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The Epiphany of the Lord (Transferred); January 5, 2020

Near the end of World War II, William Temple, then Archbishop of Canterbury, was conducting a mission to the University of Oxford, then a leading centre of nuclear research. One morning, in a Bible study, he threw out the question, “Do you think God knows anything about nuclear fission?” There was dead silence. Afterwards, talking about their reaction to the question, almost everyone in the group admitted their first thought was, “How could he, it’s been discovered after his time.”

It is very easy, with the best intentions and solid commitment to our Christian faith, to think of the fundamental stories of that faith (including the one we just heard in the Gospel) as stories from and about the past. Great stories, magnificent stories, inspiring stories, but nevertheless, past stories! Stories about a world a long time ago, and far, far away! It would never occur to us to think of these great stories, these great events, happening right now, or to us.

Let me be clear about my understanding of the Bible and its stories. As just a book, the Bible comes to us from history, shaped by history, and tells us of people and voices from history. But as the foundational text of several living faiths, we also consider it a sacred book speaking of sacred things. And as such, the Bible is not just stories about the past; nor is it about foretelling the future. It is about the timeless and eternal God, and about humanity of all time, and humanity’s seeking of understanding of itself and of the eternal. The Bible is an incomparable insight into the human condition, an insight so profound that it has universal and eternal meaning. It introduces humanity to itself in every generation. The Bible’s people are us, and its voices are our voices.

We have just heard the Epiphany story in all its biblical beauty, a story so familiar that we do not realize that it is missing many of the details that are firm in our minds, and that form the background to unnumbered Christmas creches in uncountable churches, public squares, and shopping malls. Wise men, magi, not kings; of unstated number, not three; visit the Holy Family in a house, not a stable. Unnamed wise men, not Melchior, Kaspar, and Balthasar. From time clues in the story, it is one to two years after the birth of Jesus, not a few hours or twelve days. But aside from being a charming tale, there seems to be very little application to our lives, with or without the legendary additions. Perhaps, if we had the facts behind this story of a visit by sages to the Christ child, that might help.

In the 17th century, the astronomer (and really more astrologer) Johannes Kepler observed a celestial phenomenon he calculated occurred every 800 years. It was the coming together of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of the Fish (Pisces), seemingly forming a very bright, single star. Kepler observed to friends, who were either shocked and/or amused, that this could have been the star of the Magi, the Epiphany star. Only last (20th) century did archeologists discover an ancient document, the Star Almanac of Sipper. In it are listed, correct to the day, the star movements of the year we call 7 B.C. It is likely that Persian astrologers recorded the same phenomenon that Kepler observed 1600 years later. For the Persians, however, the stars spoke a clear message: Jupiter was the star of a world ruler, Saturn was the star of Palestine, and the Fish constellation referred to a crisis time. The Persian astrologers knew what had to be done.

In a caravan with a few companions they travelled from the high central Asian plateau, across the valley of the Euphrates and through the desert miles beyond, across a small muddy river called the Jordan, up the rock wall of an escarpment, to the city of Jerusalem. Given the roughness of the terrain and the hostility of the tribes inhabiting the lands along the route, progress of a handful of miles a day would have been the norm; the total journey would have taken one to two years. In Jerusalem they had a chilling encounter with a syphilitic, paranoid butcher, the repulsive wreck of a once respected and charming statesman called Herod the Great. And later, checking to make sure they were not followed, they came to a poor home; there they knelt before a peasant family, and offered symbolic gifts to a young boy.

Those are interesting details, but they do not “prove” the story; neither do they make it relevant for us. And yet, it is about us.

I invite you to take a journey of the imagination. Take the story of the journey and visit of the magi into yourself; its images, voices and events; relocate it in the landscape of your ongoing experience, in the mysterious country called our interior life. Make yourself the stage on which the Epiphany drama takes place. Dream it as you dream a dream, and in the morning ask what it might mean for your life. As you might recapture the images of a dream, recapture the images of the story.

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem …. Herod was king.

A child is born; a corrupt, death-dealing power rules. Isn’t that a capsule description of our time, and every time. In recorded history, there has never been an age when there was no threat to peace somewhere; always there are those wanting to conquer weaker victims, to amass land, property, wealth, power. Change, the new, is inevitable in human society living in our physical world, and yet there are always those resisting change, the new, if it threatens their self-interest. We are in a time when new ways of living in our world are desperately needed to avoid disintegration and even destruction of our planet, and yet the old ways are desperately defended by those who’s privilege and power depend on them. Old tribal hatreds are threatening peace imposed by old and now weak colonial powers; old scores are being settled with modern weapons; weapons of mass destruction, chemical, biological and nuclear are threatening to be used by small nations that did not exist 100 years ago. Old nationalism and tribalism, and new ambitions and opportunistic grabs for power are tearing nations apart in bloody conflict, and creating new and unlikely, even un-holy, alliances. In the industrialized world information is struggling to replace technology as the engine of the economy, and as in every world revolution, there are victims, whose only fault is to be living at the wrong time, in the wrong place, with old skills or no skills, and not enough power to influence their future.
In such an age, what is wisdom? What do wise men and women choose as an attitude? What do they look for? In a world which many think is dying, they look for signs of birth! In contemporary skies, which are darkened by psychological clouds of despair and physical clouds of pollution and climate change, wise men and women look for the glimmer of even a single star, a single element of hope, possibility, breakthrough …. signs of a future!

We have seen his star …. and we have come.

Wise men and women, ready with an attitude of hope, looking for a star at 20 years into our 21st century, know they will have to journey, to search, to change. If we seek wisdom, we cannot remain still. We have all had to journey through uncharted countries of experience. Some of us have had to change psychologically and mentally to remain effective in our world of work, and in our world of daily living. Some of us have had to search desperately for resources within ourselves. Our society is being forced to change radically in response to new world realities. Our church, and all churches, are having to search for new ways of ministering to a world in which we are becoming unwelcome alien strangers over less than one generation. Our church, and all churches, are having to give up their familiar and comfortable cultures, structures, worship, and music in order to proclaim the Gospel in a strange new world of aliens and strangers!

Wise men came to Jerusalem …. Herod was troubled.

What might Jerusalem be for us? It is the city; the symbol for all that is complex and ambiguous and dangerous. Jerusalem is all the anxiety, pressures; fragmentation of family, neighbourhood, society, and country that threaten to disintegrate us. Jerusalem is urban sprawl, big-city crime, racial disharmony and gender discrimination, uncaring neighbours, callous disregard for the space and rights of others. It is not difficult to see these as demons, death-dealing elements out to destroy us. Their collective name is Herod. Herod signifies all that which, given a chance, would destroy human hope and commitment and motivation, would destroy our dream of following a faint star of hope, and bring our journey as persons, as a society, or as a world, to an end. Wise men and women know that as they journey, they cannot avoid Jerusalem; and Herod is always there to be encountered. Wise men and women realize that Herod is not always some evil outside force; Herod is also within us, in our own unwillingness to welcome the future, and in our own needs to be secure, even at the cost of killing the new thing which is coming into being.

“Tell me”, Herod said, “when you have found the child ….”

Herod tries to co-opt the magi to betray the journey, to end their commitment to possibility, to kill the child. Today, if you try to be a questing human person of hope, if you are committing yourself in some way to the quality of God’s future – it may be in a political organization, a volunteer group, an institution, even a church – there are many ways in which Herod speaks. Herod says, “Why invest your energy in idealistic dreams? Why be naive, thinking you can make a difference? Survival is the name of the game, it’s a dog eat dog world our there; go for the gusto, look out for number one, do unto others before they do unto you, and get for yourself whatever you can from the wreckage of our world”. And remember, sometimes Herod speaks within our innermost being!

Herod speaks in our weariness and discouragement, and in our time and society. If we are wise, we will do what the wise men did – we hear the voice of the old king of death, fear and cynicism, but we continue to go our own way, following the guiding star of God’s hope for the world. If we commit ourselves to God who calls us to journey, to God who calls us to search for that which shines as our ultimate value, that ultimacy, that star, that light of God haunts us and draws us and calls us.
A final image,

…. coming home.

The magi came to the child, and gave their gifts. If we journey in response to the God who calls us, we too come at length to the place where we discover a child, a new life. That child is the new man or woman that God is calling you and me to become.

It is to the birth of that child within you that God wishes you to give your gifts. Your gold, your frankincense, your myrrh are your energy, integrity, mind, loyalties, hope, your deepest commitments of heart and mind and soul and strength. When you allow the child within you to be born, you are re-energized to bring the child of hope and possibility and new creation to be born at every level of your life – your relationships, your profession, your family, society, country, world. Through you, the eternal and holy child of hope and possibility, who is Christ Jesus our Lord, can be born daily into our world; not in a remote time, but now.

Do you see, do you understand, this great and mysterious thing? You are the story! You are the child of God who is daily being called to birth. You are the wise man or woman seeking the child, despite also being Herod who wishes to destroy the new. But most of all, you are the living, breathing Bethlehem in which the Christ child is always being born!

Copyright ©2020 by Gerry Mueller