“Go and Search” Colchester Federated Church, January 2, 2022, (Matthew 2:1-12) Epiphany Sunday

This morning—on the first Sunday of a New Year—we are embarking on a journey with the magi.  Matthew tells us that after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, magi came from the east to Jerusalem.  They arrive to meet Jesus and his family guided by the light of a star, relating upon their arrival, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?  We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”[1] 

Sometimes we have referred to these Bible characters as “kings.”  We will end our worship service by singing the famous hymn “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”  Though we’ve probably misinterpreted who these folks actually were.  Professor Elisabeth Johnson relates that the magi were most likely astrologers, maybe even Zoroastrian priests who came to Bethlehem from Persia (modern-day Iran).  We know for certain that they were Gentiles, and they didn’t seem to know Jewish Scriptures.  Johnson writes, “But they do know how to read the stars. God reaches out to them and leads them through what they already know. In the ancient world, stars and other signs in the heavens were thought to signal important events. In this case, a bright star rising leads them to discern that a royal birth has occurred in Judea. So they come bringing gifts fit for royalty – gold and frankincense and myrrh.”[2]

We’ve often interpreted the story as three kings coming to pay homage to Jesus.  In this interpretation, the richness of their gifts is reflective of the royal status of the “kings”.  But what if the point is that these three foreign astrologers (or priests) understand the identity of Jesus as the Messiah better than those closest to him?  If the magi read the stars and God reached out to them, if they understood that a royal birth occurred in Judea in the depths of their hearts—then it makes sense that they bring to King Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Gifts fit for a king.  Not because the magi themselves were necessarily royal.  But because Jesus was the newborn “king of the Jews” as they perceived the sign in the sky to convey to those who had the eyes to see.

And what about those gifts that they bring to the Christ child?  Gold as a material substance continues to have value.  We may wear rings made of gold or necklaces, ornamentations that are meant to add beauty.  Frankincense was used to make incense for worship.  Hence the lyrics in “We Three Kings”: “Frankincense to offer have I; incense owns a Deity nigh; prayer and praising, voices raising, worshiping God on high.”  Incense is not popular in our Christian tradition, though it remains popular in other forms of our shared faith.  Finally, myrrh was noted for its medicinal properties, used as an antiseptic to prevent infections.  Though myrrh was also used to embalm the dead.  What an odd gift to give a newborn, but it certainly foreshadows the life and death of Jesus.  As the verse goes in the hymn, “Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom; sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.”[3]  It’s foreshadowing, right?  Myrrh was used to heal broken bodies and perhaps the broken hearts of those left behind to mourn loved ones.

It’s a remarkable story full of symbolism and deeper meanings—this story of the magi who traveled from a great distance to present gifts fit for a king to an infant and his family in Bethlehem.  The words of Herod, meant as an order and threat, continue to ring out, “Go and search carefully for the child.”[4]  For isn’t that what Christians spend our lives doing?  Seeking Jesus and what he means in our own lives, following in his footsteps.  Being his disciples out in the world so that his message of compassion will live on through those who dare to follow where he would lead.

So much of Jesus’ life and ministry was about going and searching for those deeper meanings.  It’s beautiful that the magi had to travel to find him.  Going out on a pilgrimage remains an essential faith practice.  Because perhaps humans are built to wander.  Sometimes people even go out into the world in God’s name to seek a meaningful place, to find the sacred that can speak to our hearts.  Author Charles Foster wrote The Sacred Journey about the history of pilgrimage across cultures and religions.  Foster mused, “Jesus thought people would travel.  He was right.  And once they got to him, they just kept traveling, because that’s what he did.  It was the original road show.  From the start, the Jesus road show was a sociable business.  He wanted people to walk with.  He met them when he was walking: ‘As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers.’  He called them along for a walk (‘Follow me’), not for a lecture in doctrine. . . All that we are required to do is to put one foot in front of the other.  And then do it again.”[5]

We are beginning a New Year.  New possibilities are before us.  Given all that we’ve been through (and are going through) as a society, community, family, and individually with Covid it is hard to know what this new year will bring.  Perhaps we are feeling more anxiety than we care to admit.  Perhaps we are wanting to peer around the corner of 2022 not quite sure what we will find.  We can keep in mind that famous phrase that we make plans and God laughs.  We just don’t know how the future will unfold, as annoying as that can be.  We can remember that once Jesus grew from those humble beginnings in Bethlehem, after he was visited by those magi from the East—he encouraged his followers to come along for a walk.  To follow him.  To place one foot in front of the other, and then to do it again.  To keep walking forward in relationship with him.  To take just the next faithful step. 

As has become our tradition, we will receive our Star Words today.  Nicole cuts out the stars and I write a word on each one every year, words from several Epiphany Star Words Lists compiled over the years.  Consider the Star Words to be a gift for your own journey of faith as we enter this new year before us.  It might be clear right away what the word may mean for you and how God is still speaking through that word in your life.  Your Star Word may be puzzling, even after you’ve looked up the meaning in the Dictionary and sat with that particular word for a while.  Put the star on your refrigerator, dresser, or desk—somewhere where you can see it and ponder its meaning.  My prayer is that the word will somehow guide you on your way in 2022 just like the magi of old followed the star to find Jesus.  May it be so with us, and thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Matthew 2:2, CEB.
[2] Elisabeth Johnson, Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12, Working Preacher, January 6, 2022, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/epiphany-of-our-lord/commentary-on-matthew-21-12-11
[3] Rosie Pentreath, “What are the lyrics to ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are’, and who wrote the popular Christmas carol?”, December 3, 2020,  https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/occasions/christmas/we-three-kings-lyrics-composer-origins/
[4] Matthew 2:8.
[5] Charles Foster, The Sacred Journey, 67.

Photo by Inbal Malca on Unsplash