Matthews succinct account of the Magis visit to the infant Jesus is full and rich. We hear in it the echo of the promises of God made through the prophet Isaiah: hope for a future that disperses the darkness that hovers over the nations, a future filled with life and light, praise and joy that centres on the revealed glory of the LORD. Matthew enriches his Gospel by undergirding the unfolding narrative with frequent references to the Hebrew Scriptures, especially those that illustrate the hope and expectations for the Messiah. The fulfilment of prophecy is a recurring motif in Matthew, but his Gospel is not simply about matching the events of Jesus life with ancient prophecies: it is about the revelation of God in Christ.
Today the church traditionally remembers the Epiphany - the revelation of God to the Magi from the East who visited the infant Jesus. In this event, God is revealed not only to the Magi, but to all the readers of Matthews Gospel.
The last words of our gospel reading " they returned to their country by another route" sum up what Matthew intends his readers to understand from this deeply meaningful passage. Epiphany is about the unexpected: the unexpected revelation of God, and the unexpected paths we find ourselves travelling as a result.
In this most Jewish of Gospels the very presence of the Gentile Magi is an unexpected element. Surprisingly, it seems that God was already present in the lives of these Gentile foreigners, and their response was one of faith, obedience and anticipation.
Things didnt turn out the way they had expected. They had to change their destination, but they remained true to their purpose and faith in the Spirit that had called them out. They delivered the gifts chosen with royalty in mind to the ordinary family they found, and the joy that arose in their hearts confirmed that they had found God. They trusted to the voice that set them on an unexpected pathway, a different route home.
Another unexpected element of the story for Matthews first audience would be the introduction of myrrh into the picture. In Isaiahs prophecy, the nations bring gifts of gold and frankincense to offer in worship to God, but there is no mention of myrrh.
It might be simply that myrrh was unknown in Judea in Isaiahs time, but had become a highly valuable commodity by the time of Matthews writing. Given the precision and density of meaning in the Gospel writing, it is more likely that Matthew includes it for a deeper purpose.
Having already identified Jesus as the messiah, Matthew immediately clarifies the role of this Messiah. Jesus is not going to fulfil the hopes and expectations of those who long for a leader in the mould of King David, someone who will save and restore the nation in the context of a human and mortal kingdom.
The specific mention of myrrh signals even at his birth that death lies ahead for Jesus, as for all of us. But by raising this issue so overtly Matthew also serves notice that Gods purpose and glory can withstand such an event. A mortal king might save Israel, but only for the period of his lifetime: Matthew is signalling that the story of this unlikely king will have an unlikely conclusion, one that has consequences even for us today.
In this Epiphany story, the Magi go home by a different way. When the first disciples meet God in Jesus, they leave their boats and follow him, stepping out on an unexpected path. In Acts 10, we read that Peter is confronted by a vision and a voice declaring that Gentile ways were not unclean or impure, and the Gentile people were also the recipients of Gods grace. In obedience, Peter finds himself unexpectedly championing the inclusion of Gentiles in the church.
In Acts 9 we read of Saul of Tarsus zealously persecuting those who proclaimed the good News of Jesus Christ, and destroying churches. Then he experiences an epiphany, a revelation of God in Christ, and takes a radically different path.
C.S. Lewis found his life turned around towards new focus, purpose and joy as a result of his epiphany. Countless people, some well-known and others quite anonymous, have shared this experience of being diverted by God from their plans, and set on a new path.
Eventually, we all find ourselves travelling by routes that we had not expected or anticipated, and some of these routes are difficult, uncomfortable and to our thinking, untimely. Sometimes our paths are not set by epiphany, but by the ordinary misfortunes of life and mortality. The theological and spiritual challenge for us then is to keep our eyes open for the revelations of God along the way.
Christian wisdom affirms that God is everywhere, but if we are disappointed or discouraged we turn inwards, and stop looking for signs of the presence of God with us and around us, as God surely must be.
Epiphany reminds us that God is a fellow traveller along every road. Therefore every road holds the possibility of holy surprises and revelations.
Psalm 139 reminds us of Gods capacity to grace us with omnipresent holiness:
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right had shall hold me fast.
If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and light around me become night,"
Even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
In the season of Epiphany, God calls us to be open to revelation that stretches, surprises, and transfigures. Revelations can be found everywhere and in every situation, and they always call us to take another road, to become a new creation, and to welcome holy adventure in the midst of challenge.
Let the spirit that leads us into this year that is just beginning be the Spirit of Epiphany. Glory be to God, Amen.