Epiphanies from the Magi Nation

Readings for the Feast Day of Epiphany:

Isaiah 60:1-6

Psalm 72

Matthew 2:1-12

This sermon was preached at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in San Rafael CA on January 8, 2017.

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, a feast that honors the surprising ways that God shows up in our lives insofar as we have eyes to see and as long as we “look around” (as we sang in Justin’s wonderful Epiphany song this morning). More specifically, the Feast of Epiphany honors three major biblical events in which God’s glory shows up in Christ, as theophanies or epiphanies. One of these is Jesus’s first miracle at the wedding in Cana in which he reveals his glory by miraculously bringing more wine to a party. The other major epiphany event is the Baptism of Christ in which the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus like a dove and says, “This is my Child, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” which are the same words God said to all of us at our baptism and says to us every day, constantly inviting us to find freedom and redemption in that belovedness. And the third major epiphany event is the visit of the wise men or the Magi from the east.

When we heard the Nativity story at Christmas, we heard of the visitation from the angels and the shepherds but did not hear any mention of the Magi because we read from the Nativity account in Luke’s Gospel, which does not include any reference to the Magi. They only appear in Matthew’s Gospel, which we read from this morning and which we will be reading throughout the church year. It is a very Jewish Gospel in which Jesus sounds very much like the rabbis. And you all have Bibles in your pews so I invite you to open up your Bibles to Matthew now. It is the first book of the New Testament. As you glance through the first few chapters of the Gospel, you might notice that there is no reference at all to the shepherds or to the angels (apart from the angels that show up in Joseph’s dreams). The only visitors of the Christ Child in Matthew are the Magi and we don’t know all that much about them, except that they were from the East and they brought gold, frankincense and myrrh. And we know that the Magi were generally understood to be followers of Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion, and they were believed to have spiritual power through their esoteric knowledge of astrology and alchemy. The word “magician” actually has roots in the word “magi,” which is the plural form of “magus” or “magian.”

I have been reflecting on the magi and my first Christmas here with you; and first of all, I want to say how much I appreciate your ability to magically transform this place into an especially festive and cheerful worship space for Christmas. Many of you are amazing magicians when it comes to decking the halls or decking this hall. So thank you. Now we just need some magicians to magically remove and put away the Christmas decorations.

Secondly, I was wonderfully surprised by the fact that during Christmas we also had some wise visitors from the East or at least visitors representing Eastern traditions. On Christmas Eve, a young Zen Buddhist joined us wearing his rakusu, a Japanese garment worn by those who have taken the Bodhisattva vows. He also brought his daughter and sat in the front row so they could both further enjoy the Christmas music performed by our excellent worship band. And on Christmas Day, a young man visited from Spirit Rock Meditation Center, representing the Theravada branch of Buddhism, specifically the Vipassana movement, which focuses on Insight Meditation. And also, on Christmas day, we were visited by a doctor of medicine who incorporates Eastern remedies such as Chinese herbs, acupuncture, and Qi Gong. She is a kind of modern-day Magian.

On one level, I was thrilled that these visitors felt drawn to worship with us on Christmas and another level, I was reminded of the fact that Jesus remains deeply attractive to people outside of the Christian tradition. I have noticed that anyone who dives deep into any spirituality or faith tradition is bound to find Jesus attractive; including many Jews, who have a very fraught history with Christianity. Many still remain very attracted to Jesus, who is after all, a Jewish Rabbi as the Gospel of Matthew reminds us.

I find myself all the more honored and proud to be a follower of this magnetic Jesus; and part of the invitation of the Epiphany season is to appreciate this quality or aspect of Jesus, this quality that draws in outsiders. And when visitors come, they bring their own histories, insights, understandings and perspectives of Jesus, which can help deepen our own understanding and appreciation of Christ. I always love asking people (especially those outside of the Christian tradition), “What do you think of Jesus? Who is Jesus to you?” The answers almost always provide me with some new appreciation or new epiphany. And I would encourage you to ask people in your life that same question, not in order to proselytize or to convince them of a “correct” understanding of Christ, but in order to broaden and deepen your own understanding in light of theirs, in order to have an epiphany; and maybe provide epiphanies for others as well.

About a century ago, an English minister named Henry van Dyke received epiphanies

about Christ by studying the Magi, the wise men from the East. He learned that, according to extra-biblical tradition, the wise men were understood as primarily three men named Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar.[1] He studied Zoroastrianism and then steeped his prayerful imagination in the nation of the Magi. (There is very likely an etymological connection between the word “imagination” and the nation of the magi, the magi nation.) By immersing himself in the magi nation, van Dyke began to imagine a fourth wise man named Artaban. He said that while studying the “curious tales of the Three Wise Men” he began to see Artaban “distinctly, moving through the shadows in a little circle of light” (11). He then says “the narrative of his journeys and trials and disappointments ran without a break. Even certain sentences came to me complete and unforgettable, clear-cut like a cameo. All that I had to do was to follow Artaban, step by step, as the tale went on” (12), within his prayerful imagination.

Henry van Dyke wrote about Artaban in his book The Story of the Other Wise Man. In the story, Artaban was initially planning to join Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar on their journey to Bethlehem; and just as the three men brought gold, frankincense and myrrh, Artaban was planning to bring his own gift of three jewels to the Christ child: a sapphire, a ruby and a pearl. However, as he was on his way to meet with the others, he came across a sick man, dying on the side of the road. By choosing to take the time to care for this sick man in need, Artaban ended up missing his opportunity to travel with the others and visit the Christ child. By the time Artaban eventually arrived in Bethlehem on his own, the other wise men had already left and so had Jesus, Mary and Joseph, who had fled to Egypt to escape the massacre of the Holy Innocents. Artaban decided to remain in Palestine for several decades, hoping to someday meet Jesus. Although he did not find him, Artaban encountered many other people in desperate need of his care. As van Dyke writes, “In all this populous and intricate world of anguish, though he found none to worship, he found many to help. He fed the hungry, and clothed the naked, and healed the sick…and his years passed swiftly” (73). In order to protect and help others in need, Artaban sold the sapphire and ruby that were intended as gifts for Jesus.

One day, after thirty three years, Artaban was walking through the streets of Jerusalem and overheard some Parthian Jews talk about going to Golgotha to see the execution of a man named Jesus of Nazareth. When he heard this, his heart leapt within him and he thought, “The ways of God are stranger than the thoughts of men, and it may be that I shall find the King, at last, in the hands of his enemies, and shall come in time to offer my pearl for his ransom before he dies” (81). So Artaban eagerly followed the crowd to Golgotha, but on the way, he saw a young girl being dragged down the street by soldiers. When she saw him, she broke away from her tormenters and threw herself at Artaban’s feet and cried out, “Have pity on me! My father is dead and I am seized for his debts to be sold as a slave. Save me from worse than death!”

Artaban was deeply conflicted but eventually resigned to what felt to him like yet another failure. He gave the young girl his pearl and said, “This is your ransom, daughter! It is the last of my treasures which I kept for the King.” And at that moment, there was a terrible earthquake, which is attested to in Matthew’s Gospel (in Matthew 27:51) During this earthquake, a heavy tile fell from a roof and struck Artaban hard on the head, knocking him down. As the young girl comforted him and held him in her arms, Artaban finally saw Jesus, who appeared to him in glorious light, and said to him the same words he says Matthew 25:35 “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me.” And then the words of Matthew 25:40 “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” Van Dyke writes that, after hearing these words, “a calm radiance of wonder and joy lighted the pale face of Artaban like the first ray of dawn on a snowy mountain peak. A long breath of relief exhaled gently from his lips. His journey was ended. His treasures were accepted. The Other Wise Man had found the King” (86).

I share this story because it is appropriate for us now as we prepare to pack meals for the hungry and poor through our Stop Hunger Now event in a few weeks. But I also share the story to show how it was by engaging an outside perspective and tradition that Henry van Dyke was able to have a deeper understanding and encounter with Christ. He was able to see how Christ reveals himself to us even through our disappointments, frustrations and apparent failures.

So during this Epiphany season, I invite us to remain open to outside perspectives of Christ, to ask others who Jesus is to them, to allow ourselves to be transformed by new epiphanies. Jesus is indeed our Rabbi, our Redeemer, Savior, King, and Lord and also so much more than that. I know I will spend the rest of my life and perhaps afterlife growing in knowledge of and love for Jesus, this fascinating person who remains magnetic to all who are interested in spirituality, who brought Buddhists and Chinese herbalists here for Christmas, and who seeks to reveal himself to us in new and surprising ways throughout this season. So I look forward to having more epiphanies with you, about who Jesus is to you, to me and to many more of our wise visitors from the East. Amen.

[1] Caspar being a king and astrologer from India, Melchior from Persia and Balthazar from Arabia. Henry van Dyke had the important epiphany that astrology ought not be too quickly dismissed as utter nonsense. Although many astrologers and horoscope writers are indeed full of malarkey, it is important to acknowledge the fact that there is biblical evidence that people have encountered Christ through the study of astrology. The Magi encountered Christ through their study of the stars. And Jesus himself said, “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars” (Luke 21:25). So next time your astrology friend asks you your astrological sign or talks to you about the movements of planets and stars, don’t dismiss it entirely; be open to a new epiphany. You yourself may have a new encounter with Christ, just like the Magi.

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