January 6, 2019
The Feast of Epiphany
Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
This morning’s readings are about the people of God following a great light. Beginning with Isaiah as the Jewish people have returned home after the exile, we hear of a time when God’s light will fill the land. Moving on to the fulfillment of this vision we hear the story of the Magi following this light and discovering the Christ. We see here the progression of God’s plan, Isaiah anticipating the coming of God’s light which is eventually discovered by the Magi.
But the story does not stop there. The story continues in and through each of us. I once heard a story about an annual church pageant which emphasized the Magi’s gifts by burning incense through censers from the Orthodox Church. They did this with such enthusiasm that they set off alarm bells in the Parish Hall. When the firefighters arrived, one of them cried, “You wise men are setting off alarms all over town!”
I wonder, what would it take for bells proclaiming the birth of Christ to be heard throughout the whole of Winnipeg and beyond? I believe it has everything to do with absorbing the story of this birth and the visitation of the wise men into the very fabric of our beings, so that we – through our love - become the bells that proclaim this birth within the context of the challenges of our own time.
One of the challenges for the Magi was Herod. Who and what is the Herod in our midst? Herod represents harsh & cruel earthly power & extravagant wealth, which suggests that the context in which this birth takes place is no different than our current context today.
Jesus’ birth was a highly politicized event. Mary herself, is recorded to have said that with this birth the whole order of the world will be reversed. Jesus, laid in a manger rather than on a throne, is immediately launched into a ministry of loving/peaceful resistance to earthly power; and in time, he dies on a cross. With his birth, life, death and resurrection, Jesus clearly turns the power of the world upside down.
Herod plays an important role in the story wise men’s journey. Rather than following Herod, a profound symbol of earthly power, these wise individuals follow the star that leads them to the Christ. They move away from Herod and toward the Christ. Today, we live in a world where earthly power continues to be revered, and where the poor remain poor because of the over-abundance of extravagant wealth. And within the context of this unjust world, the wise men (a respected class of scholars who devote themselves to the study of such things as natural sciences) see a light in the sky that they are drawn toward. They are curious and open to following this light, open to being surprised and changed by what they find.
Who are the wise men, women and children of our time? What choices do they make? I suggest that in contemporary skies, often darkened by clouds of despair, wise individuals look for the presence of even a single star, a single element of hope. They will say, “We have seen this star and we will search until we discover that place of new birth and new hope.”
Every day, I see stories of the Magi following that star, leading them to the Christ Child, and expressing their gratitude in the giving of gifts. The young man interviewed this week on CBC, addicted to crystal meth, his world darkened by clouds of despair, seeing a single star, a single element of hope that led him to a sober life. His response is to help others as they journey toward the light. The person whose world is darkened by clouds of anger and hate, seeing a single star, a single element of hope that led her to a life of forgiveness. Her response to this new life is to help others discover the freedom that is found in forgiveness. Nelson Mandela, in the midst of oppressive apartheid, saw a single star, a single element of hope, for a time when people in his country could live together as equals. (A vision embodied in Christ.) During Mandela’s 27 of imprisonment following that star, the Christ child was born within him, enabling him to become more like Christ in gentleness and compassion, and of course, the Christ child was also discovered in the new post-apartheid world. His suffering allowed him to give birth to new depths within himself, as well as a new and more just – more Christ-like – world.
Through lives such as these the bells proclaiming the birth of Christ are rung. People who are ready to adopt an attitude of hope, who look for the star in the year 2019, know that they will have to journey, to change, to search. Today, as we seek wisdom, we cannot remain exactly where or as we are.
We hear that Wise men went to Jerusalem. What might the city of Jerusalem mean to each of us today? It could be said that Jerusalem signifies all the complexity, ambiguity and insecurity of contemporary experience. It can represent all the anxiety, pressures, brokenness which threaten to destroy the fabric of our lives, our church and the world in which we live. (fake news, terrorism, financial security, job security, depression, grief, to name just a few) We live in a world that lures us into any number of roads away from the center which is Christ – consumerism and addictions, for example. We are all susceptible to going down any number of these kinds of roads, rather than remaining focused on following the star that leads to new birth.
And so, Herod and Jerusalem define much of the complexities of our own time. They signify all that which, given half a chance, would destroy human hope and commitment and motivation, and would create serious road blocks as we discover those places of new birth. Wise people know that you cannot avoid ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Herod’ is always one to be encountered.
Herod also tried to co-opt the wise men to betray their journey, to end their commitment to the future possibility, to kill the child. Today, if you try to be a human being searching for hope, if you are committing yourself in some way to the quality of God’s future, there are many ways in which Herod speaks. The Herod voice would have said to Nelson Mandela, to the young man searching for a sober life, the person seeking to forgive, “Why invest your energy in idealistic dreams? Why set yourself up for failure? You’re comfortable where you are, so why change?” We are – I’m sure - familiar with that nagging, negative voice, sometimes speaking louder that the voice of hope. Indeed, this is how Herod speaks throughout the ages and in the midst of whatever predicaments in which we may find ourselves. But wise people recognize that voice and choose to take a different road, the road that follows the star of hope and leads to new life.
A final image that we need to reflect on is the image of the wise men offering their gifts. If our journeying and searching have been in response to the God who calls us, we find ourselves at the place where we discover a child, grateful for that sacred discovery, and inspired to offer gifts: the very best gifts we have to give. One obvious way in which we have the opportunity to offer back to God the gifts God has so generously given us, is through sharing our time, talents, treasures, supporting ministries in and through St. Peter’s.
So, we ask ourselves, “Who and where is that child?” Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop in the Episcopal church would say this child is found wherever there is love. This child is also found in the new person God is calling us to become, and the gifts (gold, frankincense, myrrh) are such things as how we live and how we love. When we allow the Christ child within us to be born, we are empowered to offer the very best gifts we have to give. Through us, the eternal and holy child of hope and possibility can be born daily, not just in a remote past, in a land far away, but here, in this moment, in this place.
Desmond Tutu has been quoted to say that Nelson Mandela is “God’s gift to South Africa” – that is, he followed that distant star of hope, experienced the birth of Christ within himself, and became the gift that inspired transformation in S. Africa.
So the miraculous thing is that we are the story.
Each of us is the child of God who is daily being called into new birth.
Each of us is the wise person searching for the child.
Each of us is the living, breathing Bethlehem in which the Christ child is continually longing to be born.
Each of us is the story through which the bells proclaiming the birth of Christ are heard through the whole of Winnipeg and beyond.