January 5, 2014


Matthew 2:1-11


Our Christmas preparations and celebrations come to a close this morning.

A little over a month ago we sang our prayer: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

As you know, the Hebrew word Emmanuel means “God is with us.” Emmanuel gives expression to our hope, our faith that we are not alone in what can at times seem to be a cold and uncaring universe.

This is more than just a seasonal, Advent prayer. It is the prayer for each of our days: God be with my family, be with those I love, be with this congregation, be, even, with me. God be with us.

Praying this way we slowly extend the circle of our concern: God be with those we don’t know—the homeless beggars on the Ped-Mall, the hungry at the Free Lunch, the destitute at the Crisis Center. Be with this nation in all our division. Be with this world still living in economic uncertainty, with ongoing violence, wars, and rumors of war.

Come Emmanuel—God be with us.

Not even two weeks ago our song announced: “Joy to the word, the Lord has come.”

And we know, don’t we, that in most respects, we’re pretty much the same people that we were back in November. We still have the same strengths that we bring to our work and our families, to this city and this congregation. We still have the same concerns about our world and the poverty, hunger, and violence that still haunt it. And, yes, we’re still dealing with the same foibles, flaws, and, well, sin, in spite of the goodwill and resolve that we’ve known in recent weeks.

Advent, Christmas—such days and seasons don’t change us. This was part of the wisdom of the old Congregational neglect of these occasions. But these times do remind us that God is at work in our world and in our lives—telling us that even we might be transformed by God’s love; even we might be remade in the image of Christ.

So, today, as friends and family take their leave, as we return from various journeys, as school looms and a new year gets going, we hear one last Christmas story—of the magi and their travels, what they learn, what new things they behold.

We call this day “Epiphany,” a word that means “revelation.” In this story we are shown something that we couldn’t discover on our own. When the magi arrive in Bethlehem with their gifts the Word made flesh in Jesus is revealed to the Gentiles—to you and to me. We couldn’t have come up with this on our own. To see the central reality of all of life: Emmanuel—God with us—we need an epiphany.

If we are honest, we will admit that we’re a little suspicious of “revelation” here in Iowa City. Across the street scientists set up their experiments and wait patiently for the results that will give a better understanding of their subject. Journalists interview and investigate to get to the truth of a matter. Musicians practice to coax beauty out of brass or wood or strings. Scholars and students read, study, discuss, and write in order to shape and refine their own ideas. They know that it is action that leads to awareness. All around us merchants deal in cash and customers, restaurateurs fill plates with food, and bartenders fill mugs with beer. They all deal with reality, not revelation.

And yet in all our endeavors, we encounter those “eureka!” moments—times when the lights come on and it all becomes clear. The object of our research gives up its secrets. The right word or phrase comes seemingly from nowhere. In an instant, for no apparent reason, the solution to the problem comes to you, what you’ve been studying so hard finally makes sense. Even business people will speak of ideas that just came to them.

Without expecting it, you suddenly know, “I’m in love,” or “This is the path I should take.”

Call it inspiration. It is a deep grasping of truth that is revelation.

We can be suspicious of revelation. Perhaps we should be suspicious of it.

But we encounter revelation again and again in our lives.

The Gospels give us other revelations, other epiphanies beyond the story that we heard this morning. There is the baptism of Jesus—a story we’ll hear next Sunday—in which the voice of God thunders from heaven: “This is my Son, my beloved. This day I have begotten you.” And the Gospel of John tells us about the wedding at Cana—at which Jesus turned water into wine, to the delight of everyone present. It was a sign, John says—it pointed to what God was doing in the world.

Maybe we are closer to these other epiphanies in some way. We still participate in baptisms. Reynolds Price said that the miracle at Cana has a homespun, kitchen-table quality to it. Revelation occurs among and in the familiar, the common.

But this morning we encounter the unfamiliar, the uncommon: astrologers from the East, an enraged, tyrannical ruler, frankincense, gold, and myrrh.

What is being revealed to us?

Those involved in this story have questions.

The magi are looking for a place: they come to Jerusalem asking “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” The capital city would seem to be the right place—the center of power and authority. But arriving there, they ask, “Where?”

Herod—troubled by the question of the Magi as well as by its answer—sends them toward Bethlehem. He knows the place. But he is looking for a particular child—one whom he sees as a threat to his power and position.

The magi find both the place and the child. They come before him with gifts.

And we say that this is the Epiphany: the revelation to the Gentiles of Emmanuel—God with us in Jesus. Gentiles—latecomers, speculators, scholars, those on the outside—you and me. Paul would later say that Gentiles could be regarded as a wild branch grafted onto an olive tree by the grace of God. That’s a pretty tenuous position. Paul gives a “last hired, first fired” image—the branch that was grafted on can easily be removed.

Now there’s a revelation!

We participate in God’s life-giving covenant, not because we deserve it, not because we’re good, decent people, but simply because of God’s grace—and only because of God’s grace.

The revelation of this day is to us, for us in our blindness, our ignorance, our cluelessness.

The revelation is about just who this Jesus is.

He is the one longed hoped for. The Magi, with all of their wisdom, all of their knowledge, new really only one thing—that their knowledge was incomplete, that their lives were incomplete, that the world itself was incomplete and awaits a fulfillment that it cannot bring about on its own. Study the stars. Study the scriptures. Study the books in the library, examine your data, study the markets and the polls, know thyself. You will find the same result: an unknowing, an absence.

What was revealed to the Magi was the one who was greater than all their star-gazing, all their charts, all their study and all their wisdom. They kneel down and give gold and frankincense as a way of expressing this. Then they make that surprising and disturbing offering of myrrh, and myrrh, you remember, is a spice used for embalming a body—hardly a gift for a newborn child. Unless. Unless something has been revealed to them about this child that they in turn reveal to us: that, as the poet says, this birth is also about death, our death, the death of an old order represented by Herod, the death of our old ways of living, even the ultimate death of the man this child will become—a death that somehow could mean light and life for all people, even for you and me.

To Herod came the troubling revelation that his power was threatened, indeed, unless he acted quickly his entire kingdom was in jeopardy. He and all Jerusalem were troubled because a new power was coming into the world.

This Jesus is a threat to the powers of the world. Herod’s troubled reaction to the news of the birth of a baby shows the course this life will take. The religious leaders, the government were threatened by Jesus because he spoke of a power greater than their own. He speaks always of a power beyond our understanding or imagining.

So we come finally to what really matters here—and that is what is revealed to us in this familiar but always strange story.

The One found in Bethlehem is the One who gives life and calls forth our own gifts—the best that we have, the best that we are, the best that is in our control, the best that is in us. Like the Magi we are struck with the sense that none of this is enough. We empty our treasure chests and in our emptiness discover that this is the One who comes to us as a gift.

We give because we need to give. We give because we need to offer ourselves and our substance to the God who comes to us in Jesus. And suddenly we see it: Our gifts are not given to the needy. Our gifts come from the needy—from you and me.

Giving generously we meet our needs.

Giving wisely, we meet our own needs.

We give. And we, the needy receive, this day and every day, not certainty, but revelation—a making known to us of that which we can’t think through or reason out. The eyes of faith have seen and the ears of hope have heard what eyes have not seen and ears have not heard: God is with us—not just in the wonder and beauty of Christmas but also when the lights have come down, the tree has been thrown out and the angels have returned into the heavens. In all of our days and nights, in our living and in our dying, in our returning and starting over God is with us.

So we can be with one another, seeking to love as we have been loved. We can be with the world, seeking to bring healing to our city, our nation. We can even—and sometimes this is the most difficult—we can even be with ourselves in stillness, in acceptance, in love. Because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, we can be at peace in our own skin.

Read Matthew’s story of the magi again sometime this week and think of what is revealed to you in this story. Notice that God is never mentioned. God is with us. But God is with us “unobtrusively and ambiguously.”[i] This is how God chooses to be with us—in a way beyond our deepest fears and our wildest hopes.

We couldn’t have come up with this on our own.

It is a revelation—an epiphany.

God is with us.

[i] Eugene Boring, Matthew, NIB, vol. 8, pg. 143.