Epiphany: January 6, 2012
“Jerusalem or Bethlehem — where are you headed?”
Rev. Stacy Swain
Of all of the characters in the nativity story, I have always found the three wise ones to be the most captivating.
As a kid, at pageant time, I always wanted to be one of them; probably because they had the coolest costumes and they got to carry those nifty treasure boxes.
But as an adult, I have come to appreciate the wise ones in new ways. I have come to appreciate them, because more than any other character in the nativity story, I think we can identify with them the most. In very real ways, their story is our story.
Their story is our story, not because we are particularly wise or have particularly nifty treasures to bring, but because like us they are interlopers to the nativity. Like us, they are more like spectators to the miracle of Jesus’ birth instead of players in it. We have a tendency in our pageants to conflate the story and have the wise ones arrive right on the heels of the shepherds, but that is not the way Matthew tells it. Some time has passed between that most Holy night and the arrival of the wise ones on the scene.
On that Holy Night, the magi were not at the manger. They were home in Persia. They were busy doing whatever it was they were doing, studying the charts, reading the texts, watching the sky. And when they saw that star, that star unlike any star they had ever seen before, they had to decide for themselves what it meant. There were no angels commanding them not to be afraid. There were no heavenly hosts telling them where it was that they would find the babe. They like us were on their own. God may have issued a universal invitation to come see God’s manifestation wih that star in the sky but it was up to the wise ones whether they would or would not take up that invitation. Whether they would or would not set out on that journey.
We know of course they did decide to go. But it is too bad that the Gospel writers did not tell us anything about the discussions that must have lead up to that decision to go and follow the star. It’s too bad that we cannot listen in on that Persian Academy. For I imagine that there must have been other wise ones in the land. Other learned ones, great scientists and astrologers, keen and impressive thinkers. These three could not have been only wise ones, and yet — they were the only ones who decided to take that leap of faith and set off to see for themselves if what they hoped to be true actually was.
And so they did set off. They travel far, these wise ones, but then when they are almost there, something really strange happens. These learned men, adroit at reading the night sky, these wise ones, well they make a wrong turn. With the star presumably still burning brightly over Bethlehem, these three turn left not right and head for Jerusalem.
And then it goes from bad to worse when the wise ones decide to go to Herod, that ruthless ruler, to ask for the specifics of where to find the child within this great city. They ask him where they can find the new king and in doing so they ignite first Herod’s fear and then his fury. How could these wise ones be so foolish? How could they get so close and then miss their mark entirely?
Christian theologian and pastor, Walter Bruggemann, writes that the wise one’s missed their mark by nine miles, the distance between Jerusalem and Bethlehem because despite their wisdom, they could not conceive of the idea that God may be doing an entirely new thing in the person of Jesus. They are convinced that a great king had indeed been born, so convinced are they that they are ready to risk ridicule and the dangers of the road.
But they have limited vision. They know a great King is coming but they cannot imagine that a great King could be any where else but at the epicenter of empire because never before in their human experience had it been otherwise. To be a King, to be in command of all that is – equates with being at the heart of social, political and economic power. So I imagine these wise ones just decided that the star must somehow have gotten off track. Jerusalem had to be the place, it just had to be.
When the wise ones ask Herod, “Where is the child who is born king of the Jews?”, I think they fully expected Herod to say “Oh he is down this palace hallway, in the room off the left.”
So can you imagine how shocked they must have been to hear that the babe was born not in Jerusalem but in Bethlehem, that dusty, insignificant, poor excuse for a village? Can you imagine how baffling it must have been for them to traverse those nine miles to find that king lying not in the palace crib but in a manger? Can you imagine how hard it must have been for them to completely reorient themselves to a new paradigm of what power means, what Kingship looks like?
But the remarkable thing is, what makes these ones wise is that they do it. They are wise not for their learning but for their ability to change their world view in a heart beat. They are wise for they are able to entertain something new and set out on those nine long miles and arrive at a place they had not known before. They walk those long miles to arrive at place of awe and wonder unlike anything they could have predicted – unlike anything they expected. The epiphany in this story is theirs, as they gaze on that child. The epiphany is theirs as they take in the good news of what God in the world looks like.
You know the claim that God came into the world in the person of Jesus, that through Jesus we can see something of God, well it is a very hard one for us to make sense of. We are more comfortable I think with the humanity of Jesus, comfortable with the idea of him as brother, teacher, or guide. Because we know what it is to have a brother, a teacher or a guide. But thinking about the divinity of Jesus, thinking of him as Savior or Christ? Well that is hard for us for it is completely outside our expectation, completely outside of our experience. We have no idea of what that looks like?
But like those wise ones, we have a decision to make. Are we going to set out on the journey to see for ourselves if that we hope to be true actually is? And if we do go looking for Jesus, if we do go looking for the revelation of God in the world and I hope to God we will, then I think we have to be willing to give up our certainty that we know where it is we will find God or where it is we think God should be.
You know, I think this is a really profound time to be church. The wise one’s story, I believe has never been more relevant. I think that we are on the cusp of a deeper and truer experience of who God is in this time and what it means, what it looks like to live a life of faith together.
I hope we have the humility and inspiration of the wise ones to entertain the idea that we too may be off by miles. That the good news may be breaking into the world in ways and in places that we have yet to see. That life changing, world remaking good news is out there yet — for us to encounter. I wonder what it would mean for us to right now and in this place to walk the walk of those wise ones from so long ago? To traverse those nine miles and to go from certainty to epiphany; to what was to what can be. I wonder… Amen
 “Off by Nine Miles.” By Walter Brueggemann. December 19, 2001. The Christian Century.