Sunday, January 4, 2015

(Epiphany) Was the magi’s journey rational?

Epiphany Sunday 2015
Matthew 2:1-12

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I think without a doubt,
    the most sentimental, magical, fairly-tale-like,
        exotic, and other-worldly part of the Christmas story,
        is the story of the magi in Matthew 2.

    At least, we’ve made it that.
    And there’s a big part of me that likes it that way.
        I’m glad this story has reached mythical proportions,
            and that nearly everyone in the world—
                from all languages and cultures,
                from east to west, young to old,
                Christian to Muslim to Buddhist
                    to just about any religion—
            when they see a picture of three camels,
                and three men in royal robes carrying gifts,
                against a hilly backdrop, with a big star in the sky,
            they will think, “Christmas!”

        This scene, or some variation on it,
            like Rachel Brown’s beautiful quilted rendition here,
            or literally millions of other variations,
                show up in movies and children’s books and paintings
                and Christmas cards, and decorations, and gift wrap.

        Around the world, this scene is just as recognizable
            as the iconic scene of Mary and Joseph
                and a couple cows in a cute and cozy stable
            peering into a manger built with legs in the shape of an “X”
                with straw just spilling over the edges,
                in awe of the tiny smiling baby.

    Like I said, I’m glad about this.
        Yes, I know neither of those scenes
            are based on any biblical evidence.
        They have become traditional, you might even say mythical.
        And they are completely stylized.
            The location was more than likely a dark and smelly cave,
                where animals were often sheltered at night.
            The manger was probably carved out of stone.
            And you can bet the animals were not enthralled,
                crowding around the manger worshiping the Christ child.
            They were probably cowering in the back corner of the cave,
                stressed out by the noisy intrusion
                and all the mess and commotion and screaming
                that generally accompanies human labor and childbirth
                    and newborn babies.

            As for the magi, as far as we know,
                the Three Kings were neither kings, nor three.
                They were eastern astrologers,
                    and there could have been 2 or 20 of them.
                And given typical travel times,
                    Jesus probably wasn’t even a baby
                        when they arrived.

    But that’s all perfectly fine with me.
        Stylized pictures of what might have been—
            that fill in details,
            that tug at the heartstrings,
            that make the story memorable and repeatable—
            this is why we are still telling the story today.
        It’s why the Christmas story is still a “thing” to be told,
            and painted and quilted and celebrated yearly.

        If we insisted on strictly historical accounts
            of a smelly cave and a screaming messy newborn
                with stressed out parents,
                    who were socially stigmatized,
                    and politically repressed,
                just trying to survive to the next day . . .
            and a story of a bunch of foreign astrologers
                arriving a year late,
                then I doubt Christmas would be a blip on our radar.
            We wouldn’t be reminded every year
                to marvel at the miracle of the Incarnation of God.
            And there wouldn’t be millions of secular people
                wondering every year,
                    now what’s that story about again?
                    and why are Christians so big on it?

        So bring on the carols about an unrealistically silent baby,
            and the gorgeous landscapes
            with three kings and three camels under a starry night sky.
        They may not hold up, historically.
        But they draw us, like magnets, into the real story.
_____________________

So, this morning,
    I want to make this story of the magi as real as we can make it.
        Not to undo the stylized version of it,
            but to understand why it’s so important as a story,
            and why it needs to stay in our Christian narrative,
                and in our cultural anthology of tales that must be told.

I want us to explore what’s really going on in this story from Matthew 2,
    and to ponder how we might best, as a church,
        remember and celebrate this story.
    And I want to begin with a sort of strange question.

    This journey the magi made from the East—
        was it a rational act?
        Was traipsing across a continent, following a star,
            bearing gifts for a newborn who would be a king someday,
            a journey that would be undertaken
                by rational human beings?
        I am going to argue that we should answer that question
            with a resounding “Yes!”

It had better be a rational act that they undertook,
    or we shouldn’t be celebrating them as “wise men.”

The reason it doesn’t seem rational to us,
    is that we are hearing the story through the ears and eyes and minds
    of 21st-century Christians living in our particular Western world,
        governed by our particular world-view,
        shaped by our history and way of thinking about the world.

Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, about 30 years ago,
    wrote an important work titled, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?
    in which he basically said it’s a delusion
        that we can separate rationality from
            our particular history,
            and our particular tradition to which we socially belong,
        and arrive an isolated, pure rationality that all humans share.
    When we engage in any kind of enquiry or exploration,
        we cannot help but do so from our vantage point,
            which is derived from our specific
                social and intellectual and religious history,
            and defined by our affiliations and ties to a tradition.

    So when we talk about being rational,
        we must clear which rationality we are speaking of.
    So for the story of the magi,
        we must consider what their rationality was.

    They lived in a time and belonged to a culture
        that accepted, without question,
        that there were divine beings in the heavens, up in the skies,
            controlling earthly events.
    Therefore, it was rational, it made sense that there would be
        a whole intellectual class of people whose vocation in life
            was to watch the heavens for signs.
        If the gods were manipulating events on earth,
            and the gods lived in the skies,
            then it was entirely rational to study the skies
                for signs of what might be about to unfold on the earth.

Now, I am not commenting on the historical reliability
    of this story of the wise men.
    Whether events unfolded in history
        precisely as described in Matt 2 is an interesting question,
            but not very interesting to me,
            and I’m not even addressing that question here.

    What I am saying, is there is a reason Matthew includes it as it is,
        and that reason is not to spin a fantastic fairy-tale
            for people with colorful imaginations.
        He tells it as a rational story within his larger narrative.
    This is a story whose main characters
        are real, educated, observant, and visionary people
        living outside the geography and culture and religion
            of Israel and Judaism.

    These were not mysterious other-worldly kings.
        They were professionals, who studied the night skies.
        Their role in society was to look for signs in the heavens,
            that might signify something important
            going on in this world.
        That was their job,
            perfectly rational within their world view,
            a job they carried out in a fairly ordinary way.

    Their journey to Jerusalem, and the purpose of that journey—
        while it was a big deal, and maybe even groundbreaking,
        was not something that would have completely shocked
            their friends or family.
        Going to a far country to investigate
            a sign they had seen in the heavens,
            would not have been utterly strange within their rationality.
        And it was not a strange premise for Matthew’s audience,
            when the gospel was compiled.
            It was a wonderful and marvelous thing.
            But not irrational.

    You would expect that persons who believe
        that God gives signs in the heavens about earthly events,
        would be about the task of looking for those signs,
            and acting upon what they found.

So the point worth remembering, I think, and celebrating every year,
    is not the magical star-studded royal presentation
        of expensive and exotic gifts for the Christ-child.
    What we should celebrate is
        the magi’s exemplary way of living
            in a world where God is active and on the move.
    They were looking for the light,
        noticed it when it appeared,
        examined the body of knowledge available to them,
        and when their body of knowledge left some gaps,
        they decided to walk toward the unknown,
            in order to investigate it further,
            to see it for themselves,
                to see whether the sign in the skies,
                was consistent with what was happening on the ground.

    In other words, however they understood the Divine,
        they expected the Divine to show up in their world,
        and for the Divine to exert influence on their human world.
            And were prepared to act,
                when evidence of that Divine activity became known.

    They were astrologers by profession.
        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.

Can you think of anything more important, and more relevant,
    for living faithfully as a follower of Christ in today’s world,
        than to emulate the magi?
        than to be like them, to be watchful, observant?
        than to look for and expect signs of God at work in the world?
        than to walk toward those signs,
            to get involved, to participate in the activity of God?
_____________________

That is the irony of this magical story of the magi,
    if we cared to notice it.
    This other-worldly, magical story
        has been co-opted by the commercial Christmas industry,
        to sell more cards and decorations,
            and imply that buying expensive, exotic gifts
                comes straight from the Bible.
    But if we dig down to the core truth of this beautiful story,
        it the ultimate anti-consumerism story.

It’s a story that is decidedly not about
    buying and giving and getting more stuff.
    The so-called “spirit of giving” that Christmas has a reputation for,
        is often just a thin layer that covers over a much deeper,
            self-oriented consumerism.
    What really drives the commercialism of Christmas,
        is not the corporate headquarters of WalMart and BestBuy.
        It is our own unchecked base human desire
            to get all our needs and dreams and wishes fulfilled.
        And just in case what we got at Christmas
            didn’t quite fulfill our desires,
            hopefully the giver included the receipt
                so we can return it on Dec. 26
                for what we really wanted.

    That is the polar opposite of what drives this story of the magi.
        The magi had no concept of “what’s in it for me?”
        Their journey had nothing to do with self-gratification.
        They were motivated by a desire
            to be where the divine action was.
        If God was up to something,
            they wanted to be there to see it,
            to observe and learn from it,
            to be part of the action.
        No matter what it cost them personally.
_____________________

That’s the core of this story of the magi.
    God has plans for this world.
        Saving plans. Redeeming plans. Reconciling plans.
    And those plans are way larger than any of us know.
    And we can do no better in life,
        than to look for signs of where God is moving,
        and move that direction ourselves.

Yes, the Christmas story began in the little town of Bethlehem,
    in a particular place, with a particular people, in a particular family.
    But the story of the magi blows it wide open.
    The Good News of God’s coming to us in the flesh,
        is good news for all people, all cultures, everywhere, for all time.

    And when we see that,
        the only right response is humble worship,
            it is to yield our will to the will of God,
            it is to go where God is,
                no matter the cost.

—Phil Kniss, January 4, 2015


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