Rev. Anna Woofenden
Wayfarers Chapel 1.8.17
Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6 & Matthew 2:1-12
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A “star” symbolizes knowledges of good and truth, and in the highest sense, the knowledge respecting the Lord. –Emanuel Swedenborg
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you…Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you…
And wise men, the Magi, came from the east…looking for the child who has been born king of the Jews…because they had observed a star at its rising, and have come to worship him. And when they saw that the star had stopped over the place where the child was, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother and they knelt down and honored him. Then opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh…
Today we celebrate Epiphany, also sometimes called “three kings day”, a day where we remember the story of the Magi who follow the star to find the Christ Child, who at this point is likely a few years old and in exile with Mary and Joseph in Egypt. They were hiding from Herod the King ,who was out to kill him and any other young child who might be suspiciously deemed a threat to Herod’s throne, since Jesus’ birth was rumored to be proclaimed to be the “King of the Jews.”
This story has been given details over the centuries and legends have grown, such as the idea that these were kings, or that there were only three of them, or that they were all men. We really don’t know. “Magi” seems to be a good translation to me, because we don’t really know what that looks like. And it doesn’t exactly mean “wise men”—probably they were more like dicey Gentile spiritually eclectic people; or Persian astrologers, and certainly not kings. They were seekers, they were awake, they were paying attention and reading the signs and the stars. And when they showed up and followed that star to its unexpected resting place, they came into the house and offered their gifts (of which there were three). Gifts of gold. And frankincense. And myrrh.
Epiphany points us to God’s universal love and universal sovereignty. In light of Christ’s revelation to the Gentiles (those who were not part of the Jewish faith)—in this case, the magi from the east who came following a star and find a child—we find a theme of central importance in the Hebrew Bible suddenly crystallizes for us. We understand God’s self-revelation in the history of Israel differently and the God’s coming reign with renewed hope.
To understand this passage from the prophet Isaiah in the context of epiphany, we begin with the exiles from Judah as they wait in Babylon for the word that will send them home. This in the middle of the sixth century before Christ. Things seem as dark as they have ever been, and there is little to be hopeful for. They have been exiled from their land the temple has been destroyed; the reign of David has come to a disastrous end. And in the middle of all this, Isaiah is describing the joy, the promise as something that will happen in that time and place. The poverty and shame of exile will be overcome with rebuilding and blessing and the city of exiles will become a light to the nations. And so Isaiah calls to the people of Israel in exile: “Arise and shine; for your light has come.
But this light that has come to Israel is not for Israel alone. We read, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn,” In this passage and throughout the Hebrew Scriptures—the Old Testament—God uses foreigners, and outsiders, women, the least expected and sometimes most unsavory characters to show God’s love and presence. Although it’s so often been missed, the crucial truth is that God has always been the universal lover of all humanity, and from the beginning intended blessing for all people.
I think about this universal blessing of love when I look around me at our current landscape and see how religions have become polarized, where it’s so important to us to make sure that there’s a right way and a wrong way, and that we’re part of the right one.
I follow stories such as an upheaval at an evangelical college in Illinois, where a professor was recently suspended for saying that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. I see what I would deem the insanity of militia groups, or politicians, saying things like, “The Lord is telling me to…” (and then fill in the blank with something that I, personally, would consider complete crazy talk), and then point to their Christian faith as the source. I get so frustrated and disgusted when another news story comes out about how “Christians” are making some statement about being anti-Muslim, or judging people on our gender or sexual orientation or opinion and I really want to just throw up my hands and leave the faith all together.
So, I don’t know about you (well, I do know about some of you, because that’s why we even hang out), but it’s things like this that make me want to run as far away from Christianity as possible. I want to distance myself from “those crazy religious people,” and comfortably meld into the milieu of my spiritual-but-not-religious peers, and let being a follower of Christ be a past part of my identity.
But then it’s so annoying. Because this Jesus character stops me in my tracks. Not in any coercive way, but because this way of Jesus, this Light of Christ captivates me, and leads me to see, to wonder, can there be another way, and can we be part of it? There’s this thing that happens when I encounter the stories of Jesus. And every time, rather than re-enforcing division and superiority and crazy political antics, instead, the stories of Jesus hit me right in the gut, right in the heart, calling for the world to be turned upside-down. For the hungry to be fed and the naked to be clothed, for mourning to turn to laughter, for reaching out across boundaries and lines, for Light coming into the world in the cracks and crevices.
And really, not that I have any illusion that I have the final word on this, but really, it leads me to deeply ask the question, what does it mean to be a “follower of Christ” a “Christian”? Or, if that language is unhelpful to us, maybe we can just be another person who seeks out and follows the star, someone who looks for the signs in the world and asks, “where is the light being born?” A person who then travels, through trial and error, finding the place where the star shines, finding the child, and offering up deeply precious gifts of gold, of frankincense, of myrrh.
Emanuel Swedenborg, writes that everything in the physical world has a spiritual meaning, including the Magi’s gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. And these spiritual meanings may give us a glimpse into our own lives of seeking the light and giving our gifts to the world.
The gift of gold corresponds to pure love. We encourage the Light to be born into our lives, to become flesh and dwell among us, by choosing to open our hearts. Even though we know that when we open our hearts to ourselves, to one another, to the mineral world, plant world, animal world, to the stars, that there may be vulnerability, or pain, or loss. But we open ourselves up anyway, to the interconnected world of humanity and the web of life.
The gift of frankincense corresponds to the elevation of our minds. We encourage the Light to be born in our lives, to become flesh and dwell among us, by choosing to open our minds. By learning more, by considering another person’s perspective, by not believing everything we think, by knowing that we can sometimes be absolutely certain of something, and absolutely wrong. By letting in a larger horizon, opening ourselves to these epiphanies, the changing of our minds.
And then the gift of myrrh corresponds to the discipline of true effort. We encourage the Light to be born in our lives, to become flesh and dwell among us, by choosing to live what we know to be true, even when doing so is tough. It’s going where our open heart leads us, and following through on our higher thoughts and understandings and bringing them into action in the world.
All three gifts—gold, frankincense and myrrh—are necessary. All three are part of the whole of living. Of showing up and being vessels of that light in the world. And this, I believe is one of the ways that we can follow the Christ, embody the light. Because it seems that this Christ, when I get down to it, is actually much more interested in the things that are happening outside the constraints of our religious boxes. Those who are working to elevate poverty in the developing world, doing racial reconciliation in rough neighborhoods, working to grow and share food across our own back-yards, this Christ seems to be much more interested in honoring and respecting all people, not just in a “there, there” way, but in active counter-cultural, interreligious acts of engagement, healing, hospitality, expansiveness and love.
And dear ones, this is really really important for us to hear and know in our current interfaith, inter-cultural, religious, non-religious, allergic to religion, eclectic, beautifully diverse world.
Epiphany reveals that even in his infancy, Jesus the Christ is for all humanity, not only for the chosen few. He is for the outsiders; he comes to draw people together; wise men from the East, Syrians from the north, Egyptians from the south, Romans from the west. The truth—the epiphany that can flash before us—is that Christ is shining for the Gentiles, for all the people. The Christ, the very love of God incarnate, that love cannot be confined to ethnic or national identity; it cannot be restricted by gender or claimed only by the powerful and privileged. To awaken to this light of Christ is not about being part of a certain group or being in the club, it’s not about converting to a specific set of moral codes or cultural norms. Awakening to this light, is a universal experience, whatever words or language or religious tradition (or not) we experience it through.
And everything about this story points us back to this universal principle of love and light. Love God—and if the word God is problematic to you, then if God is love, than Love is God, and you can just go with Love. And love our neighbor, love the other human beings around us. And if you really want to follow Christ, go out of your way to love the neighbors that are not like ourselves.
Seeing the light in the manger at church, or in the teen-age mothers and the homeless infants that will get the clothing that we are offering.
I might even have to try to see it in the faces of those Christians I deem crazy. Because we’re all actually created in the image of this loving God.
Let us find a light that doesn’t shine with superiority or exclusivity, but one that leads us to unexpected places, guides us to the outskirts of town, to a refugee family seeking shelter, to the Christ Child, where we come and bow down and offer ourselves, our love, our thoughts, our efforts to the nurture and care of the birth of the Light in the world.