Kingdom Come - Week One: "We Three Kings"

This Sunday we will be celebrating what is officially known as "The Epiphany of our Lord," the day that ends the season of Christmas (the famous "12 Days") and begins the season of Epiphany in the Church.  I didn't make these things up, people.  Christians have been celebrating this stuff for a good long time, and I kind of dig it, to be honest.

But what does "Epiphany" actually mean, and why should we even care about any of this stuff anyway?  

To begin with, "epiphany" is a word that essentially means "realization," or more specifically, "inspired realization."  When you have an epiphany you know it.  You feel it in your bones.  It's more important than realizing that you took a wrong turn on the way to Albuquerque and ended up in Hoboken.  That would be a seriously wrong turn, I might add.  

An epiphany is when you realize something that has the potential to change your life, the way you think about things, your future, maybe your past... in other words, it's pretty momentous.  

For example, I remember the exact moment that I realized I was going to marry my wife Merideth and spend the rest of my life with her.  We were twenty three years old, and had been apart from one another for five years.  A lot of murky water had passed under the bridge at that point, and there were lots of people who thought we were crazy to even try to have a relationship.  I remember sitting in her mother's house---the house she had grown up in, and quite frankly so had I.  She was talking on the phone to her dad, and she was standing this certain way, and she was holding her head just so.  Just for a split second she looked at me and her eyes sparkled and she gave me this smile--it was like in those movies where everything goes into slow motion and the only people in the whole world are the two people in that slow motion shot.  

And I knew.  It dawned on me like the morning sun.  I had an epiphany. 

I've had another kind of epiphany as well---one that had negative implications.  I made the foolish mistake of thinking I could ride the Rockin' Roller Coaster at the Disney Studios Park.  It goes from 0-60 mph in like three seconds and then goes through a zillion loops and other assorted hellish moves.  I have a sketch equilibrium and I am allergic to vomiting, yet I thought: "I can hack this."  For the first three seconds I was awesome.  Then it dawned on me that I had made a terrible mistake.  But it was too late, my friends... far too late.  My epiphany did not help me at that point.  

I remember seeing my oldest son being born, and I had an epiphany that life was going to be completely different from that moment forward.  When my second son was born, I had a similar epiphany, only this time I was a little older and a bit more experienced.  When my third son was born, I had an epiphany at age 42 that not only was life going be different--based on my previous experience with such things---but that I was about to spend the next several years being perpetually tired.  I know how Abraham must have felt, baby.  That youngest kid moves pretty quick, and my reflexes aren't what they used to be.  When he's racing around the house after his bath stark naked and slippery---'cause that's what he does---I have learned to use my wits rather than my non-existent speed.  I just sort of wait and then throw a towel over him like a net.

So that's what an epiphany is---sort of.  But let me answer the second part of that earlier question: "Why should we care about this?"  

We've all been in that place---the moment when you know that things are going to be different... from now on.  That moment of epiphany when you feel to the very core of your being that you have realized something life-changing.

Isn't it interesting how we use words to describe those moments like, "It dawned on me..." or "It was like a light bulb went on...?"  

The Epiphany of Our Lord is a celebration of the arrival of the Magi to visit the baby Jesus--a time when we reflect on what it meant for the Wise Men to realize that the Messiah they'd been searching for was right in front of them.   
There's something beautiful about this story--the story of wise men who gazed at the stars, and saw a light that changed their lives forever.

Jesus is often called the "light of the world" in the Gospels--a light that shines in the darkness and is not overcome by it.  All throughout the stories of Jesus' life, the people who see the light of Christ, the ones who get it... who have an epiphany regarding who he is, and what he's all about... are changed.  

When you see the light, it changes everything.  

Let's read Matthew 2:1-12 shall we?

1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

It's not exactly clear how many "magi" there were.  We assume that there were three due to the number of gifts that the text says they brought.  Additionally, to say that they were "wise men" is kind of a misnomer.  The "magi" were almost assuredly priestly sages from Persia, which means that they were astronomers/astrologists---men who studied the wonder and mystery of the heavens.  

Traditions in the Church grew up in the early days of Christianity, assigning the wise men roles, names and even back stories.  Melchior was a magi from Persia, Gaspar was Indian, and Balthasar was Arabian.  Obviously, these are just legends and traditions, but it does speak to an early understanding of this story as a window into the expansive nature of the Gospel--to all the nations. 

The star was a symbol of direction and knowledge---the wise men would have believed that events on earth were reflected in the heavens.  As soon as they saw something peculiar, they immediately began poring over all of the texts they could find regarding momentous occasions, prophecies and the like.  There were Jews living in Persia at that time--a significant number of them, in fact.  So eventually the wise men were drawn to Hebrew texts and discovered the prophecy about the Messiah.  

3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

The magi embody the prophecies about the kingdom of God, and in many ways they arrive to help the Jews dramatically confront the truth about who they are, and whose they are.  And all of this confounds Herod, a puppet king over the Jews, placed in power by the Roman Empire.  So he decides to do what he always did when he faced a threat---eliminate it.  

7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

The interesting thing about this whole passage is that it's full of questions of power, true kingship, empire and the coming of a new age.  

9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

I love the literal translation of what the wise men did when the found Jesus in verse 10:  "They rejoiced a great joy very much."  They joyfully worshipped him, realizing that the prophecies were true, the light had led them to the true Light and that their journey was not in vain.

The gifts they gave have often been imbued with great symbolism as well.  Gold was a gift for royalty, a sign and a symbol of the kingship of the Christ child.  Frankincense was directly connected to divine worship, used in a variety of temples around the world, but also used in worship in the Temple, which was in Jerusalem.  Myrrh is the most interesting of the gifts because it was most often used in the burial process, to anoint the body of the deceased person.  Myrrh was actually purchased by Joseph of Arimethea to use for Jesus' burial, only the women who came to anoint his body never got the chance.  

Here's the thing... these magi were "outsiders"  to Judaism, and were considered "unclean" by the Hebrew people because they were Gentiles.  Yet, they showed the insiders the truth about themselves and their relationship with God.

They also went beyond reason and research---they were, in fact, the closest things to scientists that the Ancient Near East would have had to offer.  In the end, they had to follow their hearts, believing that there was something special about to happen, and that the light they saw would lead them to it.  Along those same lines, they moved beyond science to faith, trusting the journey---a journey that eventually led them to what they desired more than anything: hope.  And as a result of all of this, they experienced delight.  Their joyful worship reflects the freedom they felt when they saw what the light had to reveal.  It didn't make them create a religion, or come up with a new set of rules on how things should be done---they just joyfully worshipped.  I love this.  They experienced delight instead of doctrine.  

We--the human race---spend so much time trying to find our own way in this world, don't we?  It's like most of us are just stumbling around in the dark, but we are too stubborn to leave the darkness and head toward the light.  There's this great verse in the Bible that goes something like this:  "People love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil."

Have you ever wondered why adult book stores, strip clubs and the like are always in buildings where the windows are covered?  And the parking is always in the back of the building?

Years ago there was a blackout in New York City and the crime rate shot up exponentially as mobs of people took the streets to loot, plunder and pillage.

Just like in the days when Jesus was born, all around us is dark, yet the light shines the way for those who have the courage to follow the star. When you see the light, it changes everything.

In the 1800's Henry Van Dyke wrote a beautiful story entitled "The Other Wise Man," the story of Artaban--one of the magi, who misses his chance to travel with his three friends to discover the meaning of the star.  The reason he misses his chance, however, is because he stops on his way to meet them in order to rescue a man who was left to die on the side of the road.  Artaban is carrying a sapphire, a ruby and a pearl of great price with him to offer to the Christ child, and he gives away one of the gems to pay for the man's care.  By the time he arrives in Bethlehem, the Holy Family has fled to Egypt.  In an act of reckless generosity, Artaban offers up one of the remaining gems to rescue a baby that is about to be killed by Herod's men.

Artaban spends the next thirty years searching for the Messiah, helping people along the way, giving of himself and living a selfless life.  At long last Artaban finds himself in Jerusalem, arriving just in time for the crucifixion of Jesus.  The last of his gifts, the pearl of great price, is given away to ransom a young woman who is being sold into slavery. As he enters the Temple courtyard, Artaban is tragically struck by a falling tile.  As he lays dying he hears these words being spoken by Jesus, "Verily I say unto thee, Inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, thou hast done it unto me."  Artaban dies in blissful joy, knowing that his gifts were accepted and he had finally found the king.

Some might say, "What a tragic story!  Why would we think that was a good ending?"  It's true, Van Dyke's parable lifts up a man who spent his entire life seeking the Messiah, and never meeting him face to face.  But there's something more...  It's true that he never got to see Jesus, but when he saw the star, it set him on a journey that changed his life.  Because he saw the light, he left the comforts of his former beliefs, the way he'd always done things... Because he saw the light, he learned to live for the sake of others... Because he saw the light, he discovered at the end of his life that the journey had been worth all of the sacrifice, all of the struggle, all of the highs and lows...

Would you still seek him?  We might rightly say, "I can't see Jesus face to face.  It's hard to believe and to follow, when it sometimes doesn't seem as though he's there at all."  I know that it is.  But what we're doing in our culture, in our world---it's not working.  The darkness isn't working...  Hiding from the light isn't working...  Let the light shine on you.  Let the realization of Jesus love and selfless sacrifice dawn upon you like morning sun... And then follow it.

Because when you see the light, it changes everything.  
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