The star didn’t do the job, did it? I mean, it told them that a king had been born to the Jews. And so off they trotted to Jerusalem to give their gifts to him, to honor and worship him. But he’s not there. Further, no one in Jerusalem had the slightest idea what they were talking about, but it made everyone nervous all the same. Herod didn’t suffer rivals gladly and when Herod wasn’t happy, wasn’t anyone in Jerusalem who was happy. He was that sort.
But if the star can’t do the job, the Scriptures can. Herod knows where to turn for an answer – that really makes us think, doesn’t it? He asks the scribes, the Bible scholars, where the Christ was to be born. They point right away to Micah’s prophesy. “In Bethlehem of Judea.” But do they run off to see the new King then? Does Herod? No. Fact is, they don’t want that new King. They’ve sort of settled into their own routines and made peace with the way things go in this world and in their own lives and they were not at all happy with the idea of someone coming on the scene who might challenge the status quo.
I am reminded of William Butler Yeat’s poem “The Second Coming.” “And what rough beast, it’s hour come round at last, slouches off toward Bethlehem to be born.” Yeats didn’t doubt that Christ was born in Bethlehem – he just thought that it was a terrible thing and brought the downfall of what he thought of as the splendid culture of the ancient world.
Before we recoil in horror, we need honestly to ask ourselves how welcome Christ’s intrusion is into our own lives. I mean, he doesn’t leave well enough alone. He doesn’t let us make peace with the status quo. He’s always wanting to change us, to transform us, to make us be different – and that can be a bother and half! He’ll keep after you about holding grudges; and He won’t let you be at peace with gossiping; and you know he really will keep you up at night about those pet sins you try to hold onto and which he stubbornly insists on prying from your grasp. He’s more tenacious than a bulldog. Do we really welcome that?
The wisemen did. Talk about lives turned upside down. From being star-worshippers to being led by the light Scripture to the worship of the True God – who is before them as a little Child. Every idea they’d ever had about God flew out the window when they saw that little one come toddling toward them with his arms open to be held. They’d come to give their gifts, and give them they did, but why is that they had the feeling that it was all backwards? That even though he stood before them in poverty, they were the ones who were poor? That his love, his hug, his embrace was greater than all the treasures they had in their sacks? That He was the one who had come to give the real gifts? They offered gold, frank-incense and myrrh. He offered Himself, a pardon for sins, a welcome into the family of God, freedom from fear and death. And more: dissatisfaction with anything less than life in his perfect love.
Poetry again. Elliot this time. He puts these words in to the one of the Magi’s mouths as he reflects on it all years later: “All this was a long time ago, I remember, / and I would do it again, but set down / this, set down / this: were we led all that way / for Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly, / we had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, / but had thought they were different; this Birth was / hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. / We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, / but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, / with an alien people clutching their gods. / I should be glad of another death.”
The Magi risked the great risk. They welcomed the King – not just to earth, but into their hearts. The result was that their hearts were never the same again. The old pleasures were not the same. They tasted empty and futile. They ached for something more, something else, something greater. And so even death was welcome to them for it would bring them again to the Child.
The One who turned their lives upside down has not ceased His work of making people dissatisfied with themselves and their world in all the years since. His love still stirs up in hearts the ache for the home where He alone is the Light and there is no need of sun or moon. Such an ache he fosters not by star-gazing, but by listening to the words of the Scriptures. Words that unmistakably point to Him. Listen to how Peter described it: “And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” Those are words of a man in whose heart God has stirred up the great home-sickness for Himself; words of a heart that cried out for face of God in Christ.
Epiphany then is not a Feast for faint hearts. Be warned! If you draw too near the Light of this feast your life will be changed and there will be no lasting joys for you anymore here in this world, but only an ache for the joy and blessedness of an Age to come and so the prayer: “Come, Lord Jesus!” Indeed, with the Magi we can rejoice with exceedingly great joy – and to miss out on that joy is the only true sadness in the world, and yet though that joy is in the world, it is not of the world and it does not reach its fullness until we see the One to whom the star pointed face to face.
And so we end the Christmas cycle as we began it. Marantha. His coming to us, His gifts to us, they make us only hunger and ache inside for being with Him forever, for feasting our eyes in all eternity on the face of Him whom the Magi saw as a little boy, but who grown to manhood endured the cross and shattered the tomb, for us. For love of us! Maranatha. Our Lord, come! Amen.