The Rev. Dr. Seth E. Weeldreyer
Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
They sought complete fullness of Holy Love in human life. Emmanuel. Salvation. A Messiah for all society. Over the ages, we’ve embellished details of their spiritual quest with our interpretation and imagination. Three kings – Gaspar, Melchior, Balthazar, representing Persia, India, Arabia arriving on the 12th day after Jesus’ birth. From that distance their camels must have been turbo-charged! Legs spinning like old road-runner cartoons! Matthew calls them magi. Were they wisemen? Astrologers? Kings? We don’t know. For Matthew, they’re foreign strangers from farthest reaches of the known world. They follow a star, an extraordinary burst of beauty and wonder amid otherwise ordinary life. Again, people speculate – was it a supernova? A comet? Matthew’s saying, they used the best scientific navigation – GPS for their day – and then even better than Siri, they still needed real human relations to clarify their destination.
They sought Holy Love in human life, except their quest ran through King Herod. He knew something about fullness. He’s known for grand building projects – roads, amphitheaters, markets, palaces, and the great Temple complex whose Western Wall still stands. He reigned as a king of material wealth and security. All for the people, he’d say. This is what fullness of life looks like! His spies hear the magi saying something else, seeking someone else. Their questions incite his anxiety, like absolutist strong-men in all ages. His powerful religious and secular advisors analyze and try to neutralize any threat. Masking his fear with God-father-like sweet words and deceitful smiles, he seduces the magi with Starbuck’s and Sweetwater’s in his opulent palace. He insinuates kindred longing to join their journey; and tries to co-opt them for his purpose.
You see, here at the beginning, as Matthew starts the Emmanuel story, a few points about holy love come clear. Jesus’ revelation from birth to resurrection is a deeply personal quest, with widely social / political consequence. God’s incarnation in Christ causes a clash of kingdoms – corrupt powers pursuing self-centered fullness v. compassionate powers serving heavenly completeness of abundant life for all. From beginning to end, this commonwealth of heaven on earth comes in Christ not just or first or most of all in throne rooms and power plays. Rather epiphanies of Holy Joy and Divine Love among us come through humility and vulnerability, simple service of generous hearts, courageous choice (even sacrifice) in the face of what is not God’s way for our world.
You see, for Matthew, the magi tell us something about Jesus; and about our quest for the fullness of Holy Love in human life. We try to follow stars we see—extraordinary bursts of beauty and wonder amid otherwise ordinary life. Events unfold, phenomenon happen, experiences move us. We rightfully add our interpretation and imagination, inevitably with variation. And what makes the difference, friends, is the reflection of the illumination burning inside us or not; and how we train the eyes of our hearts to see by it. Tell me about the character of God to whom you give your heart, and I’ll have a pretty good idea of how you treat others – with compassion, grace, forgiveness, inclusion or condemnation, vengeance, bitterness and exclusion. Tell me about the experiences, the art and literature and music, the history you bear in your mind and heart, and I’ll have a pretty good idea of how you’re looking at experiences, expressions, and mysteries of our present world.
How do we follow the stars we see, and share epiphanies? Tom Long stresses that we need practices of faith to see God’s face in our experiences and respond with grace. Even Herod and his minions turn to scripture in their twisted pursuit. As we live into New Year’s resolutions and whatever we’re resolving from the past, familiar patterns and routines may await our return from holiday travel and festivities. And friends, we need to kindle practices of prayer and scripture or other inspirational reading and growing together – anything to turn the eyes of our hearts and minds to God’s vision of salvation revealed in Jesus, away from Herods who call and coopt us. Like candles in our back corner, kindle hope, for surely, we’ll face personal illness or social concern. Kindle generosity, for surely temptations of greed allure all around. Kindle forgiveness, for surely, we’ll feel hurt. Kindle love, for surely, we’ll hear fear and hate. Kindle peace, for surely we’ll know stress and loss. Kindle compassion in community, for surely others live these same concerns. However far we travel for work or pleasure, through all our e-mails and phone calls and conversations closer to home always look for Christ among us. You see, Epiphany is more than one Sunday. It’s about getting our eyes to see, our ears to hear, and our hearts in tune with God every day.
Lift up your eyes and look around, Isaiah urges. Jews came home from exile to reconstruct life, buildings, relationships, commerce. But scholars tell us it all stalled like work on the great temple itself, amid political conflict and social strife, corruption and uncertainty. Isaiah beams a vision of abundant life in community which the magi in Matthew reflect. He urges them to see that light of hope chasing away darkness; and to be that light for all people. In other words, we follow the star and become starlight. We remember epiphanies past—heavenly insights to guide our life. And we radiate such Holy Love in our human life so others might see stars.
Sometimes God offers us epiphanies in sanctuaries of beauty and wonder. That’s what one visitor essentially said here yesterday for Jim Cook’s funeral. And don’t we know that epiphanies come most often not in finished places and perfected parts of life? Rather God’s grace and love often shines brightest, most perceptibly amid incompleteness – rough, dark, unexpected or tragic.
Over the holidays, we went again to be with my sister-in-law in northern Jersey. We saw plenty of bright lights high in the sky when we went into the big city on December 30th. A ferry to midtown Manhattan, then a bus past theatres and through Times Square. Dazzling marquees, huge LED screens, and barricades ready for the next night’s festivities. We toured the United Nations, then walked down Park Avenue to the Empire State building, grand building projects like Jerusalem long ago. The two queens, a princess and prince in our company headed home early. Ailih, Gabriel, and I went on to experience magnificent churches. At Trinity Church Wall Street people flocked to Alexander Hamilton’s grave. And inside amid the holiday decor, high up in the very front, catching your eye from any direction, a piercingly bright star beams above. Beautiful.
Then we went on to the enormous Cathedral of St John the Divine. It was sunset, church nearly empty. Just after we arrived and gazed down the vast expansive nave, way in the distance a man stepped over ropes onto the elevated platform. He lifted the piano lid and sat down. I’ve never heard such beautiful … tuning! Simple repeated key strokes rang clearly into every nook and cranny. Maybe like a musical star beaming through stunning acoustics. It sounded fine to me. But he just kept at it, turning his little tool, as we took a turn around the sanctuary. Through all the side aisles and chapels runs an exhibit titled the Christa Project—women bearing witness like Christ, artistic expressions amid troubled places of our world. Refugees. Sexual assault. Hunger and poverty. Education. Medicine. Gun violence. Fukashima nuclear plant. One series in the shape of a cross highlighted five wise-women leaders who resisted Herods of history—Nazis, American Civil Rights, and others to the farthest reaches of our known world. Beautiful, compelling, inspiring. Ping, ping, ping … the piano tuner kept at it. Eventually we circled around to the center cross section where he worked. Right there, at the heart of the cathedral, framing the tuner every way we looked, the whole middle of the sanctuary extending into transepts remains unfinished. No pristine marble facing, rather huge dark granite blocks exposed as the interior of walls and arches, and wood inside rough frames where one day stained glass may gleam. Fire a few years ago, we learned, left it even more unfinished. Ping, ping, ping. Epiphany. Just a simple piano tuner from the roughest most incomplete part of that sanctuary ringing clearly into every cranny of witnesses in so many places and experiences that need completion in grace and the order of God’s love for our world. So many people trying to shine a bit of holy light in the darkness. Ping, ping, ping.
You see, friends, maybe that’s something like Matthew’s gospel story. Jesus actually does nothing, yet. Matthew is tuning the instrument of revelation. He tries to get us in tune with the power and purposes of Holy Love Jesus will live; so often opposed to powers of Rome and religion; with deadly consequence and the ultimate Epiphany of resurrection.
In the end, the magi whoever they really are—long ago and among us still today–get wise to Herod’s schemes and go home by another way. Not the way they came. Not by familiar roads and routines and landmarks to be seen. Not co-opted as expected by powers in this world. Not just the easy way paved by myriad peers on comfortable main roads well-traveled. And not following the light of that star. For you see, the light of Christ is no longer an external ray from afar; rather an internal radiance enflaming their hearts.
Friends, maybe one day we’ll go to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, or Manhattan. Here in Kalamazoo, see all the “stars in the east” abounding—extraordinary bursts of wonder, with royal beauty bright; wise men and women following and becoming starlight in ordinary life. Lift up our eyes and look around! God’s project in Jesus Christ continues among us! Here in this sanctuary in the city, on our magi journey of living faith, we come to this table. With all the gifts of our lives, come to pay homage! Turn our eyes to the light! Turn our ears to the sound! Turn our hearts to taste and see the fullness of Holy Love nurturing human life! And then, as with glad magi of old, just maybe amid our resolutions and all that’s left to resolve, we too might go home by another way.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Thomas G. Long Matthew in Westminster Bible Companion series (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 19.
Matthew Flemming, “Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 194, 196.