Sermon for the Epiphany
January 6, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
Some people call it “generica”: the expanses of nationally-franchised businesses that saturate many suburban business districts and most exits of heavily-traveled highways. There’s little point of leaving home if you’re only going to see more of the same. Although a weary traveler may be grateful to see a familiar logo, for many people the endless rearrangements of the same few brands turns the thrill of travel, the promise of seeing something new in the world, into a dreary sameness. On the other hand, sophisticated as they were, I’m sure that before they were even halfway to Bethlehem, the magi would have been delighted to see the stars of Waffle House and Econo Lodge rise over their path. Anything would have been better than trying to sleep on a scorpion-infested desert floor hoping your own camels don’t spit on you.
The wise men pressed on, led by a star, yes, but also led by the promise that inspires so many unlikely, counterintuitive, possibly foolish decisions: the promise of new. But the magi sought not just a new sight, not just a new life or a new understanding, but something more profoundly new. Something that defied the ancient teacher’s maxim that “there is nothing new under the sun.” Something, or someone, who could defy that truism because he was more ancient than that, or any, star. The one through whom all the stars were made. The one who was the divine light, the light of the world. The one who is beyond time itself was offering a new way of being in the world.
The promise of meeting something that would be unique in all human history, led the wise men to do foolish things. To sacrifice months or years of their lives in the hope of gaining a glimpse of something they could never completely understand or articulate. To defy a paranoid, treacherous, and bloodthirsty potentate. To carry an untold fortune across a hostile landscape and lay it at the feet of a wordless infant. To offer those gifts not because of what he had done, nor because of what he could do for them, but simply because of who he is. To go home to their lands as strangers to their kin and nations, for they had been transformed by an encounter with the God of Israel.
The scene of the Magi finally meeting the Holy Family and laying down their gifts is picture-perfect, and we often embrace it sentimentally. But remember that the Holy Land was not just the crossroads of the ancient world; this land was also considered to be the center of the world. The three continents known to the ancients, Africa, Asia, and Europe, meet there. Perhaps you’ve seen the ancient stylized map showing the three continents as equal mandorlas, growing out from Jerusalem like petals or leaves. The Magi have long been considered as symbols of the three continents, and their generous obeisance therefore symbolizes and foretells the triumph of Christ, the reordering of the world according to God, with all nations and peoples bowing down before the King of the Universe, suddenly made equal by their devotion. The scene of the worship of the Magi is much less sentimental when we understand it for what it is: a unique vision of the reign of Christ, the fulfillment of God’s promise of peace on Earth, good will towards all.
In order to get us closer to that vision, God reveals new things in ways and at times and to people that God chooses. Sometimes through dramatic supernatural means like wandering stars and visionary dreams, and sometimes through the choices we make like giving gifts and making journeys that we can’t justify through strictly rational means. The most important revelation of all, of course, is the presence of Jesus Christ among us, both his incarnate self in history and his divine presence revealed in our grace-filled choices. That’s why it’s so important to watch for and respond to God’s revelations to us. Our faithful response to God’s good news transforms us like the magi were transformed, overwhelming us with joy and redefining our lives. Our faithful response is also a revelation of God’s love and faithfulness, one the world needs now just as much as it did then. So keep watch for new things from God, and be encouraged that like the magi, though the journey may be challenging, you will never be alone in following God.<
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