Preacher: Rev. Dr. Kristin Stoneking
Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12
Epiphany, the day on which we celebrate the arrival of the magi, at the manger was Wednesday of this last week, January 6. Sometimes we call the magi “wise men” though there must have been wise women, too, somewhere in the mix. Our scriptures tell us that the magi followed the bright star in the sky that illuminated their path and led them to Jesus. On Epiphany, we celebrate light, life, joy, and the birth of Jesus. It’s a day of peace and hope. And this year’s Epiphany, in one way, began that way, with the celebration of Raphael Warnock’s senate win, the pastor who holds Martin Luther King, Jr.’s pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Ebenezer Baptist, which has also been a hub of civil rights organizing, many times at great risk. Wherever you come down on partisan politics, if you are an anti-racist, to hear someone say as Warnock did that his mother used to pick someone else’s cotton but on election day she got to pick her youngest son for US Senate—this is a good day.
But the day quickly devolved as insurrectionists, many of them armed, seeking to overturn the lawful election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, stormed and desecrated our nation’s Capitol building. My guess is that like my family and me, you were glued to the news and other media, shocked that such events could be taking place here. In the United States. The country that has long been seen as a pinnacle of democracy marked by centuries of the peaceful transfer of power.
Now please don’t get me wrong. This country isn’t perfect. I don’t put allegiance to country higher than allegiance to God, and I hope you won’t either. I do not advocate that US flags have a place in sanctuaries. But I do use the word, “desecration” intentionally, with its connotations of the destruction of something sacred. This is not a Christian country. But it is a country where we hold in common trust the values of respect for human life, democratic governance, fairness, the rule of just law and the hope that we would live up to the “self-evident” truths of the inherent equality of all people imbued at creation. The upholding of these common values is the glue that keeps us as close as we can come to being a community in all of our diversity, and communities based on the hope of goodness are sacred things. And so, yes, I use the word “desecration” intentionally when describing the violence in the capitol on Wednesday because our sacred community was deeply harmed.
The individuals who stormed the capitol were obviously not a sacred community. In that mob was nothing but white faces and supremacist actions.
But the sacred community that gathered at the manger was a diverse one. It was a multi-religious and multi-racial one, as the magi who travelled from the east to pay homage to “the one who has been born king of the Jews” have been thought to originate from the regions of India, Persia and Arabia. Some sources say they were Zoroastrian, a religion that incorporated astrology. In any case, they were not Jewish. But they came together with the shepherds, with Mary and Joseph, with the baby Jesus in the hope of goodness and as such, they were a sacred community.
The story goes that these three wise ones travelled to Jerusalem and visited the despot ruler Herod. They asked him, “Where is the one to be born King of the Jews?” Herod, unaware of this event, paranoid and disturbed he would be dethroned, gathered his chief priests in collusion. Then he said to the magi to search for the child and return to him with the location of this “King of the Jews.” So he could kill him. Though he lied and said he wanted to worship the new baby. The parallels in this story and of a deranged and paranoid ruler sending others out to dethrone and disrupt are too obvious. I don’t need to spend time there, you can see this for yourselves. But I do want to focus on what the righteous magi did in response, what Epiphany really means, and what it means for us today. How did these magi know what was right and what was wrong and what to do?
The scripture tells us that the magi left Herod and continued to follow the star, finally finding the stable or humble house where Jesus was. They entered reverently, bearing their gifts before them, bowing and worshipping. And some time with this sacred community, the scripture tells us that being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own homes by another route.
The first thing we can learn from the magi is that they refused to have any other authority but a spiritual authority. In spite of the intimidation and role of Herod, they were not cowed or convinced. They followed the authority confirmed in their hearts, the authority that demonstrates its realness by the response we feel when we follow it. If we feel more hopeful, open, courageous, loving, reverent, humble, then we know authority is real. But if something or someone proposes to be an authority but leaves us feeling angry, fearful, closed, vengeful, grandiose, then we are dealing with a false authority.
How many times do we let false authorities guide our steps, our decisions, or even our thoughts? A false authority can certainly be external, and we’ve had evidence of that, but a false authority can be internal, too. It can be the nagging voice that says we aren’t good enough, or strong enough, that we don’t belong. Or it can be an external voice saying take what you can for yourself, don’t consider others. But see what those voices do? They close us off, make us feel smaller. When we notice this happening we must name it as a false authority, and turn back to our true gifts like the magi did.
These gifts are the second lesson of the magi. The wise ones came bearing their best treasures. These gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh represented their origins, but more importantly they are symbols of the way the light of Jesus exposes what we are bringing. The light of the star shone on these best gifts of the wise ones, showing that they were offering the best of what they had, but the light can also show ugliness, and where persons are mired in the worst of what they have to bring. The message of Advent, of Christmas, or Epiphany is that the light will shine in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it. But we do have to see what the light exposes. The gift of the light itself is that we can now see reality for what it is.
Which leads us to the third lesson of the magi. When the light exposes reality for what it is, we must allow ourselves to be challenged by this new information. To be challenged, to look at hate and delusion, is frightening and uncomfortable, but remember this, that which does not challenge us, does not change us. I’m reminded of the line from T.S. Eliot’s famous poem “The Journey of the Magi,” where the wise one says, “Did we come all this 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 light of what they experienced at the manger and how it exposed the evil of Herod, the magi did not return to him and instead headed back to their countries by different routes. They had become part of a new sacred community that took risks to protect what they glimpsed at the manger: divine power expressed not in violence or might but in hope, in love, in generosity, in courage.
How will we be challenged and changed by what we witnessed on Wednesday and what we have experienced at the manger? To many of us, the violence, disrespect, supremacy, not to mention the lack of protection from police, though horrifying was not surprising. I urge you to find what part of this scene and the scene at the manger actually challenges you, identify it, bring it into the light, and let it change you. Let that change lead you to action. And know that as you are challenged, changed and respond, you do so standing in sacred community. You live in the light of this community and of God’s incarnation. Be empowered by it, claim it, and ever widen the circle of true sacred community. Amen.
Order of Service (Bulletin) - January 10, 2021
Prelude - Rev. Jerry Asheim
Welcome & Announcements - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Opening Hymn: "We Three Kings" UM Hymnal #254 - Aeri Lee, piano; Caroline Lee, Viola; Alina McVey, clarinet
Invocation - Ethan Toven-Lindsey
Scripture Reading: Matthew 2:1-12 - Carole Klokkevold
Children's Message - Susan Jardin
Anthem: “Little Drummer Boy” - Rev. Jerry Asheim, Margot Hanson & Soren
Message - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Hymn of Response: “Rise Up Shepherd and Follow” The Faith We Sing #2096 - Judy Kriege
Call for Prayer - Orion Lacey
Special Music: "Sister Mary had-a but One Child" - Charles Lynch
The Prayer Jesus Taught (Lord's Prayer) - Ethan Toven-Lindsey
Call for Offering - Orion Lacey
Offertory Music: “I'll Never Turn Back No More” - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Albert Sammons, Jr.
WE GO FORTH
Prayer of Dedication - Paloma Campi
Closing Hymn: “There's a Song in the Air” UM Hymnal #249 - Rev. Jerry Asheim
Benediction - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Postlude: “Fanfare for the Magi" - Rev. Jerry Asheim
Special thanks to:
Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Contributors: Rev. Jerry Asheim, Paloma Campi, Margot Hanson, Susan Jardin, Carole Klokkevold, Judy Kriege, Orion Lacey, Caroline Lee, Aeri Lee, Charles Lynch, Alina McVey, Albert Sammons, Jr., Ethan Toven-Lindsey
Extra special thanks to Anjuli Arreola-Burl for video editing assistance.
Video producer: Tai Jokela
Podcast producer: Ethan Lindsey
Livestream producer: Merrie Bunt