The readings included John 1:1-9; the Gospel of Thomas 70, and Matthew 2:1-12 You can listen to the sermon here
This year, in addition to all of the many holiday festivities that we are accustomed to enjoying over the Christmas holidays many of us added the time-consuming guilty pleasure of binge-watching. Binge-watching is a relatively new phenomenon which results in hours and hours spent watching entire seasons of a TV series in one or two days. Thanks to things like Netflix, Apple TV and YouTube there are a so many TV series available but one that has me in its grip at the moment has more power to demand my attention as a result of a passion that developed in me when I was but a child.
When I was just ten years old, we lived in Newmarket for less than a year. By that time I had already lived in Birmingham, England, Belfast, Northern Ireland, Toronto and Newmarket. I was in grade five and I went to J.L.R. Bell public school. My teacher, Mr. Jones, was a particularly gifted storyteller. Mr. Jones had the ability to hold our little class in the palm of his hand simply by weaving tales of the world beyond our little lives. I can still remember the wonder and excitement that he generated when he announced that we were going to begin to study the explorers. I had no idea what an explorer was, but the globe that Mr. Jones spun on his desk as he explained that for years and years and years everyone believed that the earth was flat and that if you travelled far enough you ran the risk of falling off the edge, well I was hooked. Then he pulled down a large display map that was suspended on what looked to my ten-year-old eyes to be a window-blind and pointed to what looked like a funny shaped boot and told us that our study of the exploration of the world would begin in Venice, Italy in the year 1384, with the birth of Marco Polo.
I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. Venice, Italy, 1384, Marco, Polo, none of these words meant anything to me except for one, so I was hooked. What was a Venice? What was Italy? What could he possibly mean by 1384? Whatever was a Marco and what on earth did a Marco have to do with a Polo? Polo’s were the little mints that my Nannie kept in her purse.
At the tender age of ten, Mr. Jones launched me upon a grand adventure, which would lead to my life-long love of history and of words. For days and days and days, Mr. Jones wove fabulous tales of the discoveries of Marco Polo as he traveled upon the Silk Route to China where he met the fascinating Kublai Kahn whose very name summoned up both mystery and danger. The adventures of Marco Polo had me hooked on history but Mr. Jones didn’t stop there, no. Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, John Cabot, Jacque Cartier, Henry Hudson and a host of others who Mr. Jones taught us about with only the globe and that mesmerizing map of his to aid him, all served to open me up to ideas and concepts that turned me into a student of history and a lover of stories.
I had to leave Mr. Jones class before the end of term because once again my family was on the move. We were right in the middle of following Thomas Cook to the shores of what would eventually become my home on the west coast of British Columbia, when I handed over the atlas that Mr. Jones had lent me. I was trying hard not to cry as I bid, the man who was at that very moment my favorite person in the whole world, good-bye. It was when Mr. Jones encouraged me to continue my journey into the past that I had what I know recognize as an epiphany. With that great big wall map as a backdrop and the globe in front of me, I knew that I too was an explorer. What I didn’t know, what that particular epiphany didn’t reveal, was that I was also a storyteller.
Epiphanies are marvelous, miraculous events that have the power to reveal the very depths of who and what we are. Strictly speaking an epiphany is a flash of insight. The word epiphany comes from the Greek for the appearance of the divine. When the word was first explained to me, my teacher suggested that the word epiphany could be used to describe that moment in a cartoon when the light-bulb appears above a character’s head. A flash of insight! A moment of discovery that enlightens the mind and can change a life, open up a whole new world, herald a new way of being, unravel a mystery, or reveal the Divine in our midst.
It is hardly and any wonder, that the celebration of the Epiphany, was once second only to Easter in the church year. The recognition of God in our midst, no that’s something to celebrate! Over the years, Christmas has eclipsed the celebration of Epiphany. We won’t even bother coming to church on Tuesday for the feast of Epiphany. These days most Christians don’t even wait until Epiphany to take down their Christmas decorations. Yesterday, I saw Valentine’s Day decorations in the grocery store. The world scarcely pauses to notice. Perhaps the wise-guys are to blame.
Maybe the story of the wise folk from the East following a Star to the place where Jesus was to be found in a humble dwelling is to blame for our lack of enthusiasm for Epiphany. For decades we’ve been looking at this story from one or two perspectives, neither of which are particularly illuminating. The old argument over whether or not the story is historically accurate has over the years turned out most of the light-bulbs over our heads as we like cartoon characters debate the relative merits of the very existence of a star, or the identities of the wise folk or the myriad of reasons that the gospel-story-teller we call Matthew might have included such a story in his rather fantastic account of the revelation that Jesus was indeed divine. Perhaps the way in which we have been looking at this story is the reason we can’t see the light.
Joan Chittister tells a story which illustrates the trap we are in. It’s about a disciple and a Sufi elder.
“Where shall I look for Enlightenment?” the disciple asked.
“Here,” the elder said.
“When will it happen?” the disciple asked.
“It is happening right now,” the elder answered.
“Then why don’t I experience it?” the disciple persisted. “Because you do not look,” the elder said.
“But what should I look for?” the disciple continued. “Nothing. Just look,” the elder said.
“But at what?” the disciple asked again.
“At anything your eyes alight upon,” the elder answered.
“But must I look in a special kind of way?” the disciple went on.
“No. The ordinary way will do,” the elder said.
“But don’t I always look the ordinary way?” the disciple said.
“No, you don’t,” the elder said.
“But why ever not?” the disciple asked.
“Because to look you must be here. You’re mostly somewhere else,” the elder said.
For about the past 200 years, far too many of us have been looking in the wrong place for enlightenment when it comes to the story of the Magi. We have fixed our gaze upon the surface and missed out on an opportunity to see the light. While we have explored the literal and historical meanings of this particular story we have learned a great deal about the gospel-story-teller and the possible sources of this tale. We have learned so much about the historical background. We have speculated on the make-up and the circumstances of the communities to which this story was first told. We have argued the science and speculated on the possible or impossible nature of the appearance of a star. We have even explored the power of story and the importance of myth when it comes to communicating truth. But for the most part we have failed to plumb the depths of this story precisely because we have fixed our gaze upon the surface of this story.
Long before modern scholars even began to approach this story of the epiphany, before the reformation, the Church pointed to the depths of this story. Most of us have been so caught up in the historical-critical method of interpreting the Scriptures that we have forgotten that the church used to teach that there were four levels of interpretation of scripture. The first level of interpretation was the literal level. This level was for the uneducated masses; the folks who sat in the pews and for most of the clergy; many of whom could not even read. The literal level of the story was all these masses were deemed capable of understanding. For the more sophisticated seriously religious types there was a second level of meaning known as the allegorical level. For those higher up on the religious ladder there was the moral level. And for those enlightened few there was the eschatological level.
For centuries after the reformation the Church has rarely moved beyond the literal level of interpretation. Most preachers these days hover in the allegorical level while others remain obsessed with the moral meaning. I’ve yet to entertain the idea of the eschatological meaning, as I’m sure it would send you all scurrying for the exits. But suppose for just a moment, we forget all the various methods of interpretation and simply approach the story from the perspective of listeners. A good story; I mean a really good story, has it’s power in its ability to engender an experience in the hearts and minds of its listeners.
This story has the potential to engender a powerful experience if we will but allow ourselves to be carried off by the experiences of its characters. Remember this is the story of an epiphany, so look for the light. For light always accompanies an epiphany. Pretend you are a cartoon character and wait for the light-bulb to go off above your head. Before we begin, there is perhaps one detail that a first century audience would not need to have been told but that a 21st century audience might just miss if it is not highlighted (pardon the pun). You see the association of light to wisdom is the key to experiencing this story in ways that can flip the switch on your own personal light-bulb. Think about it, wise guys following the light aka wisdom, in search of light, wisdom find wisdom in of all things a baby. Wisdom, follows wisdom, in search of wisdom, and by following wisdom, wisdom discovers wisdom in a baby. It is a journey that leads back to the beginning of the journey. Wisdom was in fact there all along.
Now try to image how an audience in the first century might have experienced this story. Seeking a saviour, someone with the power to move them beyond the oppression and injustice in which they found themselves living under the domination of the Romans, Seeking a saviour, wise folk, follow the light, or wisdom, and discover the saviour, right there in the guise of a baby. The divine one, is right there where we all begin in the guise of a baby. The saviour that the audience longs for is found in a baby.
While we in the 21st century long for God, we too look to the wise folk who followed wisdom, only to discover that God is where God has always been right there where we all began in the guise of a baby.
May this story switch on your personal light-bulb so that you can see that God is right there where God has always been from your very beginning as a baby the Divine has been in you; an epiphany; a flash of insight, God lives and breathes in us.
As a child, an epiphany revealed to me that I am an explorer, and my affinity for explorers has never waned. Over the years I have looked to the experiences of explores to reveal to me that which I continue to seek; an experience of the Divine. I have not been disappointed. There is a 20th century explorer, who died the year that I was born. Admiral Richard Byrd travelled into the frozen north seeking wisdom, listen to what Byrd wrote, near the north pole:
“I paused to listen to the silence. My breath crystallized as it passed my cheeks, drifted on a breeze gentler than a whisper. My frozen breath hung like a cloud overhead. The day was dying, the night was being born-but with great peace. Here were the imponderable processes and forces of the cosmos, harmonious and soundless.
Harmony, that was it! That was what came out of the silence-a gentle rhythm, the strain of a perfect chord. It was enough to catch that rhythm, momentarily to be myself a part of it. In that instant I could feel no doubt of man’s oneness with the universe. The conviction came that that rhythm was too orderly, too harmonious, too perfect to be a product of blind chance-that, therefore, there must be purpose in the whole and that man was part of that whole and not an accidental offshoot. It was a feeling that transcended reason. The universe was a cosmos, not a chaos; man was as rightfully a part of that cosmos as were the day and night. “
Byrd paused to listen to the rhythm of the silence and his own breath opened him to the revelation of the Divine One who lies at the very heart of Reality. We do not need to travel to the North Pole. We do not need to follow a star. We need only to pause for a moment so that we can see, feel, touch and know the Divine ONE we call God, who comes to us in the rhythm of our breath and in the guise of a baby. The ONE we seek, the one who has the power to save us, the One who lies at the very heart of reality, the One we call God, lives and breathes in, with, through, and beyond us. Follow that Light where-ever that Light may lead us, for there is Wisdom in the Stars just as surely as there is Wisdom in you.