They Are Icons For Us All
“They Are Icons for Us All”
January 3, 2021
First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
The Prayer for Understanding:
The Witness of the Scripture:
Old Testament: Isaiah 60:1-6
The Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12
“Now is the winter of our discontent…” that is how Shakespeare begins Richard III.
But “discontent” seems a weak vessel for our perfect storm. It has been a grueling mix of racial strife, death, street violence, economic collapse, raging discord, perpetual gridlock, stunning deception, deceit that strains belief.
And then, as Pete Wells wrote, “Covid lunged out of the shadows like a monster in a horror movie.”
The passing of family, friends, loved ones, absent now from the table. How can we wrap our heads around that? My heart goes out to those awash in an ocean of grief.
In the C. S. Lewis’s fantasy, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” the curse in the Kingdom of Narnia is perpetual winter. It is always winter, and never Christmas.
In wintery times, it is a challenge to keep ourselves centered. Even more so if our center has become flabby.
Enter Epiphany! (Did that surprise you?)
While the Isaiah passage set the tone, Matthew brings in the style. Today’s passage has mystery, intrigue, murder; quite enough to challenge Agatha Christie or rival James Bond.
First, a wee bit to set the scene.
In the passage, look for:
- The Magi – their knowledge is not complete but their commitment to search and discovery is all-consuming;
- A tyrant king – vain, vengeful, paranoid, a master of lies, he stalks the Child, he executes murder;
- And the star – the shining First Century GPS, …. which to this very day we cannot precisely define.
Now to our passage: Matthew 2:1-12
1 Now, after the birth of Jesus in the Judean village of Bethlehem (this happened during the reign of Herod the king). Behold! Magi came from the East to the city of Jerusalem, 2 and going to Herod’s palace, they asked:
“Where is the newborn King of the Jews?
For we have seen his star at its rising
and have come to pay him homage.”
3 When King Herod heard about this, he was startled! And not only Herod, but all of Jerusalem was surprised as well. Losing no time, Herod brought together all the chief priests and the teachers who were experts in Moses’ Law and asked them, “Where will the Messiah be born?”
5 “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they told him, “for thus it is written by the Prophet Micah:
6 ‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judea, you are by no means the least among the towns of Judea. From your town will come a leader, who will be like a shepherd for my people Israel.’”
7 So then Herod secretly called in the Magi and pretending to be as devout as they were, he tricked them into revealing exactly when the birth-announcing star had appeared.
8 Then Herod sent the Magi off to Bethlehem with these instructions:
“Go to Bethlehem and search diligently for the child. And as soon as you find him, bring me word so that I may also come and pay him the homage that he is due.”
9 The Magi listened to what the king had to say and then set out, continuing on their journey.
And Behold! the star which they had seen at its rising went on ahead of them until it came to rest over the place where the Child was. 10 When they saw the star appear, joy seized them to their very depth.
11 Upon entering the house, they saw the Child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure-boxes and they brought out gifts for the Child: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
12 Later, being warned in a dream, they decidedly did not report back to Herod. Instead, without being seen, secretly they left the territory and returned to their own country by taking another road.
Where is the message here?
To begin, the Magi arrive at the Palace with only a portion of the truth …
• they know enough to make the journey,
• they know enough to follow the star,
• they know enough to bring their gifts.
But they cannot reach the Child on their own knowledge – the great secret of the Child can only be found nestled in scripture.
So stopping at Herod’s palace turns out to be a must.
• Herod’s ne’er-do-wells have the scripture, go right to the text, quote plainly the prophets;
• and yet, they are unwilling, these lackeys – too lazy, too prideful, too disinterested to make the journey to this Child.
I imagine them – chief priests and scribes, deep in Bible study, talking the talk in utterly obtuse theological terms… but missing the essence. But walking the walk? Nah, not on their agenda.
And here is the contrast:
To the Magi is given the energy, the dedication, vision and courage to make this awesome journey. Gentiles, foreigners, people of the world, Matthew calls out the most unexpected folk we can imagine. Not “kings,” the text says “Magi,” the intellects, the scientists, the astrologists, the healers of Jesus’s day.
The Magi are icons for us all. Through them, Matthew invites each of us – full of our own crazy idiosyncrasies – to join this quest for the Child.
Finally, there is the Star! Promised in the Old Testament. I lay this out in the “Scripture in Context” page. Matthew knows that promise. This star will light the way; God’s GPS to the no-account town of Bethlehem.
So, here’s my thought: we read scripture best when we read ourselves into it. Having expectations, seeking the edge of discovery, activating insight, traveling with courage, finding, embracing – these are Epiphany themes. Most surely, they come from the heart of God, most certainly they are fired by the Spirit.
Even in the midst of a world of suffering, pain, repression and injustice, a surging mutant virus, Epiphany values shine as a reality which is very much God’s reality.
The curse in the magical land of Narnia is eventually broken. Aslan did it. Aslan is the powerful lion C.S. Lewis created to fight the curse and make the world safe again. The Narnia allegory sprang from Lewis’s own childhood struggles with loneliness and despair. Lewis credited his faith with restoring his hope. In the chronicles, Aslan is the Christ figure.
What we value is how we live, and even how we weather this storm. Can we batten down the hatches? How are we to endure?
I have two quick suggestions.
The first is: Work to Change Your Focus.
Here’s my thought:
- Begin a “Gratitude Journal”
- Get a bound book from Office Depot or a diary.
- Make it a practice, each day, to record one thing of gratitude, however circumscribed, however small.
I freely admit the strain of some days will make it difficult, but I guarantee moments of gratitude: a flower, a sunset, the Post Office employee searching for the very stamps you want, your neighbor’s kind word or the grace of extra service at Safeway or Whole Foods.
Just the process of looking will transform your focus. Review the list, be slavish, flip the pages, …. maybe – or especially – when you are most down.
In the NY Times, I read that Matthew Cohen and Ben Schwartz sadly postponed their wedding to September 2021. But listen to Matthew “If I’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it is to take stock of what you have and be grateful…” because so many are struggling.
Last Wednesday, the Times told of the Turners who grow organic vegetables at Laughing Stock Farm. They supply wholesale produce to restaurants … and then the bottom drops out. With what they had, they opened a produce stand and the community has blessed them by rushing in to buy.
Linda Turner is quoted:
“…. of all the Christmases I’ve lived through, this is the one that most needs to be filled with hope. There’s a lot to be thankful for. And it is an antidote to fear”
Keep a Gratitude Journal. Record in it daily.
My second thought:
Tune into the Beloved Community.
John Donne captured it: “No man is an island, no man stands alone.” We need to be anchored. Grounding is at the core of authentic community.
In December, Mark Shields retired from his PBS Newshour slot with David Brooks. In his leaving he said:
“Each of us has been warmed by fires we did not build, we drink from wells others have dug.”
Turn to community. Paul calls the Church the Beloved Community, the Body of Christ. Ground yourself in this community. Its foundation embraces the Promise.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood this. In his book “Life Together,” that emerged out of the clandestine seminary he established during the scourge of Hitler, he writes:
“It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians.
“It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s word and sacrament. They know that the visible fellowship is a blessing.
“Therefore, a Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. We need them again and again when we become uncertain and discouraged, and that also clarifies the goal of all Christian community: we meet each other as bringers of the message of salvation.”
Today is Epiphany Sunday. It signals that training time is here:
∙ It is about vision,
∙ It is about hearing the message in fresh ways and acting on it,
∙ And it is about an adventure, traveling without a road map at times, but always within the circle of God’s grace.
This particular time of Epiphany can become our destiny:
- made for us,
- made for this congregation.
Epiphany is about discovering our grounding, nurturing it, and traveling on the journey of a lifetime.
The Rev. Jack Hodges,
First & Franklin Parish Associate
January 3, 2021