Let me begin with a joke told to me by another clergy that I think you’ll like. It goes like this: A pastor had car trouble and parked his car at a local bar. The next day the church busy body began spreading rumors that “our pastor was out all last night…at the local bar!” (Word of this kind can be pretty hurtful for a pastor!)
A few days later, the pastor shared this lamentable problem with his moderator. The moderator said, “I think I have an idea on how to stop her gossipy nature.” That night he parked his car overnight in front of her house.
Let us pray: Silence now our wondering thoughts, O God, and open us to your Word and revelation. May what is said be acceptable to you and helpful to your people bravely, and graciously, gathered here on the morning of New Year’s Day.
The story of the wise men of the East is given to us on the First Day of Epiphany that takes place shortly after Christmas. This year is it this Thursday. What a wonderful text to start a new year!
We can only speculate who these Magi were and where they came from. Matthew seems to suggest they were Zoroastrians from Persia – those who worshipped fire, including the fiery brightness of the stars. Evidently, they were well off financially since they could afford to travel a long distance – over 1200 miles- for an extended period of time, and were also noted astrologists, important enough to be invited by King Herod for a consultation. Actually, Herod wanted to use them as informants. Matthew makes clear the wise men from the East were struck by a bright celestial light that they deemed was an omen announcing the birth of the Messiah. Herod viewed the Messiah as a threat to his throne, so he sought to know where that light led them to, in order to destroy him.
On this first day of 2017, there is something to be learned from the Magi. It would be well for us also to be struck by a light (need not be bright) that directs us to a deeper, more spiritual, loving and purposeful life, and to pursue it, wholeheartedly, no matter what it takes. That is what we mean when we speak of life as a journey. It is to remind us that life isn’t rootedness, it isn’t settled-ness. It is movement, from one place to another- irrespective of one’s age, work, gender and relationships- to new life. It need not be dramatic, or radical, but it is always change - either in place, thought, values, or daily life. “Be ye transformed,” says the apostle Paul in Roman 12:2. Transformation, then, for wholeness’ sake, ought to be our mantra for the new year ahead, and not just of us, but for our family, church and community. It’s challenging work, yet fulfilling at the same time, and I suggest we do it with those we love, to have it be more joyful.
There needs to be first an acknowledgement. Within the Christian faith, we call it confession. We all fall short of God’s glory. When the Bible teaches that God looks at the inward person, not the outward, it is saying that what matters in God’s eyes is what is taking place inside of us. From the outside, our lives may seem secure and happy. Yet, inwardly, within our souls, there may be a gnawing sense of incompleteness. That’s where the example of the Magi is so very helpful. Like them, we too are called to be star struck and travel ready in order to find the Messiah and fill the void in our hearts or, as Puanana Burgess puts it, in our “guts”.
First a reality check. There will always be naysayers, including ourselves. Why change? Leave things alone, for what is there, is good enough. The Magi also encountered challenges. They had to convince the religious and national authorities of their intentions. They had to deal with the manipulations of King Herod. Undoubtedly, they must have also received warnings of robbery, bloodshed, windstorms and flash floods along the lengthy caravan route from the East. Yet, they persisted. The risks did not dissuade them. In following our star this new year, are we able to keep on when met with our own obstacles? Let’s remember that for the Israelites in the Old Testament, it was wanting to remain in the safety net of their old life as captives, and, for the disciples in the New Testament, it was fear of the unknown, that kept them back. The refrain, “If it works OK, don’t change it”, is really to justify staying put. Fear, apathy, frugalness, and yes, laziness, are the internal stuff that we need to overcome in order to follow our “star of wonder, star of night, star with holy beauty bright”. Let’s do it and have 2017 be special.
The Magi also brought their gifts- gold, frankincense and myrrh. It’s been speculated that gold was to honor Christ’s kingship, frankincense, his divinity, and myrrh, that acts as medicine, his humanity. There is a price to be paid in pursuing our star and bringing about change. Giving something of value materially is a vital part of that journey. But much more is often required – our standing and security. Following the star has its costs, in all ways. “For Christ’s sake I have suffered the loss of all things,” Paul testified in Philippians 3:8.
Here, Daniel Berrigan, the renegade Jesuit priest and author, who died last year at age 95, comes to mind. Early in his life, he was regarded as a brilliant theologian, poet and writer with a promising career. Instead he chose to follow his conscience and courageously protest the war in Vietnam by various means, including destroying draft cards. This resulted in his ongoing incarcerations in federal penitentiaries. He refused to cooperate with what he believed to be immoral foreign policies and legal procedures. Regarded as a trouble-maker, he was exiled to Paris by his religious superiors in the seventies. That’s when we first met, at the American Church in Paris where he was leading a Bible study and I was staying in a guest apartment. Subsequently he visited me at my Manoa home when he and his brother, Phillip, another war protester, were invited to speak at UH. Five years ago, we met at his parish residence in New York City. Then, late in his long life, he was still serving as caretaker of persons dying with AIDS. Berrigan was a modern-day example of what is taught in Philippians 3:8: “whatever was loss from my obedience to my calling, I consider as gain to Christ”. Pursuing our star calls for sacrifice, for Christ’s sake.
Now for the exciting part. After finding their newly born Messiah and kneeling before him, the Magi returned home by another route. God gave them a warning in a dream about Herod’s ill intent, and instructed them to head back a different way to avoid unwarranted danger. From their perilous journey, following the bright star over Bethlehem, God wrought them a new future. In Berrigan’s case, he became a prophet for many, and one whose prophesies and deeds helped end the war in Vietnam and inspire countless to follow, in faith in Christ, their conscience.
On this first day of 2017, what is missing in our lives? Is it patience when it comes with dealing with our elderly parents, spouse or children? Is it compassion when faced with those different than us, especially the mentally ill and homeless? Or, is it courage to stand up and speak and fight for justice? We too, live in perilous times. We do not know what to expect or believe. Like the deceptive Herod, our, and the world’s leaders, have often brazenly displayed chameleon-like qualities, presenting themselves like this at one moment, like that another, and choosing to be never accountable, yet always explainable. As Sting sings so rightly, how fragile we are, how fragile we are. He means all of us. Our vulnerability has heightened.
God knows that. And from God’s mercies, a light has been shown us, even if it only flickers. Let us together, pursue God’s holy light that brings us to Jesus. And as with the Magi, let us this day, fall on our knees, worship him, and allow him to touch our hearts, fill our guts, and transform our lives and the life of this church. Let this be the year when we join the Magi in being star struck and travel ready, so that with God’s guidance and protection, we uncover our new life in Christ. May 2017 be a year of deep spiritual discoveries, a new sense of wholeness, and great jubilation. Amen.