Getting Off…and Back On…Track

Jan 07, 2024

The Epiphany of Our Lord
Text: Matthew 2:1-12
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
     The Christmas Season ended on Friday and yesterday, January 6, was the actual date of the final festivities – the Epiphany of our Lord, which we are observing today. No doubt most of us have been asked, “How was your Christmas?” or “How did you celebrate the New Year?”, multiple times in the past 12 days.
     How we answer that question depends, in part, on where we place our focus. Did people appreciate the gifts we gave them? Were the topics of politics and the economy successfully avoided at family gatherings? Did travel go smoothly? Did anyone in the family end up with Covid? Did you make it to the gym to assuage some of the holiday eating guilt? Here’s a good one – did you find Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, and worship him, or did you get off track when it came to doing so, or perhaps a bit of both?
     If that’s the case, then you are in good company because the main characters in today’s Gospel – the Magi – did both too. They found Jesus and worshipped him, but they also got off track.
     Most of us are familiar with who the Magi were – scholars and astrologers from Persia, readers of the stars who believed the appearance of a new bright light in the sky signaled the birth of royalty. That, and their knowledge that the people of Israel were expecting a King, a Messiah, moved them to make the long journey to find and honor him. It was a wise political move by their Sovereign to send them, a way to solidify a positive relationship between the two nations that was begun long ago.
     As Pastor Alex Evans noted, “The Magi came with openness and attentiveness in their hearts and gifts in their hands, with worship as their motive; they came asking and seeking to see and greet the Savior of the world.” (1) They came to see how prophecy had been fulfilled.
     The thing is, though, they got off track. They thought they knew where the star was leading them instead of really paying attention to where they were being led. So, they ended up in Jerusalem, at Herod’s palace. To be fair, it’s logical that a new king would be found there, but the fact is that they strayed off course 5 or 6 miles, which is how far it is from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Evidently, they did not keep their eyes on the beacon of light leading them, and that had unfortunate consequences.
     When the Magi wandered into his court, looking for the new born King of the Jews, they ignited Herod’s paranoia. Here’s what we know about Herod – his reign was a terrifying era fueled by chaos and trauma for the Jewish people. While he spearheaded the reconstruction and expansion of the Jerusalem temple, Herod was also a ruthless tyrant who cemented his authority with brutality. As far as he was concerned, there was no greater threat than the one who was prophesied in ancient texts as the Messiah. Now, that one was now being sought by non-Jews who had traveled far to honor him.
     So, Herod is afraid of losing power, and the people of Jerusalem are terrified too, knowing the brutality of which Herod is capable should he be opposed in any way.
     The Magi, having been sent out by King Herod to find the child so that he too might “pay him homage” (code for do him harm), looked up and saw the star. They got back on track and followed it to a house in Bethlehem, where they found Mary and Jesus, and worshipped him. Later, they realized the extent of their mistake when they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod with a report about Jesus, but instead went home by another way.
     We all get off track at times. I like the way Pastor JoAnne Taylor describes the problem: “Have you found yourself headed for the beautiful Jerusalem, when what you really need is in tiny little Bethlehem? Well, here’s the good news. The Magi figured out they needed a course correction, and they took it. When they saw where the star had stopped over the house where Jesus was, they were overwhelmed with joy. Why did joy overwhelm them? Why wasn’t it fear of Herod, or anger because of the detour they took through Jerusalem? Why was it joy that overwhelmed these wise men from the east?” (2)
     To put it simply, I think they were relieved to finish what they started, to see the true king and to know that avoiding Herod was the right thing to do. Fear and doubt could have led them back to Herod, but God’s light brightened that dark path and kept them on track. As is proclaimed in the Gospel of John, “…the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
     Like the Magi, we think we know where we need to go and do not look carefully for the way God is leading us. When we get off track, there can be consequences, sometimes significant ones, as was the case in this account.
     If we had continued reading in Matthew, darkness falls when King Herod realized that he was tricked by the Magi and ordered the murder of the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and younger, according to the time he had heard from the wisemen.
     The only positive in this carnage is that Joseph once again trusted when God communicated with him in a dream, and the holy family fled to Egypt and stayed there until the death of Herod. While this is good news, it does not eliminate the suffering of those whose children died at Herod’s hand. If anything, it reminds us that staying on track when it comes to following God’s leading is no small thing; the choices we make can be a matter of great consequence.
     I wonder if, when the Magi entered King Herod’s palace, it was as if darkness surrounded them, and they wondered if something was not quite right? When that happens to us, it’s time to watch more carefully for God’s light in the darkness and re-orient ourselves toward it.  Even in the midst of darkness caused by human choice, or by the realities of an imperfect world, God strengthens and guides us.
     How many times have I said it during this Christmas season? In Jesus, God became human and is with us … even (especially?) when we are off track. AMEN
  1. “Our Response – Matthew 12:1-12” by Pastor Alex Evans, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA., December 26, 2021
  2. “Seeing Jesus – Sermon for Epiphany Sunday” by JoAnne Tylor, January 4, 2020,