I must confess regret that for my 30-some years of pastoral ministry, I have not made a big enough deal about Epiphany. Liturgical purist that I too often have been, if it didn’t fall on a Sunday, we didn’t celebrate it. As I do, I looked back through my preaching files, and found no sermon from the last 20 years on the Epiphany gospel from Matthew. That’s really too bad. Because there’s so much in the story of the Magi coming from a distant land to worship the newborn king.
Scholarly consensus holds that the Magi were wealthy and educated, members of the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism, a Persian religion. Early Zoroastrians paid particular attention to the stars. This priestly caste gained an international reputation for astrology, which was at that time highly regarded as a science. So these Wise Ones from the East were scientists and practiced another religion and God used their faith and knowledge to bring them to the Christ. They came to worship, bowing the knee and bringing valuable gifts. In one of the greatest ironies of the story, God used these scientists who practiced another religion to let King Herod, the chief priests, and the scribes in on the news that their Messiah had been born.
God seems to do whatever it takes to reach out to and embrace all people. God announces the birth of the Messiah to shepherds through angels on Christmas, to Magi via a star on Epiphany, and to the political and religious authorities of God’s own people in through visitors from the East. From a manger, where a child lies wrapped in bands of cloth, God’s reach, God’s embrace in Christ Jesus, gets bigger and bigger and bigger. Jesus eats with outcasts and sinners. Jesus touches people who are sick and people who live with disabilities. Jesus even calls the dead back to life. Ultimately, Jesus draws all people to himself as he is lifted up on the cross. In Jesus, no one is beyond God’s embrace.
As a pastor in the church, pushed by this story to contemplate God’s radical grace, I find it a little unsettling. What could it mean that God led ancient scientists who practiced another religion and lived far outside the geographical limits of Judea to come and worship Christ? What could it mean that God used these outsiders to announce the good news that comes to the world in and through Christ? What, then, does it mean to have faith?
I have been trained and conditioned to think that there is one pretty narrow and formulaic way to come to Christ. For me, it’s always been through the church — preaching, Word, liturgy, sacrament. I’ve always held that the local congregation is the body of Christ through whom God gets God’s work done in the local community. Those are things that I hold dear. Yet the Magi came seeking the Christ after studying the night skies. As someone who holds on to favorite, cherished ways that God uses to proclaim the gospel and bring people to faith, it’s both wondrous and unsettling to realize yet again that God’s own work of embracing all people is more “mystery” than “formula,” because God’s ways are always bigger than my understanding.
When I think about it, I can see that God has been reaching out to embrace me in new ways. A new call and a new setting, learning how to be a good pastor in a very different context. Trying to keep my mouth shut and listen to my siblings of color who are helping me to see my blind spots about race and privilege and who are teaching me what it means to be a neighbor. I’m learning from Asian and African and South American and womanist and LGBTQ Christians that my way of reading the bible is not the only way to read the bible, and certainly should not be the privileged way to read the bible. As always, I learn much about truth-telling from reading classic and contemporary fiction. I’m learning that the whole world, all peoples, all cultures can be the places where God is at work, revealing God’s self and God’s truth to me, to us, to the church, and to the world. While I love to bask in the starlight that I know as the church, I am led to wonder about the implications of the Magi coming to faith apart from the church or outside our formulaic approaches to how faith happens.
I’m still learning to be less suspicious and judgmental about people whose experiences of faith are different than mine or different than what I might think is normal. It’s has been challenging for me. I wonder how many people’s experiences of God over the years I have shattered and slaughtered because they didn’t fit my patterns, practices, and perspectives.
I’m guessing that it will continue to be a struggle and a challenge for me (and the congregation I serve) to proclaim God’s ever-expanding embrace in the midst of my own need to protect and preserve. One lifetime seems far too short to figure these things out. Still, I’m grateful to be on the journey.
(Thanks to Bishop Craig Satterllee and his essay on WorkingPreacher.org for the inspiration for these reflections.)