Matthew 2:1-12
Isaiah 60:1-6

Epiphany is a word for those experiences where suddenly you understand something in a new way, and it changes how you have looked at things in the past, and how you see the future as well. A few years ago I attended a talk by Dr. Jane Goodall. She is, of course, a world-renowned expert on Chimpanzees. She got her start working with Dr. Louis Leakey, who allowed her to work with him, even though she had no academic credentials at the time. And she was a woman, a young one at that, which wasn’t what you were supposed to be if you wanted to do that kind of work in those days. She was a most unlikely person to be doing research on animals in Africa, but she made an enormous discovery. She was assigned to observe a group of chimps, and to make notes. She observed one of the chimps taking a stick, removing all of the leaves from it, and sticking it down an anthill, stirring it around a bit, and then bringing it up, full of delicious ants to eat. This was amazing because it meant that, not only did chimps use tools, they actually created them, which was something only humans were thought to do. The use of this tool was an epiphany for the chimps, who once they discovered it, had a very efficient way of collecting ants to eat, but it was also an epiphany for human beings, who couldn’t look at themselves or chimps in quite the same way ever again. It suddenly seemed that there was much less separating our two species than previously thought. For some, this was delightful news, for others it was rather humiliating, and even threatening.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell who is wise and who isn’t. True wisdom isn’t always found in academic degrees or professional experience, as Jane Goodall showed. In our reading from the book of Matthew, we hear of wise men that came from the East seeking “the child who has been born king of the Jews.” They weren’t Jewish, and they didn’t live in the area. So it seems unlikely that they would be the ones searching the most diligently for this child. They had seen his star rising, they said, and that star had led them on what may have been a very long journey of months or even a year or more. The star had led them this far, but it seems to have either disappeared temporarily, or not been very specific, because the wise men have come to Jerusalem, the center of power at the time, to ask King Herod where this child might be. That would be a good guess, wouldn’t it? You might expect to find a baby king in the places where kings live. But the baby was not to be found there. So it seems they are lost. They can’t find the child without asking for directions at this point.

They may have been looked upon as lost in other ways as well. They were likely astrologers, or some say magicians, and in those days in that place, both occupations were frowned upon. The faithful Jewish people would have viewed them as ungodly, dangerous even, because their occupation implied they might be flirting with gods or powers other than the God who had led the Hebrew people out of slavery. Faithful Jews were supposed to stay away from people like that. They could bring danger to the whole community by angering God.

And indeed they did bring danger, although not because God was angry at them. What they had to say terrified King Herod. He was not eager to have a child born king of the Jews in his area. He was, after all, the king of the Jews, and he wasn’t interested in having some pipsqueak of a child threaten that status. And when Herod was scared or angry, everyone better watch out. He was violent, but he was also crafty. Not very smart, perhaps, but sly. Even though he was Jewish, he apparently had no clue where prophets said the Messiah was to be born. He summoned his chief priests and scribes and 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.” Notice that these learned people didn’t seem to have noticed the star signifying the birth, and they didn’t seem interested in pursuing it either. It’s these gentiles, these non-Jews, who are so intent on finding this special child.

After Herod learned where the child was to be born, he secretly called the wise men back and asked them when the star had appeared. Then he sent them on their way, and told them to report back when they found the child, so that he could “also go and pay him homage.” But he had something else in mind. He wanted to get rid of this competition, even if it meant wiping out a generation to do it.

So who is wise and who is foolish here? The men who aren’t Jewish, but who gave up their normal lives to travel a great distance to find a child who would be king of the Jews? Or the spiritual experts who don’t seem interested in figuring out where the long promised Messiah might be, now that non-Jews have told them he has been born. Who is lost? The ones who practice astrology, which might make God angry, but who will go to great lengths to find the promised Messiah, or the ones who claim to worship God but can’t be bothered putting out any effort to discover the biggest thing that God has ever done in the world?

The wise men found the child for whom they were looking, and they were overwhelmed with joy. This event is the very definition of Epiphany. Somehow they knew that this child was going to change the course of the world. They knelt down and worshipped him, and gave him gifts. And then they received a gift from God. “They were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and they left for their own country by another road.” They went in another direction.

Epiphanies do change our course. Once we have had one, we just can’t see things the same way anymore. My grandfather wrote his autobiography when he was nearing the end of his life. It is a real treasure to me, and I encourage all of you to think about doing the same thing for your families. Here is his account of an epiphany that he had. “It was in the evening of my confirmation day, when I was milking a cow, that I had a wonderful spiritual experience. I was rehearsing the glory of the day, the beautiful worship service, and the fine fellowship at the dinner after church that mother had provided for a group of friends. In a prayer, I asked the Lord to take and use my life as I made a full commitment to him. Suddenly I was surrounded by a tremendous light, and such joy came into my life that I wanted to shout, but I realized that I was milking a cow and if I frightened her she might kick the bucket and spill the milk. Whatever this was, the real thing or a hallucination, I don’t know. But I do know that the Lord has been with me ever since, and that after this occasion, milking cows was no longer a hated chore.”

My grandfather’s epiphany was accompanied by a bright light. That’s an image that is used a lot in the Bible too. In our scripture from Isaiah, the prophet says “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you….Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn…Then you shall see and be radiant, and your heart shall thrill and rejoice…the wealth of the nations shall come to you…They shall bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” These words were written long before Christ was born in Bethlehem, and some say they are the prophecy which was fulfilled with his birth and the visit of the wise men which Matthew describes. Others would argue that since Matthew wrote so many years later, he simply sculpted his account to match the prophecy. In some ways it doesn’t matter. He was telling us that this child is the one who brings that kind of light into the world. He has been found, and we have been found by him, and we are supposed to do something about that. We are to arise and shine ourselves, because once we discover the love of God and the power of the Spirit which sent that child into the world, we are expected to do something. We are to share the light.

Sometimes, even a child from a small and seemingly unimportant place can change the world. That’s what Matthew is trying to tell us too. The light has come. How are you going to shine? Amen

Lost and Found

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