Living In-Between: Welcoming the Magi
Rev. Leta Arndt Behrens
Sermon Scripture: MATTHEW 2:1-12
1In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “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.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Human fascination with the stars goes all the way back to the beginning of time and continues today. Space is the unit that is most popular with my husband’s 8th grade science students and an open clear sky is what many of us long for when we go to the mountains. So it’s no wonder that the elements of the night sky also show up in scripture and are opened up to us as a way of connecting with God. Lights in the sky are among the first elements of creation…. Abraham and Sarah are promised descendants that outnumber the stars as they are sent to follow God’s call into a new land and a new night sky… and the magi come today, on the day of Epiphany from afar, following the guiding of star, to see what they have read in the stars, the birth of a king like no other one they have seen before.
While I have always loved the stars and have had fond memories of camping, seeing new constellations while in the southern hemisphere, and enjoying wishing on one or two, it wasn’t until in 2017 when the eclipse passed over our area that I felt I had a deeper spiritual experience with the darkening of the sky. I had the privilege of being in Wyoming in a spot that was right there on the line to see the full eclipse. I was with my family and 85 other people who descended on the Olsen’s cabin along with a group of scientists who follow the eclipse and the stars and all things about the night sky very closely. It is so hard to describe this experience. The night before the eclipse there were 8 telescopes set up all around the home pointing in all different directions. We got to see Saturn with rings and all and we got to learn from those with a passion deep for the sky and a willingness to share and gift us with all they knew about the sky and the event about to happen. When the eclipse arrived the sky went dark and so did everything around us–the crickets sang, the birds moved, the sunset came and went with a shadow and speed I didn’t know could happen. The whole earth around us, the air, the animals, the lights, and the breath of the people standing as one community took a collective sigh at the wonder of it all and we felt a power around us, together. For a moment we were all connected to something bigger and greater and even not totally explainable and it was something I didn’t know could be until it was.
This is now how I imagine that first epiphany night. The kings coming together to discover this new light that was born guided by a light that they couldn’t completely explain into a community they had never known and into a time where the convergence of earth, sky, and the sighs of humanity met in one place for even just a moment. They arrived about a year or maybe more after the birth of Jesus. They arrived under political unrest–it may not have been a government shutdown furloughing thousands, but it was a climate where yielding power over the less privileged was easy to come by. Tbey came seeking to find what could be new, what could be still filled with wonder in the world. And they arrived with gifts–gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Mystical gifts for a mystical time and moment under the stars. The gifts themselves were unique and not easy to explain, but the fact that there were even gifts at all is part of the remarkableness of this story,
In this time, gifts were not exchanged as ‘gifts’. If you were giving something to someone of your own class that was one thing and likely resulted in something of similar value. Kind of like our cultural exchange of presents in some ways. A gift or trade among unequal classes was not a matter of common practice. If this happened, there was always an expectation of something that was even more burdensome than a trade–it could come with some daunting political expectations of loyalty or a tithe to the ruler. “Gifts” were a matter of securing power and status. In this political climate, where the rulers or kings would be seen as those who had control and power over the lives of the common people, three people of a much higher class presenting gifts may have caused Joseph some deep confusion and concern, he may not have even wanted to accept them at first. But here it is. Gifts being brought to Jesus with no expectation, no strings attached, no desire for something in return.
In this moment, a spiritual thing happens. Luke’s story of Mary tells us she treasured these things in her heart–the things were not the gifts, but the words, the happenings, the ability of God to show up in new and wondrous ways. And remember Mary’s song and prayer of prophecy? “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble! He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). Here in this moment, where the gifts are laid before Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, God enters in the world and turns things around and offers up the true gift of grace–free love and mercy with no expectation, no power, no need for a return of favor. Just a gift. Pure and simple. A gift of grace and an invitation to receive the gift and let God walk with and among you under all kinds of skies.
My spiritual experience with the sky didn’t happen in isolation, neither did the happenings of that Epiphany journey. As we journey together, we will experience the holy spirit in us personally and reaching out for us to connect in community as well. Sometimes this is with people we know well and sometimes it is with unexpected visitors, those that come in for a moment of our lives and depart for the rest. All of these experiences are gifts of God. As we begin to host families again this year as a community we will be blessed with unexpected and unplanned for gifts. As we journey in our own ways, we will be encountered by the callings of God to engage together to bring gifts of grace to new and new people in our midst. As we listen for God’s word, Jesus’ promise, and the Holy Spirit moving among us we will continue to vision together and stand as ones still willing to see and know that there is good and there is aw and there is wonderment in this world around us.
During sacred space time baskets of stars with words on them are going to come around through the pews. You are invited during this time to receive. Just take a star. Let that word be a simple message to you, something to ponder in your heart and receive as a gift of grace. This star word can be something you consider for just a moment or something that you carry with you throughout the year, allowing it to help you notice the holy spirit moving and breathing around and about you. A reminder that God is present to us in so many different ways.
Just as the wisemen brought gifts and trusted the guidance of the holy spirit surrounding them in the elements of the earth and sky, we are invited to receive the gift of this story, the gift of elements around us, the gift of words and contemplation that can settle in our hearts and lives, the gift of God coming to you with no strings attached.