So, we are nearly two weeks out from Christmas Day - the presents are unwrapped and have found new spots in our homes, family and friends have gone back home, school is back in session - and you probably thought we would move on from the birth of Jesus in today’s worship. Wrong!
Today is Epiphany in the life of the church. Whenever I hear the word “epiphany,” I strangely envision someone madly exclaiming “eureka! I have found it!” Today, we say “eureka! Jesus, the Christ, has been found!” He wasn’t lost, mind you, but today is the day in the life of the church when Jesus, the baby, is revealed to the magi, the wise men that are present in many of our nativity scenes, as the Christ, the king. It is an epiphany, or revelation, of God’s presence among us as human.
Really, the entire Christian scriptures point toward Jesus as the Christ, so why did Matthew include this smaller story, when some wise men from a distant land had the revelation? Would it change Jesus’ position as God’s divine son if only the people in the immediate surrounding area started to realize his divinity?
Kathryn Matthews (ucc.org, Sermon Seeds) suggests it is because “he wants his audience to hear about the Good News of God’s universal and all-encompassing grace, even if they’re offended or even appalled that such “objectionable” people (outsiders!) are included in the story and, even more, are included in the circle of God’s grace.”
You see, the magi were from another land, from “the East,” which is likely what we know today as Iraq. They were from an opposing country. They weren’t “objectionable” in the sense that the shepherds who first heard of Jesus’ birth, were. The shepherds were of a “lowly” class; considered to be “unclean.” The wise men were likely high-ranking advisors in their home country, of an upper class; yet, they were still considered objectionable.
Not sure if you’re catching all this...but if you put all the Jesus birth stories together….it includes a lot of people that were considered to be outsiders, the people pushed to the edge of society or from unfavorable other lands, who were invited in to share in the good news of Jesus’ birth.
The story of God’s human interaction with this earth is not contained to one region, to one group of people. It is a story of bringing in all the peoples of the earth. The people that the world sees as outsiders, the people that think they are insiders, and the people that don’t know if they’re in or their out and probably don’t care.
It is all a part of the larger story of God’s people from creation, traveling through Israel, and encompassing Scripture stories that are written down, into the stories we know in present day of God’s presence.
Matthew included this story so that it was seen “in this big picture, this tradition of hope, referring to what had gone before [in the verses from Isaiah in the middle of the selection] so that those who heard the story then were able to connect with the ancient story of God’s marvelous work in their own time and situation.” (Matthews, ucc.org)
So, how do we see this story in our own time and situation? How do we see the inclusion of “outsiders” in hearing God’s good news?
To answer that question, it may help to know a little bit more about Herod’s actions in this story.
Herod was a part of the Roman Empire; by many historians and theologians’ accounts, he was a puppet of the larger Empire. He liked being in charge. So, when these wise men from an opposing country came with news of a newborn king, he felt threatened. His “security” as king and authority was being threatened.
The way he reacted tells us a lot about his character...he tried deceiving the magi into coming back and telling him where Jesus was.
We long for security, too. “We’re tempted to seek it through power of one kind or another, the power of money, the power of possessions, the power of weapons.” (Matthews, ucc.org)
We long for financial and emotional and physical security. We want our bank accounts to supply our wants and needs (or at least most of our needs). We want to know that friends will be there when we call. We want to feel secure and safe in our homes. Wanting security isn’t wrong...but how we seek it and what we do when it is challenged, especially by “outsiders,” is character-revealing and character-building.
We long for spiritual security, too. We want to have all our questions about why and how and when answered. Wouldn’t it be great to know that we are right on all matters regarding God and the Divine’s presence in this world? Again, it isn’t wrong to want the security...but how we seek it and react when our “assured” beliefs are challenged reveals our spiritual character and depth.
When our ideals and philosophies and theologies are challenged - when our beliefs on what the means should be in order to get to the end are challenged - will we try last ditch efforts (like Herod’s “innocent” request of the magi) to turn things our way or will we openly explore other options?
I’m not suggesting that every challenge to our ideals and beliefs will be the best option - but I am suggesting that if we consistently are closed to new ways and movements in the world, we may very likely miss God’s beautiful and wonderful and mysterious interactions with humanity.
In thinking of what leads us to find God’s interactions, the wise men give us a great example. Kathryn Matthews observes that the magi were led to find Jesus by taking in all the signs - signs from nature in the stars, signs from Scripture and writings of their ancestors, and signs from their personal experiences in the dreams they had. Nature, Scripture, people. It wasn’t just studying or just talking with people or just looking to the sky. It was all three. All three of those things took the magi out of their safe zone to find the baby Jesus.
I love our quotes on the bulletin today.
- Albert Einstein, 20th century "I never made one of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking."
- M. Scott Peck, 20th century "The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers."
Both of these quotes point toward the fact that our greatest growth comes when we are uncomfortable and thinking outside the box. If you need a specific example of this, talk to any athlete - or to any person going through physical rehab - their physical improvements do not come from taking it easy, kickin’ back on the couch, and being comfortable.
Neither does our spiritual growth.
In this new year, reflecting on the discomforting revelation of Jesus as Christ, will we let ourselves be uncomfortable so that we may have a spiritual epiphany of our own? When a person or ideology from a fearful place visits, whether that is another country or just another line of thought, will we welcome the discomfort or try setting up roadblocks to protect our presumed security?
(Please note the use of “we” and “our”...even ordained people need to be discomforted.)
According to Joni Sancken, this little story shows how "the best and the worst of human nature spring forth in response to God's gift of revelation," and she reminds us that just as a new baby brings upheaval to a house, "the birth of God incarnate promises to turn the whole world upside down and forge a new reality" (New Proclamation Year C 2013).
So, again, how do we see this story in our own time and situation? How do we see the inclusion of “outsiders” in hearing God’s good news? How will we listen to nature, Scripture, and personal experiences to find Jesus?
Write it down - make it an offering. Maybe it’s to see people on the street corner in a different light. Maybe it’s to volunteer with Open Table, which Tad will tell us about in a few weeks. Maybe it’s to have a conversation with a family member who thinks differently than you - and really listen. Maybe it’s to get involved more with creation care, taking care of the earth.
Psalm 72: 1-7,11-14