A sermon for Epiphany
Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?
I think this is a question that we still ask ourselves today.
Completing our celebration of Jesus’ birth, beginning with his nativity at Christmas continuing through to this day of Epiphany, we hear today of the “Three Wise Men,” Magi from the East, foreigners, pagans, who have witnessed the sign of Jesus’ birth in the star. They have come to Jerusalem to bring gifts and pay homage to this child-king. They understand the sign that they have seen and in it they are moved to travel a great distance and be in the presence of a special child. They recognize this sign in the star, and come to authority of the land, King Herod, to learn where this star is directing them, to know where they may find the child. And, ultimately, they learn that it is in Bethlehem that the prophets foretold of a “ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel”.
And yet, in sharing this information, it is revealed that King Herod, and all Jerusalem with him, were frightened at the news. The people who have the knowledge of the scriptures, those who know the words of the prophets, who should have seen this sign for it was long foretold, not only do not see the sign as it appears, but stay away from it when the wise men bring it to them. None of the chief priests and scribes or anyone connected to Herod hears of this news and sets off for Bethlehem to find the king promised in scripture. Rather, Herod quietly calls for the wise men and sends them along with the directive to report back with what they find. Why the fear? Why not send his own people to see this event foretold by the prophets? Why rely on these foreigners, these pagans, to go and greet the king of the Jews?
I think that’s actually the point of this story. On one hand we have a group (nowhere is it said that there’s only three of them, that’s just a pleasant assumption we make based on the gifts they bring) of foreigners. Wise men from the East, who have come seeking to pay homage to a king, a king that they know has been born for they recognized his sign in a star, even though they themselves do not know the scriptures that have prophesied this event. And on the other hand we have the religious experts, authorities, even the King himself of this land and the people for whom this child-king was long ago promised, coming together in fear. They direct the wise men to where such a sign must lead, for they know the scriptures and they know the prophecy that has been left for them, but they do not go themselves. They cower. They plot and plan. They reject this sign, for in accepting it, they sign their own loss of power, of privilege, of authority in this land with these people.
It is in their rejection of this sign, that they leave for us an important question: do we recognize the sign of Christ in this world? Would we, can we, recognize this sign when others, including those who are not experts, who are not one of us, bring the existence of this sign to us?
Do we recognize the sign of Christ in this world?
Being here is a good place to start. As the Dean remarked in the Northwest Profile of the Cathedral, this is God’s House, and in recognizing that, we recognize that God is present here. This presence of God draws people into this place. Perhaps, it drew you into this place. We sit here in this building that was built as a testament to the beauty and power of God in this world, and are struck with the beauty of the soaring ceiling, the stained glass, the music emanating from the organ pipes and echoing all around us. We come here to worship because we recognize this place as a house of God, a sign of Christ at work in this world. And hopefully from here, we take the lessons we hear and apply them out into our lives. The presence of Christ made real in this place should inspire us to do ministry in this community, to share that reality of Christ manifest in this world. Through family promise to the Dinner Table in West Central, we must share the sign of Christ in this world. And in doing so, we must ask ourselves if we also recognize the reality of Christ that is present in each and every one of us? We can recognize Christ in this building. We can recognize Christ in each other. But can we recognize the presence of Christ that is present in our friends and family as much as it is present in a stranger, in the person who cuts you off in traffic, in the boss who makes your work day nearly unbearable, in the homeless person you step over as they sleep in the eaves of the building within which you go to enjoy a nice dinner? And if so, what do we do with that knowledge?
Do we, like the wise men, act on the reality of Christ in this world? Do we strive to seek Christ out, to bring gifts and pay homage at his feet? Do we turn to these people and reflect back to them the reality that Christ is made manifest in this world and through our continued observation of that reality, we recognize it in them even if they refuse to see it in themselves?
Or do we, like King Herod and the religious authority of the time, ignore the sign, ignore the reality that is very clearly before us? Do we attempt to kill the message that Christ is here among us before it can spread, in order to protect our own power, our own authority, our own privilege?
You may think to yourself, there’s no way I’m like Herod, I am a Christian, of course I spread the message at all times, never trying to limit it or its reach in this world. But, we all know that’s not true. I know that I cannot make such a claim. It’s far too tempting to hear the message of Christ in this world, and figure out a way to work around the extreme aspects of the message to make ourselves feel more comfortable about how it’s lived out in this world. We protect ourselves by cleaning up the Good News. We protect ourselves by patting ourselves on the back for the good work we do do, ignoring the hard work that we are called to do. We want to protect our privilege and power in this man-made world that we dare not rock the boat too hard. Partly, this is for survival, we cannot make any change if we’re completely discredited and thrown out into the wilderness. And yet, that is where John will emerge from and demand a greater audience than any contemporary had experienced until Jesus too came to see him.
This reality of our shortcomings is likely not new to you. I know that I sometimes find myself biting my tongue because you cannot spread the Good News if no one is willing to listen to you. And it raises for me the second reality at play in this story and a question we must ask ourselves, can we recognize the sign of Christ when it is an other who shows that sign to us? And, can we get others among us to recognize the sign when it comes from an other?
It might be a step too far at this point to acknowledge that there are others around us who show the sign of Christ in this world, even though they themselves do not meet our expectations for whom the messengers of God should be. But, if we are willing to accept the reality of the sign of Christ when it comes from an other, then we must be willing to go a step further and show that this sign must be accepted by those around us. This is where we can bridge that gap between how far we sometimes are unwilling to go. Sometimes it’s too hard to speak the reality of Christ in this world, the work that we must do when we recognize his sign in this world. Sometimes we don’t have the words, the platform we have will fall apart if we use it in this manner, we don’t have the gift to speak to a shared reality that exists all around us, but someone else can and often does. All it takes for us is to point to these people, especially when they are an other, whether that means they are an other in color, in sexuality, in gender identity, in political party affiliation, in religion or even lack thereof, and allow them to speak to the reality of what it means for Christ to be in this world.
The sign of Christ in this world is all around us if we are simply willing to look up and see it. The story of the wise men and the reaction of Herod and the religious leaders of the time, illustrate to us what can happen when we let our own positions of power and privilege prevent us from seeing the reality that is Christ present in this world. If we simply follow the lead of the wise men, foreigners, others, who see Christ and seek him out because he is a king born, then we will find Christ all around us, and perhaps we can share that reality with those who would rather cower away when the reality is laid out in front of them. We must see Christ in this world, and it is as simple as looking for the sign.