January 4, 2015 Isaiah 60:1-6; Matt. 2:1-12
The Journey of the Magi; what a perfect story the writer of Matthew gives us to celebrate Epiphany, the grand finale of the Christmas season! In earlier times it was the centerpiece. Epiphany, Easter and Pentecost were the most important dates on the Christian calendar. Christmas came later. Epiphany is actually this coming Tuesday, 12 days after Christmas, but we celebrate it on the closest Sunday. It would be hard to get us Protestants out to worship on a Tuesday night.
Has anyone here ever had an epiphany? It means an appearance or manifestation, particularly of a divine being; or, the revealing of something that before had not been seen, especially one that comes unexpectedly. I call it an “AHA” (in capital letters) experience, when a light bulb goes off in your head and you finally get it. You come a little closer to what feels like the truth.
I wonder if Matthew, who was writing for a Jewish population, had an epiphany, because this story has a poignant message for his listeners: Jesus did not come exclusively for you folks. He came for the gentiles too. God’s love extends beyond borders and tribes, races and gender, young old, wealthy and poor. It’s for everyone. It’s a message the world needs to be reminded of today.
Douglas Hare’s commentary on this scripture passage made an observation that opened up a new way of approaching this story for me:
“Matthew’s sublime story of the adoration of the magi has often been better understood by poets and artists than by scholars, whose microscopic analysis has missed its essence.”
Poets and artists approach scripture with the heart. Scholars with the head. Both, I feel, are necessary, but in this story the Magi came with joy in their hearts to present their gifts, much like those of you who were here for the Christmas Pageant, were all smiles as you took your gifts up to the baby Jesus. I could see the joy on your faces. That worship service was a ‘heart moment’.
Hare’s observation brought to mind a poem, that my spiritual director recited to me in December. It’s sort of like a Christian midrash - fleshing put this story of the Magi, and uncovering unspoken revelations of what this encounter with the Christ child may have meant for them, and for us. Let’s listen with our hearts, to what it has to say.
Journey Of The Magi by T. S. Eliot
'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and
And running away, and wanting their
liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the
lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns
And the villages dirty and charging high
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears,
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of
With a running stream and a water-mill
beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped in
away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with
vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for
pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so
And arrived at evening, not a moment
Finding the place; it was (you may say)
All this was a long time ago, I
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had
seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different;
this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like
Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these
But no longer at ease here, in the old
With an alien people clutching their
I should be glad of another death.
The Magi were on a journey, much like our own this Advent season. They were looking for the King of the Jews, and you might ask yourself, “Why? Was their world lacking something that summer palaces and silken girls bringing sherbet couldn’t fill?”
They left behind the comforts of their lives, coming face to face with the reality of the world around them. And much like our own, in this sometimes bleak and violence filled world, it was not an easy journey. It’s one filled with harsh elements, pit falls, uncooperative and sometimes clueless guides, at times filled with doubts and regrets. Am I on the right path, and is this all worth it?
But they didn’t give up, and the star led them to what they were looking for, but not in the palace of a king, or in the center of power, but in the form of an innocent, helpless baby; not in a stable as depicted in Luke, but in an ordinary house with his young mother.
What an AHA experience that must have been. But they didn’t walk out mumbling to themselves, “ Must have been the wrong star. This can’t be the right address.” No, they knelt down and paid him homage and offered their gifts. God sometimes makes God’s appearance in the most unlikely places, through people we might never expect. And if we’re open to the experience, it changes us.
It changed those Magi in Matthew. They no longer trusted King Herod. They trusted their dream and went back home by a different route. But T.S. Eliot makes another observation: you can return home, but it’s not going to feel the same, because you are not the same. An encounter with God changes you. The old ways of being don’t satisfy anymore. You have died to an old way of being, and like the baby, have been born into a new life.
I thought this first Sunday of the new year would be a good time to pause and reflect, if only briefly - to explore where we have found God during this holy season. Has it changed us? So we’re going to do a brief guided meditation this morning. Those of you who have been rushing from one activity to the next may find it refreshing and centering to take a few minutes of quiet time with God.
1. Quiet yourself. Remember that in prayer you are entering into a relationship with God. Sit comfortably, close your eyes. Using whatever method you find most helpful, take a few moments to move beyond whatever may distract you or intrude on your quiet. You may concentrate on your breath, or a simple word to clear your mind. Gently find the still point within your being.
2. Allow yourself time to appreciate the silence. Invite God to be present with you in this time of prayer.
3. Think back over this season of Advent and Christmas. What stands out for you? What occupied your time? Who did you spend time with? Did you travel? entertain guests? shop? worship? meditate?
4. Now reflect on the way in which God has been present in your life. Where do you see God at work in your life? In joys, fears, suffering, work? In an act of service? In your reading? In an event, person, sound, nature, music, action?
5. Did you have an AHA moment during this holy time of the year? Was something revealed or made clear to you that you had previously not seen or known? Do any of these insights need to be followed by actions?
6. Do you have a sense of gratitude for one or two particular ways that God was present in your life during this sacred season? Allow yourself to experience this sense of gratitude deeply. Then express it silently to God.
You may open your eyes and gently bring your focus back to this sanctuary. Like the wise men in Matthew’s story, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey, but only the beginning. We pass through Bethlehem each year, hoping to be transformed in some little or big way by what we find there. But then we must return home to continue God’s work.
Tomorrow evening is known as the Twelfth Night, the night before Epiphany. In many parts of the world there are different 12th Night traditions, with lots of food and drink and merriment, many of them sharing a common theme: inversion. Quinn Caldwell wrote about it in a recent Still Speaking Devotional:
“Remembering the kings bowing down before a peasant child instead of King Herod, English sovereigns used to play the part of the fool on this evening, and someone else would take the throne.”
So he suggests we throw a Twelfth Night party. “We don’t have a king, but there are still plenty of powers to knock down: Refuse to worship the media gods: turn off the TV and the computer and spend a whole night talking to somebody you share your house with. Refuse to bow down before the God of busy-ness: cancel an evening meeting and go have a drink with friends. Smash the god of respectability: stop being so darn well-behaved and do something scandalous (or at least silly).
Tonight, take whatever powers usually rule your life, make them play the fool instead, and let the God of Love rule. After all, nobody worships Caesar any more, but plenty of us worship a kid in a feedbox.”
Thank you Quinn. Good advice.