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Bible readings:

Feast of the Epiphany (January 4, 2015)                                                     St James', Peace River

The addition of wise men to the scene of Jesus' being born feels like the completion of the Christmas story. In our tradition we celebrate it on January 6, right after the 12 days of Christmas – though our current calendar allows for and even encourages us to do what we're doing today, which is to move the observance to the Sunday just before. People speculate that the wise men themselves may not have arrived on the scene for a year or two – and in that sense they don't actually belong in the stable where the rest of the nativity story is set. That was emergency accommodation for the night of Jesus' birth, and I suppose Joseph and Mary found somewhere else to stay eventually, waiting in Bethlehem until mother and baby were ready to travel back to Nazareth again. Only it didn't work out that way.

Back to those wise men, though. Hallowed by millennia of tradition, our reaction to them is something along the lines of “Of course!” They belong – when they turn up we know the Christmas story is finished once again, and the season is over. But in the biblical story they are nothing like that. There was no “of course” about it. Their arrival is about as natural as a UFO hovering next to the statue of 12-Foot Davis across the road from us, and a troupe of aliens spilling out to come and visit.

Among other things, that means that we have little or no context in which to understand who they were, why they were there, and what they thought they were doing. All the other people who show up in the biblical story have connections to the past, present and future which help us to place them and identify with them. Not the wise men. They appear, do their stuff, and disappear again. That doesn't encourage us to put ourselves in their place, because we know so little about what their place actually was. Modern writers argue themselves into knots about whether there were three, whether they were kings or astronomers, where they came from, and so on. And so many of those arguments are rooted in older legends which tried to fill in some of the details, precisely so that we could imagine who they really were and what it might have been like to be them.

From those legends, we have names: Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. And we have many suggestions as to where they came from. I was surprised to learn that most legends don't suggest they all came from one place. Instead they converge from different countries, all following the same star and seeking the same king: Caspar from India or Turkey, Melchior from Persia or Arabia, Balthasar from Yemen or Ethiopia. And the legends follow them home, crediting their experience in Bethlehem with changing their lives so much that they embraced a new faith, or else were ready to do so when Jesus' apostles spread out across the known world some thirty years later.

Perhaps that helps us to see the most striking thing about the magi within the narrow confines of the biblical story. They really are us. They represent the nations, the peoples, the gentiles – all of those people who had virtually no place in the story of the Bible up until the birth of Jesus. The Old Testament mentioned those people hardly at all, and mostly in the most negative of terms; but gradually with a rising hope that what God was doing with his people Israel would eventually have a worldwide significance that all peoples would come to recognize. And here they are, kings bringing tribute to the Lord's anointed. And here we are, thousands of years later, not kings perhaps but people of many nations ourselves, bringing what we can in recognition of Jesus' significance in our diverse lives. Like the magi, we don't belong in the story – it's not our story – until, suddenly, it is. Because this is what Jesus was born for, to knit all our stories together into one story that comes together around his being here, in our world, demonstrating his love to anyone and everyone no matter where they come from.

So this isn't just the tail end of the Christmas story, but the seal on it – the assurance that the story we've heard and retold and celebrated really is for everyone. And it can also make us think on a couple of things we see in the very brief biblical story of the magi, which are also part of our story.

First is the way they, and we, are stirred to come and look for the answer to a mystery. The encounter with God doesn't happen until we are ready to accept that there is more to the world than we can master or comprehend. The wise ones from the east knew a lot about the world, but they were wise because they saw beyond what they knew, to a star that violated the rules of what was possible, and simply was. What did it mean? They staked everything on following that question to a conclusion.

We follow their example in our own way, each of us both hoping and fearing that there is something that goes beyond the meagre control and mastery we can exercise over our own lives. Some of us get there by a kind of natural humility, a curiosity that is willing to accept that I don't know everything and never will, and chooses to keep looking. But more, perhaps most of us, only discover that God is underneath it all when our chosen frames of reference get broken; when we are forced to confront some strangeness or oddity or even wrongness in life that simply makes no sense. When you search for something that goes beyond what you can make sense of, you are following the same star the magi saw.

Maybe that also helps us to honour the quests of the people behind us, who are just setting out on their search, or perhaps don't even know yet that they are looking for something bigger than themselves. It's no good telling the friends and neigbours that we love and care about that the answer is God, until they know what the question is. But there is a question – all of us have a question, when we are willing and ready to ask it. And at the heart of it it's the same question, once our own personal stories stop making sense or reach the limits of what they can mean: where do I fit? Where is the story that is bigger than I am, in which I can discover what I cannot reach by myself? And the answer to that question is found under the light of a star shining down on Bethlehem – for all of us.

But the story isn't predominantly about how the wise men began their journey. Its real focus is on what they found at the end of it, and what they did then. They brought out of their treasures gold, frankincense and myrrh; and they worshipped the child to whom the star led them. Centuries of reflection on those gifts has discovered great meaning in them. Somehow it seems that the magi knew more than they realized about the mystery they sought to unravel. They knew they were coming to a king, for whom gold would be the right gift. But also to a god come to earth, to whom one would offer incense. And, strangest of all, that gift of myrrh, a precious gift but one that looked forward to death and burial. Odd, isn't it, that these disconnected strangers, with no place in the story, should find that their gifts belong so perfectly in the mystery of God made flesh?

So many of the story-songs of Christmas ask exactly this question. What shall I bring him, poor as I am? I have no gift to bring, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum. Gold, incense, myrrh thou canst not bring: offer thy heart to the infant king. Each of us has something, here at the end of our journey to find where we belong. Each of us has something to lay down. It isn't just the upwelling of emotion when your quest is fulfilled. The heart is more than that. Worship is more than that. It means handing over who we are to who we've found. Giving up the control and authorship of your life story, to someone who will do a far better job with it than you ever could.

It takes a conscious effort to bow ourselves down in acknowledgement of God's sovereignty over all that we are. It takes a conscious effort to reach into our own treasures and draw out those things which are dearest and hardest won, and hand them over. But the one thing the wise men teach us is the one thing we most need to hear: there is nothing lost when we do that. Their precious gifts, and their worshipping hearts, meant far more when they were given to the child on Mary's lap than they ever could have, kept to themselves. They became part of a story that has not just lived on, but grown, for 2000 years. You and I can join them, along with all those people ahead of us and behind us on this journey, when we see God's answer to our questions in the face of Jesus, and offer our hearts.