The Wise Men Epiphany and Apollo
Matthew 2:1-12 (NRSV)
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Because this past Christmas Eve, a couple of weeks ago, marked the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 8 mission, back in 1968, there was some news and lots of chatter about this famous picture we’ve been staring at all morning, which was taken on that mission.
This picture has come to be called “Earthrise,” which some of you remember and know more about than I do. It was taken by the Apollo 8 crew – Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders, three wise men, if you will, whose names deserve to be remembered – because they were the first humans ever to leave earth’s orbit and enter the orbit of the moon. And when they did, they captured this picture of the earth; the first from the perspective of the dark side of the moon’s horizon; the way our planet appears from deep space.
And since it happened on Christmas Eve… And since they were told they should come up with something to say that would surely be heard by the largest audience ever to engage a single broadcast of any kind… And since they didn’t want to trouble themselves with preparing just the right words for such a momentous occasion, some of you will remember, this is what they came up with:
Since all of this happened on Christmas Eve 50 years ago, I get the impression something about all of it was the subject of many a Christmas Eve sermon this year. And I was tempted in that direction, too. But, for one thing, it seemed too predictable from a preacher’s perspective. (I try really hard to know that you all won’t come here and get the same sermon you could have gotten down the street.) For another thing, when I saw this picture and watched and read a little about it all, I couldn’t help but think about the other proverbial “three wisemen” as we’ve come to know them; the ones I knew were on the way to Herod for today’s worship – our celebration of what we call the “Epiphany of Our Lord” every January 6th.
See, these wisemen – the ones in Matthew’s Gospel – show up to worship and honor this Jesus the stars seem to have announced to them, which is why we believe them to have been astrologers or astronomers in their own right. Bearing gifts like they do, we can assume they were men of some status and means and maybe even some measure of wealth. And they weren’t dopes, either, these three, knowing a thing or two about how to find a needle in a haystack – or a baby in a manger, as the case may be – by mapping the skies or following a star or whatever it was they were up to.
And Matthew’s gospel tells us they came “from the East” so – again, thanks as much to Christian tradition as to anything we can know for sure from what Scripture tells us – the wisemen, “these three kings of Orient are,” representative for us, of the Gentile world; of the world beyond the Jews; people of the world beyond Herod’s reign, or Rome’s rule, or anywhere Jesus, Mary and Joseph may have hoped to flee, even. These magi have come to symbolize the whole wide world, then, recognizing and showing up to worship the “King of the Jews” as something more than just that – more than just the “King of the Jews,” I mean. They came to worship the king of the nations, really; the king of the universe, even.
So in Jesus, in this human being, in this child of and for all of humanity, these wise men turned their gaze from the skies to the soil beneath their feet. They stopped looking up and they bowed their heads, instead. They stopped staring at the stars and began looking amongst and around themselves. They stopped looking to the heavens and began looking to earth for a change – to this boy who would be king; to this savior of the nations; to this messiah of all creation.
So all of this is to say that something about the experience of the three wise, brave astronauts back in 1968, resonates for me with this story of the three wise, brave magi, back in the days of Jesus. Bill Anders, one of those astronauts once said, “Here we came all this way to the moon and yet the most significant thing we’re seeing is our own home planet.” Their mission was to photograph the lunar surface from the moon’s dark side – something they were the first people in all of history to behold – and all three men found themselves most focused on, fascinated with, and moved by the earth, itself, from whence they had come.
And that’s why all of this inspires me on the Sunday of Christ’s Epiphany – the Sunday where we celebrate God’s being made known to the world, in the flesh and blood of Jesus. We’re meant to recognize and remember, now, that he has come and that things are supposed to be different because of it. We’re meant to see, in the world around us, evidence of Jesus born for the sake of the world.
We’re meant to stop pretending that God is always and only up there and out there in some heaven light years away.
We’re meant to look among us now, in our midst and at ourselves, for the Christ within us and for the Christ within our neighbors, too.
We’re meant to pray that little bit of the Lord’s Prayer with a bit more faith and fervor than maybe we’re inclined, “on earth as it is in heaven.”
And we’re meant to see that God’s light has come, in Jesus, not just for you or for me or us, but that God’s light, in Jesus, has come for “them,” to … for the sake of world.
Bill Anders, one of the three wise men from 1968 – one of those modern-day magi – said, “All of the views of the earth from the moon have let the human race and its political leaders and its environmental leaders and its citizenry realize that we’re all jammed together on this dinky little planet and we better treat it and ourselves better, or we’re not going to be here for long.”
And I would add and ask: “Not only won’t we be here for long, but will whatever time we have left be well-spent, or faithful, or full of the joy with which God means for us to live?”
So let’s get about the business of doing God’s work… of answering Christ’s call… of doing the bidding of this King who has come for the sake of the world. Let’s heal the sick, let’s comfort the lonely, let’s forgive the sinner, let’s hope for and with the despairing.
Let us be wise men and wise women, bearing the light of this epiphany; light that has shined on each of us in so many ways already; and light meant to shine, through us, on all of God’s creation, just the same.
Amen. Merry Christmas.