January 3, 2021 – “Epiphany” by Rev. Cody Sandahl

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First Reading = Matthew 2:13-23

13Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20“Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

Introduction

This week we are focusing on the arrival of the wise men from the East. And for annual pastoral service announcement, the wise men shouldn’t be in your nativity set because they didn’t arrive for about two years. If you want to put them off to the side so they’re “on the way” to meet Jesus, I won’t quibble. But if I’m in your house in December and the wise men are standing next to Mary and Joseph? I might just palm them on my way out to increase your nativity accuracy!

Next week we are going to start a series looking at the book of James in the New Testament. I’m calling this preaching series, “Serious Faith,” because James is encouraging his readers to take their faith seriously every day.

But today we’ll give the wise men their due. If I’m going to harp on their absence at the birth of Jesus, I should give them their proper time to shine.

Matthew 2:1-12

2In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

The Big Picture

Well, my younger son likes Legos. Hold on a sec, he really likes Legos. Actually, he loves Legos. Who am I kidding? He is passionate about Legos! Perhaps he is even addicted to Legos! Do they have a group for that? It probably meets at Legoland.

Now, I can’t cast any stones on this one lest my glass house be exposed. When I was a kid, we had a table that lowered from the ceiling that was filled with Lego. And when my parents wanted the mess gone? Up went the table to the ceiling! I still don’t know how my dad convinced my mom that was a good idea. I think he just thought it would be cool and figured out how to justify it. Regardless, I loved Legos when I was growing up. I even taught Lego robotics in an elementary school in Austin when I was a young computer programmer.

Given his love for Legos, I made him a deal. If he could learn how to follow the instructions and build sets on his own without help, I promised to build him a Lego table. Challenge accepted, and miraculously the very next day he discovered he didn’t need my help to build small and medium-sized Lego sets.

But I made a costly mistake on this deal. You see, I was picturing a flat table covered in those Lego base plates. That would have been pretty straightforward to build. But here was my costly mistake: he saw me looking at Lego table designs on the Internet. And his eyes were drawn to the one with a moat around the edges and a raised building platform in the middle. I had to admit that it looked cool in the picture on the Internet. I mean…not as cool as a table that raises and lowers from the ceiling…but still cool. So the project…expanded a bit.

But it started with just a big picture idea – build a Lego table! But that led to some question about the implementation. Where will the table live? What dimensions make sense? How can I make it at the right height for today but not be too small in a year? What lumber do I need? Oh, wait, you want that design? Back to the drawing board!

I started with the big picture idea, the destination, the goal – build a Lego table! But then I had to back up and figure out the steps.

The wise men from the East experienced a bit of a Lego table moment in our text today. As I’ve shared before, it was not common for ancient astrologers to make long journeys to celebrate the birth of a foreign king. They were careful observers of the stars, and they had intricate rules for interpreting things like the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that we got to see right before Christmas this year.

So it wasn’t strange for the astrologers to notice something in the sky and try to interpret the sign. It wasn’t strange for them to associate an occurrence in a particular patch of sky with a particular group of people. But it was very strange for them to journey for two years across the desert bringing gifts to celebrate the birth of a foreign king.

So here’s how I picture it. I picture the three of them comparing notes about the movement of the stars. And one of them says to the group, “Hey, did you see that new star? Jimmy – you’ve got the notes on interpreting that section of the heavens. What does it mean?”

Jimmy is a very common name for Persian astrologers, as we all know. And Jimmy says, “Here on scroll 42, it says a new and special king must be born in…the land of the Hebrews.”

So the third one, Carlos, another common Persian astrologer name, says, “I had a dream last night where we crossed the desert together. Perhaps this means we should go see him!”

And so all three of them decided that was their goal for the next few years. Together, they would go celebrate the birth of this new, special king of the Jews!

Now, I’m using my sanctified imagination here, so I could have some details wrong, here. But that’s where I imagine that they all went home. And they excitedly told their wives about this special mission from the gods. And that’s when the questions started popping up.

Oh, really? You’re going to leave us here for how long? What are you going to wear? Who is going to cook for you? Because I’m not crossing that desert for some king I’ve never heard of! And are you going to bring a housewarming gift? Or do you just plan to show up in your dusty robes and expect to be welcomed with open arms? Do you even know which way to go?”

They knew their divinely-inspired goal – go see this new, special king of the Jews! But then they needed to back up and fill in the details.

Sometimes, God gives us a big picture idea or a destination or a goal. And that eureka moment is great! But then we have to back up and figure out the details. What kind of Lego table? What gifts should we bring across the desert?

Is there anything – big picture – a destination – a goal – that God is leading you toward?

Maybe God is leading you toward a relationship to restore. If so, how can you start? Why would they want to hear from you or care what you have to say? What do you need to own personally in that relationship? Those are some details you might need to fill in.

Maybe God is leading you toward a cause or a group to support. What skills or experiences do you bring to the table? How can you make a difference? Who should you contact? Those are some details you might need to fill in.

Maybe God is leading you toward something internal – an attitude to change or some investment in your soul or character. How can you cultivate what is God-honoring? How will you change your time to invest in that internal change? How will you know if you’re making progress? Those are some details you might need to fill in.

Sometimes, God gives a big picture idea or a destination or a goal, and then God expects us to fill in the details. Like figuring out how to cross the desert and honor a foreign king. Like going from Lego table to actual plans and materials. Is God leading you toward something big? If so, how can you fill in the details in a God-honoring way?

The Next Step

Now, I generally do not watch much television, and I especially do not watch reality TV. But there is one show I watched a handful of times and enjoyed: The Amazing Race. The basic concept is that several teams try to follow the clues to reach the next pit stop on their journey. The first team to arrive at the pit stop gets a bonus. The last team to arrive gets eliminated or gets a big disadvantage.

But they don’t get an address for their destination. That wouldn’t be dramatic enough for a show that has racked up 32 seasons! No, they get a clue like “the westernmost point in mainland Europe” or just a picture of a flag. They also may be required to get there a specific way – walking, or biking, or flying, or renting a Jeep. And then there are detours and roadblocks and challenges, too. One team had to attempt to eat four pounds of barbecue to overcome their roadblock!

The show doesn’t dole out the final destination. They give a steady drip of clues and pit stops, and the teams are expected to figure out the destination along the way.

The Amazing Race is the opposite of what we just talked about. Instead of getting the destination ahead of time, they just get the next step, and the next clue, and the next challenge. They know there is a destination, but it’s hidden at the start of the episode.

So sometimes God gives us the destination and wants us to fill in the details. But other times God gives us just the next step, or the next clue, or the next challenge along the way. We have to trust that God has a destination in mind, but we don’t know it yet. I believe this happened a few times in our two texts today.

For example, the gifts brought by the wise men. Frankincense was a high quality incense or perfume. Gold, I’m guessing you’re aware of. Myrrh was another perfume that also had some medicinal uses. Perfume, medicine, and gold. These are still some of the most expensive things by weight. If you doubt me, may I interest you in some of Jean Patou’s Joy Baccarat Limited Edition perfume? To quote the marketing materials, this perfume is created with, “an astonishing 10,600 jasmine flowers and 28 dozens or roses per bottle. This limited-edition marvel ups the ante even more with a keepsake Baccarat bottle—an expression of Joy that isn’t fleeting.” All of this is available to you for the cool price of $1,800 per bottle. And the bottle isn’t exactly Costco-sized, even at that exorbitant price.

So the three wise men chose gifts they thought would be worthy of a king – extravagant, expensive items that would be valuable in any country at the time. They also had to schlep these gifts across a desert, so they chose kingly gifts that were lightweight and portable. These kingly and highly portable gifts were about to play a much bigger role than the wise men ever imagined. But they didn’t need to know about that destination. They just needed to do their part, their one step in the ultimate plan. They just needed to bring those gifts to the parents of Jesus.

Stay with me, because that gold and frankincense and myrrh are about to become really useful to Mary and Joseph. We heard in our other text today what happened right after the wise men left. “An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’”

What if an angel told you to leave for another country…tomorrow? And your accounts will be frozen, your house will be seized, if you have a stock portfolio it will be seized as well. So all you can bring with you is what you can carry. You have 24 hours to prepare. Would that be scary? What would you bring?

And then…what if you were as poor as Mary and Joseph? And it’s not like Joseph can load up his woodworking shop and cart it off on the back of a donkey. They had so little, and Joseph probably couldn’t even bring many of his tools of the trade. They just had to leave…tomorrow…for another country…and “remain there until I tell you.” Can you imagine?!?

First off, let’s stop and notice that Joseph’s vision is another example of receiving the next step in the plan instead of the ultimate goal. Just go to Egypt until I bring you back! Trust me!

But second, do you know what would be really, really useful in this situation? Some highly valuable, highly portable, universally valued wealth to finance this little refugee operation. Maybe something like…gold…or frankincense…or myrrh? How about all three!

I’ve known refugees who were respected doctors back home, and they became janitors at first in their new land. If you’re a refugee, you don’t need knowledge or skills or a trade at first. You need cold, hard, cash. Joseph and Mary had none of that. Until the wise men brought them gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

These wise men never knew that their gifts financed Jesus’ family fleeing execution by Herod. They just did their one part, their next step. God took care of the destination. And when they went home? God told them to go back without going through Jerusalem again. That actually wasn’t super easy, by the way. They had to go a considerable distance out of their way to travel safely, or risk some very sketchy roads. They didn’t know why. They just followed that next step. God took care of the goal.

So maybe instead of God leading you toward a big picture idea or a destination, maybe God is instead just giving you the next step. It may not even make sense. It might send you off across the desert, packing a bottle of perfume for a baby king in a foreign land. When God gives you one step at a time, he wants you to trust him with the big picture.

So has something been poking around in your mind lately? Has someone been on your heart lately? Has an idea been noodling around? Take one step and trust God with the next one.

Summary

Sisters and brothers, sometimes God gives us a big picture idea or a long-term goal, and he expects us to fill in the details. To summarize what the wise men heard: “You! Wise men! Cross the desert! And bring something nice for the baby king!” They had to fill in the gaps.

Other times God gives us just one step at a time. “Joseph, leave for Egypt tomorrow!” Or “Wise men! Take the long way home!” In that case, he expects us to trust that God can see a much bigger picture than we can.

What has God been whispering – or shouting – to you? Even if you don’t understand where he’s going yet, will you follow him? Amen.