who wrote, “May the King of Sheba and Seba bring gifts. May all kings fall down before him.” (Ps. 70:12) The names – Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar – were not assigned to them until the sixth century. In all likelihood, the Magi were Zoroastrian astrologers from Persia, which is modern day Iraq.
Perhaps you know the old joke, “What if the wise men had been three wise women? Things would have been different. They would have stopped and asked for directions, arrived on time, cleaned the stable, helped to deliver the baby, brought a casserole, and given practical gifts like mittens or a gift certificate to Target, instead of useless gifts like gold, frankincense and myrrh.
But what matters most is that the Magi were the first Gentiles to behold the Christ child. They traveled from far to venerate him. This story affirms that the Messiah would be God’s gift to all people. This child would bring peace and joy to every corner of the world.
The Magi had made a long journey to find him. A journey is always a biblical metaphor for a spiritual quest. They followed a star, and it led them to the greatest light humanity has ever known. No wonder the early Christians depicted the Magi, not shepherds, venerating the baby Jesus when they painted pictures of the nativity on the ancient walls of the catacombs in Rome.
There are great debates about the star that they followed. Some say it was Haley’s Comet, which flared across the night skies in the year 12 B.C. Others suggest that it was a supernova. A star exploded and gave off enormous amounts of light that lasted for weeks or even months.
But in all likelihood it was a constellation of planets and stars that occurs every 794 years when Jupiter and Saturn align in the constellation of Pisces. To the ancients, Saturn symbolized Israel. Jupiter signified a king, and Pisces declared a birth. The Magi, who were astrologers, saw this brilliant constellation and knew that a king had been born to the Jews. At once, they set out and followed the star to find him. In 1972, Belgian archeologists working in Iraq discovered the Star Almanac of Sippar, which shows the movements of the stars during the year 7 B.C., including this unique constellation. Johannes Kepler saw it nearly 1,600 years after the Magi.
Regardless of what it was, the star signifies whatever leads human beings to the Messiah. So, we must follow that star. The star is a symbol of our need for divine revelation to chart our way forward with truth and light. The star is what cuts through all the commercialism of Christmas, which blinds us to the true meaning of this season. The star is a sign, a symbol, a wonder, a revelation, a guidepost, or a tracking device that brings us to the Christ child. The Magi needed an external source of light just as we do. So, we must follow that star.
The star is like the Bible. When we pick it up and read a small portion of it each day, it helps us to find and follow Christ. The Bible is like a map. We open it, and it guides us. It shows us the bigger picture. The Bible is like a GPS. It helps us to navigate through all sorts of circumstances. That is why we are kicking off the 2020 Bible Challenge today. Some 300 people have already signed up, and we invite you to join them today. We hope that everyone will participate, because the strongest Christians read the Bible prayerfully every day. It transforms their lives and illumines their ways. They follow the star.
When we read the Bible, we develop the same mind that was in Christ Jesus. As we God’s Word, it transforms us. Our hearts are warmed with a love for God, and this changes our behavior, improves our relationships and gives us a positive outlook on life. Spending time with God’s Word each day brings out the best in us and provides us with a peace and joy that nothing else can provide.
Those who read the Bible prayerfully each day have a stronger faith. You can see it in their lives. There is something different about them. They know the Lord and love to follow God’s way. They seek God’s patience, love, healing and grace. These persons are pillars of calm in the midst of storms. They have a wisdom to offer friends and family that comes from above. If you wish to be like them, you must pick up your Bible each day and follow the star.
Sometimes life can be terribly dark, and you don’t know where you’re headed. Then you must follow the star. Sometimes you feel all alone, perhaps even betrayed or abandoned. Then you must follow the star. Sometimes you feel afraid, unworthy and ill-equipped to meet your future. Then you must pick up our Bible, read quietly and follow the star. Sometimes everyone and everything seems to go against you. Your challenges seem so great and your future looks so bleak. Then you must turn to your Bible, read the Word and follow the star.
The star led the Magi to Jerusalem, where they met King Herod. “Where has the infant king of the Jews been born,” they asked. Herod consulted the chief priests and scribes. They told him, “In Bethlehem.” So, Herod told the Magi, and they set out in search of the Christ child.
Here was a meeting of two worldviews: Jewish and Gentile, devout and pagan. The Magi needed the guidance of those who knew the Scriptures in order to find the Messiah. But those who knew God’s Word did not join them in the search for the Messiah. Perhaps they had ceased to take the promises of Scripture seriously? Perhaps they had stalled on their own spiritual journey? A new era was dawning but those who had the Scriptures missed out because they did not look up and follow the star.
Herod told the Magi to return and bring him news after they had found the Christ child so that he, too, might worship him. But Herod had no interest in worshipping the newborn king. He was a despot, who ruled by terror. Herod never prostrated himself before justice and mercy. He merely wanted to kill the baby Jesus and any potential king.
So, warned in a dream to go home “by another way”, the Magi took a different path home. And isn’t this what people who have encountered God always do? The journey changed the Magi just as it changes each of us. When we follow the star and open ourselves to God’s Word, we walk in new ways. The Magi took a different path home. That’s what changed people to, and what you can do as well.
You don’t have to quit your job or leave Greenwich. You can remain where you are, but go about things in different ways. You can read a bit of the Bible each day. You can put your renewed faith to work by getting involved in a ministry at Christ Church, or you can exercise more patience and kindness or generosity. With a daily spiritual practice of reading the Bible, you will not only be guided by a new light but you will eventually burn like a bright star and shine light on those around you. Won’t you follow the star? Amen.