The lectionary assigns the story of the magi’s quest to find Jesus each year for the Feast of the Epiphany. If you, like me, are newer to observing the Christian calendar, epiphany, really is that same word, as in, “I heard myself say that and had an epiphany—I am my mother.” Epiphany—a realization, a revelation, a moment of insight, when what was previously muddy or confusing, becomes crystal clear.
Before the preacher begins to focus in on the direction for the sermon, I recommend making one decision about the text and acknowledging one tension about the day.
The first decision before the preacher is the bounds of the reading. The lectionary reading ends at verse 12. Matthew 2:13-15 tells about Mary and Joseph fleeing from Bethlehem to Egypt as political refugees, escaping the violence of Herod. Matthew 2:16-19 describes Herod’s slaughter of all of the children 2 years and under. Will you stick to the bounds of the assigned lection or will you address this text of terror that falls so closely after the reading of 2:1-12?
Consider these pastoral implications…
Do you have the time in your sermon to thoroughly address the slaughter of children? A story like this one requires careful and thoughtful exploration, not casual mentioning.
Do you have any members of your congregation who have suffered from the loss of a child? (Think about children who have died of diseases, in car and other accidents, miscarriage or stillborn deaths).
How does this story resonate with contemporary events? It could open a powerful window into one of the ways that the empire will stop at nothing, even the murder of innocent children, to keep control.
Do I have the relational rapport with my congregation to address this text of terror? Do I have the capacity for the pastoral care that doing so might require?
Can I preach on this text of terror without making the move to redemptive suffering or justifying the death of children for the sake of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus?
Preachers will also want to acknowledge the tension between the secular calendar and the church calendar since the Feast of the Epiphany falls on the first Sunday of the New Year (in Western contexts). While those of us following the Christian calendar said, “Happy New Year” six weeks ago, on the first Sunday of Advent, we still have plenty of reminders that the rest of our culture operates on this other calendar. In many Western contexts, regardless of the lection you choose for this Sunday, your sermon will call the congregation’s attention to the themes of Epiphany, over and against New Years revolutions and intentions.
After your decision is made about the bounds of the text and you’ve held the tension between these competing calendars, prepare to retell this story in all of the humor and curiosity. The magi have paying attention to the stars and then one star rose out of sync with the others. Somehow they knew that this was the child’s star, the one that meant the king of the Jews had been born. They just couldn’t contain themselves, they had to find him to give him honor, to pledge their allegiance to this king, to give him gifts. They didn’t even know his name. But to this group, the distance didn’t matter. All the way to Jerusalem they traveled, asking, “Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?” Once they arrive in Jerusalem, they go straight to King Herod, the King of the Jews to ask, “Where is King of the Jews?” Seriously, they ask King Herod for directions to find the King of the Jews? And we call these guys, “wise men?” They should’ve known better!
In an instant, Herod saw his life flash before his eyes. This foretold Messiah, this shepherd of the people—it was always an option buried deep in his subconscious—but surely not in his lifetime. He saw in that moment his crown taken forcefully from his head, some undeserving kid from a family know ones heard of, sitting, on his throne! All it took was one question—“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” Look what the right question can expose.
So Herod calls upon his research experts, who can give the magi more accurate directions. You’re not far off—the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. Go and look for him there. And then, Herod, the conniving politician, transforms his demeanor from fear to eager hopefulness. “Let me know where you find him, so I too can go and give him honor.”
Once again, the magi depart, paying attention to the star that had guided them along the way. When the star stopped over the place where the child was, they were overwhelmed with joy and went into the house.
While most nativity scenes include the magi gathered right there by the manger with the donkey and shepherds, Jesus was likely older, even a toddler, by the time the magi made it to meet him. Now, I have no trouble imagining the star rising and moving through the sky like an ancient GPS. But, as the mother of a small children, I find this encounter, with the magi and toddler Jesus, much harder to envision and hilarious. The magi knock at the door, walk into this mostly empty living room. Jesus, he’s on the far side of the room, clinging to Mary’s leg. The magi are so joyful and humbled, they’ve traveled so far, they’ve gone to such great lengths to get here! Joseph’s hardly got the door closed before they are on the ground, lying prostrate, showing honor to Christ, worshiping this toddler.
Can you see Jesus, looking up nervously at Mary—“Mommy, what are they doing?” As if this wasn’t confusing, then, they bust out the presents. But they didn’t bring him play-doe or a toy sailboat. This whole time, they knew they were searching for a child, but still, they brought gold, frankincense and myrrh? Wise men? Really? I hear Mary stumbling through her words, sounding grateful and cautious, that tone parents get when trying to explain something we can’t really articulate to a child, while also being polite to guests—“Well, Jesus, these gifts are very special.” Say, “Thank you” to the magi. “Why can’t you play with your presents? They’re so special. You can look, just don’t touch.”
The magi leave, head back another way to avoid Herod, having been warned in a dream not to go back the way they came.
Three homiletical approaches to spur your creativity and listening to the Spirit:
1. Seek epiphanies. Seek the revealed Christ. It’s a whole lot more interesting to seek something outside of ourselves. For the magi, seeking looks like following a star to find the child. But really, what they’re up to is paying attention and showing up. “For we observed his star…”—they observed, they paid attention. And then, the magi followed the star, they came to see him. They showed up. What does paying attention and showing up look like in your context? What does it require?
2. Epiphany is the manifestation of Christ. Christ made plain, obvious, evident to the eyes, able to see. We’ve moved past the waiting of Advent. Christ is here. God with us. But how do we see? Maybe we don’t have a star guiding us or a light illuminating a path, but we can lift up our eyes and look around. This isn’t a “Once upon a time” kind of story. Jesus keeps revealing God, keeps showing up, keeps appearing, with or without a star. Where is Christ appearing to you or to people in your community? How is Christ being made plain?
3. The magi both seek and give. How will your faith community embody these postures in the coming year? How might we seek? Their seeking after Jesus required leaving their homes, asking for directions along the way, and doing so together. How might we give or be people who honor God with our gifts? The gifts that they brought to Jesus were both material and immaterial. The magi were able to recognize the star in the first place, because they were already employing their gifts and skills, utilizing what they already had.