Jesus is in the heritage of Israel. The beginning of Matthew’s Gospel makes it clear: Jesus is the son of David, the son of Abraham. In today’s text, the story takes a different turn. Wise men (Magi) from the east come to Jerusalem; they have seen his star. This means something. These wise men, astrologers, outsiders, most likely from what is now Iraq, come to the Holy City; they ask around . . . “What can all of this mean?”
They have come to the right place, to the place where the Scriptures are read and known and interpreted. This is a good lesson for us: stay close to the Scriptures when you are searching for something in life. Herod the King overhears the news about their presence and their quest, and he calls a meeting of the interpreters of the Bible. “Where is this Messiah going to be born?” he asks. “In Bethlehem,” they tell him, to fulfill the word of the prophet.
The Bible always offers layers of meaning; Jesus is born in Bethlehem to fulfill the Scripture. Bethlehem literally means “house of bread”—the place we are called to, the place where we will be spiritually nourished, the place where our hungers will cease. Even the outsiders are seeking something that only Jesus can provide. Jesus will later profess, “I am the bread of life. . . . The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:35, 33).
They go to Bethlehem; they continue their search. They are wise, they have talents, and they know how to read the signs. God uses their natural gifts to come to just the place where the Messiah is born.
There they are overwhelmed with joy. Can you recall a time when you were overwhelmed with joy? I remember the births of our daughters— now young adults moving out into the world—their births are as vivid to me now as if they occurred yesterday! These were incredible experiences, filled with wonder and a sense that all time was standing still, that this was the only place to be in the universe!
A child is born. The wise men witness the Messiah. They have been led to just this place. They have been called for just this time and they know it. It is an epiphany, a manifestation of God; it is right before their eyes and they are overwhelmed with joy.
One of my favorite hymns, beloved by many Christian people, is “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus.” The words remind me to keep my eyes fixed on the place where Christ is, sometimes right before my own eyes. The words are simple:
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
look full in his wonderful face,
and the things of earth will grow strangely dim
in the light of his glory and grace.
(“Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus,” UMH, 349)
The wise men have turned their eyes upon Jesus. The things of earth, including the Herods of the world, have become strangely dim. In this moment there is glory and grace and they are overwhelmed—overwhelmed with joy.
What do we do when we are overwhelmed with joy? We respond in some way. They offer gifts. Now, anyone who has attended a few Christmas pageants along the way is aware of this part of the story: gold (symbolizing security and wealth), frankincense (symbolizing power), and myrrh (symbolizing death).
The Magi offer these costly, meaningful gifts. They have completed their journey. Now they go back to their lives; they go back home. But again, the Scriptures always have layers of meaning. The Magi go back a different way to avoid Herod. They now know that Jesus is a sign of God’s love for the world. Herod is about hatred; Jesus is about love. So they go back a different way. Once we have met Jesus Christ, we go about our lives in a different way.
We have that opportunity at the beginning of the New Year. I invite you to the Lord’s Table, to receive the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ. As you come to this altar, focus on who Jesus is, for you, for the world. Look full in his wonderful face. You have come to meet him. As you receive the sacrament, reflect on something that is an occasion for joy in your life: an experience, a person, a moment, a memory. Something overwhelming when you think about it, and once you have received the sacrament, once you have made this journey, you will return a different way.
The epiphany of the Lord is finally a tale of transformation, and, at the beginning of a calendar year, it offers to us the possibility, once again, of our own transformation. We turn, we repent, we focus, we reflect, and we seek the face of God. We are changed; we are transformed. This wellknown story about gifts received and later shared reminds us as well that transformation is not our achievement but God’s intervention, God’s gift.
Meeting Jesus can change us. Maybe you were born in Jerusalem, or maybe you have been in this congregation all your life. Maybe you have come from some secular place that seems far away, or maybe God has given you some clues, some signs, and you have found yourself here, now.
So, a path is set before you: focus—turn your eyes upon Jesus. Reflect and receive—you will be overwhelmed with joy. You will return, to your world, and enter this New Year in a different way. Brothers and sisters, let us set out for the journey!