A Sermon by Rev. Chris Jorgensen
January 7, 2018
Scripture: Matthew 2: 1-12
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.
Today in our scripture we encounter some wise men, some travelers from the East. The Christian tradition sometimes calls them the three kings, like in the song we just sang. But the commentary I was reading this week points out that there is actually nothing in the text to indicate that they are kings. The word used to describe them – magi – could mean wise people or even astrologers. They are more of a Persian or Babylonian pagan priestly class. They are readers of the stars, interpreters of dreams. They are thoroughly outsiders: both in terms of their religious beliefs, and ethnic and national identity. They are completely outside the Jewish tradition from which Jesus the Messiah arises.
And yet God calls them to see the child Jesus. God uses what they know – their own belief system, the stars, dreams -to guide them to Jerusalem. There they encounter King Herod. And Herod consults his experts, the ones who know the Jewish tradition and its scriptures about the Messiah. And the experts tell Herod that the baby will be found in Bethlehem. Herod shares this with the wise ones from the East, and this information from the scriptures helps to lead them to the baby Jesus, so they can honor him.
Prompted by star-struck curiosity and wonder, and guided by the scripture, the magi venture out and show up to see the Christ-child, God incarnate. And this is the Epiphany we celebrate today: the revealing of God in Christ to the whole world. Because these magi were foreigners, it signals that Christ has come not just for a small community in Judea, but in fact for everyone. And the magi bring valuable gifts to honor this Christ child. Before they left home, they packed up their gold, frankincense, and myrrh – expensive, precious items. Because even though they didn’t know exactly what they were seeking, the stars told them that it was very important indeed. And God moved them to follow.
God move us, too. God calls us to follow our inner sense of God in the world, our sense of awe and curiosity and wonder. For a stargazer, it makes sense that God would reveal Godself in the stars. Maybe we too get a glimpse of the awe of God when we get out of the city lights and look up into the vast night sky. Perhaps we sense God’s grandeur in a sunset, at the edge of the sea, even in the silent falling snow.
Or maybe it hits us most as we greet a newborn child, or as we witness the love poured out between two people at a wedding. Maybe it’s the hope of resurrection that we experience when a loved one dies. Perhaps it’s seeing selfless acts of compassion or courage that warm our hearts and bring a lump to our throat. Like the magi, it might be something very specific to our culture and situation and individual interest that moves us to wonder about God, to ask questions about who or what brought all this into being – and what we are supposed to do about it.
In the Methodist tradition, we refer to this as prevenient grace. This is the grace that comes before, the sense of God’s presence that is in us even before we might name it as God, even before we realize we are longing for God. In our tradition, we believe this grace is available to every person.
And as we experience this grace, these glimpses of God, maybe our curiosity gets piqued. Maybe the next thing we do is read the bible. Maybe we might go to church. Maybe we have been in church this whole time, but this light of God’s presence suddenly makes us want to pay attention, real attention for the first time. Maybe we decide to try praying, even if we are not really sure what good it will do or who exactly is listening.
After my own experience of encountering God’s prevenient grace, I decided I needed to get a bible. I literally didn’t have one in my house. So I took Ruby one day, and we went to Borders on 72nd and Dodge (way back then when it was still open). And I got a bible. I flipped open to the Gospel of Matthew, and I started reading. Chapter 5.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
What I read there took my breath away. It was so beautiful. It was none of the guilt and shame and judgment I had learned about as a child. It was a story of a God who loves and who calls us to love each other in response. It drew me deeper into faith.
And yet, the bible is a complicated book. Had I turned to lots of other chapters, I might have experienced something very different. I’m going to be honest. When you pick up a bible, it does not take long to find something violent or ethically problematic. It does not take long to find an excuse to throw the whole thing out if you are looking for one. Our holy book: it was written by deeply flawed human beings – like us.
And yet, by some miracle of the Holy Spirit, it still points to God. As our Methodist Articles of Religion – the fundamental doctrines of the Methodist church say, “the Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation.” The scriptures lead us into a saving experience of God’s grace.
But we have to venture out and show up in order for that to happen. We cannot simply say yeah we believe all that stuff without knowing what’s in the bible. We can’t simply pretend that the violent and problematic parts of scripture don’t exist. Part of our job as Christians is for us to take the bible seriously. That means we have to wrestle with it. That’s our gift we bring when God calls us. We bring our openness to encountering God in the story and person of Jesus. We bring our effort in asking questions about how the scripture leads us to God and figuring out how to apply it to our 21st-century lives.
Because we don’t have faith in words in a book. We have faith in the Living God, the capital-W Word, revealed through Christ, whose essence flawed humans tried to capture in the bible. We don’t worship the book. To worship the book is idolatry. But to wrestle with this book is holy. To struggle with our doubts and open our hearts and devote our lives to knowing this God: that is the precious gift we bring like the magi. We too are seekers and wanderers with our heads filled with stars – hoping to see a glimpse of God.
I want to close today by telling you about Guy Consolmagno. He is an astronomer. He studies space, meteorites, and the physical universe as a whole. He is also a Catholic, Jesuit Brother and the Director of the Vatican Observatory. I listened to an interview online with him this week. It was from the radio show called “On Being,” hosted by Krista Tippet. In the interview, Brother Guy says a lot of interesting things about religion and science.
At one point in the interview Tippet asks him about something he once wrote, which is this: “Christianity does not start with faith but with experience. Faith is our reaction to that experience.” He replies to her that he still believes that is true, and he has come to believe that the same is also true about science. Before you decide what you want to study, what hypothesis you want to test, you experience something. You intuit something. Then you begin to ask questions about it, to try make sense of it. You use all the tools of science to learn about this experience.
The same is true of theology – of learning about God. Scripture, though certainly not perfect, helps us to make sense of this experience of prevenient grace…this pull from God, this call, this sense of awe and wonder that makes us want to seek and learn more. This is the same call that moved the magi to Bethlehem. And it is the same call that moves us to seek and understand God’s presence in relationships, in nature, in scripture, sometimes even here in church. And each of these things we encounter is not God himself or herself in totality, but they do point us toward God. They guide our way as we earnestly seek to understand and encounter the divine.
And when we venture out and show up, with the gift of earnest desire and a willingness to encounter and maybe even be changed by God, we too might be graced with an epiphany: the revelation of who God is with us and for us.
May it be so.
1) Re-read the scripture for this week. What part of the scripture do you find most interesting and inspiring? What are you drawn to? Why?
2) What part of the scripture do you find problematic or do you still have questions about?
3) In what situations in life do you feel most aware of God’s presence?
4) What is one thing you have done in response to becoming aware of God’s presence?