Sunday 4 January 2015
The Feast of the Epiphany
The story that we celebrate today, the Epiphany, has the interesting distinction of being both very familiar and very strange. On the one hand, this is a story that most of us have heard many, many times. We know about the three wise men. We know about the star that led them to Bethlehem. We know about the gifts they brought: gold frankincense, and myrrh. It is all so familiar. We have heard it in songs like “We Three Kings” and “As with Gladness Men of Old.” We have seen it performed by children wearing their fathers’ bathrobes. It is all so familiar.
And yet, it is all so foreign. Magi—what are they? We don’t even have an English word for them that is any more descriptive than “wise men.” None of us have ever met a magus. It’s foreign.
And what about those gifts? Sure, gold is familiar enough. But frankincense and myrrh? Who has ever heard of those outside of church? It’s not as if you can go down to Rosauer’s and pick up some myrrh. Safeway never has a sale on frankincense. It’s foreign.
And that star. That star of wonders. The magi saw it in the sky, and somehow they knew it meant that a new king had been born in Judea. They are so convinced, in fact, that they pack up and leave for what must have been at least a one-thousand-mile journey. When they get to Jerusalem, they don’t know where this new king is. They have to ask for directions from King Herod. But as they approach Bethlehem, they see that star again, going before them, leading the way. And then it stops over the place where Jesus was, marking the spot.
Who has ever heard of such a thing. And when you think about it, how could a star that is millions of miles away, no matter how miraculous that star might be, how could it possibly mark a specific location on the earth? If I look up in the night sky and see a star directly overhead, and if I walk down the road twenty miles, that star is still going to be directly overhead. How could it possibly point the way to something as small as a house? Who ever heard of such a star?
And who ever heard of a star appearing at the time of someone’s birth? Why would anyone even be looking for that? There’s a article in Universe Today that says the dark nebula Barnard 68 is about to collapse and create a brand new star. But nowhere in that article was anyone predicting that a new star in the sky would somehow mark the birth of some important person. That would be absurd, wouldn’t it? It’s completely foreign.
This particular story, the story of the wise men, is very familiar. But almost every detail in the story is out of a completely different world. It’s hard to relate to, and it’s hard to make sense of. Traveling astrologers, wayward stars, and exotic tree resins are not exactly the types of things we usually read about in the newspaper.
And yet, these things would have been quite familiar to Matthew’s original audience. In fact, everything about Matthew’s presentation would have seemed familiar to the readers of his time. That’s part of the reason it was so convincing.
I’m not really old enough to have grown with Dick and Jane. But for a certain generation, learning to read was nearly synonymous with Dick and Jane. Every school child grew up with the familiar charters from Scott Foresman’s basal readers. And even those of us who haven’t read Dick and Jane are familiar with it’s concepts because it has become a part of our culture.
Why do I bring up Dick and Jane now? Because in the world of Jesus’ time they had textbooks too. And anyone who wanted to learn to write would have studied from a Greek textbook known as progymnasmata. They taught students to become familiar with all of the major forms of Greek rhetoric. These were the basal readers of their day. And one of the forms that they always taught was the encomium, a type of rhetoric used to praise someone.
I won’t bore you with all the details, but Matthew’s account of Jesus’s birth matches exactly with the traditional form of the encomium. Any ancient Greek reader would have noticed it right away. It would have been like reading Dick and Jane.
And what are some of the things you’re supposed to do in a traditional encomium? Tell about the person’s birth, their race, their city. Tell about any marvelous things that happened at the birth, dreams, or signs. Tell about any prophesies that might have foretold the birth. Matthew does all of these things.
And so we start to see a story that is not as strange as we first thought. You see, Matthew’s readers expected to hear about Jesus’s extraordinary birth, because all important people had extraordinary births. They expected to hear about prophesies of his coming and significance, because the births of all important Greek people were foretold by prophesies. And they even expected to hear about a new star marking the birth of a new king, because Jesus was not the first king whose birth had been predicted by a rising star.
The third century Egyptian theologian, Origen, commented that the star of Bethlehem might have been a comet because, “It has been observed that, on the occurrence of great events, and of mighty changes in terrestrial things, such stars are wont to appear, indicating either the removal of dynasties or the breaking out of wars, or the happening of such circumstances as may cause commotions upon the earth.”
When major things were happening in the world, when significant persons were coming on the scene, the heavens would foretell them. In that sense, Jesus was not unique. He was a significant person, and his birth would change the world, and so it was not unexpected that a star would tell his story. It was not crazy to think that people like the magi would be looking for those kinds of signs in the heavens. It was not hard to imagine why Herod would feel threatened when even the heavens were foretelling the birth of a rival to his throne. None of that is surprising.
But what they found beneath that star, that is the surprise. They were looking for the King of Judea, the successor of mighty David. They found a little child, born to a poor family. He had no birthright. He didn’t have any wealth—his parents must have been amazed to see such lavish gifts. He was not a mighty warrior. He did not command any armies. He was not a politician. He had no influence with the powers-that-be. He was not an insurrectionist. He made no move to claim Herod’s throne for himself. He seemed to show no political ambition whatsoever. He didn’t do anything but heal a few sick people, tell some good stories, and get himself killed.
And yet, and yet for those who can see it, for those who are actually looking, he is the king of the universe. And he is leading a revolution, not in the halls of power, but within human hearts. For those who can see, he is shining a light, saying, “Come and find me.” For those who can see it, his star is still shining, still illuminating the way, still guiding us forward, still calling us to follow. Come and follow the newborn king, and he will teach you a new way. Come and follow the newborn king. His name is Jesus, and he is Christ, the Lord.