It’s 2020! As I was considering what to do with this space, I had an epiphany of sorts (see what I did there?): I want to get more practice preaching, but I don’t have a place to preach on a regular basis (my kids are a less than enthusiastic audience …). So what if I use this space to write a weekly reflection on the lectionary readings?
So, starting today, each Monday the blog will feature a reflection on the lectionary readings (from the Revised Common Lectionary) for the previous Sunday. These pieces aren’t sermons, but they will give me a way to think about a particular passage each week. And today I get to cheat a bit, since I did actually preach last Saturday on the Epiphany texts.
I will still write on other topics; those will go up on most Thursdays — although this week, my monthly newsletter will go out on Thursday, so sign up now if you haven’t yet done so!
Today is the Feast of Epiphany, a feast in the liturgical calendar that marks the end of the Christmas season (the twelve days of Christmas) and commemorates the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem, an event that reveals Jesus as messiah and king.
Over the years I’ve been Anglican, I’ve grown to deeply appreciate the rhythms of the liturgical year: rhythms that take us through the story of Jesus every year, and more than that rhythms that build in blocks of time for fasting and for feasting, for acknowledging our need for a Savior and celebrating the in-breaking reality of the Kingdom of Heaven.
But I must confess: Christmas is hard for me to celebrate. Maybe it’s the weather; we celebrate the Light coming into the world, but here in Chicago at least we have months more of cold and dark. Maybe it’s cultural; growing up, the Christmas tree always came down on January 1.
Maybe, though, it’s because I often find that celebration requires as much discipline as fasting.
A discipline of celebration feels counterintuitive: shouldn’t celebration be spontaneous, or at least effortless? But especially when it comes to rejoicing that our Savior is born and lived and died and rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, I think that discipline is necessary. It’s easy to overlook the ways that God is at work in the world around us, the ways that the kingdom of heaven is already breaking into the world. And so we must train ourselves to see and rejoice in the kingdom of God as it exists right now.
This is where the story of the Magi visiting the Christ child helps our discipline of celebration by pointing to what the kingdom of God looks like now.
First, the kingdom of God is a kingdom for everyone. The story of the Magi is so familiar to us that we forget, I think, how surprising it is that Matthew tells not of Jewish shepherds visiting the messiah — thematically appropriate characters, given that King David was a shepherd and God is constantly called the Shepherd of Israel — but of astrologers from a distant land.
Matthew is, of course, maddeningly vague about who the Magi are, where they come from, and what sort of “magic” they practice, although it must include astronomy and astrology (indistinguishable disciplines in the ancient world). But this is because none of that actually matters: what matters is that God sent a sign to people in a distant land and, through that sign, they were convinced that they needed to come pay homage to this new King of the Jews.
The Magi tell us, from the very beginning of Jesus' story, that God’s kingdom isn’t limited geographically; its inhabitants need not be any particular ethnicity. All that is required is to acknowledge Jesus as king — and this is very good news for us still.
Second, the kingdom of God can be found in unexpected places, and in places far removed from seats of worldly power. The Magi, quite naturally, assume that the king of the Jews would have been born in Jerusalem, in the palace of Herod. But instead, Jesus was born a normal child, in a family with no particular wealth or power, in a town of little political importance.
This is good news for us because it reminds us that we do not enter the kingdom of God via worldly power. God’s power is not the power of wealth, political influence, or military might — and we do not need that power to gain the kingdom. We don’t need to seek that power or place our hopes in those who wield those powers; that is not where the kingdom of God is found.
Third, even though the kingdom seems small and insignificant, its impact is anything but small. The birth of Jesus, although it was a cataclysmic event that reshaped human history because the God who created us became one of us, became a part of the creation, was not noticed by Herod or the scholars in Jerusalem. And yes, there was a sign in the stars — but only a few Magi, it seems, found it significant enough to undertake a long, expensive, dangerous journey to find the prophesied king.
But look at the effect: a group of people who upended their lives to come worship a king. And Matthew tells us nothing more of the Magi after they leave Bethlehem, but it hardly seems possible that their lives were ever the same again.
And isn’t this always the way of the kingdom? Jesus says in Mathew 13 that the kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, like yeast: incredibly small, nearly invisible — but capable of a huge effect. The mustard seed grows into a huge plant, providing a home for many birds; the yeast works through the dough and produces food for many people.
This is where we return to the discipline of celebration: celebrating the coming of Jesus, the in-breaking of his kingdom, means looking for signs of the kingdom. It means seeing that the kingdom is for everyone, that it stands opposed to the power structures of the world, that it is constantly at work even when it seems invisible.
The discipline of celebration is thus a discipline of hope, of choosing to see the light even when the days are short and the nights long. And we can be inspired and encouraged by the Magi, who gave up their time, wealth, and even safety because they believed that the King whose star they saw was worthy of their sacrifice and homage.