Unexpected roads: The transformational wisdom of the magi

The manuscript from my sermon on The Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2019.  The link to the lectionary is here.

Have you ever gone to meet someone or to do something and have it turn out differently than you thought it would?  Maybe you’ve heard stories about someone and carry those stories with you into a meeting. You go into the meeting prepared to react in particular ways, to have feelings like those of whoever has told you the stories.  And then something odd happens.  You meet this person and it is as if he or she must be someone else.  Your experience is so different than you were told to expect, that you find yourself wondering if it is the same person.

Maybe you’ve agreed to do a favor for a friend or co-worker.  At first it seems like it makes sense but then…after you’ve actually started in on whatever it is, something changes and you think, “Ahh…not so much.”   So you change things up.  You listen to whatever is telling you something is not right. You go in a different direction.

The wise men in today’s Gospel are kind of like that.  We call them “wise men” but their real title would be “magi.”  Magi were people from Persia or Babylonia.  They were not Jewish.  They were not kings.  They likely were astrologers who believed that the stars always shine a bit differently whenever a king is born or crowned.  Back in those days it was customary for people to travel great distances to show their respects by bringing gifts to new kings, so the magi set out from their homes to do just that.

Along the way they run into King Herod, who asks them to come back and tell him where to find the newborn king.  It seems they agree to do that, and why wouldn’t they?  Herod says he wants to be able to visit the baby and show his respects.  That probably would have made complete sense to the magi.  After all, it’s what people do.

But …something happens.  The magi follow the star and find the place where the baby Jesus lay.  Before even seeing Jesus,  “they were overwhelmed with joy” (Matthew 2:10).  Just being in the place where the infant lay, they were overwhelmed with joy.  Wow!  And then they meet Jesus and it can’t have been what they expected.  A newborn king born into poverty?  Lying in a feeding trough?  No trappings of wealth or privilege?   Suddenly this isn’t just a polite visit to make nice with a new king.  This isn’t what they expected. This is different.  Sure, they go on and pay their respects as planned, they give Jesus the gifts they brought.  But they don’t go back to Herod as agreed. They have a dream and decide to heed its warning. They return home by another road.

One of the most amazing things about this story – something we don’t think about that often – is that the magi didn’t know what we know today.  They didn’t have 2000+ years of history to help them understand who Jesus is.  They weren’t Jewish so they didn’t even have the Hebrew Scriptures with the prophets’ foretelling of the birth of the Messiah.  We’ve all heard the stories of Jesus’ life, with all the miracles and the parables and the absolute commitment to love and justice.  We have Easter and the Resurrection.  We are part of a Church that is founded, that gets its very name, from the reality of those things.

The magi didn’t have those things.  Those things hadn’t even happened yet.  The magi had themselves and their experience in the world.  They were intelligent men, learned men, some of the scientists of their day. They were courageous and curious, traveling great distances to learn more about the stars.  And they were willing to change their plans when it made sense.

They had something else we have today – what all people for all time have had and will always have – God fully present and at work in their lives.  What the magi responded to that day in their encounter with the baby Jesus is the God who is present to all of us even when we do not know it.  Even when we do not understand it.  Even when we don’t know we are seeking God.  In following that star to the place where the baby Jesus lay, they got the answer to a question they probably did not know they were asking.  That was the overwhelming joy.

They felt God’s presence up close and personal and it changed their lives.  God had come into the world in a new and different way and they were curious enough and courageous enough to let go of their plans and their expectations.  Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ we, too, get to experience God in new and different ways, all of the time. We are able, as were the magi, to live with a curiosity and a willingness to be changed by the new, by the unexpected, by any of the myriad ways God will show God’s grace and love to us.  That isn’t always so easy, though, is it?

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one here who has had the experience of God’s presence in a new or different way and known it at the time.  I’m probably not the only one who has said, “Thank you, God, for being with me in this way at this time,” and then gone right back to doing whatever it was I was doing.  Living with the kind of curiosity and openness to God that leads to changed hearts and minds, can be a challenge.  It often is easier to rely on the planned, the familiar, the status quo, to accept the change that comes in surprising, unexpected, even overwhelmingly joyful ways.  And, yet, that is what the magi teach us.  They teach us to be open to the ever present invitation from God to journey deeper into the heart of God and to let that set the course of our lives.

As we journey through the season after the Epiphany and beyond, may each of us be curious enough and courageous enough to feel the overwhelming joy that is ours through Jesus Christ.  May we be open to changes of mind and heart as we follow where the Living Spirit guides us, trusting in the presence of God at all times, in all places. May each of us welcome God’s presence with joy and express our gratitude to God in ways that make a difference in the world. Amen.

Rainbows and incarnation

This is my homily for the spoken Eucharist on December 30, 2018, a day on which our principal service was Lessons & Carols.  The lectionary can be found here.

A little more than a year ago, I had one of the most amazing experiences of my whole life.  It was a dreary day and I was feeling kind of blah.  Okay, I was feeling more than “blah.”  I was cranky.  The dreary day followed a couple of intense weeks, with several deaths and other sad or frustrating experiences in my hospice chaplaincy.  I was tired and grieving and hungry and anxious to get home to my warm and comfortable home on a wet and dreary day.  It wasn’t happening soon enough and I was cranky.  Very cranky.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity, I was on my way home.  To get from my office to my home, I headed due north on Rt. 95 and made a right turn onto Rt. 195 East. I turned onto 195 and had not driven more than 100 yards when I saw the most spectacular rainbow I’ve ever seen.   A double rainbow with colors so vivid they didn’t seem real.  It was huge!  It was so huge that it seemed to touch the ground.  You couldn’t see the arch at the bottom of the lower rainbow.  And I love rainbows.   They remind me of God’s promise to Noah after the flood.  Seeing this rainbow lifted my spirits immediately.

And then it got better than that, if you can believe it!  I drove a bit further and found myself noticing that everything looked soft, kind of fuzzy, and oh-so-colorful.  I realized I was driving in the rainbow! The colors were beautiful: vivid and vibrant, shimmering.  They were spectacular and I saw them with an astounding clarity.  As clear and as vibrant as they were, there was nothing harsh or stark about them.  I wish I could describe what I felt in those moments.  What I can say is that I had an awareness of God, of God’s presence, that is beyond the typical.  And although only a few minutes before I had been dying to get home, I found myself wondering if it would be possible to simply stop, to stay where I was, to bask in the prismatic light and continue to soak up this awesome experience of God’s grace.

I remember thinking of the passage from John that is today’s Gospel, which, though not necessarily the easiest to understand, is one of my favorites. I love the poetry and the mystery. On that day on the highway I thought about light and grace.  It thought about the kind of light and grace that brings life, that which can overcome darkness, all sorts of darkness, including the darkness of my crankiness. And now, reading this Gospel I think about what it was like to be bathed in light, to want to sit and be silent while basking in it.  I can honestly say this was truly a transformative experience, beyond what it did to lift my spirits.

Now, I know not everyone will be lucky enough to be able to spend time inside a rainbow.  Yet, we all will have some kind of experience that speaks to us in the way we need in order to be open to experiencing God’s grace and light in the ways we need to be reminded of what’s most important, to be reminded who and whose we are.

Today’s Gospel reminds us who and whose we are because it is all about who God is, who Jesus is, and what that means for us, for the world.  We are reminded that, no matter our attempts to define God, to understand God, to do what sometimes feels to me like putting God in a box, God can never be fully understood.  Nor is there anything God would not do to help us journey deeper in God’s heart, to invite, encourage, and support us to be part of the realization of God’s dream for God’s world.

The incarnation, the inbreaking of God into the world in the infant Jesus, is one of the many ways other than rainbows that God reminds us of the promises that are ours simply because God is who God is, regardless of whether we can navigate 40 days and nights of flooding with an ark full of animals or if we get unusually cranky at some time or another in our lives.  It still amazes me, after all of my years of living and the years of intentional study and commitment to my faith, that God could love so fully and completely and unconditionally that entering the world in human form, to live and grow and die as one of us would even begin to make sense.  Can you imagine knowing what God knows about humankind and the mess we so easily make of so much and then deciding of your own free will to make the choice to become as vulnerable as one can possibly be to show the people who do ultimately kill you how much you love them?  Wow!  Just wow.

The incarnation is one of life’s most awe-inspiring mysteries.  It is the most wonderful of paradoxes: nothing we can begin to be fully understand and yet something we can personally and intimately experience, even today, over 2000 years later.  My prayer for you, for all of us and the world, is that we remain open to experiencing grace and light whenever, wherever, and however we have the chance. I pray, too, that when we have those experiences we remember them in the darkness that will undoubtedly be a part of our lives, and remember that the promise for us is light and life.