Readings for the Feast of the Epiphany
This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka CA on January 6, 2019.
I’m sure we all know those days when we wake up and make a plan to accomplish all the tasks on our long to-do list and even feel eager and energized to do it all, but then unexpected things come up that require our attention and energy and time; and then we realize at the end of the day that we haven’t accomplish anything from our original list. In fact, our list has just gotten quite a bit longer. Often it seems that the day that we had planned for ourselves was not the day that God had planned for us. It was Woody Allen who appropriately said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”
I do still believe God is deeply interested in and glorified by many of our plans, especially when our plans involve trying to worship and serve him. However, I have found that sometimes the real ministry is in the interruptions to our plans. Sometimes God’s glory shows up in our lives as an unexpected disruption that requires us to let go of the plans we had made for the day or for the week or for the month. This is in the insight and revelation offered on this Feast of the Epiphany, which is the Feast of the Revelation of God’s glory in unexpected places and through unexpected people. The insight of Epiphany invites us to indeed keep making our plans, but to always hold them lightly and let them always be at God’s disposal.
I imagine Mary had other plans for her day (not to mention her life) when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to her and told her she would give birth to the Son of God. I imagine the shepherds in Bethlehem had other plans for their night when the hosts of heaven filled the sky and announced the birth of the Messiah in a manger. And we know that most of Christ’s followers had other plans in mind for the Gospel when that rogue Apostle Paul interrupted them with what he called “the plan of the mystery hidden for the ages,” which we read about in Ephesians. Most of Christ’s followers believed that the Gospel was intended only for the Jews, but God’s plan was much bigger, according to Paul, who so audaciously ruined any plans of exclusive access to Christ, whom he saw as the fulfilment of the ancient prophecy of Isaiah who said, “[All] Nations [meaning Gentiles] shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn…they shall bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” (Isaiah 60:4, 10). This is what Epiphany is all about: God’s big plan bursting open our small plans.
The Feast of the Epiphany honors three biblical events in which the new wine of God’s uncontainable glory breaks open the old wine skin of our small-minded plans and ideas. One of these events is Jesus’s first miracle when he miraculously brings more wine to a party, thus revealing his glory through sensuous delight and even excess. The other epiphany event almost didn’t happen at all because it didn’t seem to fit within the plan of John the Baptist, who understandably couldn’t comprehend why he would be the one to baptize the Messiah. The third Epiphany event is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, which we read about in the Gospel of Matthew: the visit of the kings from the East bearing gifts of gold and frankincense.
We don’t know all that much about these Eastern visitors called the Magi, except that they were generally understood to be followers of an ancient Persian religion called Zoroastrianism and they were believed to have spiritual power through their esoteric knowledge of alchemy and astrology. In fact, the word “magician” has etymological roots in the word “magi.” I was thinking about this during the Christmas break as Ashley and I watched all of the Harry Potter films and I imagined Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore and Hermione Granger as modern descendants of the magi. The magi certainly spark the imagination and there is likely an etymological connection between the word “imagination” and the nation of the magi, the magi nation.
About a century ago, the imagination of an English minister named Henry van Dyke was sparked by the Magi, especially when he learned that, according to extra-biblical tradition, the wise men were understood as primarily three men named Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. Henry van Dyke studied Zoroastrianism and then steeped his prayerful imagination in the nation of the Magi. 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, God apparently had other plans for Artaban. 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 33 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 (in Matthew 27:51) and 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, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did unto the least of these, you did unto to me” (Matt 25:40). 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).
Artaban’s praiseworthy plans to honor Christ with his gifts were disrupted by God’s plans for Artaban to share those gifts with others who were in desperate need. Sometime the real ministry is in the interruptions to our plans. Sometimes God’s glory shows up in our lives as unexpected disruptions that require us to let go of the plans we had made for the day or for the week or for the month or for years. As Joseph Campbell said, “[Sometimes] we must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.” On this Feast of the Epiphany and throughout this season of Epiphanytide, may we continue to make our plans but always hold them lightly and be ready to put them aside in order to welcome God’s plan for us; and, like Artaban, discover in the interruptions, the radiant glory of our King. Amen.
 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.