A sermon by Greg Ledbetter preached on Epiphany, Year A
January 6, 2008
Sermon Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
Realizing he was lost, a balloonist dropped down to ask directions. "Excuse me, but I'm a little off course," he shouted. "I promised to meet a friend an hour ago. I don't know where I am."
A woman on the ground yelled back, "You're in a hot air balloon hovering approximately 30 feet above the ground. You're at exactly 40 degrees, 22 minutes and 21 seconds north latitude and 70 degrees, 30 minutes and 33 seconds west longitude."
"Amazing," the balloonist replied. "You must be an engineer!"
"I am," she replied. "How did you know?"
"Well, everything you told me is technically correct, but I can't use your information. I'm still lost, and you haven't been much help at all. If anything, you've delayed my trip."
The woman thought for a moment, then replied, "You must be in management."
"I am," replied the balloonist, "but how did you know?"
"Well, you don't know where you are or where you're going. You've risen to your position due to a large quantity of hot air. You made a promise that you have no idea how to keep, and you expect people beneath you to solve your problems. In fact, you're in exactly the same position you were before we met, but somehow it's now my fault." (Source: Jon Carroll/San Francisco Chronicle – December 4, 2007)
This may be the most whimsical Sunday of the year, particularly when Epiphany falls on a Sunday and we get to pull out all of the Epiphany stops. It’s hard to think of a New Testament text that has gathered more curious attention than the story of the wise men from the east. And it’s hard to think of a New Testament story that’s been more spoofed.
And on this Sunday following the Iowa caucuses, one might be tempted to create yet another spoof featuring this haggard group of presidential wannabees questing after the ultimate in dubious prizes. We can at least hope that a few of them are in church this morning and are listening to the reading of the Psalms where the psalmist calls upon the rulers to be just and to embrace those who are usually left out.
We grew up singing: “We three kings …” and found ourselves wondering about the location of “Orientare”. Of course, some spoil-sport scholars (and I’m one) have to go and remind us that Matthew doesn’t note just how many wise men came. As Doug reminded us at our Christmas dinner, it is the number of gifts brought that has helped shaped the popular understanding of “three kings”. And, of course, they’re not kings at all, but seers and visionaries … and very possibly priestly advisers in the court of the rulers of the kingdom from which they’ve come.
The wise men—or the magi, as we’ll call them—show up in Matthew’s version of the birth story which, you’ll recall, bears no resemblance to Luke’s far more familiar version. In Matthew’s birth narrative, Jesus is born with a minimum of fanfare. The angels and shepherds Mary’s magnificat are all a part of Luke’s telling.
The magi are something of a plot device in Matthew’s storytelling. They are in the story, in part, to help point out that Jesus was born “under the radar”. Until they show up, no one seems to have known. King Herod doesn’t know there is a competing ruler growing up nearby until the magi speak of him. The chief priests and scribes know WHERE the child is supposed to be born, but seem to have no knowledge that the blessed event has already occurred.
So … a sign in the heavens was visible, the child was born and growing … and yet, until the wise men from East of Eden came looking, NO ONE SEEMS TO HAVE NOTICED! The wrong people took note of the star and seemed ready to follow this sign to the ends of the earth. And the right people—the seemingly wise and the seemingly powerful—the right people missed it altogether. Well, OK, in Luke’s version, the shepherds took note … but did anyone else? And did the shepherds tell anyone? And would anyone have believed them if they did?
In the mind of Matthew the storyteller, I wonder what it was the magi saw in the heavens that so moved them that they chose to travel to an obscure village in a backwater corner of the Roman empire? Further, what moved these magi, to take expensive gifts and offer their homage to the infant and as yet, unrecognized and uncrowned ruler of a foreign and insignificant people?
As I understand them, I have to think that the magi are like some of the meteor observers that I have known. Told of impending meteor showers, I know people who have repeatedly scanned the skies in vain for that little skyward spark that indicates a bit of space rock racing through earth’s atmosphere. I know people who claim to have NEVER seen a meteor. I imagine the magi as being like my poor, meteor-less friends. The magi are those whose job it is to scan the heavens for glimmers of the divine … for messages from the cosmos … for signs of something other than divine indifference or divine absence. And it’s not hard for me to imagine that these magi have seen —if they were to be completely honest—nothing … simply faked the evidence to keep the ruler happy … and then … and then after all that fruitless searching of the skies, an honest to God sparkle of the divine in the heavens. “This we gotta see …”.
In some scholarly circles, there is speculation that the Jews in exile in Babylon in earlier generations had spoken so compellingly of their God, that hints of that promise such as we heard in Isaiah this morning had lingered in the minds of Babylons high priests, the magi.
And so they mounted their camels … well, OK, no camels in the story either. But get this, on the eve of Epiphany—yesterday—as Jan and I drove the back roads of Merced for reasons completely unrelated to this day or this sermon, I suddenly slammed on the brakes and stared out the window. There in a pasture were three two-humped camels—they’re called Bactrian camels I now know … three camels looking like they were fresh from a re-enactment of the journey of the three kings. I am not making this up. There was also a hissing, grinning llama and an extremely tiny burro, but that’s another Bible story.
Well, by whatever means, the magi left their own land and followed the sparkling and twinkling sign in the sky. Their journey passes through Jerusalem and through the courts of Herod, and finally to Bethlehem where they locate the child. And having found that for which they had journeyed so long, they are overwhelmed with joy, they pay homage to the toddling goodness of God and they spill gifts at his feet. Who knew that foreigners of such suspicious origins could thrill to the hope of the ages? Who knew that the light of the world could shine so brightly in such foreign places? And who knew that God’s own chosen people would miss the signs and miss the wonder of it all. Matthew knows these things; Matthew wishes his readers to know them as well.
Epiphany, this manifestation of God, Epiphany humbly begs of us not to miss the star, not to miss the birth, not to miss the wonder, not to miss the opportunity for overwhelming joy, not to miss the chance to offer our own selves as gifts in service of that child. Epiphany also begs us to stand shoulder to shoulder with any and all who appreciate the birth of love and kindness, goodness and hope into the world and who believe the promises of God that continue to be made manifest. Don’t miss it! Asks Epiphany. And don’t try to go it alone.
You’ll recall that in the opening story the arrogant balloonist explains to the woman on the ground that he is a “little off course”. The truth is, he was not only “off course”, he really had no idea where he was. It’s the western explorer Kit Carson all over again who explained that he wasn’t lost, exactly, he just didn’t know where he was for three weeks.
Situated as it is at the beginning of our calendar year, Epiphany offers us the chance to recognize that we can drift off course, that we can lose our way. It’s a long journey—normally—from the cradle to the grave and there are plenty of ways to drift from the path.
And what is “the path” exactly? It’s a fair question to ask of those who would be modern magi. There are many ways to answer that question, but one poetic way that I think of comes from a song by Rod Romney, a retired Baptist minister and friend. In his song “Bring Us Home” there is a little snippet that sings of coming home “to the truth we are”. The course … the way … the journey … the path: all these, which are unique to each of us, could be simply described as “the truth we are”. I also like Howard Thurman’s take on it: "Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."
What is the truth of who you are? What makes you come alive? These are hard questions … deep questions. Do you know yourself well enough and have the courage to try to answer these questions?
I get the sense that the encounter in Bethlehem brought the magi alive and that they were never the same. Even the phrase “and they went home by another way” is suggestive of the change that had wrought in them. You get the sense that the magi learned in great measure who they were while kneeling at the feet of Jesus.
What is the truth of who you are? What makes you come alive? We would probably agree that some of life’s significant moments can offer us a chance to reflect on the truth we are. We also know that some of life’s significant moments can FORCE us to reflect on the truth we are.
Health – Too many close friends to name have serious and/or odd ailments which have given them serious pause and shaken up their sense of themselves. How does our health help us reflect on the truth we are?
Retirement – That which had defined you for so long, that which had consumed so much of your time and energy and very being … over. Now what? What next? How does retirement help us reflect on the truth we are?
Aging – Just the other day my dad was reflecting on being nearly 80 … “I won’t be here forever”. Thanks, dad. Or Sue Smith at 102 saying: “I won’t be here forever”. Of course, none of us will be, but as we draw nearer our end, it can give us pause. How does aging help us reflect on the truth we are?
Crisis – I’m thinking, just now, of the crisis of incarceration because two people who are significant in my life, one a friend and one a young relative, are in jail. And having never been incarcerated, I can only imagine the ways you would be forced to consider the truth of yourself while cooling your heels. How do times of deep personal crisis help us reflect on the truth we are?
And in the midst of these challenging life paths that inform the path of our own journey, for those of us who go by the name “Christian”, there is also the path to Jesus. Epiphany invites us to not only stay on the path that is the truth we are, but that a part of the truth we are is bound up in the child whom the magi worshipped. Part of the challenge of this time past Christmas is to continue to seek and to find Christ beyond Bethlehem … on every step and at every turn in this path of our life and faith.
At the risk of quoting every week from our collective supply of refrigerator magnet and bumper sticker wisdom, I would suggest that the phrase “Wise Men Still Seek Him …” while kind of trite and exclusive in its language, still may have a kernel of truth for us. It is to say that the journey in search of one’s self in meaningful relationship to Jesus is a journey well worth taking. The implication of the phrase—which I also have emblazoned on a mug—is that there is a danger that we may stop seeking, stop searching, stop combing the heavens and the earth for signs of God’s continuing incarnation.
There was a special on PBS on brain health the other night. Jan watched the special and I watched Jan watch the special, if that makes any sense. The program spoke of the importance of actively stretching and exercising the brain which, in turn, helps to forge new neural pathways. The brain that is settled and unchallenged, the brain that is “un-seeking” is the brain that atrophies and, ultimately, the body with it. What is scientifically true of the brain is observably true of our journeys, the paths we are on, the truth that we are.
There are many examples of elders in our midst who have demonstrated what I’m talking about. But just now I’m thinking of Jane Bishop. Jane, I continue to marvel at your remarkable engagement with this stage of your life. You have faced loss and many challenges and growing limitations … yet, you refuse to “cease in your exploration” of the truth that you are, to echo the poet T.S. Eliot. Later today, at her request, I will be giving Jane a couple of books from my library because for her the journey of exploration continues. I would suggest that our Sunday night gatherings with Angela and Linda and Terry and our books are also evidence of journeys of exploration, of seeking and finding.
Have any of us ceased in our exploration? Have any of us stopped seeking, stopped searching, stopped combing the heavens and the earth for signs of God’s continuing incarnation?
I think one could argue that an interesting corollary or companion to “Wise ONES still seek him” could be the United Church of Christ slogan: “God is still speaking”. This is to say that God has not stopped seeking us … God has not stopped reaching out for us … God has not stopped wooing us or seeking to speak to us in fresh ways God’s language of love and compassion, including the flowering of love and compassion in the lives of ordinary human beings like you and me.
You know, stars may guide us for a time, but even stars can be obscured by clouds and by daylight. Might we say today that the star is not in the sky but on the ground on two legs. Maybe the star is no longer a heavenly body, but now an ordinary human body that knows the truth it is, that will not cease in its exploration and is willing to seek with all its being to know “the mystery of the ages” revealed in Jesus the Christ.
One of T.S. Eliot’s contemporaries was another poet, W.H. Auden. His wonderful poem “For the time being” graced the back of last Sunday’s bulletin. Reflecting on the sacred journey of the wise ones from the east, Auden reflects also on our journeying:
To discover how to be human now
is the reason we follow this star.
In this season of Epiphany and in the year ahead, I pray that you discover how to be human, that you discover the deepening truth of who you are, that you forge new pathways into the heart of God and that you only cease in your exploration of these things when you cease to be.