The Rev. Julie Wakelee-Lynch
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church
Feast of the Epiphany (transferred) January 8, 2017
Overwhelmed with joy
Who were those three people who visited the Holy Family? Jesuit scholar Michael Simone writes
In Matthew’s day, the word magi described many different occupations. The word could be used for learned scholars who studied natural phenomena, like the stars. It could also be used for charlatans in the marketplace who dealt in potions and amulets. English takes the word “magic” from the latter description, but Matthew almost certainly meant the former. The magi in today’s Gospel were scholars who believed, as did many in the ancient world, that great events were foretold in the shifting patterns of stars and planets in the sky.
So, if we take Simone’s word, they are three learned scholars. In any case, three people.
We don’t know how they knew one another, how they got word of this baby. But there they were, the three of them. I can’t help notice that this first visitors from afar echo the number of trinity: the community of the Godhead.
Nothing can be unilateral with three. Consensus is harder. But three people know more together than one person, or even two. They have more courage, more insight… Three is the start of a team—three people together can compare notes, link arms, hear different parts of the story, discern together.
I wonder, when they met with Herod, if they all heard the same thing, had the same dream, or if it was one of them in particular who said, “I had the craziest dream last night!” And they fit the pieces together. And maybe they talked about it. Maybe they weighed the options and the possible cost of going home by another way. Because with three there are enough, together, to say no. To sift out dreams and to discern a broader call.
Three foreigners, foreshadowing the offering of the gospel for all people, making a long journey with uncertain destination. Isn’t it interesting that when they went to the religious leaders, those folks knew where to point them, but they sure didn’t seem to care anything about this baby! Herod, the actual king in power over the Jewish tribe, has no information, but he is very, very concerned.
Michael Simone suggests that two things are happening in this story: there are people who want to find Jesus, but don’t know where to look (the magi), and people who know where to look, but are not interested (the clergy and Jewish leaders).
Now, anyone who hears the story of Jesus probably doesn’t have much trouble concluding that not everything about him fits into a “normal” pattern. If he were a “normal” royal child, Jesus would be in a royal household. Right? His first visitors would not be shepherds and farm animals, they would be high priests, people of society. The gifts his parents would receive would probably not include myrrh, used for embalming. Probably not even frankincense, used in the church for centuries to, well, cover the smell of the great unwashed masses, and for scenting the altar where burnt offerings were laid.
In Luke’s gospel, Mary “ponders” these things in her heart. I think that has to be one of the great understatements in the bible! Her family is visited by shepherds, then by these unusual foreigners, the only people recorded as bringing gifts for the baby. The people of their own tribe don’t seem to pay much attention at all.
Where are you this Epiphany – do you want to find Jesus? Are you eager enough for this to go out of your way? Would you change your life’s direction based on your discovery?
Or have you read about Jesus and just want to stay out of the way? He is, after all, not a normal member of the tribe, and people who meet him always seem to end up in trouble with the powers that be.
I know that I go back and forth: some days I really can say, “yes”! While other days, I want to protect my comfort zone. But there is something in the gospel today I just can’t shake, it is just so deeply true that it explains why these first seeds of Jesus people, wandering in from afar off, were never the same again. It’s this: “they were overwhelmed with joy.”
When I dare to be open to the journey, to focus on God’s call to me to follow deeper into the community of Love, I cannot help but fall into that profound space of joy. And when I allow myself to be on the journey with others, to be in community, where we wrestle together about the call, and the meaning, and the direction God call us, hope becomes much more tangible.
Walter Bruggeman, in his beautiful little book, Prayers for a Privileged People, offers this:
On Epiphany day,
we are still the people walking.
We are still people in the dark,
and the darkness looms large around us,
beset as we are by fear,
a dozen alienations that we cannot manage.
We are — we could be — people of your light.
So we pray for the light of your glorious presence
as we wait for your appearing;
we pray for the light of your wondrous grace
as we exhaust our coping capacity;
we pray for your gift of newness that
will override our weariness;
we pray that we may see and know and hear and trust
in your good rule.
That we may have energy, courage, and freedom to enact
your rule through the demands of this day.
We submit our day to you and to your rule, with deep joy and high hope.
 Walter Bruggeman, “Epiphany” in Prayers for a Privileged People (Nashville: Abingdon, 2008), p. 163.