Epiphany, Sunday January 6, 2019

I speak to you in the name of the living God, the father the son and the holy spirit. Amen. Welcome to Epiphany! The time in the church year where we recognize the light of God born among us… and celebrate the first gentiles, people outside of Judaism, to recognize Christ as the messiah which the prophets of old foretold…and took great risk to visit and proclaim. Epiphany is always 12 days after Christmas, and the old Greek word, epiphania, literally means, “God visits earth.” However, the take that we are perhaps most familiar with is when someone says “they’ve had an epiphany!” You know the moments. Those times when a pathway to somewhere seems possible maybe for the first time. Those times when God seems to break through a wall in our heart and it changes the course of our life. Those moments when we have a break-through on how we can love ourselves or someone else better; those times when there is no way to explain a change of heart, mind, or spirit. These are powerful moments—and they often come after times of prayer, searching, study, or meditation; and the magi in today’s lesson are no exception.

History tells us that these magi were likely not Kings as we know it—but priests in a religion called Zoroastrianism. At the time, Zoroastrianism was a very popular religion—and it is perhaps one of the oldest religions of the world. It is a monotheistic religion common throughout the middle east and parts of Asia, whose God is called Ahura Mazda, or Wise Lord.[1] The God for whom the car company is named.

In her commentary on this matter, Lutheran pastor, Niveen Sarras, talks about these priests. In her work, she has found that these scholar priests, or magi, were known for their ability to make horoscopes, to interpret dreams, and for their ability to use astrology in everyday life. Zoraster, the religion’s prophet, was, like Jesus, said to have been miraculously conceived as well. Zoroaster believed that other virgins would also conceive and that prophets throughout the ages would declare them. “Zoroastrian priests [also] believe[d] that they could foretell these miraculous births by reading the stars.[2] And so, when the stars lined up with the religious texts they were reading; and when the stars lined up with the world as they knew it under the fury of Herod, they believed that something miraculous, and worthy of exploration, was about to happen; something that could change the world; and at all costs they made a pilgrimage to the holy child.

In fact, in Bethlehem, stands The Church of the Nativity. This church was built around 330 by Rome’s first Christian Emperor, Constantine, and while much of it was destroyed in 529—parts of the original mosaic tile floor remain. However, in 614, the Persians who were largely Zoroastrian, spared the church in another war because they recognized the magi in the art as looking like them! They recognized the beards and wardrobes in the artwork depicting the magi visiting the Christ, and so it was preserved.[3] Perhaps they had such an epiphany at seeing images of themselves at the nativity of our Lord.

There is a world-renown band leader of Persian descent, who died in 1991, and was a follower of Zoroastrianism. Right now, there is a new film out about his life and music.  Any guesses who this might be?

This is the lead singer of the band, Queen, Freddie Mercury. And in their song, entitled Jesus, he sings these lines.

 And then I saw Him in the crowd; A lot of people had gathered 'round Him;

The beggars shouted, the lepers called Him; The old man said nothing, he just stared about Him.

[Chorus] All going down to see the Lord Jesus; All going down to see the Lord Jesus; All going down

Then came a man before his feet he fell; Unclean, said the leper and rang his bell
Felt the palm of a hand touch his head; Go now, go now, you’re a new man instead. [Chorus]

It all began with the three wise men; Followed a star, took them to Bethlehem
And made it heard throughout the land; Born was a leader of man[4]

These Zoroastrian priests recognized the passages from the prophets and from the psalms that we heard today. They sensed that a light had come—that nations would soon rise to this light—and that this child would grow to defend the needy; that he would have pity on the lowly; that he would redeem our lives from oppression and violence. These magi knew the power that this messiah was to be born with, and the ways in which his birth would change this world forever. And so when they arrived, they knelt and adored him—amidst the Epiphany of their own hearts—they worshiped him. They knew, as Mercury sang, there was Born a Leader of Man.

The epiphany of their hearts—with what they found at the end of their journey—was God.  And the hope that this inspired in them stood in stark contrast to the political world that they were living in with Herod as their king. Herod ruled with a power that destroyed. He ruled with a power that was so harsh and divisive, that the idea of another King—particularly a King of the Jews—threatened him and it threatened all he stood for and the vision he had for a kingdom made unto himself. It was no wonder that he ordered all male babies to be killed. A king who was set up to rule with justice and righteousness; a King who was set up to rule with kindness and mercy—stood in the way of Herod. The magi are the first to convert to a belief in Christ as the foretold savior of the world. They understood the history and prophetic words of ages past, and they saw the hope of the world as his crown. They embodied the idea that all people regardless of their background, could turn to Christ and see him as the hope of the world—the messiah spoken of by the prophets. They were hungry for a world where Herod, or Herod like leaders, would not be in charge.

 Some weeks, when I listen to radio or read headlines on my newsfeeds, I too become full of despair and I wonder what kind of world we live in. I am angry about the ways in which children are victimized by civil and religious people and authorities. I am angry at the economic disparities that force poor and often minority communities, into illegal drug and sex trades because there are no suitable opportunities in the food deserts that have borne them. I am saddened by the ways in which civil discourse in this country has turned from our being able to break bread together—to drawing wide lines in the sand and harming one another. I am sad that we live in a world where a government can be shut down all for the sake of power and short-sighted action.

This week has been especially hard; and I have to believe that many of us experience this slump, the post-Christmas back-to-normal-blues. The magic of the Christmas season has worn off; we go back to our normal routines, many of us on sugar and carbohydrate restrictions and moody as ever; and the despair of loneliness begins to set in. We look for signs in the sky that everything is going to be okay. We remember those seeds of hope, those songs of our faith that we have picked up along this journey, and we walk the path that is laid bare before us, illumined by the star in the night sky—and we walk as best we can. Sometimes we stumble, and the words and hopes of those who love us serve to guide us to the next stop. Sometimes we stumble, and the arms of another lift us up and they remain to walk with us for a stretch of the path and they help us unpack what we have seen, what we know to be true, and what we hope for on this way to God.

Theologian Caroline Lewis says that “If the magi teach us anything about this journey to God in the midst of a chaotic world, they teach us that our witness to living a life that seeks to unite, heal, and redeem, is an act of resistance in itself.[5] These magi “insist that their witness testifies to a truth that will challenge power [and] defy authority because they believe their own experience, their own encounter, their own epiphany.”[6] The magi believe that an honest walking out of these signs of God, brings us to God, and this kind of journey is at the very center of our faith.[7] The magi inspire us to walk with God, to stand in resistance to the Herod’s around us, even the Herod-like side of ourselves—and walk toward the star whose light is our guide.

You are the beloved, dear ones. May the light of epiphany surround you, captivate you, and draw you in through body, mind and spirit as we resist, and walk this pathway to our God, together, stronger than we were before. And may we recognize the holy moments—the epiphanies—that are waiting on the path. Amen.

[1] Niveen Sarras, Commentary, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3931, referencing the work of: Courtney Roberts, The Star of the Magi: the Mystery That Heralded the Coming of Christ (Franklin Lakes: New Page Books, 2007), 19.

[2] Niveen Sarras, Commentary, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3931, referencing the work of: Paul Fink, Comparing and Evaluating the Scriptures (Lompoc: Summerland Publishing, 2011), 30.

[3] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/endangered-site-church-of-the-nativity-bethlehem-51647344/#CjQc4S4OXdW27k01.99

[4] https://genius.com/Queen-jesus-lyrics

[5] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5271

[6] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5271, Caroline Lewis.

[7] Ibid, Lewis