Sunday, January 8, 2023
Rev. Brent Gundlah

I remember that day like it was yesterday — November 29, 1998 — the day our newborn daughters came home from the hospital.

The previous four days had been a whirlwind filled with doctors and nurses and visitors; forms to fill out; plastic ID bracelets (I had to wear two, of course: one for each kid); a half hour class that taught us how to change a diaper and feed and burp and bathe an infant (to me that seemed like an awful lot to cram into a half hour).

But things were different when we got home. My parents had followed us there from the hospital, driving behind our car as the chase vehicle in our neonatal motorcade; it wasn’t hard for them to keep up since I was only going forty miles an hour on Interstate 95 — new fathers can be kind of cautious, you know.

I was incredibly grateful that my folks were there to help us carry all of that baby gear into our apartment and to provide some much-needed emotional support. They stayed with us for a while to help us get situated before heading home and as they were leaving, all I could think was, “Please, don’t go!”

Don’t get me wrong, I was happy to finally be home with my family (which had just doubled in size), but I was absolutely terrified too.

You see, after months of anticipation, after all of the excitement that came along with welcoming two new people into our family (and into the world), after several days of having all sorts of other people around, we were finally alone. And that was when reality sunk in. Our world had suddenly become a completely different place with the arrival of these children. Standing there with Val, right in front of the crib, watching our newborn twins sleep, all I could manage to say was, “So, what happens now?”

This season of Epiphany (which technically isn’t a season on the church calendar, but probably ought to be) begins on the twelfth day after Christmas and carries us to the beginning of Lent, and it feels a lot like that to me. The holiday decorations have been taken down; the visitors have gone home; Jesus has been born. So, what happens now?

Today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel is the text for Epiphany every single year because it’s the only place in the Bible where the story of the Magi coming to see the newborn Jesus actually appears.

But this story, as we’ve inherited it, tends to be very different from what the Gospel actually says. Look — I like the carol “We Three Kings of Orient Are” as much as anyone, and have always enjoyed Nativity sets as an art form, but nowhere does Matthew say that there were three of these guys and nowhere does he say that they were kings.

I’ll concede the “Orient” part because that word is, more or less, the same as the word “East” that Matthew uses here to describe where these wise men came from. And they did, according to Matthew, present Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh just like the song says they did. We are also told that more than one wise man made the fateful trip to Bethlehem, by way of Jerusalem, but that’s about it. There could have been two of them or three of them or fifty of them for all we know.

Wise men, or “magi,” weren’t kings; they were astrologers or fortune tellers from Persia. And let’s just say that they didn’t have the best reputation in the land of the Israelites. The word “magi” shares its origins with the word “magic,” which tells us a lot about what people thought of them and their work.

At worst, what they did was tantamount to witchcraft; at best, it was showmanship. In either case, it wasn’t seen as serious religious practice by Jewish society — and they were foreigners besides. I mean it was really great that they went all that way to pay homage to the newborn king, but these were hardly guys that anyone in Matthew’s world would have been singing songs about or making figurines of. Ain’t it funny how things change?

And the idea of change is at the heart of Matthew’s Epiphany story — it’s all about seeing things differently in light of Jesus’s birth; about recognizing that things will never — can never — be the same.

As any parent or grandparent or teacher — or anyone else who has ever been around children — can tell you, when a child shows up, everything changes. Whatever plans you’ve made, whatever understanding about the order of things you might have had — goes by the wayside when a child arrives. And while this can be really joyful, it can also be terrifying.

We humans generally have a tough time with change, and this makes a lot of sense, because change is almost always a mixed bag. Sure, we’ll smile and nod as we tell other people about how much we’re looking forward to the prospect of things being different, but there’s typically something else lurking right there beneath the surface —and that something is fear. Because, let’s face it, change can be scary.

We might hope and pray that things will be different, and we might look with excitement and joy at the possibility of things being different. But the status quo, even if it ain’t all that great, has the advantage of being known; in the stability and certainty it provides, we often find comfort — and we humans really like being comfortable. Meaningful change, however, is rarely either stable or certain, and that can be pretty unnerving.

If you look past the static peaceful tranquility of your garden variety Nativity set and read what Matthew actually says, you can sense this tension between the possibility and the fear resulting from Jesus’s birth.

When the Magi show up asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” it is no surprise that Herod, the current king of the Jews and puppet of imperial Rome, feels threatened. Matthew tells us that, “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all of Jerusalem with him…”

And all of Jerusalem with him? I totally understand why Herod would be frightened, but why would everybody else be? Ok, when Herod felt threatened people were probably going to die — that’s how tyrants tend to operate. But living as a Jew under Roman rule was no picnic either — you were taxed like crazy, you were constantly looked down upon as a second-class citizen, your faith in one God was just barely tolerated. You definitely wanted things to be different.

But at least you knew what you were dealing with, you understood all of the rules and structures that defined your everyday life, and now this kid comes along to screw it all up; sure things could be a whole lot better, but what if they’re not? 

Fear. It all comes down to fear.

And if you enjoyed stability and order, then you had good reason to be afraid when the baby Jesus arrived.

This king, this Messiah, isn’t born in a palace in Jerusalem like he should have been; he’s born in a manger way out in Bethlehem. Acknowledgement of his kingship doesn’t come from either the Jewish elite or ambassadors sent from imperial Rome, as it should have, but via a wandering band of fortune tellers coming from a foreign land and practicing a strange faith. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to go.

Oh year, things were definitely different now — everyone sensed it; and this was pretty scary. But along with the fear that necessarily accompanies all of this change, there is a sense of hope that somehow rises above it. And that’s what the gospel is all about, really – a hope that doesn’t necessarily rid us of fear but one that will always win out over fear.

Bringing a child into this troubled world — raising them in this troubled world — has always been a tremendous act of faith. Despite the fact that this place is as messed up as it is, we still keep trying. Despite a whole lot of evidence to the contrary, we believe that future holds real promise, we cling to the hope that the next generation will actually be better off than the last one — because if we didn’t then we wouldn’t even bother.

Clearly, we think that things can be different. And deep down inside we know that we can and should play a part in making that happen.

And so does God. I mean why else would God come into our world to live and to die as one of us in order to show us the way and the truth and the life? What other reason could there possibly be than that God loves us and has faith in us?

The question for us this Epiphany is the same one it’s always been: How will we respond?

The child has arrived, the wise men have gone home, and here we stand, looking at the baby in the crib and trying to figure out what to do next.

So, what happens now?