SERMON Epiphany 2019 Matthew 2 1 12
The Magi in the Epiphany story are not the first Magi to show up in the Bible. We’ve seen these guys before in many a royal court!
In Egypt, thousands of years before, when Pharaoh was having troubling dreams, his priests – the Magi, which is the Greek word for magician or astrologer- tried first to interpret the dream with no success. But the cupbearer remembered that he had met a man in prison, Joseph, a Hebrew, who faithfully interpreted his troubling dream. Pharaoh sent for Joseph, Joseph interpreted the dream, and Pharaoh made Joseph his right hand man in all of Egypt, even marrying him to one of the Magi’s daughters. God used this skill of dream interpretation to save Joseph from prison, and ultimately to save all of God’s people and all of the Egyptians from famine!
Four hundred years later, the new Pharaoh began to persecute the Hebrews who had all been living in the land of Egypt since the time of Joseph. God’s people were enslaved and bitterly abused. God heard the cries of the Hebrews, and called Moses from Midian to be their deliverer.
Moses and Aaron went before Pharaoh and his Magi. Aaron threw down the staff as God directed and it became a snake. The Magi of Egypt were commanded by Pharaoh to assert their superior divination skills. They threw down their staffs and their staffs similarly became snakes, but the snake that had been Aaron’s staff gobbled up all the other snakes, symbolizing that God’s power is the ultimate power, and God’s redemption of Israel would prevail.
The Magi of Egypt went head to head with Moses and Aaron. When they turned the waterways to blood, the Magi did the same. Pharaoh was unimpressed. When they unleashed frogs on Egypt, the Magi conjured up the same. Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened. But when Moses and Aaron covered every human and animal in Egypt with irritating gnats, the third plague, the Magi representing Pharaoh and all the gods of Egypt could not match them. In fact, with the 3rd plague even the Magi turned on the Pharaoh and testified to our God’s ultimate power, saying “Truly, this is the finger of God!”
Thousands of years later, the book of Daniel, set during the time of the Babylonian exile, is full of Magi who serve the will of King Nebuchadnezzar! God’s people are yet again at a low point in their history, carted off from Jerusalem to Babylon in exile. At the beginning of the exile, the king of Babylon gave a command that some of the nobility of Judah, those who were especially wise or handsome or well-educated, should be brought into the king’s palace and taught the Babylonian literature and language so that they could serve the king. One of these who was brought to the royal court was Daniel, who was resolved to stay faithful to God and the teachings of the Torah. Daniel became a vegetarian, refusing to eat the royal rations that had been sacrificed to idols, and at the end of his training period, Daniel was chosen by the king to serve in the royal court. The scripture says, “In every matter of wisdom and understanding concerning which the king inquired of them, he found Daniel ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.” Soon after, King Nebuchadnezzar demanded that his Magi tell him not only the interpretation of a troubling dream, but the dream itself! None of his Magi could do it, and they complained to the king that it was impossible, that only the gods held such wisdom. They were just about to be executed, when Daniel stood up and –by the grace of God- shared with the king both his dream and its interpretation! The King testified to God’s power, saying “Truly your God is God of God and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery!” Like Joseph in Egypt, King Nebuchadnezzar elevated Daniel from simple Magi to ruler over the whole province of Babylon!
Later, after King Nebuchadnezzar’s death, King Darius came to power. Knowing Daniel’s wisdom, Darius made him one of 3 presidents of the whole kingdom! But, the other presidents and satraps –the wise men of the kingdom- conspired against Daniel. They urged the king to make a law that no one could pray to anyone but the king. Daniel, still faithful to God after so many years in exile, continued to pray regardless of the law. His rivals ratted him out to the king, and reminded him that no law made by the king could be undone, that Daniel must be put to death for his disloyalty. Daniel was thrown in the lion’s den overnight and survived, much to the king’s relief! The king himself testified to God’s power and faithfulness, saying, “I make a decree that in all my royal dominion people should tremble in awe before the God of Daniel! For he is the living God, enduring forever. His kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion has no end. He delivers and he rescues, he works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth…”
And that brings us to today, Epiphany, the day when God – the revealer of mysteries- made the ultimate revelation to a whole new class of Magi. When we hear that “Wise men from the east came to Jerusalem” in Matthew’s gospel, we are supposed to suspect the role these royal courtiers will serve in this story. The Magi of old were self-serving, vying for power and prestige, had the ear of the king, often twisting the political landscape of their time to their own or their king’s advantage, and if they weren’t trying to manipulate the king, they served the king and they king’s will with unswerving loyalty.
So when we hear that these Magi end up in the court of King Herod, we can expect that they will do whatever is necessary to cozy up to the king for their own benefit. The Magi of the ancient world were the original “yes men.”
But these Magi, most likely a caravan of Zoroastrian priests from the royal courts of Persia, do not play along with their expected role.
Unlike the Magi of old, the Magi from the Epiphany story obeyed the will of God and rejected the will of the unjust king. Instead of serving their own interests, these Magi put their own safety at risk to bear their gifts and worship before Christ –the true king and deliverer of our world!
They served God and God alone, by keeping the home of the holy family a secret. They foiled Herod’s plan to find and murder the child, Jesus, for they travelled home by a different road. And, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus soon travelled to Egypt, fleeing for their lives from the evil of Herod whose malice and selfishness knew no bounds. The Magi’s gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh provided for the holy family’s needs while God provided a place of refuge for them in Egypt –the same land God once used to provide a safe home for God’s people in the midst of famine during the time of Joseph.
While there are still Herods and Magi in this world whose cruelty and selfishness know no bounds, what is revealed to all of us through the Epiphany story is that God’s love knows no bounds. And this is beautifully reflected in our appointed verse from 1 Corinthians this week:
“Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.”
More important than status or wisdom or skill or any other thing in this world which we vie for is love. God’s love never ends! It never fails! God never gives up on us. And God will go to the ends of the earth to find us and call us into relationship. No matter how dire or bleak our odds may seem, God and God’s love for all people prevail! We see this as we look back at the whole course of history. God’s people have not been the only ones to acknowledge God’s power and to worship our Lord. From Magi in Egypt to the Kings of Babylon, Gentile outsiders with bizarre rituals and customs have seen and testified to our God’s redeeming power! God didn’t wait for them to learn the Torah, but God spoke to them through their own customs of magic and astrology and dream interpretation. God has spoken not just through the prophets, but God has spoken God’s redeeming love into our world through the least likely of heralds, in the most extraordinary circumstances! From the shepherds in the fields on Christmas night, to these Magi whom God called to Bethlehem through the stars, God revealed and continues to reveal God’s self to the whole spectrum of humanity! God’s love and God’s promises and the hope we have for our world in Jesus Christ is for ALL people, and God welcomes and calls out to every kind of person to bow down and worship Christ as our one and only God and King.
God’s love never ends, and God’s love knows no bounds. And because of this truth revealed to us through the Epiphany story, our Christian vocation is to embody God’s endless, boundless love for one another. Amen.