Sermon, January 9, 2022
Rev. Jessica Palys - KCUCC
The three wise men walk into a barn......and see Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus. Joseph asks why they are disturbing them as his wife had just given birth and needed rest. The first wise man said "I have brought gold for the child." Joseph thanked him but ask that they leave. Then the second wise man said "I have brought frankincense for the child.” Again Joseph thanked him but was getting annoyed as they were interrupting a special moment between him and his wife. He then, forcefully, asked then to leave when the third wise man said "But wait there's myrrh!”
On Monday, when I met with some of our congregation’s kid’s over zoom, we counted out which day of Christmas we were on. Since Christmas begins on Christmas day, of course, we counted the days and figured out that we were on the 10th Day of Christmas while we were on Zoom. That was the perfect time to talk about the Magi who would show up after the 12th day of Christmas - and that is to acknowledge that today is not, since there is no 16th Day of Christmas - but I’m gonna do it anyway.
I love the story of the magi, the supposed ‘wise men’ who arrive from the East to pay homage to the Christ Child. While it may be lost to our culture, hyped up as we are for Christmas long before Thanksgiving according to the desires of our market-driven economy, in many places in the world such as Italy, Ethiopia and Latin America, the day of Epiphany is the gift-giving day, where children leave shoes full of hay outside their doors to feed the animals on the journey, and are left gifts in gratitude.
The story of the three Wise Men, or Three Kings, is a rich addendum to our Christmas traditions – but the original gospel says these men were neither kings, nor ‘wise’. Scholars say the legend of Kings were put together from later, non-biblical texts, perhaps to fulfill Hebrew Bible verses like Psalms 72, in which it is written that kings from other nations will bring gifts to the savior of Israel. But fitting some of this into our Christmas story required some revisions; for instance, when the Magi don’t return to Herod, scripture says he ordered all children two years and under to be sacrificed - suggesting that the journey to the Christ child took months and it’s likely Jesus was no longer an infant. In fact, scripture doesn’t even necessarily specify that there were three magi! Some old sources say there were as many as 12 strangers from the East, but that eventually history settled on three because there were 3 gifts given. The word that is used to describe these exotic visitors is Magi, the root for our word ‘magic’ – but in Greek, the word reads as plural for Magoi, the word for a Zoroastrian priest.
Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest religions in the world, and is also is still active today. Freddie Mercury was Zoroastrian, as is Zubin Mehta, former conductor of the Los Angelos Philharmonic orchestra. But Zoroastrianism stretches wayyyyy back, as the official religion of Persia and Babylon 2000 years ago. The primary prophet is Zoroaster, whom Zoroastrians believe was miraculously conceived in the womb of a 15-year-old Persian virgin. Like Jesus, Zoroaster started his ministry at age of 30 after he defeated all Satan’s temptations. He predicted that “other virgins would conceive additional divinely appointed prophets as history unfolded.” Zoroastrian priests believe that they could foretell these miraculous births by reading the stars. Just like the Jews, Zoroastrian priests were anticipating the birth of the true Savior.
The Magoi, or Zoroastrian Priests, were well known for telling fortunes and preparing daily horoscopes. They were scholars of their day and advised the Persian emperor, so it’s possible they earned the title wise men because of their skills in interpreting dreams and understanding astrology. Zoroastrianism has many concepts in common with Judaism and Christianity, such as a battle between truth, righteousness, justice, evil and deceit. Truth is represented by light, and Zoroastrian followers, known today as Parsis, will always turn to a source of light when they pray, with fire, the sun and the moon all symbolizing this spiritual light – or perhaps a star in a desert.
The arrival of the wise magi bringing gifts from the East to the Christ Child marks the beginning of Epiphany. Epiphany, or epiphaneia in Greek, means ‘appearance’ or ‘manifestation’. The arrival of the Magi mark the first manifestation that reveals the true nature of Jesus. They come to reveal who they Christ Child is, and who he will be to the nations. Therefore the season of Epiphany is a season of revelation, when each Sunday’s scripture reveals a little more about who Jesus is and what Jesus is meant to be for humankind. The day we call Epiphany, marking the arrival of three strangers from the East bringing gifts, is observed every year with the fixed date of January 6th. It’s unfortunate that Epiphany will now always bring memories for me of something decidedly unholy and un-Christian.
January 6th will forevermore hold double meaning; while it kicks off the season of revelation, it is also the day some of the darker elements of our political culture were revealed. On that day thousands, fed on a diet of political lies, years of frustration and a paranoid persecution complex, revealed the capacity for violence, the capability to manipulate the masses, and the culpability of those who refuse to tell the truth in America. And this, we are still learning one year later. The January 6th insurrection revealed how profoundly respect has been degraded in America; how outrage has morphed into rage; and how thin our trust is in democracy and, honestly, in Americans themselves. It was certainly an appearance or manifestation of something momentous in our history and foreboding for our future. Fortunately, this week’s observance of the January 6th manifestation of outrage held the appropriate gravitas to signify the seriousness of this attack on democracy. It was observed on every media outlet. The President gave a speech. And the bipartisan committee to investigate what happened on January 6th is relentlessly pursuing the truth, to see what is revealed.
In his speech on Thursday, President Biden spoke about the importance of revealing the truth of that day; how it was conspired, how it was executed, and how it barely failed. He aimed especially to reveal the big lie that continues to parade through sensationalist news outlets and certain circles, because as we are learning, gossip, conspiracy theories, innuendo and disinformation are deadly weapons in the 21st century. In his speech, Biden quoted holy scripture from the gospel of John: “we shall know the truth, and the truth shall make us free,” and proceeded to forcefully debunk each aspect of what has been nicknamed ‘the big lie.’ In his words, he said “in life there’s truth and tragically there are lies. Lies conceived and spread for profit and power. We must be absolutely certain what is truth and what is lies.” Biden is rightfully pushing back on the gaslighting of those who would like to revise what happened on January 6th. He is participating in the season of Epiphany, embracing what historians have pointed out - that in critical times in history, when democracies have been challenged and threatened by attempts to seize political power, if the truth is not revealed, reiterated, and repeated regularly, it will be rewritten by the perpetrators into an alternate reality.
It’s a story as old as the Gospel. For, too often we cut out the ugly parts of scripture to focus on a sanitized version of the Christian story. Today I included a portion of this reading that some church-going Christians have never heard before tacked onto the Christmas Story. Indeed, it is ugly to consider Herod’s order, known as the Slaughter of Innocents, to kill all the babies in the land because in order to protect his kingship. “Herod calls together the chief priests and scribes and asks them where the Messiah is to be born. Then he calls for the magi and asks them the exact time that the star appeared. When they have found the child,” Herod suggests they return to tell him, so that he may also go to honor him - but we have the advantage of knowing he has a much more sinister intent. It becomes clear that the arrival of the Magi does not only reveal the nature of Christ, but also reveals the dark nature of the world into which Christ is born. In this powerful echo to the story of Moses, the writer of the Gospel of Matthew foreshadows what’s ahead for Jesus, and what spectrum of people he will encounter on his journey. The Magi tell the truth to a King, without regard to the political nuances, and take a long journey at great risk to themselves in order to witness to the divine message they've received. The humble piety of the Magi foreigners searching out the infant king stands in stark contrast to the machinations of King Herod.”
What will be revealed during this season of Epiphany? What revelation will come to light in your life? What witness can you offer to the congregation? What can we do to hasten our epiphanies?
Over the next several weeks of Epiphany, I hope for us to harness this Epiphany spirit of truth telling in a slight departure from our usual Sunday morning agenda. Here at KCUCC I am serving as your designated pastor, which means together, we have some work to do on introspection, communication, and goal setting for our future. Since we will be on Zoom for the next several weeks, this is a great opportunity to use this format for some insightful discussions. Starting next week, on Sunday during worship I will offer a brief reflection on scripture as context for the discussion. Then I will offer a few discussion questions and ask you to participate in break out rooms on Zoom for 5 to 8 minutes where you can share your thoughts related to us here at KCUCC. As your discussion proceeds, I'll ask you to drop significant thoughts, words or phrases into the “chat" function at your leisure, which will allow us to capture a snapshot of your group’s conversation. I hope this will help us thread our narrative together to better reveal how this church has been instrumental in each of our lives, in our community, and what God has in store for us in our future.
This congregation has dealt bravely with challenges upon challenges, hurt, frustration and change. We need to go about the truth telling and healing from more than two years of tumultuous circumstances and trauma. Revealing our experiences and perspectives will go a long way towards smoothing and strengthening the bonds of fellowship between us, and refine our focus for the future. And as we continue to discuss our history, it will continue to build towards telling our congregational story for our 100th anniversary. I pray that you will eagerly join me in this conversation and that it will help enliven our remote worship until this COVID variant surge subsides. And I hope with this exercise, we may emerge from our isolation not feeling distanced, but more connected, more recognized and more known. Let it be so. Amen.