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.
If we were to begin this morning by brainstorming, if I were to ask you for the first word that pops into your head when you hear the word “gospel,”
I would expect to hear the name of Jesus, I would expect to hear words like love, and grace and forgiveness. Some words I would not expect to hear are danger and threat. But today’s passage from Matthew is, at least in part, a story about how threatening God’s intrusion into the world can be.
We may not realize it, because we listen to Matthew’s words in a beautiful room on a bright morning in a relatively peaceful country.
And familiarity can wear the rough edges off a story, but what we have before us is chilling if we take it seriously. If you don’t think that’s true, take the time this afternoon to read the rest of the chapter.
Matthew begins his account with these ominous words:“In the time of King Herod.” If you had lived in Matthew’s day, I suspect the mere mention of Herod’s name would have been enough to make your stomach churn. Actually, there was a whole family of Herods who ruled in and around Palestine—The New Testament refers to six of them, spanning four generations. This King Herod, whom Matthew mentions in Chapter Two, was the Great Grandfather of the line. He was cruel and violent, willing to execute even members of his family—so any story that begins with Herod’s name is a scary story. From the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ life is set in a context of threat.
Into this atmosphere of peril come the Magi. It’s a hard word to translate: astrologer? magician? maybe priest? Matthew doesn’t give us much to go on. He tells us simply that these travelers came from the East. Over the centuries we have concluded that there must have been three of them, since they brought three different gifts—although tradition once held that there were twelve. The poet Longfellow even gave them names: Balthazar, Melchior, and Gaspar—but none of that is scriptural. We might be closer to the mark simply to call them strangers. But we, like the people of Jerusalem, are uncomfortable in the presence of strangers—especially strangers who ask disturbing questions—so we dress them in bathrobes and give them paper crowns, until they seem quite harmless.
But Herod doesn’t find their presence benign; Herod is frightened. And in a comment full of foreboding, Matthew writes that all of Jerusalem is frightened with Herod. Isn’t that how it works when there is a tyrant in power? If the tyrant feels threatened, no one is safe.
But the strangers ask openly: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” Maybe they don’t know that “King of the Jews” is a title Herod claims.
Who knows what effect their question had on the people of Jerusalem? Who knows how the faithful weighed their longing for the Messiah against their fear of Herod’s wrath? God’s people often have preferred the relative safety of the evil they know, to an unfamiliar world in which power structures are overturned. Remember Martin Luther King’s lament over our own apathy in this country?
As much as you and I long for epiphanies—for radical experiences of God’s nearness and justice—we also fear them—for God never leaves us as God finds us, and we cannot anticipate or choose which changes will be required of us. But the strangers are not cowed. Somehow the new light in the sky makes them trust that a righteous power is at work in the world. They have come a long way at great cost, and they will not be diverted from their search.
What do you think?
Does it seem ironic that it took outsiders to discern the fulfillment of God’s ancient promises?
Does it seem poignant that those who knew the scriptures best were not able to find their way to Bethlehem?
How interesting that mapping that road required both a curiosity about what was happening in the world right then, and the treasuring of the scriptures’ ancient wisdom.
There are lessons here for all of us who long to face our fear and seek the presence of God:
- The Magi are first and foremost attentive—they are watching for signs that God is on the move. They invite us to keep asking, “How are the scriptures coming to life in our day?” The Magi live expectantly.
- And the strangers are willing to follow the signs they perceive, even though they don’t know where the search will end, or what it will cost, or how they might be changed in the process.
- And they are willing to engage others in their process: they ask the questions that rise in their hearts.
- The Magi also model for us what it means to worship: they are able to experience the hospitality of God in the humblest of settings, and then eager to offer their very best gifts in return.
- Finally, they are willing to have their plans redirected—even when direction comes from a dream.
I think the world is full of stars in the East—events in nature, in history, in our own experience, that point toward the mysterious presence and power of God. I think our lives are full of epiphanies, waiting to break open.
The season of Epiphany is a reminder to each of us to be watchful, curious—attentive to the ways that God’s Word blooms and burns all around us. And Epiphany is an invitation to humility if we imagine that we are clear about the scope of God’s promises—for we never know when God might bring ancient words to life in a way we had not anticipated.
This text encourages us to cultivate relationship with those who see the world differently than we do—We don’t have to be afraid to bring the questions of outsiders into conversation with the scriptures. Our first concern doesn’t need to be protecting what we have. Our mission is always first to honor the new life God is bringing into the world. But how do we practice that kind of watchfulness?
There are countless ways—I want to offer just one this morning.
About 30 years ago, when Lee and I were first married, and living on the West Coast, we encountered an Epiphany tradition that comes from the Eastern Orthodox Church. On Epiphany each person receives the gift of a star-shaped piece of paper on which is written a single word. The range of words is large, but whatever word you receive becomes yours to live with during the coming year. There is nothing magical about the word; it is simply an invitation to practice attentiveness to God in a particular way. So much of growing in faith is about learning to hear and see what we otherwise might have missed.
So this morning, after you have received the sacrament, you will be offered an Epiphany star. In a spirit of prayerful openness, I invite you to take one. You may choose the one on top or reach deep in the pile.
Once you have your star, I encourage you to put it somewhere you will see it frequently. One of my close friends keeps a photo of his as the background wallpaper on his phone. Maybe look the word up in a good dictionary—and a concordance—find out if and where it appears in scripture. And then examine your experience, watch and listen—how does this word intersect with your life? Most importantly, how might this word call you further on your journey with God?
The power of this practice will become clear next year, when we’ll give you a chance to report back on your experience.
In the meantime, let me give you a few examples of the kind of stories you might hear:
My first year as a pastor in New Jersey, I drew the word offering. I stuck it on my refrigerator. Every day I saw that star as I came and went by the kitchen door. I saw it on days when things went well, when I felt productive and useful; and I saw it on so many more days when there hadn’t been enough time to polish the sermon, or do the legwork for the committee, or make the visits I’d intended to make. On those days, my word was a reminder that God’s working in our midst does not depend on our getting everything checked off of our lists. We don’t get to be perfect, we don’t get to be in control, we don’t get to be God. What we are called to do is to keep making our offerings, as rough and ordinary as they may be—day after day. We make our offerings, and then we must trust in God’s desire and capacity to use them. So my word was both comfort and challenge.
One year a friend named Carol, who was juggling career and family commitments while she worked on a graduate degree, was heartened when she drew the word accomplishment, believing that the goal of completing her degree might be attainable. So when the year came to an end and the degree was not finished, she struggled to find meaning in her star. But the following Epiphany, when she drew the word accomplishment a second time, she realized what an accomplishment the whole process had been. And that year she saw the degree completed.
Another year, a friend who was 40 announced that he and his wife were expecting their first child. I’ve never known a man who was more frightened at the prospect of becoming a father. He told me he prayed as he drew his word, then held it for a few minutes, and when he finally looked at it, tears ran down his cheeks. His word was fun. His wife’s word was blessing. Their blessing arrived in June, and six months later when we saw him, Terry told me he’d never had more fun in his whole life.
Our friend Kathryn, though, struggled with her word from the outset. She drew hospitality, and for Kathryn it called to mind her mother’s standards—standards Kathryn had never felt able to meet. But that year Kathryn was called to a prominent position at a Presbyterian seminary, where there was a deep need for the gift of hospitality—not as Kathryn’s mom had defined it, but as Kathryn herself embodied it—in her own generous, welcoming, cluttered way. As the word became redefined, Kathryn felt her call and choices confirmed.
Finally, I remember a college student who drew the word cleanliness. At first she teased about the prospect of trips to Bath and Body Works, but in the fall of the year she had a traumatic experience that left her with unpredictable panic attacks. The first friends with whom she confided didn’t know how to react and pulled away, leaving her to carry her trauma alone. In her own words, it wasn’t until “she came clean with her parents” that she began to understand the healing power of cleanliness.
Your word may be a word of comfort, or challenge. It may have immediate significance or you may not find meaning in it until you have some distance on the year. It may speak to something you need to receive, or something you have to offer. Almost certainly it will invite you to a new understanding. Like so many things in life, this gift is beyond your control.
Walter Brueggemann says that few of us “imagine God to be an active character in our lives.” 
This experience invites us to a wider imagination.
Let me close with one final story.
On Friday, my husband sent me a recent Facebook post from an old friend. Pictured are two dog-eared stars stuck to her refrigerator. She wrote:
These are epiphany stars we got at church in 2017. I got talent and Dave got endurance. These are words we were to reflect upon all year. Admittedly, I only thought about them a few times, but today they are quite meaningful…. When I am done looking back, I hope to look forward with renewed hope and energy for the coming year. Then I plan to pay attention to the now, and keep paying attention to it. One of my favorite kids’ books asks,“when do you love me most, Mommy?” She replies “Right now. It is always right now.”
God’s love is always “right now” friends. It’s always found in the intersection of ancient promises and what’s going on right outside our doors. May you be open to such a love, this day and every day, no matter the cost.
 as quoted at the annual Celebration of Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis in October, 2010