6 January, 2011
Grace Episcopal Church
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ah, the story of the Magi . . . itís one we love, isnít it? I remember when I was a kid and drew pictures at Christmas time, one of my favorite subjects was the three wise men . . . the camels, the costumes, the star . . . they always made for a good picture. They STILL make for a good picture . . . but if you look closely at the TEXT something starts to happen. Ya see, the Bible doesnít say that there were three of Ďem . . . there could have been any number . . . two . . . or twelve! And although lots of us think we know their names . . . Casper, Melchior and Balthazar, right? . . . those names donít appear in the story Matthew tells us. In fact, there are lots of things about these characters that we may THINK we know but that arenít in the Bible at all. Hmpf. Of course, weíre on firmer ground with the other main character in todayís story: King Herod. Not only can we learn a lot about Herod from the Bible, we can turn to other sources of the period for information. The problem being, of course, that Herodís a pretty unsavory character. Weíd probably rather not think about him much at all. He doesnít make for a very pretty picture.
This evening, however, Iíd like us to think about BOTH the Magi and Herod . . . to look at both their portraits. Shall we start with the Magi? Those guys who make the prettier picture?
Letís try making a little sketch of them . . . not literally a drawing, of course . . . but maybe an outline of their personality. Of course, thisíll be a work of pure imagination . . . as Iíve said, we know so very little about these characters . . . but flights of imagination can be fun . . . and if weíre lucky, theyíll give us an insight or two. The first thing that comes to my mind is that the Magi are people who are open to the idea that God is at work in their lives. They believe in the possibility of divine intervention. ďSo what?Ē you may ask . . . lots of us . . . ALL of us? . . . believe that God is active in our lives . . . but the truth is that openness to God is actually a bigger deal than we often want to admit. Oftentimes we try to limit and confine Godís action to what WE want. After all, there are LOTS of things in all of our lives that weíd like God to help us with or fix . . . and sometimes God does just this. But itís quite another matter to be open to what GOD wants. Being truly open to God often means that our lives get radically changed . . . our agendas get thrown out the window and Godís agenda is put in their place. This is one of the things I think the Magi show us.
Why do I say this? Well, my goodness, they dropped whatever they were doing to follow a star! And follow it not just across the street or across town, but maybe half way around the world! AND they didnít have Rand McNally maps or ďTriple AĒ trip tix to help them find the way . . . let alone a nifty GPS. Think about how we go about planning a trip . . . passports and visas, maps and guide books, credit cards and reservations, shots and medications . . . the Magi had none of these. We donít know who the Magi left behind or what they left undone. Thereís no mention of the cost of their journey. We hear nothing of the dangers and hardships they may have faced. They simply believed that God had a message for them . . . that God had a task for them . . . and they were willing to journey through unknown territory . . . through unmapped experience . . . to complete this task. They dared to HOPE . . . even on a journey that seems to us to defy all logic. What courage! What determination! What trust! What faith! How joyful they must have been, to reach their goal . . . to find the baby Jesus.
Can we find the Magi within ourselves? Where might they be? Perhaps in a restless spirit . . . no matter how comfortable we are, do we still search for something more, something deeper? . . . do we search for a place closer to Christ? Thatís the spirit of the Magi. Perhaps weíve retained a bit of the child in our hearts, open and trusting . . . perhaps thereís a part of us thatís willing to trust our intuition and follow a star. Thatís like the Magi. Maybe weíre tenacious . . . maybe when we know that something is the right thing to do we persevere, even against formidable odds. When weíre able to tune out the cynics, the doomsayers, the voices of depression, and continue surely toward bright potential . . . that, too, is like the Magi.
So . . . what about Herod? Heís quite a different character, isnít he? . . . itís easy to paint a picture of him, but itís NOT a very pretty one. He was a paranoid capable of betraying even those closest to him . . . he was not above murdering even members of his own family to secure his power. No wonder he reacted so badly to hearing about a new King of the Jews from the Magi. I donít want to go on about him for too long . . . itís too depressing . . . but I WILL ask us to consider the same question I asked about the Magi: Can we find a Herod within ourselves? Just as we may be able to find Magi in our hearts, I think we have to admit that Herod can lurk within our hearts as well.
Sometimes we sabotage our own best selves. Sometimes we deny our own ideals. When we act out of fear or doubt or cowardice, thatís Herod. When we sneer at the possibility of any kind of reform . . . when we deny the possibility for positive change, thatís Herod at work. When we stay focused on our own needs and desires, clinging to our self-created shams of security . . . when out of fear we are closed to the possibility that God is leading us into the unknown . . . thatís Herod making an appearance. When we silence our finest instincts because theyíre inconvenient, or worse, challenging us to difficult work . . . when new life stirs and we declare ourselves too old, too tired, too busy, too weak to welcome it, and nurture it, and help it grow . . . yes, my friends, thatís Herod working in our hearts.
Like many stories in the Bible, we can approach the story of the Magi and Herod as a story of ourselves . . . as a story of our own hearts and souls. Where are we frightened; where are we worried about losing our power or our control? When do we stifle the possibility of new life because it threatens us in some way? And where in our hearts are we open to the possibility of God showing us something new; where are we willing to travel into unmapped experience following an ideal? When do we welcome new life because it is a gift from God?
As we wrestle with these questions, it might be helpful to remember that in the amazing design of God, even Herod plays his part. He serves as a guide to the Magi who refuse to be intimidated. Verse nine in our story today is pivotal: ďWhen they heard the king, they set out. . . .Ē The Magi listened to what Herod had to say Ė they got what they needed from him Ė and then they obeyed the dream sent from God, not the death-dealing spiel from Herod. Having taken what was helpful from Herod, the Magi used it to fulfill Godís will. Some journeys simply cannot be turned aside.
Thatís a big part of the good news in todayís story: The ultimate movement of Godís will toward salvation cannot be thwarted. When Herod speaks in our hearts, rather than trying to shut him up Ė which is probably impossible Ė perhaps we should hear him out. There may be useful, instructive information in what he tells us . . . something that will help us on our journey to Christ. But, at the same time, we must not be persuaded by the spiel of complacency and fear and doubt, which attempts to sabotage our search for Christ and the transformative life Christ offers us. We must be discerning. We must be hopeful. We must trust in Godís goodness and love for us. And we must continue to identify with the Magi, following the star, following our ideals, not calculating the cost, drawing ever nearer to Christ.
On this feast of the Epiphany I pray that we may share in the joy of the Magi after their long and difficult journey . . . may we, too, rejoice to find the baby Jesus . . . may we, too, experience the revelation that Christ is among us.
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