Preached at the Epiphany Service of Trinity Lutheran Church, Raleigh.
How many wise men are there? Three? Who told you there were three? Three gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh, so we think three givers. But we don’t know.
Where did the wise men find Jesus after they left Herod’s palace? Not in a stable behind an overbooked hotel. Actually he was at home in Bethlehem. Not Galilee. Bethlehem.
It’s the Season of Epiphany and, among other things, one of the very important things about Epiphany is — pay attention to the details. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Mary never leaves home; Jesus is born in Bethlehem; ergo Bethlehem is his first hometown. But not for long because in the next part of the story, Joseph learns that the king is trying to kill the baby, so he takes Mary and Jesus and moves to Egypt for a few years. Note the irony of taking the Messiah to Egypt. He is a refugee; yes, he is…
When the family comes back, they decide not to live in Bethlehem, too close to Jerusalem where somebody might still be out to get Jesus and, in fact, will get him about 30 years hence. But for now, they settle in Nazareth, and that’s where Jesus grows up and that’s where he starts his ministry and that’s the story we think we all know.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s look at the details of this story, the story told on the Day of Epiphany. The Day of Epiphany kicks off a season of show and tell. Story after story after story will be told between now and the Season of Lent showing us who this person, Jesus, really is. We think we know who he is because we’ve all been through Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter, a few times before. We’ve all heard the story of his baptism where the heaven’s split open and a voice—probably God’s—says, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” I’ve always imagined God’s voice sounding like a woman in that moment. And I love that South Carolina low country accent, so that’s what I hear when Jesus is baptized.
We’ve all heard the story of the centurion watching over the crucifixion who says when Jesus finally dies, “Truly, this person was God’s Son!” I think of centurions as young men pressed into military service, a little bit nervous, a little bit uncertain, and a little sympathetic to the plight of those around them.
And we’ve all heard all those resurrection tales that are each just a little different and don’t completely make sense, and yet all end up saying the same thing, on the lips of Mary of Magdala, “I have seen the Lord.” Whether it’s the Road to Emmaus, in the garden, in the Upper Room, by the Sea of Galilee, the claim is the same and after awhile the details of those stories are not nearly as important as the truth they announce.
So, that’s why we think we know who Jesus is, but I want to suggest that in this Season of Epiphany, we listen to the stories that give us some details about this one we claim is the Son of God.
- How did he live?
- What did he do?
- Whom did he privilege?
- Where did he go?
- Why did he die?
It starts early, this quest to kill Jesus. Herod is the first and his motives are fairly straightforward.
Some other really important people from a neighboring kingdom show up at his palace asking if they can visit the new king. Where would you go to look for the new king? I would go to the current king’s house. That’s what they did. So Herod knows the gig’s up. They’re looking for somebody who’s not in his house. That means the people in his house, he and his sons, are ruling on borrowed time. But it’s easy enough to solve that problem — just kill the up-start.
I don’t know where he is, but y’all go find him — “search diligently for the child.” And then come tell me, so I can pay my respects as well. That’s the plan. But these fellows aren’t called the “Wise Men” for nothing. They know what Herod’s up to and helped along by a dream, “they left for their own country by another road.”
I think that’s the most important detail in the whole story: They left for their own country by another road. There are a lot of ways to get home as long as you know where home is — what home is. The prophets of old said that home for Jesus would be Nazareth of Galilee. Matthew and Luke have two completely different versions of how Nazareth became the hometown of Jesus, but they both correctly labeled home for him. He got there by another road depending on which story you read. All those resurrection accounts have their own versions of the road less traveled, but each with another road that will get us home to the truth of the resurrection.
If we know where home is, there could be several right ways to get there. There are certainly some wrong ways to get home, but my experience is, the wrong ways seldom lead us home. When we find ourselves on the wrong road it’s usually because we’ve lost sight of what home is.
Home for our purposes is resting in the truth of God’s love. That love does not come without great risks. Just ask all the families in Bethlehem who had children two years and younger in the first part of the first century. There’s risk involved in claiming God’s love as our home. If we watch the details about the life of Jesus over these next five weeks of Epiphany, we learn something about how that love is manifest through his life.
- God’s love calls us to work for peace in a country whose current economy rests on a military-industrial complex.
- God’s love calls us to work for safe housing in a city that has one of the highest per-capita incomes in the state and among the lowest home ownership rates in the country.
- God’s love calls us to feed the hungry in a world where we throw away more food than is needed to feed the world’s hungry.
There’s risk involved in speaking that truth out loud, but it’s the truth that Jesus told over and over again during his lifetime while himself resting in the truth of God’s love.
Turns out Nazareth wasn’t his home after all. His home was always resting in the truth of God’s love in spite of the different roads he travelled along the way. We can travel a lot of different roads and many of them will be good. But when the road becomes rocky that’s when we need to check on our destination. If we’re still living into God’s love for us and for all of creation, then we’re probably on the right road in spite of what the GPS might be saying.
The Season of Epiphany tells the truth about God’s love for us and shows us the way home. The roads we take do matter, but they don’t matter nearly as much as it matters to know where we are going.
Thanks be to God who calls us home.