The Christmas when Peyton was three, her favorite gift from Santa was a Matchbox car road set. It had sections of plastic roadway that you could connect in many different arrangements. Later that Christmas morning, after all the packages had been opened, Peyton sat in the middle of the living room, building an elaborate highway around my brother, Peyton’s beloved Uncle Doug. Doug was sprawled out on the floor, drowsy after Peyton’s early morning wake-up call to see what Santa had brought. Peyton was having a mostly one-sided conversation with Uncle Doug about her cars and the road she was building. Finally, Doug roused himself enough to ask her a question. “Peyton, does your road have a name?” She looked at him with a “duh” expression on her face. “Uncle Doug, it’s the Bethlehem Highway!”
There may not have been an actual Bethlehem Highway on the map of ancient Judea when Jesus was born. But our passage today is definitely a story about a journey. Actually, it’s about two journeys. The first is the magi’s journey to Bethlehem to find the new king. The second is the faith journey each of us makes as we grow closer to the One we know to be our King. Both of those journeys lead to moments of epiphany—discoveries that reveal new insights and understanding.
We don’t know much about the magi travelers. Tradition says there were three of them, one for each of the gifts that Matthew names. But Matthew doesn’t actually tell us how many there were. There may have been two, or there may have been many more. We’re not sure where they came from; the best guesses are Persia (our present-day Iran) or Babylon—but they came from a Gentile place, for sure. They’re often referred to as kings, as they are in the Christmas carol, but the Greek language tells us that they were not kings but wise men—scholars and pagan priests who were schooled in the magical arts of dream interpretation and astrology.
What we do know is that they saw a new star and read in it a sign that a new king had been born. With that star as their only GPS device, they hit the road heading west on a diplomatic mission to find and pay their respects to this new king.
When they arrived in Jerusalem, they did something that, in my experience, is practically unheard of among male travelers: they decided to ask for directions. They began asking around. “Where is this child who has been born king of the Jews?”
King Herod gets wind of this, and he is not happy. He is unnerved when he hears that some visitors from the East are asking about a new king. As far as he is concerned, there’s already a king in town, and there’s no room for another. King Herod was a jealous and paranoid man; he had already murdered his wife and two of his sons because he suspected them of plotting against him. So, when the public hears that Herod is frightened, they become frightened, too. Because when someone like Herod is frightened, you never know what steps he might take to eliminate anything or anyone he sees as a threat.
Herod calls in his own scholars to tell him where to find this contender for his throne. In his panic to get the information he needs, he calls on two groups who pretty much detest each other: the scribes and the priests. This way he can make sure to get the straight scoop; he can check their stories against each other. Both groups tell him the same thing: Scripture says that the Messiah—the King of the Jews—is to come from Bethlehem.
Equipped with that information, he calls for the Eastern visitors. He asks what they know about the star, then sends them off to Bethlehem under false pretenses; he wants to use them as unwitting spies. He tells them to come back and report to him where this infant king is, ostensibly so that he can pay his respects to the new king himself.
The wise men leave Herod. The star, which had been leading them westward, does some recalculating and now leads them south to Bethlehem. And somewhere over that little town, over a humble house, the star stops. Upon reaching their destination, the magi are overwhelmed with joy.
But, joyful as they were, they must have been at least a little mystified. It was surprising enough that a king would be living, not in Jerusalem, but in a little backwater village like Bethlehem. And they may have wondered at the lack of attendants, since all they found was a little boy with his mother. But, the star had stopped there, and that was proof enough for them that they were in the right place. And if they were in the right place, they were in the presence of the king they’d been seeking.
They kneel, as anyone would before royalty—even royalty as unlikely as this little boy. They offer Jesus gifts—valuable gifts, rare gifts, gifts that befit a king. And then, they leave.
We all know this story so well. Take a moment to close your eyes and imagine the scene. In my mind, the magi look like kings—exactly like the kings of every Christmas pageant I’ve ever seen or been in: splendidly dressed in glowing robes of vibrant colors, with crowns on their heads and treasure boxes in their hands. In fact, they look a lot like the kings in our nativity scene here in the sanctuary.
Sometimes, I picture them seated near their camels, who are also splendidly outfitted. Sometimes I picture them kneeling before Jesus. But there is one way I never picture them. I never picture them leaving. I never see their backs as they move away from Jesus, maybe pausing at the nearest intersection, deciding on which direction they to take, since they’d been warned to take a different route for the return trip. I never see the swaying haunches of the camels, with their tails swishing back and forth. In all the times I’ve read or listened to the story and pictured the scene of the wise men in Bethlehem, I have never watched them do what Matthew describes: leave for their own country by another road.
Travelling to a distant place, whether it’s for business or vacation, is always more interesting than going home. We share stories of the places we’ve been and our experiences there. We recall the sights we delighted in, the people we met, the new foods we tried, the activities we enjoyed, but we don’t talk about lugging suitcases full of dirty laundry to the car or packing up the camper for the last part of our round trip.
When we return, we may reverse course and go back over the route we took initially, or we may circle around in a different direction. But, regardless of whether we physically cover the same stretch of asphalt or not, the road home will be different, because we are different.
We’re never quite the same after we’ve been on a journey. What we experience changes our perceptions of the world around us. We learn and experience new things and places, but we also experience familiar things in a new way. Often, we experience moments of epiphany. New things are revealed to us—about ourselves, about our friends and families, and about the world around us. Journeys reveal what we couldn’t or didn’t see before.
Away from the ordinary demands of our lives, we may have moments of quiet reflection that give us new insights into our lives. We see our traveling companions in a new light. We see the world from a different perspective. These insights—these epiphanies—change us in ways large and small. It’s just impossible to see the world in exactly the same way as we did before.
When we have these moments of epiphany, they can give us a kind of joyful high. We feel at one with the world and with each other. We feel satisfied with who we are and hopeful about what we can be. Whether it’s the change of scenery or change of pace, we’d like to continue living in those moments where everything seems to fall into place. We don’t want the journey to end. But, most trips are round trips. Eventually, like the magi, we need to leave for our own countries.
Our faith journeys aren’t so different. Each day, we undertake a new leg of that journey, which we hope will take us closer to our King. Along the way, we experience moments of epiphany. Things make sense in a way they didn’t before. We sense Jesus’ nearness to us—as close as our own families and friends. We feel an unaccountable peace fall over us or flow through us. A passage of Scripture rings so true that we feel like all the lights have been turned on in our souls. Something unexpected happens—as unexpected as a new star in the sky, and we recognize God at work in our lives. When those moments happen, we may find ourselves, like the magi, kneeling with joy before our King.
In our moments of kneeling, we are changed. That changes the road we travel as well, because the way we see and speak and live change. The way we see ourselves and others and the world around us is different after each encounter we have with Christ. As Paul said to the Corinthians, when we know the living Christ, we no longer regard anyone from a human point of view.
Like the magi, we can be overwhelmed with incredible joy in those moments of epiphany. When that happens, we may want to just stay in that moment. We want to prolong the joy. We want to bask in the certainty of our belovedness. We want to keep our spiritual toes buried in the sand or our eyes on the mountaintops. But, eventually, we need to return to the ordinary routines of our lives. We have to return to our own countries.
Leaving our moments of epiphany behind may be challenging. Our epiphanies may have changed us, but we return to a world that hasn’t changed. It can be hard to hang on to the joy and peace we’ve experienced. That’s the challenge of living out our faith in an unbelieving world. Oswald Chambers wrote this in his devotional book My Utmost for His Highest: “We have all experienced times of exaltation . . . when we have seen things from God’s perspective and have wanted to stay there. But God will never allow us to stay there. The true test of our spiritual life is in exhibiting the power to descend from the mountain.” In other words, like the shepherds who returned to their flocks, and the magi who returned to their own country, we have to return to our ordinary lives.
Fortunately, we don’t make the return trip empty-handed. The magi gave their gifts away, but our king gives gifts to us—gifts of love and acceptance and forgiveness and salvation. And, we don’t make the return trip alone. The magi left the king they found behind. Th eking we’ve found goes with us as we continue the journey.
Matthew doesn’t reveal how the magi might have been changed by their journey and their encounter with the boy-king they found. But the story tells us how the world was changed by their journey. With the arrival of Gentile astrologers from a distant land, God made it clear that the promise fulfilled in Jesus were for all people. The star that guided them announced God’s power over the natural world. The magi’s gifts affirmed Jesus as Lord and King. The fearful reaction of the prevailing powers showed that the new king had already begun to disrupt the status quo. Whether the magi experienced an epiphany in their encounter with Jesus will remain a mystery, but their visit was the occasion of an epiphany for the entire world.
As we imagine the magi retreating into the distance on their way home, we may picture them pausing at a road sign pointing to the Bethlehem Highway. That highway is wide open to us, and we are invited to travel on it every day. We are invited to follow whatever star God places before us and make the journey to find our king, who was born in Bethlehem and who lives in us today. We are invited to see what God has given: the Christ who came to us as Messiah and friend, king and brother, Savior and Redeemer, God with Us. Then, having spent time in worship and adoration, in moments of revelation and epiphany, we complete our round trip. We carry our epiphanies with us, accompanied by our King, as we return home by a different road. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young