Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | January 1, 2012

2012.01.01 “A Story to Begin a New Year” – Epiphany Sunday 2012 – Matthew 2: 1 – 12

Central United Methodist Church

“A Story to Begin a New Year”

Pastor David L. Haley

Epiphany Sunday

Matthew 2: 1 – 12

January 1st, 2012

 

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the reign of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”

When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born.  They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

       You, Bethlehem, land of Judah, by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,

       because from you will come one who governs, who will shepherd my people Israel. ”

            Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.”  When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route. (Matthew 2: 1 – 12, Common English Version)

 

Here we are, on the first day of the Year Of Our Lord 2012.

 

Anybody here think they’d never live to see it?

 

Anybody got a big event, a major milestone coming up in 2012?

 

Anybody anticipating a big change in 2012?

 

Anybody anxious or fearful about something frightening or difficult that awaits you in 2012?

 

The thing is, while some of these things we might be able to predict, mercifully, most of us do not know what awaits us in the year to come.  As Reinhold Niebuhr notes in his “Prayer for a New Year” (included in today’s bulletin), “every tomorrow is an unknown country,” and “every decision is a venture of faith.”   Good thing we got a lot of faith. Or, maybe we don’t.  Maybe we don’t have a lot of faith, and that’s why we come to church, because, based upon our experience so far, we need more, to face up to the challenges life is giving us.  We’re like the guy who came running up to a priest in the middle of a hurricane, carrying a crucifix, frantically asking, “Hey Father, how do you work this thing?”

 

That’s why, on such a day as this, I’ve always loved the story tradition gives us, on or around New Year’s Day, for the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6th.  It’s the other Christmas story, the story of the Magi, or the Three Kings as we most often call them, who go on pilgrimage in search of a new King who is born, led by a star in the sky, until they arrive – after a few detours – at the place where the Child is. After they honor him with gifts they have brought, they return to their own country by another way.

 

Given its antiquity, there is a lot we don’t know about this story, like who they were, how many there were, where they came from, or whether they posted photos of their journey on Flickr.  In spite of this, even their brief appearance has sparked Christian imagination for twenty centuries.

 

Like those Magi of long ago, let’s approach this New Year like a quest that lies before us, in time if not in space.  Let’s do so, on this 1st day of a new year, by asking ourselves three questions.

 

Like the Magi, are we open to Epiphany, new truth God reveals?

 

Because, whatever we may or may not know about the Magi’s journey, there was a time and a place it began.

Did they note the new star only after a lifetime of seeking, anticipating and awaiting the time and place to look? Or was it serendipitous, a surprise one night while on the rooftop, studying the stars?  But there it was, now what?

 

What are the stars on your horizon? What is it in your life – especially in the year to come – that draws you, leads you, illuminates your life, and fills you with hope?  Is it something new we have learned, in a book, from a friend, in a class?  Is it a life lesson we have picked up along the way? Is it a new baby or grandbaby to be born in the family? Is it something in our bodies, our hearts, or our minds that has gradually revealed itself to us? Has someone or something changed our thinking, altered the way we feel, changed the way we act?

 

It was exactly such a new truth Matthew was trying to teach the church, which is why he included this story.  One of the most controversial issues in the church at the time Matthew wrote was whether only Jews could be Christians, or whether Gentiles (pagans) could, too. Imagine, if they hadn’t changed their mind about that, we wouldn’t be sitting here today. But Matthew provocatively suggests, “Guess who the first ones were to worship the newborn Christ were? Not Jews, but strangers, from far off lands to the east. Time to draw the Christian circle larger.  And that was only the beginning:  As Scott Hoezee noted in a commentary on this text a few years ago:

 

“What Matthew may be trying to convey . . . is the reach of grace. Matthew is giving a Gospel sneak preview: the Christ child who attracted these odd Magi to his cradle will later have the same magnetic effect on Samaritan adulterers, immoral prostitutes, greasy tax collectors on the take, despised Roman soldiers, and ostracized lepers. (Scott Hoezee, Lectionary Commentary, 2010)

 

Some of us believe God is still launching new stars today, reminding us over and again in the church, that it’s time to draw the circle wider, wider than we thought before.

 

Think of it this way: those same stars the wise men followed, they’re still up there. The same stars people have told stories about, navigated by, gazed at, for millennia, they’re still there. Sadly, most of us don’t notice them, for the most part because we rarely look up, especially at night. Every now and then, walking home from a meeting, I like looking up to see old Orion in the winter sky, with three stars in his belt, a reminder of things far greater than whatever we were talking about in our meeting.

 

But though they are the same stars, we don’t look at them in the same way as they did 2000 years ago, 1000 years ago, even 500 years ago. After what we learned from a Polish guy named Nicolai Copernicus, and an Italian guy named Galileo Galilei, who suggested, that instead of the sun moving around the earth – as the Bible teaches – the earth moves around the sun: heliocentricism, its called. For this Galileo was charged by the Catholic Inquisition with heresy, and forced to recant.  You’ll be happy to know that in 1992, Pope John Paul II expressed regret for how the Galileo affair was handled, and issued a declaration acknowledging the errors committed by the Catholic Church tribunal that judged the scientific positions of Galileo Galilei. Yes, we in the church may change, but we do it VERY slowly.

 

Now, when we look at the stars, we don’t think of the myths of ancient heroes, but we know we’re looking into space, and think of sun and moon and planets and stars and constellations.  Because a new star has arisen, and our mind has been changed.

 

What new star will arise, what new truth will God teach us this year?

 

       The second question we need to ask, like the Magi of old, is “Having experienced epiphany, a new truth arising, are we willing to follow it where it leads?”

 

After all, it may be that though many saw the star, only a few undertook the journey to follow where it led.

 

I have always loved poet T. S. Eliot’s imaginative description, in his poem, Journey of the Magi, of the difficulties they faced:

 

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

 

Consider this: sometimes the greatest truths in life, the greatest life lessons we learn, we arrive at not by staying home, but by leaving home. All through the Bible God asks people to leave where they are: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, the children of Israel, the exile, Jesus into the wilderness, Jesus calling the disciples to leave their boats behind.  Sometimes to find the truth, not only about us but the truth for us, we have to leave the familiar, and go on a journey, undertake a pilgrimage, as the Magi did, even though it almost cost them their lives. Oh, but what they learned along the way.

 

Now there’s an uncomfortable truth to begin a truth year with: we can’t stay at home and huddle, not even here at church, but we’ve got to go out.  Out there, to where God is calling us.  To the community.  To a new class.  To go visit somebody.  To go on a mission trip. To go on a journey with Jesus.  What door is God calling us, together, or you personally, to go through in 2012?

The final question is this: Having experienced the epiphany of a new truth, and choosing to follow where it leads, (two big assumptions) are we willing to be changed?

 

T. S. Eliot, in his Journey of the Magi, suggests that the Magi were changed, though not in a way that we might necessarily think:

 

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

 

Sometimes what makes us into distinct human beings, people of character, is not how we are alike everybody else, but how we are different.  What we have seen, and what we have suffered, and what we have experienced on our journey through life, has made us distinct, If we are fortunate, we might say it has given us character, hopefully not made us boring, but interesting.

 

As a parent, having experienced childbirth, you will never be the same. If you have ever been deeply in love, or had your heart broken by someone you love, you will never be the same. If you have ever sat at the bedside of someone you loved, and watched them die, or worse, as too many of our young soldiers have experienced, watch your best friend die violently, you will never be the same. Along our spiritual journeys, having experienced both the grace of God and the costs of discipleship, we will never be the same again. You may savor or regret such life lessons, joyful or painful that they were, but my guess is we would not give up the wisdom and character they gave us. There is a Native American aphorism which says, “No wise person ever wanted to be younger.”  I have always said I would only want to be young again, if I could only do so knowing what I know now.  I paid a high price for it.

 

Having undertaken their journey by the light of a new star arising, the Magi were changed by their journey, as we are changed by ours.  As we now move away from Christmas into a new year, I love how Peter Gomes, preacher at Harvard Church, who we lost on February 28th of last year, put it:

 

For we have come from an encounter with the world of the possible in     the midst of the impossible.  We have seen God . . . and survived to tell     the tale, moving about not knowing that our face shine with the encounter, bearing the mark of the encounter forever, and marveling in the darkest night of the soul at that wondrous star-filled night. (Sermons,

p. 28)

 

Whatever 2012 brings, if we remember this, we can handle it.

 

Personally, at the end of 2012:

 

I hope to still be alive

 

I hope to have more friends, and closer friends, not less.

 

I want to learn something new.

 

I want to go a journey.

 

I’m willing to gain new scars, as long as I can learn the lessons and the wisdom that comes with them.

 

I want to experience the mystery and grace which leads me to worship, and in turn, offer such gifts as I have.

 

Today let’s begin on this pilgrimage together.  Amen.

 

 

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