Jesus in the Synagogue

(sermon 1/24/16)

jesus in nazareth synagouge
Jesus preaching in the Nazareth synagogue, detail of 14th-century fresco in a monastery in Kosovo


Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” – Luke 4:14-21

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The gospels place this story of Jesus teaching in the Nazareth synagogue in different places in their narratives. But Luke places it at the beginning of his story, because to him, this event is the lens through which everything Jesus did could be seen and understood. Jesus explained that God’s Spirit had descended upon him, and sent him into the world to do the things in this reading from the prophet Isaiah. Bringing good news to the poor, release for those held captive in whatever way, healing for those with physical ailments, freeing the oppressed, eliminating debt – which is what Jesus is talking about when he talks about proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor; that phrase refers to the Jewish “Year of Jubilee,” the year that comes along every 50 years when all debts are erased. I imagine that, if nothing else, would be good news to the poor. Doing this was how Jesus defined God’s “good news” – what our Old English-speaking ancestors would translate as the word “gospel” – and what it meant to proclaim it to others. This was Jesus’ mission statement.

It was the mission statement for the earliest church, and the way they understood the “good news” too. They didn’t have any big institutional structure, or real estate, or budgets to speak of; and yet, with God’s Spirit and this mission, they turned the world upside down.

I think that over time, we lost a large degree of this understanding. We gradually picked up a lot of the things the early church had very little of, and these things had a crowding-out effect on our understanding of what Jesus called the “good news” here. We’ve allowed so much other meaningless nonsense to cloud our vision and distort our priorities, and in the process, we, the church universal, have damaged the gospel, and damaged countless millions of people, the very people Jesus called us to help, in the process.

It’s certainly no secret that we’re in a time now of overall church decline in this country. There are undoubtedly a number of reasons for it, but I suggest that a big part of it is because of the way we’ve missed this simple explanation from Jesus himself of what his meaning and mission is, and therefore, what ours is. We haven’t totally forgotten our original mission statement, but we’ve focused far too much on things that, relatively speaking, are meaningless nonsense at best. We’ve hurt way too many people by focusing on the wrong people, and wrong things.

In the book Blue Like Jazz, author Don Miller tells about attending an extremely secular, extremely liberal college where the attitudes toward the Christian faith ran anywhere from disengaged neutrality to outright hostility. Every year, he said, the students would hold a campus-wide blowout where law enforcement was held at bay, and everyone sort of looked the other way as the students engaged in an alcohol- and drug-induced, almost completely no-holds-barred funfest. It wasn’t the kind of event where you’d expect to see a religious presence, but Miller and his handful of friends, who as far as he could tell were the full extent of any Christian presence on campus, decided to set up a confession booth on the quad, right in the middle of things, where confessions could be heard. But the catch was, whenever a student actually stepped into the booth, it was the Christian on the other side of the partition who would confess for all the terrible and hurtful things the church had done over the years, and how too many current-day Christians were smug and self-righteous, and judgmental, and not at all a fitting face for the Jesus who explained what he was really all about in this passage from Luke. Miller said that it was an amazing experience that ended up speaking to the hearts of the students who actually went inside, as well for himself and his Christian friends who were doing the confessing and asking for forgiveness.

I wonder if the church needs more of that, something along the lines of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was established in South Africa after abolishing the system of apartheid – a forum that brought together former oppressors and former victims who somehow had to find a way to peaceful move forward; a way to air grievances, to ask for forgiveness, and hopefully, to find the reconciliation that could only follow after such an exercise in honesty on both sides.

A big, and important part of the church recognizing its past wrongs today is the adoption of Welcoming Statements, where we tell people that contrary to times past, people of any and all types are welcome to be part of our church congregation. The more I’ve thought about it, I’ve come to wonder if Welcoming Statements, as incredibly important as they are, are really just a first step. In all honesty, welcoming statements seem to arise from a viewpoint that there’s a large number of people out there who desperately want to come to come in and be part of the church, but the church has kept them out, and they’re just standing around holding their breath waiting for us to tell them they can come in. There are certainly some people who were pushed out of the church who are seeking reentry, but I think the larger reality is that our having for so long distorted Jesus’ message, as seen in today’s gospel text, have pushed people away to the point that they’re getting along perfectly well without the church at all, thank you very much, and when they see churches that are offering up Welcome Statements to say that they’re allowed to come in, their thought is “Why do you think we’d want to?”

The more I think of it, I think that right after adopting a Welcome Statement, we, the church, need to consider something more meaningful. We need to consider setting up our own version of Don Miller’s confessional; of Truth and Reconciliation dialogues. More important, maybe, than a Welcome Statement is a Statement of Confession and Repentance – honestly outlining our past and current sins against all those we’ve let down and hurt, and humbly asking their forgiveness. Maybe take out a full-page ad in the paper; I don’t know. But definitely doing it in more concrete ways – like intentionally going to those groups of people we’ve not been Christ to, humbly asking their forgiveness, and how we can help to achieve the good in their lives that Jesus outlines in today’s text, in the ways that they themselves see as the most direct and most effective way to do it. Hearing what those things are, and then humbly getting in line with them in the lead in order to make it happen. If we do that, then maybe – just maybe – the people that Jesus called us to bring good news to will see that we’re serious, and worthy of their trust.

Well, all of this can seem like a bit of a wet blanket thrown onto the church – more sackcloth and ashes, and condemnation that we’re not doing enough, and so on. But most sermons are supposed to bring us a message of grace, and hope, and not just bash us over the shoulders about another way we’re blowing things in God’s eyes. Where’s the grace in this sermon?

To be honest, I find a lot of grace in this particular passage, but it’s abundant, overflowing grace for the kind of people Jesus mentions in his reading – all these kinds of people that I suppose some modern politicians would write off as “losers.” But you see, here’s the thing: we’re all “losers” – because I promise you, at one time or another, we’ve all been in one or more of those categories Jesus mentions, past or present. I guarantee you that there are plenty of people here this morning who, contrary to all outward appearances, are poor, or being held captive by something, or suffering physically, or who are being oppressed, maybe not least of all by crushing levels of debt. So many of us are precisely the people Jesus had said in this story from Luke he’d come into the world for, to offer hope to, and to help. And because of that, we can all find grace; we can all say

Thanks be to God.

“What Concern Is That to You and to Me?”

(Sermon 1/17/16)

wedding at cana icon

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. – John 2:1-11

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The party had been going on for some time, apparently. The best man had offered up his awkward toast, the couple had had their ceremonial first dance and smashed cake in each other’s faces a couple of hours earlier, and the celebration was still going strong, when the unthinkable happened – they ran out of wine. Maybe the couple didn’t have much money, or they’d limited the amount of alcohol to keep some of their rowdier friends in line, or maybe everyone was just thirstier and happier than anyone had anticipated, but for whatever reason, the party had suddenly gone dry, and it was a problem.

And when it did, Mary went to Jesus about it. Who knows what she thought he’d do about it. Maybe some of the non-scriptural stories of Jesus’ childhood were true; maybe Mary had seen Jesus performing miracles before, as he was growing up. Maybe she knew that he’d be able to conjure up a good Merlot without breaking a sweat. Or maybe she was just voicing her concern, what a pity, what a shame, recognizing the social fallout this major faux pas would have on the couple and their families. However she said it, maybe Jesus was just about to give the punchline of a joke he was telling to some friends, or maybe he was just about to have another bite of chicken parmigiana, and without hardly thinking about what he was saying, he blurted out his answer to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and me?”

In my own mind, I can picture it happening that way. And I can also picture Jesus recognizing almost before the words had left his lips that it probably wasn’t the best thing to say. Seeing some hurt and I’ll bet even some anger in Mary’s eyes. And in that moment, I can picture him asking himself, wait a minute – is it my concern? I mean, granted, this certainly wasn’t any life and death situation, but still, these people were in a bind. And I can imagine the gears turning in his head, asking himself who, exactly, has God sent him to proclaim good news to, and what that was really supposed to look like. Who was he supposed to speak with, to work with, to minister to? Who had he been sent to help? A bunch of bloated, pompous, overpaid religious leaders wearing silly robes and ridiculous-looking hats? Or people like the ones he was sitting with in that moment? People who were struggling to just get by in life, people who needed some kind of good news for a change, people who needed to catch a break in any number of ways. I don’t imagine it took Jesus long at all to see that these people’s problems – and not just the big, cosmic, theological issues of their lives, but also how they lived and got along in life, right then and there, was indeed his concern after all. And so, maybe feeling a little embarrassed for his first response, and maybe feeling a little ornery as he thought about how to make amends for it, with a smile and a wink he told them, fill the water jars; then call for the wine steward.

Almost two thousand years later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was thrown in jail for organizing non-violent protests against racism, segregation, and discrimination in Birmingham, Alabama. While he sat in jail, eight local clergymen wrote a letter to the local newspaper denouncing the civil rights workers’ efforts and denouncing Dr. King for, among other things, being an “outsider” who had come to Birmingham and only stirred up trouble, making things worse than they already were. In short, in this criticism of Dr. King, they were asking, “What concern is the situation in Birmingham to you?”

Dr. King replied to their criticisms by way of his now-famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” one of the most powerful writings to ever come out of the American church, and America in general, for that matter. In the letter, Dr. King reminded these clergymen that when one person suffers, we all suffer; when one person isn’t free, no one is free. He reminded them that beyond secular law, that the same point that we see in Jesus’ actions at the wedding in Cana is an essential tenet of their shared faith- that God has made a place at the table for all of us; that God cares not only about big, eternal matters, but also our immediate, day-to-day needs and struggles; our need for justice and peace and equality; and because God cares about these things, we need to care about them, too. Dr. King reminded them that in God’s eyes, there is no longer any such thing as “outsiders.”

Of course, this is the weekend that we recognize the life and work of Dr. King, and I hope you’ll try to be part of the special worship service this afternoon, and the celebration at the Auburn Public Theater on Monday. Whether you attend those events or not, I think the most important thing we can do to remember Dr. King’s legacy, and what it means to all of us who profess the same faith in Christ along with him, is to think and pay about how we can faithfully make other people’s concerns and struggles our own concern. Jesus didn’t have to be part of the wedding party in order to make their problem his problem. And we don’t have to be black, or female, or gay, or an illegal immigrant, or a victim of human trafficking, or a Syrian refugee, or a homeless person, in order to make their problems ours.

But how can we walk with them in their struggles? What can we do, how can we help them in the best way we can – in the way God calls us to? And just as importantly, once we know what we should do, are we ready to do that if it means it will come with consequences? For example, could we stand together with, say, the local African-American community to oppose some racist government official, if that same person happened to be a neighbor of ours, or if our kids were friends with their kids, maybe on the same sports team, and we saw each other socially all the time? Or could we, as a congregation, take a public and vocal stand for some social justice position – whatever the actual example might be, you can fill in the blank any number of ways – that was unpopular in the community; something that would result in people turning against our church? I mean, we’re no different than anyone else; we like to be liked and held in high esteem; we like some organization or another recognizing us with plaques and proclamations and so on; that’s perfectly normal and natural. Could we take a stand about something we know is right in the eyes of God if we realized it would create friction between us and the influential people in town? Would we be willing to take a stand about something that could end up resulting in having a brick thrown through our front door? We need to always remember that these are the kinds of things that happened to people and congregations who stood with Dr. King back then. We have to ask ourselves these questions, friends, because the people and situations that God has called us to stand up for, and to take on as our concern, are almost always those people and situations that are, almost by definition, going to be unpopular, and sometimes even risky to ourselves.

When considering this story about Jesus at the wedding in Cana, someone once said that it was important to notice that when Mary told Jesus that the wine had run out, he didn’t just write a check and send someone to the liquor store. He actually took matters into his own hands; he put down his fork and rolled up his sleeves, and did something about it himself. His point for the church is clear enough, that while giving money to various causes is good as far as it goes, it isn’t all that Christ calls us to. God has called us to ante up not just our money, but our actual efforts, our elbow grease, and to do so not just as individuals, but together, identifiably, as the church. Because if all we do is go out and volunteer our time with various causes as individuals, then what does anyone need the church for? How do people outside our church family get to know anything about what we, the church, stands for, what the church is all about? Taking these kinds of stands, taking on these tasks, these missions, and taking them on specifically as an intentional group of the people of God – that’s how we avoid becoming seen as a meaningless institution in people’s daily lives. And that’s how we avoid falling into the trap of asking that question, “What concern is that to you or to me?”

So think about that question – how can we continue Dr. King’s legacy, how can we live out Christ’s commission to us, working together to help those in the world who need us to stand up for them in ways large and small? If you think about that question, and come up with an answer, then maybe the next time you’re at a wedding reception, making small talk at the table about some situation in the news, and someone next to you says “Oh, what concern is that of yours?” you’ll be able to say “Well, let me tell you – but better yet, let me show you.”

Thanks be to God.

Thoughts for the Day after MLK

Rustin-and-King-Jr

The words were offered from
pulpits and courthouse steps and jail cells
and countless other places,
words of eternal power and simplicity and truth.
If never else through the year
we listen to the words
of this man, this minister, this prophet again
when we celebrate his day,
and ponder his way
of nonviolence and justice.

The words stir me, too,
even though I know they were first meant
to give hope, and courage, and strength
to those with skin darker than mine,
which means nothing, of course,
but at the same time,
somehow, means everything.
The measure of a person, all too often,
even now, continues to be
the melanin content of skin
instead of the content of character.

The prophet’s words stir me to examine my own soul,
and to realize, as he said,
that when one of us suffers, we all do;
that when one of us is denied justice,
we all are;
and it causes me to take a stand
and do whatever I can
to walk your walk with you.

But the words stir me to something else, too,
because I need justice
just as much as you.
It’s a different kind of justice,
but really isn’t;
a difference that,
like our differing complexions,
means nothing,
but apparently still to some, everything.
The paths traveled by those like you
and those like me
have any number of differences,
but even more similarities,
and at many places,
more than is often admitted,
the paths converge into one.

It is true,
I am not you
and you are not me.
We cannot see
through each other’s eyes,
but I promise you
we at least wear the same prescription,
and if we actually did walk a mile in each other’s shoes
you’d see they’re the same size.

So I would do nothing
to take the prophet away from you;
nothing to distract from
your remembering and honoring.
I would do nothing
to minimize your struggle
or to co-opt his legacy
as somehow being only for me.
But I would ask you to see
that his words are at least for me
as well as for you.

I have a dream, too.

Will you walk my walk with me,
as I walk yours with you?

My gut wrenches,
my eyes well up in tears,
for those like you,
and those like me,
when throughout the years,
the beatings and killings continue –
white and brown and black and blue.
My disgust and horror
and anger and grief
are exactly the same
when I see pictures of the hatred
vomited out on both Emmett Till
and Matthew Shepard alike.
The blood that’s shed
is the same color red;
the loved ones’ tears just as salty.
The prayers offered by them both
in their last breaths,
and the ones offered
by those who cherished them
were offered to,
and painfully heard,
by the same God
who created and loves them both.
Both left families behind
with lives just as shattered
as the bottles that have been broken
over the heads
of those both like you and like me.

It’s true,
our paths aren’t totally the same.
You can’t hide your skin color
while so many of us
can, and do, and still have to
hide the rainbow color of our hearts.
But that hiding, that passing
in order to evade the hate
and rejection
and violence
only brings a different form of it.
The hatred and violence imposed by others
is just traded for self-hate and violence.
Like squeezing a balloon in one place,
it’s going to pop out in another.
It’s an enormity
that causes anxiety;
pain in denying one’s self
that brings daily soul-death,
and real death, too –
a physical surrender
to the world’s rejection and hatred
through overdose
and hanging
and shooting
and jumping into traffic
and any number of other
creative methods of self-termination;
added to the efforts of others
all too happy
to hunt us and beat us and burn us for sport,
as they’ve done to you, too,
or to smash our skulls
beyond recognition
while mouths spattered
with our dripping blood
damn us to perdition –
details, page B12,
in the morning edition.

All of those deaths
have been the result of hatred
and rejection
and oppression
every bit as much
as the ones not self-inflicted,
the ones meted out
by other hands
in the middle of the night
to those like you.

The prophet said to replace
the existing “I/It” relationship
with one of “I/Thou,”
and that’s what we need to do now.
I walk thy walk with thee;
will you stand and walk mine with me?

They never forced me
to drink from rusty fountains,
or to enter through back doors,
but I promise you,
we both know the sound and the sting
of slamming doors,
shut sometimes with a smile
and sometimes a curse;
and we both know
that neither is worse
than the other.

It doesn’t matter
whether it’s offered up
as “Leviticus states”
and “The Bible clearly says”;
or as something softer,
more subtle,
more wink/nudge and under the table,
something that will enable
more respectable conversation.
The pain, the anger, the rejection,
the refusal to validate my election
by our common God
to serve and proclaim resurrection;
whether the words used
are more appropriate to country club
or gutter,
however they’re uttered,
their meaning
and the pain
are exactly the same.

“We’ve reviewed your application,”
they say,
“and many others
from across the nation,
and while your gifts for ministry are clear,
they really aren’t near
what we want for our own congregation.
Surely, we don’t really mind,
none of us have a problem with your kind.
We aren’t frightened;
we’re actually enlightened –
why some of our family and friends
are that way, too.
But if we chose you,
some in the pews
would be upset
over the idea of someone, well, you know,
like you.
Plus, many of our oldest, dearest members
who also have the most to give,
won’t approve of the way you live
and will cut us off,
and then where will our church,
our ministry,
our witness to God be?”

Where, indeed.

“Surely you understand,”
they say.
Surely I’ll still shake their hand
and say it’s OK,
it’s just part of God’s mysterious way;
don’t worry, your consciences are clear.

But that’s not at all what I want to say.
I won’t even say
what I really want to say
about their consciences,
and the way they choose to hear,
and not hear,
The Word of the Lord.

Maybe rather than words,
I want to simply hold up a mirror for them,
and fighting the urge to hit them with it,
let them see their hypocrisy for themselves.

What I really want to say,
at its most polite,
is that this is not at all accepting God’s way
but rather, it’s spitting on it.

In the end, of course,
What I really do
is grit my teeth and clench my stomach
and shake their hand
or offer the email equivalent.
Blessings to you,
and grace and peace,
et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseum.
Giving in to those negative emotions
is really not what the God that I follow
would want, so I swallow
one more helping
of self-negation
of me, God’s creation;
feeling less human,
less of value on that day
than I’d felt the day before,
which some days isn’t much to begin with.
How many times can I accept
this diminishing of self
this ongoing,
soul-crushing
repudiation of me
before there’s nothing left of “me” at all?

My brothers and sisters,
do you know this psalm of lament?
Does it ring true
to your darker-than-my ears?
Hear its cries
for strength,
for endurance,
for recognition of my human dignity,
created, in all of my being
in the image of our common God,
just like you,
no more, no less,
differing only in who we love,
and the color of our skin,
and frankly, not even always that.
Even with some differences in the melody line,
I’ll bet the tune sounds hauntingly familiar.

We’ve walked many miles together,
those like you and like me.
Many of us were with you,
and many of us were you,
in that long walk from Selma to Montgomery.
Our blood stained the Pettus Bridge for all eternity,
mingled together with yours.
We stood there,
and knelt there,
and prayed there;
there, and in your church pews, too,
because we knew
that your walk was our walk, too.

You know that we were there,
and not just as outsiders,
hangers-on,
wannabes coming in from somewhere else
that we would all ultimately,
comfortably retreat to.
You know the lie of that myth.
You know that before the first bus of supporters,
like me or otherwise,
rolled in from the north,
we were already there.
We sang in your choirs,
played your pianos and organs,
and yes,
you know we preached from your pulpits, too,
and we did it all well,
an anointed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
Yes, you know that in your walk,
we weren’t just quiet followers.
You know that Bayard was there
at the very top of the pile,
in the inner circle,
both one of us, and one of you,
planning, leading, organizing;
and you know he wasn’t the only one.

So if not on the actual day
set aside to the Reverend,
the Doctor,
the prophet,
in an attempt to not distort his importance
to your specific walk,
I ask you to at least ponder these words
meant for consideration
on the day, and days, that follow:

Will you see through my glasses,
will you walk in my shoes,
will you join in my walk
as I join in yours?

I have a dream, too.

Will you join with the many,
like brothers Lewis,
and Young,
and Bond,
and Jackson,
and even sister Coretta, the prophet’s own wife,
who knew his mind
better than anyone;
in saying that the prophet’s words
are meant for me, too;
and in proclaiming that equality
and justice really are for all;
as both the promise of this nation
and the assurance of God?

On the day after the prophet’s day,
my question, my request, my plea
to you again, my brothers and sisters
will continue to be:
just as I walk with you,
will you walk with me?

…And All Jerusalem with Him

Sermon 1/3/16
Epiphany Sunday

magi

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. – Matthew 2:1-12

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When we talk about having an epiphany, we mean having some sudden and unexpected revelation, a realization or manifestation of something. When the Church talks about *the* Epiphany, as we do on this particular Sunday, we’re referring specifically to the sudden realization and manifestation of Christ, the Messiah, to the non-Jewish world, represented by the Magi who come from somewhere east of ancient Judea to pay homage to him.

Yes, the story of the Magi is a familiar one. And yes, we mash it up together with the Nativity in most of our home Nativity sets, even though we know that the Magi weren’t there until some time period after Jesus’ birth; we don’t know just when they saw the star or how long it took them to get there. I know some people showcase their home Nativities with the Magi somewhere else in the house, and they move them closer and closer to the rest of the crew assembled around the manger throughout the whole Christmas season, until they finally arrive on the scene on Epiphany; I always thought that was a neat idea.

In any case, we know that in the story, the Magi see a star that, at least in accordance with their own astrological and astronomical interpretations, meant that the Messiah that their neighbors, the Jewish people, had been waiting for had apparently been born, and they set off in the direction of the star – which, based on the story, must have directed them to Jerusalem first, where they meet King Herod and tell him what they’re doing. Of course, since the Jews themselves don’t have any tradition that a star is going to foretell the birth of the Messiah, and more importantly, since Herod isn’t really a particularly devout Jew himself, he doesn’t know what to tell the Magi when they ask where the Messiah is supposed to be born. Once his advisors tell him the messiah is to be born in Bethlehem, the Magi set off again, and the star that had gotten them to Jerusalem seems to have reappeared, or at least adjusted its course, and led them on to Bethlehem.

But by that time, the damage had already been done. Herod had heard that the messiah had been born. And as the scriptures say, when he heard this, he was frightened, and not just him but “all of Jerusalem” along with him. Everyone in Herod’s court and anywhere else in the halls of power in the capital city were suddenly shaking in their boots, because they understood their place in things, and they knew that a Messiah coming would mean the end of their own lives of power, privilege, and comfort. To get some sense of this, imagine if one day, it became known in Washington DC that God had just sent someone into the world, a child who had just been born somewhere, maybe somewhere down around Alexandria, who was going to upset all the established political, military, and social order and set up a new rule – a new kingdom based on God’s understanding of justice and peace. The jig was up; their days were numbered. There would be panic in the streets, just as the story tells us there was in Herod’s court.

Herod and his people were right. The world was about to change forever, even if it wasn’t quite in the way they feared. And it’s certainly true that Christ’s coming into the world continues to offer challenge and opposition to the powers that be in our world today, if the meaning of his coming into the world is truly understood. But setting the big-picture, mactro-level implications aside for a moment, what does the Epiphany – the realization that Christ has come into the world, and the realization of what that means – cause us to think and feel in our own personal lives? I mean, every year, we go through Advent, and then Christmas, and then we turn right around and celebrate New Year’s, with all of its retrospective thoughts about the ups and downs of the past year, and our thoughts and hopes for a better new year to come. We’re standing at the beginning of a new year again, and while we’re here, and we’re thinking about all the promise that the year could bring, how does Christ, and God’s message that Christ brings into the world, factor into that?

Most of us – actually, I suspect, all of us – have something in our lives that we’re uncertain or unclear about. Something that we don’t understand where God is in the situation. Something that we’re trying to sort out; we’re trying to understand where God is leading us, what God is trying to get us to see. We pray for some kind of definitive guidance or revelation about things in our lives, for some kind of epiphany of our own. At least the Magi got a star, even if its meaning was something they could only try to interpret, and it seems to have bounced them from city to city as part of the process, but we don’t even typically seem to get that. I’ve never seen a star with my name on it, and I doubt you have, either. We’re just left stuck, not knowing which way God wants us to go.

But then there are other times, too. Times when God lays out what we’re supposed to do as sure and direct as the second leg of the star’s leading the Magi, moving straight through the sky and stopping directly over the house where Joseph and Mary were staying. Times and situations when what we need isn’t so much an epiphany at all, because we can already see, we already know, what God wants us to do, which way God wants us to go. Times when the right answer is right in front of our faces – but we’re just afraid of its consequences, just as Herod and his bunch were afraid. They didn’t want their established order, their sense of balance, the equilibrium they were familiar with, to be changed. They were afraid of the uncertainty of the situation, and we can be, too, sometimes. The truth is, an epiphany can be a double-edged sword.

Whether God’s speaking into those uncertain parts of our lives in ways that are hard to see, and where the path isn’t clear; or whether it’s perfectly clear to us where God is leading but we’re just afraid of the consequences; the message of the original Epiphany can bring us hope. Because that child was indeed born all those years ago, and grew up to teach us all the immense, unfathomable truth that the God of the universe – the very essence of love, the creative force behind all that exists, and that works through all that exists – is with us, always, in all that we do. God is with us when we get it right, and even when we get it wrong. God is with us when we struggle with seeing the way, and when we struggle with acting on what we already see. The good news for all of us who are truly seeking God’s path in our lives for this coming year, and for all of us who already see the path and just need the faith and courage to walk it, is that we’re never alone in the process, and that God will help us in our efforts. Ultimately, there’s no reason to fear the consequences of aligning our ways more with God’s ways this year. Because truly, what was born in the stable, what was revealed to the Magi, the first Gentiles to be let in on the great secret, was perfect love, and that perfect love came into the world specifically to cast out all fear.

God was with the Magi. And God is with us. Thanks be to God.