Good morning – happy Epiphany! Today marks the end of the Christmas season – yesterday was the 12th Day of Christmas – and from now until Lent, we’ll be looking at what it means that Christ has come into our world – as a baby, and as our Savior. Epiphany in its general sense – outside the specific day in the Church year – means a sudden realization, a flash of insight, the sort of experience that might make you say, “Eureka!” It’s like what happens when a light shines in the darkness, and suddenly, it all starts to come together.
Which is what makes it a perfect word to describe the experience of the Magi that we read about in today’s Gospel. A little background, first, on the Magi. Even though we often refer to them as “kings” – the song, “We Three Kings”, the traditional King’s Cake that some people bake on Epiphany, artwork that shows them all crowned-up and royal-looking, in truth they were probably actually priests, from the Zoroastrian religion. I won’t go into all the details of what Zoroastrianism is, but it is an Eastern religion, and the ancient priests didn’t do witchcraft or magic or sorcery, they were into astrology and dream interpretation.
But they also lived in a part of the world – most likely Persia, what is now Iran – where there was some influence and knowledge of the Jewish religion – because of who had conquered whom in various wars, and who had been exiled to where, there were pockets of Judaism, and at least an awareness by local religious practitioners of what other religions were up to. And so these Magi, the Zoroastrian priests, knew a little bit about Jewish prophecies of a Messiah. And somehow or another, their astrological, philosophical religious tendencies led them to interpret the star that they saw in the sky as announcing the birth of this Jewish messiah they had heard of. So they get on their camels, and they head west.
Next question: how many Magi, or wise men, were there? We sing about the We Three Kings, but were there three? Well, nobody actually knows. The tradition of there being three comes from the listing of the three different gifts they brought…but that’s a Western tradition. Eastern Orthodox Christians say there were twelve. In any case, they came, and St. Matthew tells us that they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Last piece of background information now, and here’s where I have to shatter a few illusions, unfortunately. All the Nativity scenes we see, with the wise men all squeezed in around the shepherds and angels…they’re wrong. The Magi, coming from Iran, were at least 1000 miles away from Bethlehem. Realistically, we’re looking at at least a year, maybe more, from the time they would have seen the star, until the time they could have gotten to Bethlehem. The shepherds were long gone, the angels were back in heaven, and Matthew reports that they went to the house where the baby was – I’m quite sure Mary was glad to have moved out of the barn by then… So if you’re out there right now, feeling a little unnerved about the validity of Nativity scenes, or like something comfortable has just been shaken inside you – well, that’s ok. Deep breath. When things that we’ve held on to for a long time are challenged or changed, it can be hard. And I imagine that’s what the Magi felt, as well. They were priests of a whole different religion…and yet, they saw this star…because of their religion…and the Holy Spirit gently tugged them towards it.
I’m thinking that on that 1000 mile camel ride, they had plenty of occasion to be a little nervous, to wonder just what they were going to find, to question if they weren’t just crazy to be leaving behind everything that they knew and believed and trusted.
And this is where we start to ask questions about other religions, right? Because Christmas (and Easter, of course) put some pretty big claims out there about Jesus – about his kingship, and the nature of it, and how important it is. Baby Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and that’s really important for Christians, but if you’re not Christian, then it’s not all that important, because, you know, other religions have their own special things going on, and good for them, you know, everybody should believe in something, right?
Is it true that other religions are just “all paths to the same thing”, and we need to “find our own truth”, and “every religion is as good as the others”? That’s what the world today wants us to believes. That it doesn’t really matter what religion you follow, that they’re all basically the same thing, that it just comes down to personal preference about what makes you comfortable.
But the Magi would tell you, “No, not so much.”
Because the Magi had a religion. They were the leaders – the priests – of this religion. And while there are some similarities in Zoroastrianism to Judaism, so what? There are some similarities between Christianity and Judaism, and Christianity and Islam, but we don’t celebrate their holidays. We don’t do Yom Kippur or Ramadan, and we certainly don’t jump on a camel and go 1000 miles to see “an exciting thing” about somebody else’s religion.
That’s nice for them, we say, and we wish them a Happy Hanukah, or whatever.
The Magi say, “No, not so much.” The religion they had, the God they worshiped, was not the same as the Baby Jesus. And they knew it, and they took it seriously, and they recognized Truth – with a capital T – when they saw it. This baby was the King of the Jews – that they knew – not the King of the Zoroastrians – this wasn’t their religion, they were under no obligation to worship him and bring him gifts – in fact, according to their religion, it would be heresy to do so. They knew this was something different, something wildly different, and yet, they followed to where the star led, and they did the only thing we can do when we come face-to-face with Christ –they worshipped him.
See, it’s not really fair to conflate Christianity and all the other world religions – it’s not fair to Christianity, and it’s not fair to those other religions. We don’t all believe the same thing, and we shouldn’t pretend that we do.
This does not mean, of course, that we are allowed to be hateful towards people who are not Christian. God has not abandoned those who practice other religions. He doesn’t write them off as a bunch of heathens who have no hope, and neither should we. God loves them, and cares for them – He died for them, just as much as he died for you and me. And yet he wants them to know the Truth, and he will work to reveal that truth to them, just like he has worked – and continues to work – to reveal that truth to us. He may work through other religions – just as he used the Magi’s penchant for astrology to lead them to Bethlehem. He may work through us – just as he used the Apostle Paul.
And to be perfectly frank, and to expand the conversation a little more, even those of us who call ourselves Christian, well, a lot of us end up having our own sort of private religions, do we not? What is thing that you most trust, and most believe, is going to get you through this life? For a lot of people, it’s money. If I just have “enough” – whatever that is – then we’ll be set. If I just have a good job or convince the right person to marry me or get good enough grades or have the right friends or eat right and exercise or really stick to my New Year’s resolutions this time, then it will all be good. And the problem with all that is that it’s just as far off the mark as your average atheist or Magi. Being rich or having a good job or good grades has no more power to overcome sin, or death, or the power of evil, than any other world religion. Eating well and exercising are good things, but they are not Truth with a capital T.
But the good news is that God wants to work – he is working – he will continue to work – to lead people – all of us – to the Truth – the Truth of the baby in the manger and the toddler in the house in Bethlehem. The Truth of the innocent man hanging dead on the Cross, and the Truth of the victorious God in front of the empty tomb. The Truth that is different than all the other so-called truths, of all the other religions and “keys to success” in the whole history of the world – and that truth is this: that God has come to us. God comes here. God comes down from heaven to be with us, to suffer with us and for us, to save us, to show us just how much he loves us. And that is the fundamental difference. Every other religion or “lifestyle choice” out there, when you get right down to it, is about how to climb the ladder to heaven, how to get to God, how to achieve wisdom or perfection or happiness – how to do what you have to do to save yourself or to never die or to fix the world or to earn God’s love.
And the Truth –the Truth that only Christianity has, that only Christianity proclaims is the truth that “You. Can’t. Do. It.” No matter how hard you try, no matter how much you want to, you can’t stop sinning, you can’t escape death, and you can’t overcome the power of evil in this world. All of which would be very depressing, if it weren’t for the second half of that Truth – You can’t do it, but God can, and God does.
God does not just send a tiny baby – God becomes a baby – God the Father, God the Son – in order to be with us. God does not write out a plan for fixing the world – ending sin, stopping death, and overcoming evil – that we are to follow, like a prescription from your doctor where you have to go to the pharmacy and you have to pick up the pills and you have to swallow them and you have to deal with side effects. It’s not like that at all, actually. God himself is the plan for putting the world – and each of us along with it – back to rights. God. Comes. Here.
That is the Truth of Christmas, and the Truth of Epiphany. That is the Truth that the Magi encountered, and it is the Truth that caused them to walk away from all the old things they had believed and trusted, to rejoice greatly and to worship the Baby Jesus. It is the Truth that asks us to do the same thing – to walk away from all of the other things we believe and trust – whether it’s other religions or money or a career or success or our own internal strength and power of positive thinking – to let go of it all as the thing you trust, because it doesn’t work, and instead to rejoice greatly and worship the one thing – the one person – that does – Jesus Christ, our Lord. I hope and I pray that, just like the Wise Men, you know this Truth today.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.