Sunday, January 8, 2006

Epiphany: Walk Toward the Light

Isaiah 60:1-6; Matt. 2:1-12

A few weeks ago when Irene and I were in Germany,
we got to see the bones of the three wise men.
Actually, we saw the box the bones were in.
Actually, it was the gold-plated sarcophagus,
embedded with 1,000 precious gems,
with 78 figures carved into the side,
in which there are bones of three people,
that someone once claimed were the bones of the three kings.
Those bones arrived in Germany in 1164,
when the Roman Emperor took them from Milan, Italy,
and gave them to the archbishop of Cologne.
These relics were so precious,
that they decided to build a cathedral to house them.
It took them 632 years to finish what is now
the largest Gothic church in northern Europe.

It’s a pretty long way, I think, to get from the story in Matthew 2,
where some eastern astrologers came to visit the young child Jesus,
to worship him and present him with gifts,
to this golden jewel-studded sarcophagus of bones,
where daily a couple thousand pilgrims come to pay homage.
For that matter, it’s a long way from Matthew
to the romanticized, sentimentalized Hallmark version
of three kings on three camels holding three treasure chests,
their crowns silhouetted against a night sky bright with stars.
In fact, there’s so many layers of tradition and legend around this story,
from the time it was written down until today,
that it’s nigh to impossible to peal them all away,
and get down to the heart of the matter.
But this morning, I’m going to try to do that.

Epiphany is the day in our church calendar—January 6, to be exact—
when we remember and celebrate this great story.
It’s the twelfth day of Christmas.
For the Orthodox church, it is Christmas.
Some Amish groups celebrate it as Old Christmas.
No work is done.
They fast.
They exchange gifts.
But almost everywhere
this story is connected with the tradition of gift-giving.
That’s what I was told growing up,
when I asked, “Why do we give gifts at Christmas?”
“Well, it’s to remember the wise men who gave gifts to Jesus.”
I sometimes have wondered how giving
expensive toys and clothes and electronics to each other,
is the best way to celebrate gifts
that were given to Jesus as an act of worship.
But for a little boy opening presents on Christmas Day,
any reason is good enough,
so the answer I got satisfied me.

Today, I’m not satisfied with that answer.
So I’m asking anew:
“What’s really going on in this story from Matthew 2,
and what is the best way for us as a church
to remember and celebrate it?”

This is a story of some educated, observant, and visionary people
from far outside the geography and culture of Israel and Judaism.
These were people who studied the night skies as a profession.
Who were specifically looking for signs in the heavens,
that might signify something important going on in this world.
That was their job, that was their world view,
and they were living it out in a fairly ordinary way.
I doubt any of their friends or family were shocked,
when they announced what they were doing.
Making a journey to honor a divinely-inspired and divine-revealed
birth of a king, would not have been so strange
for persons from that culture, with that world view.

The point worth remembering, I think, and celebrating every year,
is not their star-studded royal presentation of expensive treasures
to the Christ-child.
It was the fact that they... noticed the light,
and decided to walk toward it.
On their own accord, they chose to leave their comfort zone,
and move toward whatever significant thing this was,
that God was doing in this world.
They were astrologers, but what they really cared about, ultimately,
wasn’t in the sky.
They looked to the stars for the express purpose,
of figuring out what God was doing down here.
And when they discovered something, they acted on it.
They got involved.
They walked toward the light of God.

I can’t think of anything more important
for living faithfully as a follower of Christ in today’s world,
than to imitate the magi...
than to be watchful, observant,
looking for signs of God at work in the world,
and then walking toward that sign,
getting involved, participating in the activity of God.

But we’re not geared to think that way about Christian faith.
Especially not in our North American culture.
I don’t think I’m taking too much of a leap to say,
the biggest single obstacle preventing the church today
from being the kind of church God called us to be,
and keep us from walking toward the light,
is consumerism.
Yes, consumerism.
It is the sworn enemy of radical Christian discipleship.
It is the enemy of the church.
Ant it’s all around us.
We swim in it like fish in water.
And like fish, we’re oblivious to it.
Someone once said, “I don’t know who first discovered water,
but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.”

We are socialized, from the day of our birth,
to orient our whole lives around meeting our personal needs.
That’s what gives our lives meaning, getting our needs met.
Remember Psychology 101,
Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs”?
Once our basic needs get met—food, water, shelter, etc.—
we can move up to the next level, and then the next,
and once we get to the top, all our needs are met,
and we become “self-actualized.”
In that model, the essence of being human,
the source of meaning for human life,
is in getting our needs met.

Our culture is organized around this principle.
The economy is completely dependent on this principle.
And if it so happens that we become affluent enough
that all our needs seem to be met,
then it’s necessary, in order for our economy to grow,
that we create more needs,
so we can produce more, and consume more.
That’s so much of what drives the growth in technology.
If we can have it, then we want to have it.
And with the help of some advertizing and marketing,
we can soon convince ourselves that we need to have it.
Does anyone, really, need HDTV?
Oh, but it’s so cool, I know.
And I admit that I’ve lingered long
around the HDTV displays in Costco.
Does anyone, really, need to have a bluetooth device
attached to their ear the whole day,
so they can listen to their own music, take phone calls,
and surf the internet,
when they’re walking down the sidewalk or driving a car?
Now, nobody talk to me about my PalmPilot.
Even if I can play music on it.
This I really need. It’s way down there, on Maslow’s hierarchy.
People who use paper and pencil appointment books,
just don’t understand it.
See how easy it is to define need, on our own terms?
Of course, this applies not only to technology.
It applies to clothing fashions, home furnishings,
cars, food, recreation.
Because our economy revolves around “meeting our needs”
things we need just keep growing in number, exponentially.

And it’s inevitable,
given how immersed we are in our culture,
that church gets to be viewed the same way.
It’s all about us and our so-called needs.
To the point where we have completely distorted
the whole reason for our existence as a church.

I’ve been reading lots of books lately
to prepare for my doctoral seminar this week in Chicago.
One of them is titled “StormFront: the Good News of God.”
In it, the authors are saying much the same thing
about the effect of consumerism on the church.
They say, “We confuse the gospel with an infomercial,
and we confuse the community of God’s people
with vendors of spiritual goods and services.”

I think we all, including myself, have to admit that
we often evaluate church on the basis of what we get out of it.
If church is meeting our needs, we’re happy with it.
If it’s not meeting our needs, we look for a church that does.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with meeting needs, of course.
In fact, the church had better not turn its back,
when there is genuine human need.
Jesus said the righteous will be judged in glory,
on whether he will be able to say to them,
“When I was hungry you fed me,
when I was thirsty you gave me a drink,
when I was sick you visited me.”
The issue is not whether we should meet needs.
The issue is not whether we should enhance
happiness, health, and meaning in life.
The issue is how our culture defines happiness, health, and meaning.
It is defined largely in personal and private terms.
But the God of the scriptures calls us to find meaning in life
by participating in something much larger than ourselves.
We, the people of God, are invited to participate with God,
in his mission of establishing the reign of God on the earth.
We are called to be God’s holy nation and priestly people,
to serve God for the sake of the world.

News flash! The gospel is not about us. It’s about God.
Stop and think about it.
Don’t we usually define the “good news” in terms of
something good that happens to us or to creation.
We try to articulate the gospel in such a way
that it appeals to us, or to whoever is hearing it.
When I prepare a sermon, I often find myself asking the question,
“Now what is the good news for the people in my congregation,
and how can I best proclaim it?”
That’s not necessarily a wrong question,
but when the New Testament talks about the Gospel,
it’s usually not framed in terms of what people want to hear.
When Jesus refers to Gospel,
he nearly always is referring to the reign of God.
When the writers of the epistles write to the church about Gospel,
they’re almost always referring to what God has done in Jesus.
It’s not about us, sisters and brothers.
The Gospel is about what God has done
and is still doing in the world.
Sometimes it’s welcomed, often it’s not.
Either by us, or by those outside the church.

Our mission is not to see how much Gospel we can receive,
how much good news there is to hear and rejoice over.
It’s about participating with God’s work of redemption in the world.
It’s about confronting the powers.
It’s about confronting the status quo.
And that’s not always pleasant.

The symbol of the Gospel has always been the cross.
But not the kind of shiny cross that we hang on the wall
or around our necks,
and hope it acts like a charm
to bring us blessings and ward off evil.
No, the symbol of the Gospel is an instrument of death.
It reminds us of Christ’s suffering.
It reminds us of the cost involved
if we choose to participate in this gospel.
The cross is an offensive symbol.
The early church meant it to be.
Paul said in 1 Corinthians that it was
“a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to the Gentiles.”
It was meant to shock and startle.
It was meant to remind believers in Jesus
not to take lightly their decision to follow him.

But in our North American culture of consumerism,
we have conveniently domesticated the cross.
As the authors of the book “StormFront” said,
“North Americans prefer a religion of receiving
more than a religion of participation.”
We have little motivation to look at the cross
as a reminder that we are called to participate in that suffering,
to actually die with Christ.
We don’t want to think too long and hard about a gospel
that calls us to lay down ourselves and our needs,
and to lose ourselves in a project that’s bigger than us.

But that’s exactly what the magi did,
when they saw the star rising in the east,
and realized God was up to something larger and more mysterious
than what they could imagine.
They laid down their personal need of home and security and safety,
and went to participate in this thing beyond themselves.
That’s the heart of the story, behind all that glittering gold.

And with that in mind,
I look with new eyes on the vision of Isaiah 60,
that was just read by Owen.
This was God’s word through the prophet
for the people of God.
And I think we can hear it as a word for us.
“Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” - v. 1
And the prophet goes on, painting this mental picture
of a city of God on a hill,
attracting kings and nations to it - v. 3
It draws people in like a magnet.
The earth and its peoples are covered in thick darkness, -v. 2
but they look and see a yonder light
(just like the magi).
And they walk toward the light.
They are drawn out of their darkness and into the light.

That’s the kind of church we are called to be today.
A church that stands in stark contrast to the world around us.
Most assuredly, not a church that lives by
the same kind of consumerism and individualism of our culture.
We are a contrast-society.
We give the world an alternative
to the darkness that overshadows
those who live only for themselves.
That is the highest missionary calling of the church, I believe.
To live as a city of light on a hill.
To model for the world a life lived under the reign of God.
That is our mission.
But keeping in mind, of course, that it’s still not about us.
We don’t undertake this mission with the arrogance
of thinking we’re going to show the world how it’s done.
No, we do as Isaiah says.
We simply arise and shine.
We get up, and allow the light of God to rise upon us.
The light is all God’s doing.
It’s the glory of the Lord Almighty,
that provides the attraction.
We are weak, limited, fallible,
just like all the peoples living in the darkness.
We also stumble around in the dark sometimes.
But what makes us different than the world around us,
is our willingness to participate in God’s activity,
our willingness to be where the light is.
Peoples are drawn to the light.
But the light is God’s.

People of God, come to the light.
Come, participate in God’s work
of redeeming the world from its darkness.
Come. Arise. Shine.

It is in that spirit,
that you are invited to the Lord’s table this morning.
A spirit of participation, and not just receiving.
Come, you who are part of God’s covenant people,
and partake of these symbols of the sacrifice of Jesus for the world.
In Jesus Christ, God moved in the world for its salvation.
God continues to move in the world today.
And at the table we join in communion with God,
and with each other;
saying we belong to you, Lord,
here we your service.
And yes, we also receive at the table.
We are nurtured and sustained by this ritual.
But primarily, it is offering ourselves to God.
It’s participating in the continuing work of God.

In addition to receiving the symbols of the bread and cup,
those who would desire prayer and anointing
for the healing of mind, body, spirit, or relationships,
are invited to come to where Barbara will be standing,
and she will offer prayer and anointing.
But this ritual of anointing,
even though we come with great need in our lives,
and hope to receive healing and hope,
it’s really not just about receiving.
God makes us whole, not as an end in itself,
but in order that we can participate more fully in God’s mission.
Even prayer for healing is decidedly outward-looking.

I’ll ask those who are serving communion this morning,
to please come forward now, and make preparations.

—Phil Kniss, January 8, 2006

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