The following sermon was preached at saint benedict’s table on January 3, 2021.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church’s FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Merry Christmas everyone!  We are still in the 12 days of Christmas for a little bit longer.

The Feast of the Epiphany actually falls on Wednesday and marks the end of the Christmas season, but tonight we are following a common church practice and moving the feast to this evening so we can celebrate together.

So if you were planning to wait to take your decorations down until after Epiphany you still have a few more days to enjoy them. Personally, mine are staying up for another month until Candlemas. I’m hanging on to that extra light for as long as I can.

Tonight we are celebrating the feast of the Epiphany, a feast which features the story of magi who travelled from the east in search of Jesus.

Maybe the magi literally came from east of Jerusalem but the word used in the original  (plural anatolai, singular antole) also has another meaning.  The word we have translated as “east” means “the rising” as in the rising of the sun.[1]

Matthew’s original audience would have heard multiple meanings in this description:  east as a geographical location and also the image of the sun rising in the morning which they would have connected to the idea of salvation.  Jesus Christ, the light of the world, has come.

Our reading from Isaiah also picks up this theme beginning “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” (1)

Isaiah then goes on to describe a time when nations and kings, sons and daughters will come together and gather around, all drawn by this light. (3-4) And Isaiah tells us that when the people come, they will not come emptyhanded but rather will bring  “the wealth of the nations” which will include gold, frankincense, and also, rather fancifully, a promise that the subject of this passage will be covered with a “multitude of camels.” (5-6)  Apparently that’s a good thing.

Why will all these people gather and bring these gifts?  To “proclaim the praise of the Lord.” (6)

OK it’s time for a pop quiz:  How many kings are in today’s gospel reading?


Jesus and Herod.

The magi, sometimes referred to as kings, aren’t kings at all.

The word used to describe them in the original Greek (plural of the Greek magoi) does not mean “king.”  This word could be used to describe magicians or diviners or could refer directly to Zoroastrian priests from Persia. These priests were known to pay particular attention to the movements of the stars and planets.

They are not kings, they are astrologers who can “interpret the movement of the stars.”  The Collegeville Commentary explains that, “Magi were often associated with sorcery and magic, and were not always held in high regard (e.g. the magicians of Pharaoh, Exodus 7-8). Matthew, however, portrays them very favorably.” (11)

Whoever the magi were, they were not kings, not locals, and they were not Jewish.  Matthew is pointing us to the fact that Jesus’ birth has universal impact and significance.

We also have no idea how many of them there were. We do know that they brought three gifts, but that doesn’t mean there were only three of them. These could just as easily have been group gifts not individual ones.

Our group of  pilgrims are not necessarily even all men. New Testament scholar Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder argues that it’s “doubtful” that there were only men in this group because it was common for caravans travelling from Persia to include women practitioners as well. “Yet, Matthew clues the reader into the patriarchal context that often privileges male voice, male characters, and male presence.”[2] Just because women aren’t explicitly mentioned doesn’t mean they weren’t there.

In our gospel reading the magi are not kings, the number of people in their group isn’t mentioned, and there are also no camels.  Kings and camels are, however, mentioned in the passage from Isaiah we read tonight and it’s possible that some of these details are an extrapolation from that passage.

The magi are outsiders from another place who practice another religion and yet they seek to find Jesus so they can worship him or “pay him homage.”  Their motives are sincere and when they find Jesus they follow through. Matthew tells us that “On 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. (10-11) Gold and frankincense were also mentioned in the Isaiah passage.

Matthew’s gospel has a lovely circularity to it. It begins with magi who represent nations other than Israel coming to worship Jesus, and it ends with a call for Jesus’ disciples to go out to all the nations (Matthew 28:19).  At no point in this story is Jesus depicted as the leader of an exclusive club.

Although not explicitly described in the actual gospel text, it’s interesting how throughout history our art and  traditions have tried to reflect this idea. Not only have we historically turned this band of travelers into three kings, we often depict them as kings from different parts of the world as if one travelled from what is now Africa, one Asia, and one Europe. It’s not factual, it’s sometimes done in cringeworthy and racist ways, but this practice is seeking to capture the same truth that Matthew is trying to get at. Jesus is for everyone.

While we certainly don’t have time for this this evening, it is interesting to compare Jesus’ origin story in each of the four gospels – examining what each writer viewed as important.

For example, tonight’s reading is from Matthew and Matthew doesn’t include any details about Jesus’ birth. That’s not what interests him. What interests Matthew is the way various people react to Jesus’ birth.

The magi are sincere in their desire to worship this new king and they are willing to make sacrifices in order to do so – traveling a great distance, enduring hardships along the way, endangering their own lives.

Herod, on the other hand, responds in fear and self-interest. Matthew tells us that when Herod learns that the magi believe the Messiah has been born he was “frightened.” He views a new king – even one that is still a small child – as a direct threat to his authority and that’s not a threat he takes lightly.

First he calls his own team of experts who confirm the magi’s story and state that the child will be in Bethlehem. Then Herod arranges to meet the magi in secret, informs them of this location, encourages them to search “diligently” for the child and to report back to Herod with the child’s exact location.

Herod claims he also wants to worship this new king but what he really wants to do is find and eliminate this new threat to his authority.  Three times in this story, (2:3, 2:8, 2:11)  Matthew uses a term we translate as “pay homage.” (proskeneo). The wise men pay homage to Jesus, Herod claims he wants to. To pay homage is to fall on your knees or prostrate on the ground before someone with more power than you have. It also carries the implication of submitting to political authority.[3] Herod is claiming he is willing to submit to Jesus’ authority, but it’s a lie.

We don’t get this part of the story in tonight’s reading, but when Herod realizes that he will not get the child’s location from the magi he orders that all of the children “in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under” are to be killed.  (16). We refer to this part of the story as the “slaughter of the innocents.”  That story deserves to be given more attention at another time, but for tonight, I’ll just highlight a few key details.

First, although we often think of the events of these Christmas stories as happening in short succession from the arrival of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem to the appearance of the magi, they likely took place in a span of about two years, as indicated by the age range of the children Herod arranged to murder.

Second, when an unhealthy and fearful person in a place of power and authority believes they will have to give up that authority, there is no end to the amount of damage they are willing to inflict on others to try and maintain that power. This is as true now as it was then.

You also need to choose your king, and choose wisely.  The magi travelled in order to worship a king. Herod was a king, and as an adult with an established kingdom he appears to be infinitely more powerful than a child from a poor family in Bethlehem. It would have made sense for the magi to either return home and continue to serve their own rulers, or to serve Herod.

But they don’t.  They disobey Herod’s direct orders and pay homage to Jesus. We all have to choose who we are going to serve, whose authority we are going to submit to.

Choose wisely.

After the magi have found and worshipped Jesus, Matthew tells us that “warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” (12)

This is actually one of my favourite lines in all of scripture. The specific details aren’t important, but about 15 years ago I was struggling with a challenging situation where I had thought things would go a certain way, and they didn’t. My goals had not changed, but it was clear that my plans to achieve those goals were never going to work.

When I was telling all of this to my spiritual director, she suggested that I spend some time meditating on this story, and specifically on this line, “they left for their own country by another road.”

What I learned from that process was that there is often more than one path to our destination and sometimes it’s OK, or even necessary to take another road.

If 2020 taught me anything it’s that it’s not possible to predict the future. I have no idea what 2021 will hold but I am hopeful that things will change for the better.  Someone said that the changes that are possible in 2021 will not be like turning on a light switch but will be more like slowing turning up a dimmer switch. If we all make good choices, the change will be real, but gradual.

I suspect when the magi returned home they discovered that life had not simply stood still while they were away, their home was still their home, but it had also changed. The people had changed. Things at home were simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar.

I think this will be true for us as well in 2021. We are traveling towards a time when things we miss deeply will be both restored to us and changed forever.  The ways we are used to doing things, the roads we are used to traveling to get where we want to go may no longer serve us.

We can get where we want to go by a different road. An unfamiliar road. But maybe also, a better road.  A lot of our old familiar roads were built on self-interest, economic injustice, racism and misogyny.  We can all choose to travel a better road going forward.

May we all learn to travel it together.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.