Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Now is the Hour

All of creation was waiting, with bated breath, for redemption.  Like any one of us who, on cold days like these, sits by the fire with bones so desperately aching to be warmed…creation ached to be set free from the bondage of sin, decay, and death.  The trees lifted their arms in both praise and desperation.  The oceans raged with a feverish anticipation that bubbled just below the surface.  The heavens thundered and lit themselves up, for all of creation knew that the time had come, and the crowning of a new king was just around the corner.  But amidst this earthy symphony of coronation, it was a star that sang the loudest, shone the brightest, and preached the Gospel as if it was being preached for the first time.  And in a surprising twist of fate, it wasn’t the learned rabbis filled with messianic hope who first attuned themselves to the star’s message.  It was a trio of outsiders, of soothsayers and astrologers…a trio of magic men who would have been shunned from the Temple in Jerusalem.  Nevertheless, these outsiders caught a glimpse of the star’s luminous proclamation and saw fit to leave behind all that they had ever known, make an arduous and treacherous journey, and respond to a God they had never quite known.

This, my friends, is the beauty of such a feast as this.  That no one is left outside of the Grand Wedding Feast that is salvation through the incarnation of God-in-Christ. To quote my patron St. John Chrysostom, “The Magi, teachers of a false faith, could never have come to know Christ Our Lord, had they not been illumined by the grace of this divine condescension. Indeed the grace of God overflowed at the Birth of Christ, so that each single soul might be enlightened by His Truth.  The Magi are enlightened so that the goodness of God may be made manifest: so that no one need despair, doubting that salvation through faith will be given to him, seeing He bestowed it on the Magi.  The Magi therefore were the first from the Gentiles chosen for salvation, so that through them a door might be opened to all the Gentiles.” These mysterious men from the East responded by faith to a God they didn’t know, journeying towards a mysterious revelation the depth of no one could fully fathom, and thereby illustrated the depths of God’s love for all of humanity.  No one is excluded.  No one is locked out of the feast.  No one is deemed unworthy.  All are invited to receive the grace and mercy of the God of Israel. For once there was a great shadow that covered the land, but that shadow was beaten back by the dawning of a new light. “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” In the glorious birth of the Messiah, and through the arduous yet faith-filled journeying of the Magi, we see this prophecy come to life.

And every time I reflect on the Magi, and this story, I am astounded by their faithfulness in the God they didn’t yet know.  They arrived in the region where the star had led them, and found themselves in the courts of the tyrant King Herod.  And unless these Magi were both blind and as observantly dense as cinder blocks, they knew full well that they were given audience with royalty, with the ruling power of Jerusalem.  And the question they ask of King Herod haunts me each time I read it: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” On the surface, it’s an innocent question.  But below the surface lies a stunning condemnation of the illegitimacy of Herod’s rule.  In the court of a king known throughout the empire to be brutal and bloodthirsty, these Magi proffer a question that ultimately says to Herod, “Though you may hold court in Jerusalem, you aren’t the true king of the Jews.  There is another, for whom even the stars of creation are moved to acclaim. We would pay homage to him, not you.” To call into the question the legitimacy of a sitting ruler’s reign in the middle of his court would have been political heresy in its highest form.  And yet, with the conviction that they came to pay homage to the true king of the Jews burning within the hearts, they let fly their treasonous words.  As St. John Chrysostom has said, “Since this day the Magi too have come, and made a beginning of withstanding tyranny.”

When finally they arrived at the house and paid homage to the new king, it was time for them to return home.  But, as they Scriptures say, “Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” Many throughout history have expounded upon the depth and meaning of this one sentence.  Yes, there was the practical sense that avoiding the repercussions of the pretender king Herod was crucial for their survival.  But on a deeper level, when read with a sense of allegorical curiosity, their return by another road speaks volumes. For the truth of the matter is that none of us, once we encounter the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ, can return unchanged and unmarked to the lives we formerly lived.  The lives of the Magi were so profoundly touched by that supreme revelation of grace in the Christ Child that they returned home transformed, living according to a new dispensation, a new and fuller understanding of the indescribable mysteries of God. The poet TS Eliot captures this so well in his poem, ‘The Journey of the Magi’: We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death.” Imagining the story being told from the perspective of an aged Magi, Eliot captures so perfectly the sentiment that once we have encountered Christ, once we have met his grace and his mercy, once we have known of his infinitely good love, there is no going back.  There is no forgetting what we have experienced and known.  There is simply going forward with Christ, even if that means we have to let go of what formerly gave us comfort, stability, and certainty. Once our eyes have been illuminated by divine revelation, the task at hand then is to live as faithfully and boldly as we can in response to such wondrous and luminous love.

All of this poses a question for me, which I now pose to you: “What is it that you desire?” Not from life in general, per se, but from this particular encounter with the God-made-flesh in Jesus Christ. What is it you’ve come here for tonight? All of us have come here tonight from different places, and differing circumstances.  Some of us come with exuberant joy, ready to meet the Lord Jesus in the bread and wine of the altar.  Some of us come with a sense of tired obligation, having found an email in an inbox reminding us of our required service tonight.  But, no matter what has brought you here, not matter what set you on the journey that has brought you to this place, at this moment…set it aside, and say to yourself, “I’m here now. How am I going to respond to the Epiphany of the Lord…to my own encounter with the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ that I will soon encounter on the altar? Will I simply consume these gifts as if they are merely a ritualized evening snack, or will I let them change me, and return to my life as if by another road?”

*A sermon preached at Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church in Los Alamos, NM on January 6, 2017.  The texts were Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12, and Psalm 72:1-7,10-14.

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