Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | January 4, 2009

2009.01.04 “The Journey” Epiphany Sunday

Central United Methodist Church

“The Journey”

Epiphany Sunday

Matthew 2:  1 – 12

January 4th, 2009

“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”  When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.  They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”  When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.  When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.  On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (Matthew 2: 1 – 12, NRSV)   

     It’s one of the most fascinating stories in the Bible: mysterious Magi who follow the light of a star to the Christ Child born in Bethlehem.

      But what possibly could this ancient story have to do with us? Moderns who travel, not by camel, but by airliners.  Who navigate not by the stars, but sophisticated GPS systems. Who seek not kings, but elected leaders (just one, please?) who will govern justly and wisely. Here we are, waking up blinking in the year 2009, calculating how old we will be this year, and wondering what life – both our public life and our personal life – will bring us in 2009?  What does this ancient story have to do with us? 

        Just this: in the journey of the Magi we see a metaphor for our own faith and life: of life as a journey, of seeking Light in our lives whenever, wherever, and however it appears, and particularly as it has dawned upon us in Jesus the Christ.

        It is this – I believe – which has lead to Christians’ fascination with this story for 20 centuries, as portrayed in art, literature, poetry and drama.

      Upon examination, there is much that we don’t know about the story, and because of that, much that we read into it. The story is found only in The Gospel According to Matthew. The text says only that “magi” – likely Persian priests, astrologers, and scholars from the lands east of Israel: Persia (Iran), Arabia (Saudi Arabia), and Babylon (Iraq) – came seeking the child who was born, after noticing a star in the sky announcing his birth. It doesn’t say kings, nor does it say that they were three, much less give their names, which later church tradition filled in: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. 

According to the story, they weren’t even that good at the whole pilgrimage thing, and almost brought about the child’s assassination. They wound up in the royal palace in Jerusalem, when they should have been looking in Bethlehem, nine miles away.  To Herod, news of a new baby with his eyes on the throne sounds like a threat, and if he’d had his way, would have snuffed the child’s life with the Magi’s unknowing aiding and abetting.

When they get to the right place, perhaps they also found that they’ve brought the wrong gifts.  Nobody in Bethlehem had any need for frankincense or myrrh; gold, maybe. Remember the directions of Brian’s mother in Monty Python’s film, The Life of Brian, when the Wise Men show up at his birth instead of Jesus’, offering the gifts in error: “Next time, bring the gold, leave the frankincense and myrrh behind.”

      But, they give what they have, and, transformed by their journey and their experience, they go home by a different road, different people.

      It seems to me that what’s so fascinating about this story is its image of a journey.  We too, are on such a journey, though more through space and time than across geography (though for some of us, there’s that too!)  

      Some might quibble and say, “Is it a pilgrimage, a quest, or a journey?”  A pilgrimage goes to a holy place.  A quest is in search of a holy object, whether the Holy Grail, or True Love.  A journey is for the sake of the journey, where the object is not the destination, but the journey. 

      Of course, with all our modern means of travel, a journey doesn’t mean what it used to, before modern times.  If you’ve ever taken a journey such as the Magi might have taken, you’ve gained insights that you don’t get in a car, bus, train, or plane.

      I regret that I haven’t taken such a journey in awhile. The last such journey was 10 years ago now, in 1998, a trek in the Himalayas.  It wasn’t only the destination; it was the journey that was educational.  Certain observations emerge:

–          Don’t expect it to be like home:  remember, to experience

             different things is why you left home in the first place.

–          It’s solely by your own power; nobody’s going to carry you:

             keep putting one foot in front of the other. 

–          You have to travel lightly; only what you can carry on your

      back (or pay someone to carry on their backs for you.)

      – You never know what’s around the next hill. In fact, the whole

             journey is full of risks:  danger, disease, deprivation.

             (Aren’t you glad you’ve come!)

–          You will see both wonderful and horrible sights, and gain

             experience you can’t get from a book.  By this, you will be

             changed.

      In our journey through life, we have been changed; some for the better, some for the worse.  Occasionally, we might flirt with the fantasy of “If only I could be young again.” But like me, perhaps you’ve come to realize you would only want to do that IF you could retain the wisdom and experience you’ve gained along the way, at heavy cost, with the scars to prove it.

      As we journey, pray God that we might be illumined by the Light, whenever, wherever, and however it appears. For the Magi, it was the light of a mysterious, moving star that prompted them to leave their comforts and country and journey forth. To me, it’s beside the point whether there was actually a conjunction of planets in 4 to 6 B.C., some scientific or historical explanation for what they saw, it’s not that kind of story, and yields a different kind of truth.

      I believe that “All Truth is God’s Truth,” whether that truth comes to us through our religion or another’s, through religion or through science, through knowledge, or through the school of hard knocks.  Whenever, for example, science and religion conflict, sometimes we have to make an educated choice: one or the other have to be wrong, even if it means overthrowing something we may have believed for centuries: whether that heaven is up or that the earth is flat or the divine right of kings or theories of disease or human sexuality.

      I often think back to a discussion in seminary of two classmates, regarding the following question: If you had to have surgery, and you had the choice between a Christian surgeon who was a hack, and a Muslim surgeon who was renowned for his skill, which would you choose? 

      We can learn so much, even from unexpected places, if we will just keep our eyes and ears, our hearts and minds open to the ongoing revelation of God’s truth, whenever, wherever, and however it appears. 

      Having said, that, as Christians, we acknowledge that on our journeys, we have found redemption, salvation, transformation – whatever you want to call it, in Jesus the Christ.

      Has anyone ever said it better that the Evangelist John?

“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.  And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1: 9 – 14)

      At some point in our lives, we encountered Jesus the Christ in a transformative way. Perhaps it was through the nurturing of our parents, perhaps through an intense emotional encounter, perhaps through a search that culminated in a definitive choice.  Now, while we may still learn from other religions and paths, from Buddhism or Islam or Judaism or Hinduism or Native American Spirituality, our path is Christian, following the Jesus the Christ, and all that we learn aids us in following him. 

      Now, at the beginning of 2009, as we continue on our Christian journey, the questions we need to ask are these:

             – Am I still learning about Jesus and the Christian faith and

             way, such that new knowledge leads to new insight, not

             as an end in itself, but towards a better life?

             – Am I living more like Jesus lived, particularly with regard

             to the way he treated people all kinds, and especially the

             last and the least?

–          Am I loving more like Jesus loved, sacrificially, completely

     and to the very end?  That is the journey of the Christian

     life.

      I think we could all acknowledge, that on our journey, we have a ways to go.

        No wonder we are so enamored with these adventurous, inquisitive, yet slightly incompetent seekers, who were the Magi. For in their journey we see a metaphor for our own faith and life: of life as a journey, of seeking Light whenever, wherever, and however it appears, and particularly as it has dawned upon us in Jesus the Christ.

In 1942, the English poet W.H. Auden wrote a piece called “For The Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio.” It’s so appropriate for this time of year, and for today in particular: the end of Christmas, the start of a New Year, going back to our jobs, to school, continuing on our journey of life and faith.  Listen to what – in the final section – Auden has to say:

“Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,

Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes-

Some have got broken – and carrying them up to the attic.

The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,

And the children got ready for school. There are enough

Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week –

Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,

Stayed up so late, attempted – quite unsuccessfully –

To love all of our relatives, and in general

Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again

As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed

To do more than entertain it as an agreeable

Possibility, once again we have sent Him away

Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,

The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.

The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,

And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware

Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought

Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now

Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,

Back in the moderate Aristotelian city

Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry

And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,

And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.

It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets

Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten

The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen

The Child, however dimly, however incredulously

The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all . . . .

Chorus

He is the Way.

Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;

You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.

Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;

You will come to a great city that has expected your return

for years.

He is the Life.

Love Him in the World of the Flesh;

And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.”

(W. H. Auden (1907-1973) “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio.”)

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