Epiphany: What are we following this year?

Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

This Sunday always sits a little bit funny. It feels as though we are back into the Christmas story when we have moved well past it on the calendars. Last Sunday’s gospel was the passage after the one for today. We seem to be doubling back around on ourselves! The Christmas story may seem to be neatly compacted, like a nativity scene, brought out, set up, admired and then taken down and put away again. Epiphany is the day that the Christmas decorations should be packed away and the last of the baking eaten up. Right?!

However, it is unclear as to when the wise men from the East arrived in Jerusalem. We do know it was in the time of King Herod and after Jesus was born. They followed the star, and came to where it stopped and offered the gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then they leave and go home by another way so crazy Herod doesn’t catch them. The end. Christmas is over!

Yet, the significance of the wise men, the magi pushes out the Christmas story. It is not only about the outward, Christmas card picture, small kids in bathrobes and foil crowns, etc. It is the inward story that carries on.

This feast of Epiphany celebrates the visit of the magi to Jesus and so the the inclusion of the Gentiles in the gospel story; and as Malcolm Guite explains, ‘not simply the Gentiles in a generic way, but all the distinct races, cultures and religions of ‘the nations’; this is one reason why the tradition of depicting the three wise men as representing three different races is so helpful.’

Not only in the Gospel, but in the Isaiah reading speaks of a multitude of camels (so more than three) from distinctly different lands who will bring gold and frankincense and they shall proclaim the praise of God. This is to be a time of rejoicing. The Wise Men were to be bearers of Good News.

I recently asked the Church Wardens at the start of a meeting before Christmas to share their favourite character(s) in the nativity story. For a variety of reasons, the shepherds were the overwhelming favourite. Some liked the thought that they were older; they were outsiders who lived on the edge of society. There was something about their humility. The urgency they went with to Bethlehem after the angels left them.

My favourite has always been the Wise Men. I loved the thought of them travelling on camels (no mention in the Gospel though!) from far away places. Exotic in their robes and jewels, well educated and wealthy. They had to travel much further than the shepherds and had to contend with King Herod. Sue Morton gave a very interesting expose on his hardness of heart and cruelty last week. The Wise Men received a secret call from Herod; doubtful that a rag-tag group of shepherds would have been extended an invitation. As the Wise Men were already looking for this child born to be the king of the Jews they did not really need Herod’s approval; their journey preceded any fears and paranoia that he held.

Looking at the arrival and departure of the Wise Men, there are three threads to pull on today. It is quite common at the start of a new year to look backwards at the year just past and forwards at the year to come. We may look back with mixed feelings at the things that went well and the things that went less than well. I hope that we can leave behind the things or feelings of falling short, guilt and shame. Learn from them and move on. Equally I hope we can carry forward the successes, the positive experiences; these need to be learned from too.

In light of this and the Wise Men: what are we going to follow this year? They followed the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. Maybe it is a diet or exercise plan. Maybe reading different books or listening to different podcasts. Maybe reinvesting in relationships or faith or prayer or Bible.

How do we know if we are following the right thing? It is often said that if you are not the lead elephant, the view is all the same. Not everyone is made or meant for leadership. Even leaders follow something or someone. Maybe the view needs to change. Sometimes we can follow something for so long that it loses its impact or meaning and becomes irrelevant to where we are in life and our thinking.

Second thread: Finding Joy. Verse 10 was something of a revelation to me; ‘When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.’ The Wise Men had not met the king they had travelled so long to find; yet they were overwhelmed with joy. So often our joy comes after the big reveal. We can make joy similar to happiness and reduce it down to a reaction to our circumstances.

The Wise Men had joy before they crossed the threshold of that house. How can we become joyful people before circumstance and chance threaten to take it from us?

The Wise Men were not expecting to find a baby at the end of their journey. They brought gifts fit for a king: gold, frankincense and myrrh. They continued to believe that they had found the right thing though. How are we going to react if things are not as we expect them this year? Throw our hands up? Quit? Give up? Give in? Will we be willing to work it through and see what happens?

Final thread: the Wise Men had to go a different way home. They had been warned in a dream not to return to Herod and had to leave for their own country by another road. Whatever happened in that house was a transformative experience for the Wise Men; all the education and wealth could never have prepared them for meeting the king in the form of a baby.

Things changed drastically for the Wise Men and they left differently to when they arrived. In the face of any changes that come this year – will we be able to go a different way? Will we let ourselves become more open to the possibility of change and transformation – even if we can fathom the outcome?

Go well into this new year. Follow the right star, when the unexpected happens be ready to meet it and go a different way if you need to. I will end with a poem by one of my favourite theologians Walter Brueggemann.


On Epiphany day,
we are still the people walking.
We are still people in the dark,
and the darkness looms large around us,
beset as we are by fear,
loss —
a dozen alienations that we cannot manage.
We are — we could be — people of your light.
So we pray for the light of your glorious presence
as we wait for your appearing;
we pray for the light of your wondrous grace
as we exhaust our coping capacity;
we pray for your gift of newness that
will override our weariness;
we pray that we may see and know and hear and trust
in your good rule.
That we may have energy, courage, and freedom to enact
your rule through the demands of this day.
We submit our day to you and to your rule, with deep joy and high hope.

Epiphany: Life Changing Moments

Pieter Bruegel’s Adoration of the Magi

Psalm 72 (1-9) 10-15
Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

O God, we give you thanks because,
in the carnation of the Word,
a new light has dawned upon the world,
that all the nations and peoples may be brought out of darkness
to see the radiance of your glory. Amen.

We are shortly coming to the end of the Christmas season as we come to enter the season of Epiphany. Even though our Gospel reading this morning makes it still feel as though we are in the Christmas Season – at least in the church. I have heard rumours that Cadbury’s Easter Creme Egg displays are popping up in the shops already!

However, a new season begins with the arrival of the Wise Men. Over the next couple of weeks, if you pay attention to the Bible readings, we will see epiphany stories in the lives of Eli and Samuel and at the wedding in Cana.

For today, I thought it was fitting to go through a slow-read through the Epiphany story. It is only Matthew who includes the story of the Wise Men or Magi from the East in the Christmas story. Their epiphany was the sudden and great revelation of Jesus and their response is the story being told here.

What does Epiphany mean? In the everyday it means to have ‘a moment of great or sudden revelation or realisation.’ I am not sure if you have had an epiphany moment but they are quite extraordinary! Those moments when some new idea, knowledge or thought blows through your mind and you suddenly and sometimes drastically see the world, people, and a situation in a totally new way. Epiphany moments can cause a fundamental change in one’s life.

Epiphany moments aren’t always dramatic affairs. They can happen in a quiet moment when you know that something has changed in your mind or in your heart.

I grew up in the church: Sunday School every week, my parents were very involved in the church, I sang (badly) in the choir, and was in various youth groups. I knew about Jesus but I don’t think I knew Jesus.

My first epiphany moment came while I was eating lunch in a dry field on a very hot July day at Ephesus, in Turkey. A few hours before this I was struck by the understanding that St Paul had been at Ephesus – not just the Greeks and the Romans – and had written the letter to the Ephesians.

I was where the Bible was. I had always seen it as a book, a story; but to be where the Bible took place – blew me away! I began to think that if the Bible happened in a real place – then maybe God and Jesus were more real than I thought they were.

By lunchtime, with all these thoughts rolling around my head, I had this sudden wave of peace and a sense of relief from all the grief and anger that I had been carrying around from the previous year and a half. I walked out of Ephesus that day totally different from how I walked in. I have never been the same since.
Matthew begins the Epiphany story ‘in the time of King Herod.’ If you are a fan of the soaps like Corrie or East Enders – then you will love The Herod’s. This family played an important part in the political setting of Jesus’ ministry. Several of them are mentioned in the Gospels along with a group known as the Herodians.

The Herodians were from a region that was forcibly converted to Judaism about 127 BCE. The male Herod’s were a talented bunch; they were political power-players who won favour with the Romans. They were also gifted at military strategy; Herod’s father held the post equivalent to Chancellor of the Exchequer.

This Herod became the military governor of Galilee when he was 25, his skills and talents made him friends with the likes of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Cleopatra and Caesar Augustus.

These relationships brought him more land and his kingdom grew. Herod’s reign (for part of it) was a time of stability, prosperity and splendour – he founded cities, buildings and most notably rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem.

When we meet Herod in Matthew chapter two, he is about 70 years old and roughly two years away from his death. Herod is in a state of emotional and psychological deterioration as he became increasingly paranoid and mistrusting; so much so that he had 3 of his 15 children executed.
These 15 children came from the 10 wives he had! Herod is said to have died a painful death from kidney disease and gangrene.

This is the Herod that the wise men from the East met when they arrived in Jerusalem. Where did they come from? Persia, Babylon or maybe Arabia. Not sure. They are presumed to be Gentiles (so not Jewish) and come to represent the best wisdom of the Gentile world – they are the spiritual elites.

Why is this important? Tom Wright explains ‘Matthew wants us to be clear about something from the start. If Jesus is in some sense king of the Jews, that doesn’t mean that his rule is limited to the Jewish people. At the heart of many prophecies about the coming king, the Messiah, there were predictions that his rule would bring God’s justice and peace to the whole world.’

Right from his birth, Jesus is meant to rule the world. All people. Every nation. Matthew wants us to know this. It makes sense then that people outside of the Jewish faith see and experience who he is too.

Herod is frightened by the arrival of the Wise Men. The news of a new ‘King of the Jews’ has rocked his world. Herod had had this inscribed on his coins and to claim this title was treason. The title ‘King of the Jews’ was also on the cross of Jesus at the crucifixion. Herod had the title on his money; Jesus on the cross.

Who do you think the real king is here? This is Herod’s epiphany moment – he is not the real King of the Jews! Herod sends the Wise Men to Bethlehem with his made-up story he wants to pay homage as well. Herod is making an attempt to destroy Israel’s true king by employing foreign magi (oh foreign workers forever causing problems!) – but they only bring honour to the king’s rival – Jesus.

The Wise Men were obedient – this was a new thought to me. They followed the star even though they didn’t know where it would take them or what it meant but they followed it anyway. It made me think about what and who I follow.

Am I fully obedient to what God is calling me to do – even if I am not sure where it will lead? How far out of my way do I go to meet Jesus? Would I follow a star?

We know that the star that went before the Wise Men and came to rest over the place where Jesus was born was not an ordinary star. Sometimes you need some imagination to help picture these things. This star does not stay still – but moves as a guide.

Finally, the epiphany moment comes, notice it starts to happen before they even lay eyes on Jesus – simply the promise of him seems to be enough. It is when the star stops moving, Matthew tells us the Wise Men ‘were overwhelmed with joy.’ When was the last time you were overwhelmed with joy?

Does the thought of Jesus bring you joy? If not – then why not? What is missing? Maybe at the start of this new year it is time to ask for your own epiphany?

The Wise Men entered the house, overwhelmed by joy and knelt down before Jesus. They opened their treasure-chests and offered him gifts.

Gold – to show He was a king.
Frankincense – to show He deserved to be worshipped.
Myrrh – this is a strange gift to give a baby. Myrrh was used at the time when someone died. Jesus was the baby who would grow up and rescue us by dying in our place.

These were gifts of substantial financial value and the Wise Men expected to find what they were looking for at a royal court, and perhaps win favour there, but they were not disappointed with what they received.

What do we bring to God this morning? The Wise Men brought the best of what they had. Do we present our best? The best of our time, the first of our money, the greatest of our love, the first of our thanks? This is not to point out any deficiencies – I often get the order wrong myself.

The whole of the Christmas story from Mary & Joseph, the birth of Jesus, the message of the angels to the shepherds and their arrival at the stable to King Herod and the Wise Men – is a story of Epiphany. Great moments of realisation that do not leave us the same.

When we present ourselves to God – this is the most valuable thing we have – this is the only thing that He wants. You are more precious to Him to gold, frankincense and myrrh. When we encounter God we are never the same again. Thank God for that!