Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
January 3, 2021
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
There are few stories in the Bible as romantic as the story of the Epiphany. The pristine desert setting, the deep quietness under a vast night sky. The exotic travelers, always on camels in our imagination, and sometimes accompanied by a drummer boy, or a child with a crutch. The beautiful gifts, gifts for a king, so carefully chosen to represent splendour, and holiness, and healing, then carted across hundreds of miles of wilderness to honour the child. It doesn’t say so in the story that the Gospel of Matthew tells, but somehow we all know that they slept in the daylight, and traveled through the mysterious darkness, for how else to follow a star? That such a caravan would unnerve Herod and his cronies seems obvious, because we know that this is not just a baby they are talking about, not even just a king – but the light of the world. The finale is a wondrous moment.
It all takes place very far away, in a different reality from ours, but even so, the magi do seem almost modern to us. Like scientists, they rely on their research, and their observations. Like explorers or migrants, they are willing to leave behind their homes, and the lives they were living, to seek out something completely new. They set themselves a task and carry it out despite setbacks. It’s that goal orientation we most recognize.
Like the magi, we tend to think that once we get to the goal, there will be some definitive breakthrough. Some moment of insight or accomplishment that will change things. An arrival. An epiphany, as we say. A glimpse of the divine.
Through all of Advent we focus on getting to Christmas, and then on to New Years. Certainly this year almost everyone felt a great desire to be done with 2020 and arrive at 2021. Just now we may be longing to get to the end of lockdown, or even better, to the end of covid. It’s easy to think in terms of ‘when we get there’. When we get to the end of covid, we’ll visit our friends, we’ll go traveling, we’ll have church again, in church. We have personal goals as well – when I graduate … when I get married … when I get that job … when I retire. And collective goals too – at Bloor Street, for years now, for decades, we have shared the goal of redevelopment, and looked forward to getting to the moment of arrival in a renewed sanctuary, buoyed with a new sense of mission. Like the magi, we are focused on the objective – all they want is to get to Bethlehem. To see the baby. To be in the presence of God.
But we also know that they have been in the presence of God all along. Their epiphany doesn’t happen only at the moment of arrival. Something must have happened when they first began to search the indigo sky and untie dusty scrolls to look up the ancient prophecies. A voice, or a deep intuition – or what? – told them to choose gold for a king and frankincense for a god and myrrh for a man in pain. As they saddled up, and met and talked, and sometimes rode in silence through those long desert nights, they surely sensed that they were not alone. Even at Herod’s palace they are strangely protected from the king’s duplicity, and later an angel guides them home by a different way. They have been single-minded in their studying, and planning, and traveling, and seeking – possibly so single-minded, that they have missed something essential.
Of course, we don’t know – maybe it was the gospel-writer Matthew who left out details, got it wrong. But we do know that the same thing can happen to us. We can be so focused on a goal that we miss those glimpses of divinity along the way. Moments of compassion, reminders of God’s love. We can be so convinced of a future epiphany that we overlook an epiphany now.
The invitation of the season of Epiphany is to watch for those glimpses of God’s presence that shine around us continually, in the night, in the day, amidst all our best laid plans. And to give thanks. Amen.