This was my sermon on Epiphany Sunday 2016, a fictional story of the magi.
Centuries ago, many say after the return from exile in Babylon, Jewish teachers and rabbis developed a method of teaching and preaching Scripture called midrash. Midrash attempts to find the holes in the text, the little parts that don’t get as much attention, and see what we can learn from them. Midrash aggadah focused on the stories of the Scriptures and tried to see what we can glean from everything from a throw-away detail to an unnamed or underappreciated character.
Christians, too, centuries later developed traditions around the Bible to fill the gaps in the stories. These traditions gave us the names of the Gospels and their authors, they helped flesh out the fate of the apostles, and even name and number the magi we honor today. These stories don’t fall so neatly into the categories of fact and fiction – or fact and falsehood – that we typically rely on today. Instead, the stories of midrash aggadah and Christian tradition seek to find a truth in the story and then run with it. The stories, then, are not necessarily factual but they communicate core truths of the Scripture – they tell us what the Bible wants to tell us but in a new way. Plus, they make wonderful stories like many of the traditions we associate with Christmas and Easter.
So, instead of a traditional sermon, I thought we could just settle in together tonight and listen to a story – if only we had some hot chocolate and a warm fire. This is a story, a midrash, of the magi. We’ll call them Mel, Casper, and Bell. This is a story of how they met Jesus. It’s a tale of suspense and mystery, of struggle and temptation, and hopefully of a little bit of truth.
A long time ago, in a land far, far away, there was a small group of star-gazers who looked up at the night sky with all the wonder, fear, and curiosity that it deserves. Mel, Casper, and Bell were university students in Babylon who had all been drawn there by the stars.
Mel was from Babylon, a Persian, and he had never dreamed of traveling very far. He was too interested in the unreachable and unattainable heights of the stars to be bothered with earthly travel. Mel was enamored with the movements of the stars, how they seemed to predict changes in season or come before important events. Unsurprisingly, Mel dedicated his studies to the stars in astronomy.
Casper had come to study from much further away. He hailed from Pushkar, in distant India. Fascinated by all that he had seen under the stars, Casper had decided to study history. He hoped that by studying history, he would be able to help break the continual cycles of violence he had seen all over the world. Peace under the stars, he thought, was only possible if we learned our history.
Bell came from a closer, but still fairly distant, place called Sana’a (suh-nawh) in Arabia. Bell had lost her family and sought a new one in Babylon. She had known many people in her time and she had noticed that all seemed isolated from one another, a truth that bothered her deeply. She also longed for a family, a name, to call her own. When Bell looked at the stars, she noticed that everyone lived under the same points of light, so there must be something that connected them all. With such mystical questions, Bell chose to study the worlds’ religions.
Despite their different interests, Mel, Casper, and Bell became fast friends when they arrived at the university in Babylon. They ate their meals together, they went on weekend trips, and they studied together almost every night. They poured over the seemingly endless supply of books on the top floor of the university’s library, quite literally burning the midnight oil. Each night, they finished their day with the same ritual. As the oil for the lamps began to run out, they frantically shelved all their books and put away their work so that they didn’t leave behind a mess. Then, they shut the doors behind them and went out on the balcony of the top floor of the library. They had set out pillows and chairs, and every night they would sit together and look up at the stars.
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