God Is the Seeker, Feast of the Epiphany – January 6, 2018

[RCL] Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

We celebrate today the great “Aha” moment when the Magi who journeyed from the east discover at the end of their quest not a prince born in a palace, but the infant Jesus born in a cave that had been used as a stable. The Magi are astrologers, who watch the heavens for signs of momentous earthly events. These are not astronomers who study the stars and planets for scientific data alone, but astrologers, not unlike people who create horoscopes today. Astrology was a forbidden means of divination for the Jews.

What the Magi reveal is that there was an air of expectation so palpable that anyone with eyes could see something momentous was about to happen. Let’s step aside from the Bible for a moment and see what else was being written around the time of Jesus’ birth. In the year 37 BCE, the poet Virgil wrote his Fourth Eclogue, a beautifully written poem about the immanent expectation of a man sent down from heaven whose birth would inaugurate a new age. Two Roman historians, Tacitus and Suetonius, wrote of the expectation of a world leader to arise out of Judea [Tacitus Ann. 5.13 and Suetonius Bell. 3.399-408; 6:310-15].

It was also a common expectation of the day that a sign from the heavens would accompany such a momentous event. There were plenty of impressive portents from which to choose. Jesus was likely born in what we would now call 4 BCE. Seven years before Jesus’ birth, Halley’s Comet made its circuit through our skies. Three years before Jesus’ birth, Jupiter and Saturn were in alignment three times. The planet Jupiter signified a king while Saturn was routinely associated with the Jews. This would have fueled Herod’s insecurity and local political and religious speculation. Finally, a year before Jesus’ birth, Chinese astronomers recorded sighting a supernova, a bright light suddenly appearing in the night sky.

What all of this tells us is that, independent of the Bible, we can read of a relatively common expectation at the turn of the era that momentous change was coming. Furthermore, that change was expected to be noted with signs in the heavens.

The Judeo-Christian tradition has always taught that God can be known through creation. This revelation through the creation is no simplistic natural theology, but the knowledge we gain of God through the creation alone is incomplete and sometimes confusing in and of itself. We come to see that though one can reliably come to know of God through the creation, we do not come to know God in fullness through the creation alone.

In theological terms, what we are discussing is revelation. Unless God chose to reveal God’s own self to us, we would know nothing of God. But, because God decided to be made known, we can and do learn of God through the general revelation of creation and other forms of specific revelation. Just as you may discern something of the artist through her painting or his sculpture, one can learn of God through the creation. The theoretical physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne put it this way in his book Science and Creation,

“We are so familiar with the fact that we can understand the world that most of the time we take it for granted. It is what makes science possible. Yet it could have been otherwise. The universe might have been a disorderly chaos rather than an orderly cosmos. Or it might have had rationality which was inaccessible to us.”

The universe was created with an order that humans can study and somewhat comprehend. We were created with the ability to understand and a common component of human self-understanding through the ages and around the world has been a belief in God. This belief in something greater than ourselves is such a universal human experience that many find that awareness of God alone to be proof of God’s existence. Yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that this universal human idea of God could be nothing more than a universal projection of our minds to fill a need in our lives. This is the Marxist worldview, that religion is the opium of the masses. We just delude ourselves into belief.

Yet, this idea of revelation comes circling back around to tap on our shoulders. We do not know of God simply because we want there to be a God. We know of God because God reveals God’s own self to us. In addition to the general revelation of God through creation, there is specific revelation. The general revelation of God through creation spoils any possible excuse we may have in saying that we never knew there is such a thing as God. Specific revelation is more direct.

Specific revelation includes dreams and visions God uses to get people’s attention. Dreams like the ones which told Joseph of Jesus’ birth. Dreams like the one which warned the Magi to return home without stopping to pay a courtesy call on Herod and the one that warned Joseph and Mary to flee to Egypt. Specific revelation also includes scripture. God’s revelation is available to us through the word of God. We get a fuller picture of God through scripture that complements rather than contradicts the image of God we attain through the creation.

An important form of specific revelation comes through our own lives. We know God best through the ways in which God acts in our lives and the other ways in which God has acted in human history. As God is revealed in the way God acts in history, the Christian concept of revelation reaches its fullest expression in the person of Jesus. We get our best and clearest image of who God is and how God acts through Jesus’ life and ministry, his death, and resurrection.

As the Apostle Paul wrote, “For it is God who said, ‘Let light shine out of the darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Whether they understood it at the outset of their journey or not, the Magi traveled to see the light of the Glory of God revealed in the face of the infant Jesus.

The Magi were seekers and even though their methods were unbiblical and perhaps anti-biblical, God honored their quest. God called out to the Magi from the heavens or they would have never found Jesus. God, not the Magi, initiated the Magi’s quest. God guided them to their destination though the Magi never knew where exactly where their journey would take them. Yet, the Magi played their part as they did not simply stay home admiring the star in the sky. They hit the road, enduring all the troubles of travel including having to go against the local king, Herod, when they neared their destination. Yet all of their actions came second. God initiated the journey.

We may think that we are spiritual seekers, we are the ones on a quest for God’s presence. But that’s not the way scripture presents the story. Scripture tells us that God is the seeker. God is revealing God’s own self to you in the creation, in scripture, in your very life experience. We are asked only to open our eyes, to see, and then respond as the Magi did in coming to adore the one who made us and then entered human history to redeem us.

Open your eyes to how God is showing up in your life. God is seeking after you and me. Come let us adore him. Amen.

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He is also a member of the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church and serves on the Advisory Group on Church Planting. Frank blogs on mostly church development related topics at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

Download the sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany.

Seeking God’s Light, Epiphany (A,B,C) – 2015

January 6, 2015

Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7,10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

In the reading from Isaiah, we are called to “arise” and “shine”; we are called to get up and be in relationship with this light that is God’s love breaking into a world that has been covered in darkness. This darkness has covered the earth, this thick darkness that the Magi walk through; we have been promised that it will vanish in the dawn of this new light that is the Glory of the Lord.

Isaiah says that the nations shall come to this light and the kings to the brightness of this dawn. And then in the gospel reading this morning we see the nations streaming to this light. We see these kings on a long journey through the dark. Weighed down with their gifts and riches as they seek. These treasure chests they have brought with them from the East.

Exactly who they are is difficult to discern. Are they wise men? Kings? Persian magicians? The text says “Magi,” and our tradition of song and story has overlaid a multitude of meanings – for example, that there were three of them, and what their names were.

But in the text, there are not three men, but three gifts. The Bible does not say how many Magi there were; there could have been three – or 30.

There is room in this magical caravan for all of us.

What is clear is that they are other definitely otherworldly, mysterious. These travellers are not part of the Jewish world. They come from far away. They are the world flocking to the light of God.

These Magi have been traveling in the dark, following a star; we don’t know for how long they have been seeking any more than we know where they started,or how many of them there are.

But as they get close, they seek council from Herod. We in the audience want to shout “No! Don’t ask him!” Herod is afraid of the child, and we all know there is nothing more dangerous than a powerful man when he is afraid.

From the text, we know that when they find this child with his mother, they pay him homage. The word that gets translated as “homage” is a wonderful combination of the Greek words for “to fall down” and “to kiss.” This is worship at its most pure. They find this child, which is the goal of their journey, and they fall down in praise. And then, of course, they offer the gifts.

These wise men, these kings, these magicians from a far-off land offer the baby three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There is tradition, too, around the meaning of these gifts.

The gold is because the baby is a king, and they say just this to Herod and all of Jerusalem – that they are looking for the child who has been born the King of the Jews.

They offer the baby frankincense because he is God, and the incense symbolizes prayer rising to the heavens like smoke.

And they offer the baby myrrh, which was often used for burials and symbolized death, because even here at the beginning of this story about Jesus as a baby, we remember that this story goes to the cross and beyond.

We are all on our own journeys through the dark, carrying our own gifts within us. We, too, seek to find the truth of love in this world of darkness. We, too, bear our gifts and are seeking the right place to lay them down.

We come bearing gold, our gift for our king. To whom and to what do we owe our allegiance? Who is our king? What orients our lives in the political spectrum, and how do we work together? There are any number of authorities who would eagerly have our obedience and fealty. How do we know which loud voice in the clamor of the world should be obeyed?

We come bearing frankincense and seeking what is holy in this world. We are looking for the thin space, the gap between this world that we see and touch and the other world that we long for and know to be true. Is it our selves, our families, our nation? Is it our ideologies, our own opinions? Is it personal growth? Is there anything that makes you fall on your knees in honor of something greater than yourself?

We come bearing myrrh, in all that we mourn. We are all bearing grief in this world, and we are looking for a place to lay it down. What is it that makes you weep? What do you do with the grief in your life? Myrrh was used for the anointing of a dead body. What are you ready to bury? What do you need to let go of and mourn the loss of?

Whom do we obey? What do we worship? Where can we lay our broken hearts? The answer is: the Kingdom of Love that Jesus preaches about.

This new kingdom is the Light that illuminates the deep darkness. This new kingdom has broken into and shattered all we thought we knew about the way the world works.

If we obey the Kingdom of Love, we will find ourselves overflowing with compassion, and forgiving our enemies, and giving away all we had thought was “ours.”

If we worship in the Kingdom of Love, we find ourselves falling down at the feet of Love and joining with angels and archangels and breaking bread with God’s beloved.

If we allow the Kingdom of Love to break our hearts, we will realize that all the world’s children are our children, and that the heart of God is overflowing with gracious compassion for everyone.

It sounds like loss – the loss of being the center, the loss of “treasure.” But in this loss there is overwhelming joy. That is what is said of these Magi: that in their encounter with this infant incarnation of Love, they were overwhelmed with joy.

There is something out there that is so bright and beautiful that it draws the shepherds, and the Magi and us. This is what we look for in the dark, burdened by our treasure, longing to lay down our obedience, our worship and our grief.

And so we walk through the dark, our eyes eagerly seeing a speck of light – a star we can follow. That is what Epiphany is about – it is a time to look for the light of God shining in unexpected places. And it is a time to fall down and kiss the light when we do find it.

 

— The Rev. Kerlin Richter is the founding priest of Bushwick Abbey, a creative new Episcopal church plant in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The Bible’s tall tale is our story, Epiphany (A,B,C) – 2006

January 6, 2006

Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7,10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

I want to give a personal two thumbs up to the movie “Big Fish.” “Big Fish” is the story of a father and a son that begins and ends at a river. The father, Edward Bloom, is larger than life. On the day of his son William’s birth, he catches the biggest catfish in Alabama’s Blue River. The catfish is so big that … Well, it’s so big that it furnishes the material for stories that Edward tells for the rest of his life, including the night of William’s engagement party, when he makes himself the center of attention rather than his son and his son’s fiancee.

William comes to believe that his father’s life has just been one big fish story, and when Edward lies dying, William becomes determined to know what his father was “really like.” But whenever William asks his father a question – about his childhood in tiny Ashland, Alabama; his college days; how he met his wife, William’s mother; how he got his start in business – his father responds with another tall tale.

In a sense, the gospels are also the story of a father and a son that begins at a river. The gospels tell us that Jesus went down to the river along with the crowds drawn by the preaching of John the Baptist. And at the river, something happened. Something happened that sounds a bit like one of Edward Bloom’s tall tales. Some say that the Holy Spirit took the form of a dove and descended upon Jesus and that a heavenly voice spoke, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The Bible might be regarded as a tall tale, and indeed some scholars look at it that way. Water into wine? A handful of loaves and fish multiplied to feed five thousand? Sight restored to the blind? The lame leaping and walking? The dead raised? Impossible, they say. The products of naive, unsophisticated, and primitive people, or else willful distortions of the truth.

Perhaps they are right. What would we have seen and heard if we had been present at the baptism of Jesus? Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record that there was a dove that descended upon Jesus and a heavenly voice that announced that he was God’s Son, the beloved one.

What if we had been there and had seen and heard nothing? What if years later someone told us this story of the Spirit taking the form of a dove and God’s voice resounding like thunder? Would we be like the son in Big Fish? Would we dismiss the impossible story and say, “No, tell me what REALLY happened”? Or would we understand that sometimes a tall tale conveys the truth more effectively than the who, what, when, and where of a so-called factual account?

A scene in the novel Big Fish (but not in the movie) tells of the day when people heard that Edward Bloom was dying and began to gather in front of his house. First just a few came, and then more and more, until dozens of people were in the front yard – treading on the shrubbery, trampling on the monkey grass. Finally, William’s mother tells him to ask them all to leave. As they leave, one man says to William, “We all have stories, just as you do. Ways in which he touched us, helped us, gave us jobs, lent us money, sold it to us wholesale. Lots of stories, big and small. They all add up. Over a lifetime it all adds up. That’s why we’re here, William. We’re a part of him, of who he is, just as he is a part of us.”

Like the friends of Edward who gathered on the lawn when he was dying, we, too, have stories to tell about One who helped us. “Ways in which he touched us. … Over a lifetime it all adds up. … We’re a part of him, of who he is, just as he is a part of us.”

We have been incorporated into a story that sounds an awful lot like a tall tale. A father blessed his son and sent him out on a great quest. He had adventure after adventure along the way: the angels sang at his birth; mighty kings brought rich gifts to him; a wicked ruler tried to slay him; at his word plain water became rich wine; his touch brought sight to the blind and raised the dead to life; although he was a simple man the wise and learned marveled at his words. He undertook great trials and surpassed all expectations. Finally, a close friend betrayed him, he was given a mock trial, and executed. But then the greatest marvel of all happened. He outwitted even death itself. He returned to the father, having completed the quest, and his father and all his household rejoiced once again over the beloved Son with whom he was well pleased.

In a sense, our stories, too, are about a Father and a Son, and they begin at a river, or at least they begin with water. As children or as adults we were brought to the water, and just as the Spirit descended upon Jesus, so the Spirit descended upon us. And just as the Father announced that Jesus was his beloved Son with whom he was well pleased, so the Father announced that we were his beloved daughter or son and that he was well pleased with us, too. Does that sound like a tall tale to you?

Is it easier to believe that your parents dressed you in a christening gown that had been handed down from great-great-great-great Aunt So-and-So and brought you to church where a doddery old man held you over a stone basin, mumbled a few words, and splashed water on your head? So be it. But personally, I prefer the Bible’s tall tale and believe that there’s more truth in it than in a “just-the-facts-ma’am” account of what happened.

The Bible’s tall tale is our story. You are the Father’s beloved daughter or son; he loves you and is well pleased with you. And he has sent you out to have marvelous adventures and accomplish great tasks: to love your enemies, to return good for evil, to bring wholeness to the sick, to stand up and speak out for those ignored and despised by others, the poor, hungry, and homeless. And at the end of the quest you will have such stories to tell. “You’re not going to believe this, but let me tell you about the time …”

— The Rev. Dr. J. Barry Vaughn, has preached at Harvard University’s Memorial Church, Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, and the Chautauqua Institution. More than 50 of his sermons have been published. He holds degrees from Harvard, Yale, and Scotland’s University of St. Andrews. Presently, he teaches history at the University of Alabama.