A Sermon by Rev. Gregory H. Ledbetter | January 6, 2009 | Epiphany Sunday
Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Matthew 2:1-12
I think my very favorite road trips are the ones that start in the very early morning, long before the sun is due to shine. On a number of occasions, in years past, we would travel as family to Oregon for Christmas. But with Christmas Eve services needing to be done, Christmas morning was our travel day. We would get up in the wee hours, load the slumbering lads into the car and head north. And it seems that invariably, we traveled under incredibly starry skies … starry nights … the kind of starry nights you could navigate by.
It was just such a starry night—a starry night that you could navigate by—that the star-gazing astrologers in Matthew's gospel started out in search of their own Christmas.
What a strange and wonderful story … and it has fired the imaginations of all who've heard it … these questing souls from another land so captured by the dazzling sign of God's doing in the sky that they had to forsake the familiar comforts of home to go and see this thing.
And so let's answer the question that is implied by Matthew's gospel: Who are, in Matthew's telling, the very first people to recognize God's loving gift of God's own being? The neighbors? The townspeople? The local clergy? All of the righteous and holy bigwigs over in Jerusalem? King Herod? Surely one king would recognize another king?
No … it takes these Persian astrologers—if that's what they were—to wander far from home to come to Jerusalem and say: "Hey, what do make of this unmistakable sign of God's great doing that's hanging over you in the sky like a blimp on fire?"
"Sign? What sign???"
For every wise, far-seeing person, there are thousands who can't see beyond their noses … to paraphrase Thoreau.
Of course, part of the whole point of the story … the reason Matthew includes this story in his gospel … is to begin to proclaim that in Jesus, the light of the nations has begun to shine most brightly … so brightly that even star-worshiping foreigners like these Magi will be drawn to it.
This was the prophetic inkling that we heard spoken in this morning's opening reading from Isaiah … Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Of course, the "your" in Isaiah's prophecy refers to Israel … God's glory was to rise upon Israel … yet Israel missed the glory when, Matthew tells us, it shone all about them. Completely and utterly missed it. It would be easy to launch into a grumpy tirade at this point about the modern state of Israel being as oblivious to the light and the truth as the Israel of King Herod's day.
Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. With every missile and mortar launched—from either side—the light dims, the brightness of dawn fades and the glory of God recedes and the prophet joins God in her weeping.
Lift up your eyes and look around; Isaiah beckons. Look around and understand your time and your context and your place in the order of things. Don't be dense to the goodness that God seeks to birth in and through and around you … and don't thwart that goodness with your own fearful responses to God's efforts to allow the dawning of light in your world.
Our fearful responses. And our missed opportunities. Epiphany will always symbolize fearful responses and missed opportunities for those of us who were a part of that heart-rending time twelve years ago. It was on the day of Epiphany—such an ironic choice of days for settling such matters—it was on the day of Epiphany 1996 that the American Baptist region to which we used to belong decided that there was a limit to who could be drawn to the light of Christ … that the light wasn't actually intended for everybody. It was on that day that churches that had thrown open their doors to sexual minorities were shown the door. Kicked out of the local Baptist family because they had taken too literally Isaiah's great ancient prophecy.
We weren't kicked out … shown the door, because we hadn't yet fully opened the door … but in some ways I wish we had been. And it was the light-denying efforts of our … "kinfolk" … that launched us on a journey that led us to Seattle of all places. It was the Baptists in Seattle that seemed to "get" the all-nations, all-people, all-everything nature of this new light that first dawned over Bethlehem. Such a dramatic contrast to the narrowing scope and light-denying tendencies of the region we left.
What we often overlook in reading and retelling the story and singing songs of the … "three Kings" … is the sinister note that is struck by Herod and the apparent blindness of the local religious authorities to both the light that is dawning as well as the menace of Herod. It is later in the 2nd chapter of Matthew that the slaughter of the innocents is described … a slaughter ordered by the King … and we know that it was not the first such slaughter … and certainly and sadly not the last. Whenever power feels threatened, the first to feel the deadly effects of that fear of losing power are the innocent bystanders, but especially the children … these are the "least of these." It's true in Iraq and Afghanistan … it's true on the Gaza strip … today … now.
In fact, wherever and whenever Herod reigns and culture and religion have lost their compass and their backbone, there is a need for wise, visionary souls to heed the still-dawning light … the glory of love incarnate and the promise of Shalom—glory and a promise for all nations, all earth. The whole world joins us in praying, I think, that the one being inaugurated into this land's highest office three Tuesdays from now is such a wise one. And we can't help hoping beyond hope that this president, as much as any that's ever been elected, lives out the psalmist's job description for a just ruler:
For the ruler delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
The ruler has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence the ruler redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in the ruler's sight.
Surely we have lived beyond the time when any one person's blood, from the greatest to the least, can be deemed anything less than precious. Surely the Shalom and compassioned tinged visions of the Prophets and the Psalmists have been in our common hearing long enough for all leaders to know that this is the aspiration of the highest wisdom we know, by whatever name the world's faiths should choose to call it. Every sacred writ of every faith is rooted in principles of justice and mercy and sacred respect for all.
The inauguration on January 20th is our nation's way of saying to Barack Obama: "All that the prophet and the psalmist are talking about … do THAT!" Whew. It's an awful lot to load onto one pair of human shoulders. And it's way beyond what we've come to expect from any one leader and any one government. And yet … and yet.
And, if there is a new dawning somewhere, a new light of hope which wise souls can perceive and to which we can be drawn, will we do our part? Certainly it's unfair to wish for our leaders to take steps on a journey we ourselves are not yet willing to make.
Epiphany is, for us, the invitation to heed T.S. Eliot's poetic urging: "We must be still and still moving." We must, as the pre-journey Magi, be quiet enough for God's dream to be caught, but once caught we just journey with all due vigor. Stagnation and excessive stopping on our journeys of faith can be fatal to our faith and have fatal implications for the needs of this earth. Ceasing in our exploration—another wonderful phrase of Eliot's, we risk becoming like the brightest and best of Jerusalem upon the Magi's arrival … the self-satisfied who said as one: "Baby? What baby???"
We started Advent … it seems so long ago … we started Advent with a song:
We wander through the night, we're searching for the light … of God
With weary hearts and feet, we wonder if we'll meet … our God.
It's a song that could have been sung by the Persian astrologers … it's a song we are called to sing during Advent, through Christmas, and during and beyond Epiphany. It's a song for every journey, a song for every night, a song for every heart. Searching for the light of God. The astrologers, these Magi, saw in their searching the heavens, a light of truth worth following with their whole lives, with every means at their disposal and with certain risk of losing their lives in their journeying. And I suppose friends and family, reasonable souls all, did their best to discourage such a foolhardy venture. I suppose all of the true great souls of history were like these Magi in some fashion—willing to put it all on the line for this soul vision that would not leave them alone and a vision they could not but follow.
My pastoral dream for Epiphany for each of us here is that we hear in the strange and wonderful story of the Magi our own call to journey … or a re-call to journey. That there is for you a star—a bright and hopeful vision of what can be—that has risen, that you can see and you are willing to follow. And I hope it strengthens you to know that you are not alone in your following … that you are joined and encouraged by a company of star-followers, vision-seekers, dreamers of Shalom. It's like the old line from "Imagine" by John Lennon, "You may say that I'm a dreamer … but I'm not the only one."
My dream for us each and for us all is to affirm words written by Alan Paton in Cry the Beloved Country, a story of South Africa's painful early journey toward the dawning light of equality and hope. In committing himself to being a part of the solution and no longer a part of the problem, Paton said:
I shall no longer ask myself if this is expedient, but only if it is right. I shall do this not because I am noble or unselfish, but because I need for the rest of my journey, a star that will not play false to me, a compass that will not lie. I am no longer able to aspire to the highest with one part of myself and to deny it with another.
Paton's journey changed him and so will ours. We'll recall that wonderful closing line from Matthew's story of the Magi telling that they "returned home by another road." "Could it be," one commentator asks, "that Matthew is offering a tantalizing hint about life for those who have met the Prince of Peace? Nothing is ever the same. You don't take the old road any longer. You unfold a new map, and discover an alternate path."
"In his poem, The Journey of the Magi, T.S. Eliot imagined the thoughts of the Magi back home: "We returned to our places … but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods." This journey toward Shalom does not make our lives more comfortable; the journey toward Shalom doesn't help us fit in and succeed. We are no longer at ease in a world not committed to the bright dream of Shalom—a compassionate peace with enduring justice.
"Nothing is the same; nothing comes easy. A strange, unfamiliar road is now our path—but the road is going somewhere" (James C. Howell in Feasting on the Word).
We wander through the night,
we're searching for the light … of God
And in our wandering, we find that very thing … our God.
May this be your blessing of Epiphany.