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.”
Happy New Year…and Happy Epiphany!
The season of Epiphany begins after the “Twelve Days of Christmas” and ends on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.
Epiphany is a time to celebrate the manifestations or appearances of God in the world.
Two stories that are usually associated with the season are the visit of the magi to offer their gifts to Jesus and Jesus’ baptism.
A phrase that always stands out for me when I read about the magi’s visit is that they returned home “by another road.”
After following the star to find Jesus, they follow God’s directions to avoid Herod and reveal Jesus’ location.
As we begin a New Year, it is my hope for all of us that we will explore new pathways for worshipping, growing and serving.
I pray that we will have the receptiveness and courage to follow the “nudges” of God’s Spirit and explore other roads.
Speaking of following, a funny thing happened on the way to the cemetery recently as I was following the funeral director.
We concluded the service and the procession headed out.
The funeral director was in the lead car, then me, then the hearse came next, and the rest of the vehicles trailed behind.
All of us had our headlights on, our emergency blinkers blinking, and those little funeral flags flapping in the breeze.
The light turned red as we approached a very busy intersection, so we stopped and waited for a few moments.
The intersection had arrows for safe left turns, and when the arrows flashed green—the funeral director went straight.
He assumed the oncoming drivers would show respect for the deceased and the family—but it didn’t happen that way.
A woman drove forward, assuming that she would have a safe left turn—and she almost ran into the funeral director’s car!
I saw her face—she was really, really mad!
She looked like she was ready to kill somebody!
In fact, she was so mad that she started honking her horn—almost loudly enough to wake the dead!
As I rolled around her car, I smiled and waved—just in time to get a glimpse of the incredible change in her face.
She finally noticed the hearse and procession behind me.
There she was—stuck in the middle of the intersection.
She had just honked at the hearse— and then she had to face the rest of the people in the funeral procession.
I checked my rearview mirror quickly—I think she ducked her head down so she wouldn’t have to look at anybody.
It would have made a great commercial for Southwest Airlines.
You have seen the ones where folks do embarrassing things?
Then someone asks: “Need to get away?”
Her behavior made me laugh almost all the way to the cemetery.
She was so focused on her light, her business, her destination…
She lost sight of everything else that was going on around her.
But then I realized that she and we may have a lot in common.
How often do we get too focused on our own stuff?
How often do we follow lesser lights?
We meet some followers in today’s story.
It may seem odd that these wise guys are still hanging around.
But they bring more Good News to the Christmas story.
Whether we call them Wise Men, Magic Magi, Priests from the East or Kings, these followers have fascinated folks for years.
They are probably experts in astrology, the science of their time.
We assume that there are three of them because of the three gifts and the Christmas carol—but there could have been more.
And they add majesty, mystery, mission and misery to the story.
In spite of the many lights in the sky, they don’t focus on the lesser lights or the stoplights or the green light for the left turn.
They see the BIG picture in the midst of the BIGGER picture.
When they discover a new star in the heavens, they decide to pursue it and worship the king whose birth it heralds.
It may surprise you that they would go to greet a king in a country other than their own—but it was a common practice.
It was good foreign policy to present presents to new kings.
They are also Jesus’ first Gentile worshippers and are symbolic of the Good News being brought to all of the planet’s people.
So we continue to put stars on our trees and exchange gifts and celebrate the Light of Christ during the season of Epiphany.
However, an unfortunate thing happens on the way to the manger.
The magi may have been wise, but perhaps not so bright?
They may have been experts in the Star search, but they are not experts in politics, Judaism, or the depths human sinfulness.
It still boggles my mind that on their way to Bethlehem, they pay a visit to the oxy-moronic King Herod the Great.
Why would these wise guys go to the king’s palace, tell him that a new king is born, and expect the king to applaud the news?
“Hey Herod! “Congratulations! You are about to be replaced!”
How do they think he is going to react?
Maybe they don’t know that Herod the Great isn’t so great?
This move by the magi intensifies Herod’s panic and paranoia.
Their dullness continues when they believe Herod when he says he wants to pay his respects to this new king—right?!
Fortunately for the magi, they receive directions in a dream and are able to cruise out of town on their camels.
For others, the story becomes a nightmare—many lives are lost.
It is a horrifying thought to consider that our triplets, our “Three Wee Kings,” would have been taken out by Herod.
Many are left in misery because of the magi’s gullibility and Herod’s diabolical despotism and pathological paranoia.
And it still happens today with princes and journalists, dictators and the demise of the innocents, tyrants and rulers who consider the loss of people to be “collateral damage.”
So who will we follow this year?
Jesus came into the world to give us life and hope and peace.
The Herods of history—as well as the Herods of today—will do all that they can to take life and hope and peace from the world.
In this story that comes from the Gospels, within the best of news—there is often bad news—and that is still true today.
Sin and evil, pain and problems—do not fly south for the winter.
They don’t get packed away with the decorations.
Even good people do evil deeds; it lurks within the best of us.
And when we fail to recognize evil and despair and darkness, people—and often very innocent people—get hurt.
Terrible things happen to terrific people.
As people of faith, we are called to rise up and counter darkness with Light, despair with Hope, and death with Life.
If we are to be and to share God’s love in this world, then we need to continue to follow and be filled with the Light of Christ.
As we begin this New Year, I hope that some of our resolutions are spiritual resolutions—decisions to follow Jesus more closely…
Here are a few suggestions from a variety of voices:
“Don’t leave life up to destiny…
“Life does not have to be as others predict…
“Life can be as we desire and choose.”
“Don’t waste time; use time wisely and effectively.”
“God does and will open doors for us.”
“Defeat is nothing but education; it is the first step toward something better.”
“Complete the good work or task; be kind and do good deeds.
“Every kind deed is an investment in our present and future.”
Too often, it is so easy to become “meant to” people.
We “meant to” do this—we “meant to” do that.
Let God empower us so good intentions become realized!
And, oh, and by the way, I almost forgot to tell you; an interesting thing happened on the way home from the cemetery.
At the committal service I shared a scripture passage, made a few comments, and we all closed by praying the Lord’s Prayer.
Then people began to wander away from the casket.
Several people were upset, crying emotionally and loudly.
As I made my way back to my car, I heard somebody behind me say something I had never heard said at a funeral.
Let’s just say that her words were: “Well, that stinks.”
Her language was much stronger than that.
Now, I’ve heard people say things like that about some of my sermons, but I don’t think that’s what she was talking about.
And it could have been said because the person died unexpectedly—but I don’t think that was it either.
I think she used the strong words because of something else.
During my preparation for the service, I learned that the person who had passed away really had two families.
There were several beloved children from the first marriage and several beloved step-children from a second marriage.
But something went really wrong somewhere along the way.
I am quite sure that I do not know all of the story.
And I do not intend to sound judgmental in any way.
Please forgive me if I do—I am just sharing some thoughts.
There was some obvious friction between the two families.
Apparently some of the original children weren’t happy with the second marriage—and all communication ended for 20 years.
I’m not positive, but when the young woman said, “That stinks!” I think she was talking about the wasted years…
I think she was mourning the broken relationships, words that should have been said, love that should have been shared…
It could have been so different, if they followed another path…
Friends, as this New Year begins…
If we have built walls, let’s tear them down.
If bridges have collapsed, let’s rebuild them.
If we need words of forgiveness, let’s accept them.
If we need to forgive someone else, let’s let go and forgive.
If we are burdened by guilt, let’s unload it.
If we have broken relationships, let’s repair them.
If we haven’t said, “I love you” lately, let’s do it now, today.
Let’s follow that Love, follow the Light…and follow the Lord.