Epiphany, Jan. 6th, the coming of the Magi, Kings Day, is the official end to the 12 days of Christmas. And it gives us a chance to think about being Wise. I started my musing because of this reading from our curriculum, Seasons of the Spirit—
“Some people are wise like a snake, slithering in and out of tight spaces until nobody can tell where they’ve come from or where they’re going.
Some people are wise because they can tell truth from lies. And some people are wise because they recognize wisdom in others. [Epipany] is a story about all those kinds of wisdom and more.” (Seasons p. 114)
In that vein, I add, some people are wise enough to know that you don’t tell a story the same way to everyone. The story of what you did on Saturday night, if you are wise, will change in subtle ways, depending on who you are telling it to—your children, your friends, your boss, your pastor. Right?
So I’m sure there are some wise people here who have noticed that different gospels tell the story of the birth of Jesus with a different slant. I know in our manger scenes we have shepherds and sheep mixing with Magi and camels, around the baby Jesus, but that just isn’t so in the Bible. Shepherds only appear in Luke. The Magi, the Wise Ones, appear only in Matthew.
And some wise people might reason that the difference (shepherds versus Magi) has something to do with the way, the theme, the context, of that particular story. Shepherds embody the poor, and the poor are front and center in Luke’s gospel. So Mary, in her song in Luke, called the Magnificat, talks about God “scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich empty away.” And Jesus, in his first sermon in Luke, in what is seen as his mission statement, reads from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” No wonder, the gospel of Luke has poor shepherds, who abide in the fields, hearing the good news of great joy for all the people—that Jesus is born.
Matthew is telling the story a different way. We don’t get the poor shepherds, we get the Wise Ones from afar. The story of some number of Kings/Sages/Wise Ones coming from out of town, does give us a window into some of the gospel of Matthew’s main themes. One is the appearance of quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures, usually beginning, “for so it has been written …” Matthew is saying: This is not a fairy-tale constructed out of tinsel and wrapping paper. This has concrete girders—this story is built around familiar readings for Matthew’s hearers.
And wise people might remember that Matthew is the one who ends his gospel with the great commission of Jesus “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” A pretty nice story arc—to start with the wise ones coming from afar to worship the new born king, and to end with the disciples of that king going out (going back to “afar”) to share the story of Jesus.
Now I must confess, that this talk on Epiphany about wise people has always seemed somewhat naïve. The Magi, these supposed wise people, really aren’t very smart. Because of them, Herod who is a mean, nasty king, gets a heads up that there is a “new king in town”—and one that has astrological portents—even the skies know he is a big deal. Because of these “wise ones,” Herod can calculate when the star had appeared, thus giving him a region, and an age group to slaughter so that this king might never come to age. These wise ones might get to go home another way, but the innocents who Herod targeted in his killing spree were not so lucky.
So what is being wise? And are we supposed to follow in their footsteps?
I like the idea that there are different kinds of wisdom. I think that has a lot to say to us today. Herod was wise (like a serpent), in knowing that there was a threat to him, and wise in pretending to be interested in honoring this king so to get vital information, and wise to try to neutralize the problem. There are always people in our world who are like Herod—wise and sneaky and mean. The Bible isn’t asking us to be wise like that.
The chief priests and scribes were wise in their knowledge of Scripture, they knew Scripture in and out, and they talked with God and divined which Scripture applied to which situation. And they were right. But they had attached themselves to a bad person. And so they allowed the words of God to be used as a poisonous arrow, targeting some for abuse and in this story, death. There are people in our world who use Scripture that way—they are wise but misguided. The Bible isn’t asking us to be wise like that either.
The Magi are the ones we call Wise Men, Wise Ones. They were wise enough to see what was right there in the heavens—a new star, a bright star, one that told of special things. They were wise enough to bring gifts, to share their wealth with the new king: customary gifts of gold for power, frankincense as perfume for sacrificing to the gods, and myrrh for anointing. They were wise enough to listen to their dreams, and change course, and go home by another road. We are called to be wise like that.
We are called to have eyes to see the signs that God places all around us.
We are called to be courageous enough to leave what we know behind and set out on a God-driven journey.
We are called to bring our gifts, our treasures, our very selves, as an offering to God.
We are called to know when we’ve taken a wrong turn, and need to choose a different path.
We are called to let go of our egos, and our degrees, and our pedigrees, and bow and pay homage to the King of kings and Lord of lords, even if in the guise of a baby.
Yes, we are called to be wise like that.
And as I thought about wisdom and this passage, I thought there was another wisdom that is on display—and that is the wisdom of trusting in God and following in God’s ways. You see Joseph could have been wise in the ways of the world, and when his fiancé got pregnant and he knew it wasn’t because of him, he could have “dismissed her quietly, so as not to expose her to public disgrace.” But he was wise enough to listen to an angel in a dream who told him to take Mary as his wife, and name the baby Jesus.” And he was wise enough to listen to another angel who told him to flee to Egypt after the Wise Ones left. And so Jesus survived Herod’s purging wrath.
Being wise enough to listen to God’s whispers may be the hardest thing to do. Because it doesn’t have the solidness of words on a page, or the customariness of what gifts you should bring to a king, or the wiliness of knowing how to stay in power. It is wisdom that might seem foolish to the world. It is wisdom that is just beyond reach, that is always shadowy, that is a matter of trust and faith and listening and doing your best to figure out the message.
I believe we are to cultivate the wisdom found in all the characters in our story.
We need to know how power works even better than Herod so that we can be “wise as serpents yet innocent as doves” as Jesus says to his disciples later on in Matthew (10:16).
We need to school ourselves in Scripture like the scribes as a shield against those who would misuse the word of God.
We need to be like the Kings willing to give of our time and our treasure and our talent, to lay it at the feet of Jesus, even as we bow and allow ourselves to worship him.
We need to be open like Joseph to hearing the message of God, however it might come to us—trusting that we will have ears to hear, and that God will continue to call us, to prod us, to never let us go.
The day of Epiphany may be the end of the 12 days of Christmas. But the season of Epiphany is about revealing who this baby born in a manger really is. It is a time for wisdom. As the prophet Isaiah spoke “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”
May we make this Epiphany season a time when we too become Wise and follow in the way of the Light.
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.