Sunday, January 3, 2016

Chasing the Light (Matthew 2:1-12, Epiphany of our Lord)

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem.  They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?  We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”

When Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him.  He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born.  They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

You, Bethlehem, land of Judah, by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah, because from you will come one who governs, who will shepherd my people Israel.”

Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared.  He sent them to Bethlehem saying, “Go and search carefully for the child.  When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.”  When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was.  When they saw the star, they were filled with joy.  They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother.  Falling to their knees, they honored him.  Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.

Honest confession today: who still has their Christmas decorations out?  Your tree is still up, the garlands and wreaths are still hung, the lights are still twinkling away – does that describe your house?

It describes my house, and you can see that it describes the church, as well, because, well, Christmas isn’t over yet.  Though our neighbors have industriously taken down their decorations on December 26, and the displays in the stores switched overnight to Valentine’s Day, we have left our Christmas decorations out as a twinkling reminder that Christmas isn’t technically over yet, and we short-circuit the story when we don’t give room for baby Jesus to be recognized as the Light of the World.

During the Advent season, we focused on preparing for the coming of Jesus by opening ourselves up to his kingdom of hope, peace, joy, and love.  We’ve celebrated his birth at Christmas, God making himself known in Jesus as a baby in Bethlehem.  Today we celebrate Epiphany, when Jesus in made known by a star’s heavenly light as a divine gift to all the peoples of the Earth.  When you see the decorations still out, just remember that the Light of the World will not be so easily extinguished or shoved back in a box until next year.

In fact, Jesus resists being placed in any box, he is one who resists being categorized or claimed exclusively by one group or another.  The bright start in the sky tips us to the reality that the Gospel Jesus brings is good news for all people, and not just a select few.  Just take a look at who features prominently in the story!

In the Scripture we’ve just read, after Jesus was born, wise men came from the east, even further east than Elizabeth City.  We don’t know exactly where “the East” was, but it was probably Persia, maybe modern-day Iran, or one of the something-stan countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kazakhstan.

These men are called “magi” – hear how that sounds like “magic?”  One interpretation is that they were magicians – this isn’t David Copperfield or Michael Carbonaro type of magic.  No, they specialized in the paranormal – the hidden world of spirits and energy forces and the alignment of planets and stars.

Ashley and I spent a couple days in Sedona, Arizona last fall, which is a stunningly beautiful place with red rock formations and painted sunsets.  It’s also a place many believe to have a special, concentrated, spiritual energy, and the town has developed a pretty robust industry selling access to the supernatural – crystals and guided tours of the energy hot spots.  It’s all pretty “woo woo” to me, but I’m also struck by the realization that the wise men would have fit right in – studying the stars, feeling the energy, and indeed, with their expertise and learning, they probably would have been prominent, leading citizens – “kings of the community,” if you will.

That’s among their own people, of course.  God’s chosen people, the Jews, of whom Mary and Joseph and Jesus were part, would have viewed them with suspicion.  Whatever else you think about the wise men, know that they were outsiders, foreigners – strangers from a strange land, with strange beliefs and strange practices.  They would have been more at home with the crystal-wearing, vortex-loving hippies of Sedona than with respectable church-going folks of the Midwest or Southeast, and yet, their path still leads them to Jesus.

In reality, we know that the wise men didn’t see Jesus in the manger.  The star appeared at his birth, which meant there was still considerable time for the wise men to study it and decide to journey toward it.  Jesus was probably about two years old by the time they made it there; they didn’t see baby Jesus, they saw toddler Jesus.

I know of one church who doesn’t place the wise men in their nativity scene.  Rather, they place them on a windowsill in the very back of the sanctuary, as far away from baby Jesus as possible, as a way of remembering that the wise men were nowhere nearby for his birth, but instead were just embarking on a long journey. 

It would be more accurate to get our nativity scene out during Advent, pop baby Jesus in there on Christmas Eve as we already do, take the whole thing down and put it away, and then about two years later, swap out baby Jesus for a toddler Jesus figure, move the whole scene into Mary and Joseph’s starter home, and THERE have the wise men finally show up.

Friends, it just takes some folks longer than others to make their way to Jesus.  It took the wise men two years to get there, and it can sometimes take us just as long, if not longer.  Maybe you’ve noticed, but sometimes we human can be stubborn and hard-headed.  We can be slow to get what God is up to and even slower to respond.  But, one of the things I appreciate about the story of the wise men is that with God, it’s never too late to join the party.  God doesn’t shut us out, or say, “You missed your chance, too bad, so sad.”  It took the magi two years to get there, it will take some of us, some of those around us, just as long.  It will take some a lifetime.  Is it better to get to Jesus sooner than later?  Absolutely.  But, even if one comes late, it’s never too late.

So, that’s what I appreciate about the story of the wise men.  What I find a bit unsettling is how the wise men get to Jesus.  They came seeking Christ after studying the night skies.  Today, on Epiphany, a strange star shining in the sky announces the Gospel to foreigners, adherents to strange religion, people who have more faith in the stars than the Scriptures.

I would love for the magi to connect with God in a way I recognize, through preaching, worship, or sacraments. I would prefer that they have an encounter with Jesus through a Bible study or prayer group, I would prefer that God’s presence was made real to them through a welcoming congregation or some mission project.

But that’s not how the Scriptures tell it. Beliefs and practices that are strange and suspicious to us are the very thing that led them to Jesus.  Let me say that again: beliefs and practices that are strange and suspicious to us are the very thing that led them to Jesus.

How often have we dismissed the religious experience of others simply because it didn’t line up with our experience?  Most of us have a kneejerk instinct when we encounter something strange to quickly judge it and denounce it.  We don’t understand it, it’s new, it’s foreign, it’s different, and we immediately say, “I don’t know anything about it, but I know I don’t like it.”

A number of years ago, a friend’s encouragement was to turn to wonder rather than rush to judgment.  We see something new, something outside our expectations, and instead of saying, “That’s wrong,” we say, “I wonder how that thing/that idea/that person came to be?”  Do you see how it’s a fundamentally different response than immediately denouncing and judging what we don’t understand?  To judge is to shut down.  To wonder is to open up to new possibility and understanding.

The presence of the magi – their story, their beliefs, their path to Jesus – holds open the possibility that God is working in different people in different ways.  How truly wonderful!

That’s not the same as saying, “All paths lead to God,” – simple observation and common sense tell us that much – but, as people of faith, is our faith big enough, our God big enough to allow room for God to work in ways we do not understand and have not experienced for ourselves?

Now, that’s an epiphany – the realization that God’s work in the world is not restricted by our feeble understanding and limited experience.  God does not work in all hearts alike.  God may be working in you in a way that’s different than God might be working in me, but as a person of faith, I celebrate that God’s up to something in you, even if it seems strange to me. The things that light up your sky may not light up mine.  We may each come to God’s presence in our own way, but when people who walk in darkness see God’s great light, even at different times and in different ways and along different paths, then praise God who lights the way, and to whom belongs all the brilliant glory.  Even those who come to the party late, it’s never too late, thanks be to God!

The Scriptures tell us we are fearfully and wonderfully made; does it not stand to good reason that God’s ways of getting our attention would be equally diverse and wonderful?

Epiphany both proclaims and celebrates the reach of God’s embrace.  The bright star in the sky shows the lengths to which God is willing to go in order to announce the good news of his presence to all the world.  Jesus is King of Kings and Lord of Lords to all the world – those who are very much like us, and those whose ways seem strange and distant.  Likewise, the response of the magi shows us that faith is a journey that leads us through sometimes strange and foreign places to destinations unknown, yet the light of God’s presence is both our guide and our reward for making the journey.

Today, we will gather at the Lord’s table and celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion, a place where we know we will experience God’s presence again.

The only requirement to come to the table today is a desire to experience God’s presence.  That’s it.  It doesn’t matter where you’ve come from, where you’ve been, how you got here, or how long you’ve been here.  Whether you have come to faith in a way that is decent and respectable and recognizable to the person next to you, or if your path has been anything but conventional, you are welcome here.  You are welcome at the Lord’s table because 2000 years ago, a bright star brought some unlikely people to their knees before Jesus, and as unlikely as you or the person next to you may think you are, you are still not outside the inclusive reach of the King of Kings, and Jesus has set this table especially for you.

It’s 2016, the start of a new year.  Would you join me in making this the year in which we all turn to wonder rather than rush to judgment?  Imagine how life could be different – in our families, our jobs, our church, our community, our politics and our world – if each of us would turn to wonder rather than rush to judgment.  I daresay the light of God’s presence just might shine – not just in Bethlehem, not just in the stars – the light of God’s loving presence just might shine from you and from me, and the world will be a little brighter as a result.

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