A sermon preached for the Epiphany of our Lord, January 6, 2019 on Matthew 2:1-12 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas.
I have borrowed the title for this sermon from the book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.The wise sages who followed a star to find the Christ child remind us that being a Christian is less about reciting a doctrine, and more about a way of life. What do these foreigners from an ancient religion far from Israel and far from us, have to teach us about living as faithful Christians today? If you have not committed to any New Year's resolutions, yet, you might find a couple of ideas here.
Number 1: Pay attention to the creation. The Magi noticed a change in the heavens and it informed their behavior. The sign of a bright star set them on a journey to find the new thing that God was doing—breaking into human history in the form of a baby that would be King and Savior of all, even above their own religion. What does it mean for us today to pay attention to the changing signs in creation? Rising temperatures, melting glaciers, increasing ocean levels, and more extreme storms, beg us to pay attention to how we interact with the creation, calling us to mitigate human effects on the health of our planet.
In 2006 I heard theologian John Dominic Crossan speak and someone asked him about natural disasters. His response was, “God gives justice to the creation.” This sounds radical, but it’s not a new idea. Twelfth century German mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, said, “All of creation God gives to humankind to use. If this privilege is misused, God’s justice permits creation to punish humanity.” But she also encouraged: “If we fall in love with creation deeper and deeper, we will respond to its endangerment with passion.”
Number 2: Faith is a journey. We need to move out of our comfort zone and traditions and be willing to try something new. The wise men were not kings, but rather Zoroastrian priests and astrologers from Persia, modern day Iran. They had plenty of knowledge and a religion with a rich history dating back as far as 1500 BC. They could have stayed where the were, doing the same old thing. But they had a deep desire for more, for truth, for a Savior. They believed they could foretell the miraculous birth of a divine prophet by reading the stars. So, they left their comfort zone and went on a journey to pursue revelation, to learn truth, to deepen their understanding and experience of God breaking into human life.
What does it mean for us to live a faith as a journey—never satisfied, but instead, always seeking new experiences of God’s Spirit, always looking for signs of God’s love breaking into our everyday, and always willing to grow on a journey where we expect God to challenge and to change us? What new journey might you undertake this year to deepen your relationship with God? After church next week, I am beginning a class with a new curriculum called Rooted which is having a transformational effect in other congregations. The study book includes devotions for 5 days out of the week, as well as a weekly conversation with others on the journey, a service project and time in prayer. It is guaranteed to be a journey like the Magi—one to change, inform and deepen your experience of God coming into the world—your world and your life.
Number 3: Ask for Directions. When the Magi made it to Jerusalem, they still did not know where to find Jesus, so they asked for help. They knew a lot, they could read the stars—they made it a long way on their own, but ultimately, they could not get to where they wanted to go without asking for assistance. I know that asking for directions is difficult for many of us (men) to do, but if the wise men of the Bible can do it, so can you! That’s true both for getting to the right address when we travel (and our GPS isn’t working) and for our life of faith. Asking for help is a sign not of weakness, but of faith and the humility required to open space for God to work anew. There are individual aspects to our faith for sure, but none of us can get where God wants to be without help from others.
For our devotions during our last two Council meetings, we have done something called Dwelling in the Word. It is a style of listening to a Bible passage with each person reflecting on and sharing what they hear God saying. No one is the expert—God gives us amazing insights that arise from each person’s life experience and personality. None of us, including me, have all the answers to our questions of faith or our future in the church—but together—with a spirit of humility and asking for help, God’s direction for our lives and the mission of St. Luke’s will become clearer.
Number 4: Pause for Joy. When the sages saw that the star had stopped, they were “overwhelmed with joy.” Why include such a detail? After a long journey and stopping for directions, you would think they would rush in to see Jesus. But no, the Magi pause, so we can stop with them and experience the joy of God breaking into our human story, anticipating the moment where we see God’s work clearly.
What would it be like to make one of our new year’s resolutions be to “pause for joy?” That’s an experience we can have many times a day: pausing for joy in the moment before we say grace for a meal or taking a moment to watch our child or grandchild sleep. Pausing for joy is snapping a selfie with our best friend or noticing the gift of family being together—whether it’s before starting a favorite show or piling into the car. Pausing for joy is taking in the pinks and blues streaking across the Texas sky at sunset or praying after receiving the body and blood of Christ. In the Gospel of John, chapter 15, after telling the disciples to abide in him as he abides in God, Jesus says, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” God desires us to have joy in Jesus Christ—not that our life is perfect or that everything is working out exactly as we hoped—but that in the midst of life as it is, God keeps breaking into our reality with love, and light, forgiveness and hope, beauty and faith. We can pause and experience joy in God’s presence.
Number 5: Offer gifts. After pausing for joy, the sages entered the house where Mary was, paid him homage and offered their gifts. Imagine these educated, wealthy priests coming to a foreign land, getting on their knees, and publicly worshiping a baby in his poor mother’s arms. How many borders of class, race, culture and social expectation are we willing to cross so that others know that our highest devotion, our allegiance, our worship and our heart belong to Jesus Christ alone? Fr. Richard Rohr writes, “Christianity cannot be bound by ethnicity or nationality. This puts it in essential conflict with any group that wants to domesticate the message for its own ‘patriotic’ purposes.” Jesus came for all nations, all of humanity, all of creation.
Even though God is working salvation out in this grand and cosmic scale, the Magi show us that we need to bring our gifts, our contribution to God’s work of salvation. We may not have gold, frankincense or myrrh, but God has given all of us something to share to build up the kingdom. It may be the gift of financial resources, or it may be time or teaching, administration or accounting, singing or storytelling, leadership or landscaping, computers or carpentry. You may not be physically able to contribute any of these gifts, but no matter your situation, you can offer the most important gift of prayer—prayer for every member, prayer for our mission, for resources, for direction, for deepened faith, and for greater spiritual practices. The sages invite us to our knees in worship and in offering the gift of ourselves to the mission of Christ.
Finally, Number 6: Listen for God. The sages from the East learned from a dream not to share information about Jesus with Herod. We too, can listen to God who speaks to us in a whole variety of ways. In this one story, the wise men notice God’s guidance through creation with the star, the voice of other people in receiving directions, the face of a baby, and now in a dream. How many times do we miss God’s messages to us because we are looking for them in only one way? Throughout Scripture, God speaks through dreams, angels, creation, people, wrestling, hardship, healing, resurrection, hospitality, affirmation, fire, storms, voices, clouds, mountains, foreign powers, metaphors, prophets, teachers, flashes of light, the poor, parables, songs, poetry, inner wisdom, bread, water, pregnancy, children, visions, and I could go on, but you get the point.
Faith is about looking for God-sightings every day and in everything, being open to new ways for the light of Christ and the love of God to shimmer in unexpected places. God can lead us into the next right action when we actively watch for God’s guidance. Because the Magi were open to God, they participated in God’s desire to thwart the evil that Herod devised by going back to their country a different way. Listening for the many ways God speaks enables us to respond daily to how God wants to use us whether it is to thwart evil or to do good.
So, you see, AlI We Really Need to Know about Faith, We Learn from the Magi. Through these six practices, the Magi show us that Christian faith is a way of life. In this new year, as we pay attention to the creation, as we engage in the journey of faith, as we ask for directions and help along the way, as we pause for joy, as we worship Jesus, and share our gifts, as we listen for God in all things and respond, we will experience anew the God who is always with us, the God who saves us with lavish love, and the God who gives us the power and presence of Jesus Christ every single day.