The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
January 6, 2019
T.S. Eliot, the great poet, imagines the wise men from the east in his poem, “Journey of the Magi.” Written from the perspective of the wise men grown old, looking back on their lives, the wise man asks:
“were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.”
It was hard and bitter agony for us. Put yourselves in their shoes for a moment, imagine what they see. First, they see a king, Herod. One might think that visiting another king might impress the wise men. But no, Herod’s only worried about news of another king. The wise men see scribes and chief priests. One might think the wise men would be awed by their wisdom. But the scribes and chief priests are just confused about the birth of this child and these strange visitors from the east. The wise men see a star, a wandering star, a comet maybe, or a supernova, guiding them to on their journey. But even that strange sight in the heavens does not change the wise men.
No, what the wise men see, the thing that is hard and bitter agony for them, is something that they’ve probably seen hundreds of times before. It’s jut a child and his humble mother, who are staying in a house in a little town outside of an only slightly less little town. Think of it - it’s just a little child and his mother in a podunk little town that sets the world on edge.
So whether you like Jesus or not, when you meet him, your world will change. That is the utter, absolute truth. Take Herod. Like I said, Herod was threatened by what the wise men told him, that there was another king who had been born. Herod tried to get the wise men to come back so that Herod would know where the child was so that Herod could kill him. But instead the wise men leave by another road, evading Herod altogether. The story goes on, just a little bit later in the Gospel of Matthew, we read that Herod orders that all the children under two years old in that region to be massacred. Herod was so insecure, he was so weak, that he ordered the death of children. The slaughter of these children is remembered in the church as the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28. Think of it - those slaughtered children were the first ones to ever die for Jesus. Herod is so fragile that he is threatened even by a child. Even he is forced to action, forced to change by the presence of Jesus.
The chief priests and the scribes, the clergy of the day, they don’t change either. In many ways, they’re like me. Ensconced behind my holy clothes, with a fancy title and with years of training. And yet, at the end of the story, it is the chief priests and the scribes who clamor for Jesus’ death again at the crucifixion. When confronted by Jesus, they too are forced to action.
It’s wild, isn’t it? Here is an innocent child, tenderly cared for by his mother; and people want to kill him. Here is a man who preaches peace, who heals, feeds, blesses - and from beginning to end people want him dead. Don’t tell me that the Old Testament is full of violence and the New Testament is full of peace. For there are people in every generation, so threatened by grace and love that they are willing to shed blood.
So perhaps Jesus doesn’t so much change people as he reveals the true heart of people. When people see him, when they encounter Jesus, their true nature is revealed. Herod is revealed as a fragile, little, bully of a man who is willing to kill children to keep his place. The chief priests and scribes are revealed as hypocrites, hiding behind their holy clothes and holy books. These are Jesus’ own people - Jews, like him - that want him dead.
And then we have the wise men from the east. They are not Jews. They are not of Jesus’ people. They are outsiders. The people we would least expect to worship Jesus. And yet, when they meet Jesus, it is revealed that they are the ones with their hearts set toward God. Herod and his own people come for Jesus with spears and swords. The wise men from the east bring Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The wise men leave for their own country by another road. But they leave something behind with that child and his mother. They leave behind their old selves. A part of them dies there with Jesus. They have seen this newborn king, they have seen the Savior of the World, they have seen the one who will cause the rising and falling of many. And they are revealed as righteous people. When anybody meets Jesus, their true nature is revealed.
You then, who have seen Jesus, the question for you is simple - have you seen the Savior of the World or have you seen a threat to your way of life?
So much of Christian teaching today looks like self-help; New Years’ resolutions masquerading as spirituality. But the lesson for today is not that we see Jesus and have to change. No, it’s that we see Jesus and our true selves are revealed. If we are bullies, threatened even by innocent women and their children, if we are so desperate to hold on to our power, then we will be revealed as such. If we are hypocrites, hiding behind our titles and wisdom, unwilling to learn, then we will be revealed as such. And if we come to see Jesus with a true and open heart, then we will give him our gifts, and we will be revealed as people close to God.
This is both the grace and the warning of Epiphany. When you see Jesus, Jesus will crack you open like an egg. And the whole world will see what you’re really made of. For those with an open heart, for those who are gracious and compassionate, this is good news. You have nothing to be afraid of. Jesus will crack open your heart and you will be revealed as righteous people. For those who are threatened by others, for those who are afraid, for those who are set against mercy and compassion, this is hard news. Jesus will crack open your heart and you will be revealed for what you are - bullies and cowards.
Indeed, this is what the word “Epiphany” means. Epiphany means a showing forth, a manifestation. And yes, this is the showing forth, the manifestation of God to all people. But it’s also our Epiphany, when our true selves will be shown. Jesus shows up and by his very presence all that we are and all that we have is revealed.
So often at this point in the sermon, I ask you to do something. To pray, to give, to work, to act. But not today. For you will probably go on doing what you were already going to do anyway. Instead, I ask you to look at your own life and simply observe. When you meet Jesus, when Jesus cracks open your heart as he is bound to do, what is Jesus going to see inside of you? Will he see righteousness or cowardice? Will he see humility or bravado? When Jesus peers deep into your soul, will he see himself?