Like most people, I have always assumed that the story of the Three Wise men or the Three Kings, is a nice little addendum to the Christmas story. Three men show up at a stable in Bethlehem and give Jesus some very valuable presents, but as nice as it is, what do we learn from it? How does this story, which only appears in Matthew, help us better understand our relationship to God and what it means to be a follower of Christ Jesus?
An epiphany is not a moment in which you realize something, it is a manifestation of a deity, so when we say we are celebrating the Epiphany of the Lord, we are saying that God appeared to someone and the someone was not just three wisemen shortly after his birth. The someone was the gentiles or the non-Jewish world, which are represented by the three wisemen in Matthew’s story. So by including the visit of the wisemen during his description of Jesus’s birth Matthew is pointing to the fact that Jesus, a.k.a. God, did not come into the world just for the Hebrews, he came for everyone. With the birth of Jesus God manifested themselves to the whole world, but not everyone was equipped to realize that, except for three wise dudes. So, what makes these three people special? How is that they were able to realize who and what Jesus represented when no one else could?
When someone is considered wise it is because other people generally believe that they know a thing or two. That they have studied the topic they claim to have knowledge of and that they have made, or at least could make, observations of the world around them; but that is not all, they also have a willingness to confirm what they have learned and once they have confirmed it, learn even more. The three wisemen arrived with gifts that hold significant meaning in Hebrew scripture and culture, which is a sign that even though they were not Hebrew they had studied or at least observed both Hebrew culture and scripture. They observed what appeared to be a sign from God, the star of Bethlehem, and they set out to see if their observation was correct. Their willingness to put their boots on the ground and investigate led them to Israel, to Jerusalem, and ultimately to Bethlehem. They suspected the star was a sign from God because they had both studied and observed, they knew that God had promised to be manifested in a messiah and because of their wisdom they knew that what they were seeing could indicate that the day had arrived. So they were able to realize who and what Jesus represented because they had done their homework.
Now every story has an antagonist, or bad guy, who is included so that the lesson the protagonist’s story is teaching us stands out. In this story the antagonist is King Herod and all of Jerusalem. Matthew says, “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him…”. Herod and Jerusalem are afraid because they do not understand, they are without the benefit of wisdom because they have not been faithful in their study of their own texts and they have not been very observant of their own culture, so they have no idea what is going on. King Herod is likely afraid they are here to take his crown away (a human concern I might add), and the people of Jerusalem are likely afraid that they are predicting some sort of takeover that will interrupt their lives. I am sure they all knew that a messiah was expected, just like we are aware that Jesus will return someday to judge both the living and the dead; but like us, they do not actually think it will happen in their lifetime so there is no urgency to prepare themselves for the event and because they have not been readying themselves in any real way they are unable to recognize the joyful event their people have been expecting for centuries. The issue is that the Israelites had become passive in their faith, they claimed belief in God and went through the motions but did not really engage. Sound familiar? So, when three strangers showed up looking for “the child who has been born King of the Jews”, everyone is like uh, so which Jews are you talking about because we have a king and we do not know anything about a new one being born, so I think you might be mistaken.
So here we are two thousand years later, we have accepted that the child was indeed important; we know that through his teachings we are able to gain a deeper and more meaningful relationship with God; but are we Jerusalem in this story or are we the wise men? I would imagine that most of us identify with Jerusalem; we know the stories, we don’t fully understand them, but we know them, and we go through the motions associated with them; but that is as far as we go. So how can we be like the wise men in?
First, find your bible, if you do not have one, either buy one or go to biblegateway.com where you can get free access to almost all translations. Second, read your bible, if you do not know where to begin try the beginning, maybe start with the Gospel of Matthew, following the lectionary that is listed in the prayerbook or at dailylectio.net; where you start is not as important as the act of doing it, and don’t set yourself up for failure by thinking you are going to read a little every day, because that is probably not going to happen, maybe set a goal of reading one chapter of a book per week. After reading a passage, ask yourself what word or phrase stood out to you while reading, why it stood out to you and what God might be calling you to do through the words? If you are not sure what to make of what you read, try looking at a commentary to see what other people have said, ask a friend what they think. Lastly, think about the relationship of what you have read to what you see in the world and your experience of it. It is likely that you will not see any connections or even understand what God is trying to tell you, that is okay. Most importantly, do not give up, because before you know it and likely when you are least expecting it, everything will fall into place and God’s plan for you will become clear.
As I said last time, we are good at the community part of our faith and we are pretty good at loving our neighbor, but that is only a part of what is required of us and it is only a small portion of what is possible. We need to study sacred texts; we need to observe the world; we need to search for wisdom; when we do these things, we will build a stronger relationship with God; through which our faith will deepen. A stronger relationship and deeper faith will prime us to receive God’s call through the Holy Spirit; it will assist us in pulling together our love of neighbor, our sense of community, and the desire of God to build their kingdom through us. We are the hands, feet, ears, eyes and mouth of God on earth, it is through us that God builds the kingdom, but like the wisemen we need to be primed to hear the call. Amen.