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Epiphany Sunday

Matthew 2:1-12

January 4, 2015

It is Epiphany Sunday and we carry in our heads images of stars and wise men, kings and gifts. These are images that are familiar to us and when we hear the story read from Matthew, it is with a level of comfort that we hear it. However, there are questions we can ask, why magi? Magi is translated into English as wise men, and we know there were three only because they brought three gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh, nowhere does it say there were three of them. Sometimes they are called astrologers - how did these magi, wise men, and these astrologer’s get into the story?

My translation uses the word magi: Where did the word magi come from?

Magi comes from the word magic - hence, magicians, but they were not magicians in the modern sense of the word. Rather, the word refers to a kind of spiritual figure: it was believed magi had wisdom by being in touch with another reality. Their wisdom was a “secret wisdom,” a kind not known by ordinary people. They were Pagan’s, people from the country. They were rural folk, like us.

That is why Herod called them when he wanted information about the night sky, and in this story he wants to know about the star that leads to Bethlehem.

No doubt some magi were astrologers in the sense that they paid attention to “signs in the heavens,” but to think of magi as primarily astrologers is misleading. Rather, magi were people with a more earthly wisdom.

Also, Persian-Essene sages taught that the magi were the only ones able to read the coming of the Messiah’s star, and so they were the only ones with the power to identify the “right” Devine Child.

This teaching stemmed ultimately from Egypt, where the three Wise Men were said to be the three stars in the Belt of Orion pointing to Osiris’s star Sothis (Sirius) which “rose in the east” to announce the coming of the Savior at the season of the Nile flood. These three belt stars were still called magi in the middle ages.

In Rome, early in the Christian era, Magi meant priests of Mithra (the original Persian “Messiah”), or astrologers, or miscellaneous healers and miracle-workers; it was a term for magicians in general.

Roman Christians were hostile to the magi but were forced to retain the three Magi of the Gospel story because their presence was emphasised as evidence of Jesus’ divinity. So, the magi had a lot of prestige and power.

I suspect there were many reasons to insert the magi/wise men into the Christian birth story.

These magi are placed here in the lectionary on Epiphany Sunday. So, let’s pull together the magi and the epiphany. We can assume that they are meant to have an element of surprise. Epiphany moments are those moments when we say aha, I see, I get it. It is that moment when we understand something in a new light. Good literature always has an epiphany moment when the reader says aha.

In the story from Matthew, that I read, there is a baby - a half naked infant born to illiterate, no account parents. And in the door of the barn saunters the well educated foreigners.

These men, the magi, come offering gifts to a baby who will eventually attempt to change the fabric of the entire society within which the magi are very comfortable and have power. There, kneeling in a barn these rich foreign wise men represent the world. They represent us.

As they offered their gifts to Mary and to the babe they had a sense of great joy. It was the Epiphany moment – a moment when they recognised the players in the story. They must have asked, why they came and then, they would have to think about who they were in the scheme of things. Because the experience changed them.

Since that day, over 2000 years ago, we too are changed.

The story changes us. Or at least it might change us. Epiphany is a short interlude in the church year. Only seven weeks this year. I believe it is one of the most creative and insightful church seasons, because it offers us opportunity to consider again what the birth story means for our lives.

We come and worship the new born child. Many people only come once a year and that is on Christmas Eve night. Most of you were present for Advent and for Christmas – and now we arrive at Epiphany. The church year is meant to offer spiritual direction. This birthing is important in a spiritual sense. But since the birth we have done our best to dress up that child, we have put a superhuman cloak around his neck, we have put a crown on his head, then for the most part, we keep him shut up in the church, where he can’t cause trouble. We’re happy enough to have him here at the front of the church in the crèche scene. We are happy enough with our Advent Candles symbolising this birth, symbolising our story. He is visible for a few weeks, and then what? He goes back down to the basement until next year? The birth is over, our birthing is over?
Perhaps not.

Borg and Crossan in their book, “The First Christmas,” (audio book) say this is an important story, and they view it as parable, they say that we need to place it first of all in its first century context, and then ask what does it mean for us now. We can still ask is Jesus' way in the world, a light gleaming – showing us the way, and do the Herod's of the world still seek to extinguish the goodness that surrounds us in our world? Do the magi, the ones with spiritual gifts, the ones with wisdom, the ones connected to the earth - the ones who gaze up at the moon and the stars, are they still here with us?

I would like to think we still have the magi with us – and as I said earlier, they are us – the wise ones, bringing gifts – that would have been our role in the story. I hope it still is so – with the spirituality, wisdom, earth connections and star gazing to go along with it.

Let's pretend we are the magi or you can decide you really are one. That would be good too. If we are the magi, would that make us an Epiphany people, willing to give birth again and again? The magi were willing to risk their lives by making the journey to see the baby and bring gifts. They were defying Herod when they took a different way home.

As a magi what will you do this year? It's a bit like making a New Year resolution which I never do. I am reminded of a few experiences though. I'm reminded of a time on Haida Gwaii. I lived in the Indian village of Skidegate and worship included both the aboriginal people and the people from Queen Charlotte.

About my third Christmas there, I went to pick up my Christmas turkey at the band office and the man in charge of distributing the turkeys was looking for my name on the list. I said, “You have gone too far. Ferguson, it's up at the top.” He said, “No here it is, “preacher woman,” and he gave me my turkey. I knew that they called me that in the village, but it was a bit of a surprise to find out that's how I was named on the list. So I decided, okay if that is who they feel I am, then I'll work at being the best preacher woman I can be. So, I did, I really did work at being a better preacher, or story teller.

Maybe I succeeded. But the Epiphany moment was when I understood that this ministry wasn't about me, it was about them. This ministry isn’t about me either, it is about you and it is about your church, and what you want your church to be.

In this year, 2015, I hope that we have lots of Epiphany moments where we can say aha, this is working or I get it, I see where we are going. I hope the star is visible for us as we follow it to our next birth and the next, and I hope we feel our earthly wisdom seeping into our bones and giving us everything we need. Let’s keep that baby in our hearts, so that the light will shine for us and guide us to where we need to be. Let us be brave and courageous in what we do. Today we go out as the magi bearing gifts to the world.

Sharon Ferguson-Hood