A sermon based on Isaiah 60:1-5 and Matthew 2:1-12 preached January 8th, 2017
Occasionally, I have to remind myself to look up, to raise my eyes above this 5 foot 5-level they’re at and see more. I’m a book reader and a screen-gazer. And I would do well to glance farther ahead more often.
It’s too cold for Karen and I to go hiking right now, but whenever we do, I frequently catch myself looking down at the trail, at the little plot of path directly in front of me. There are moments along the way when I become conscious of this tendency to glance downward, and I’d raise my eyes, turn my head to take in the bigger view, the broad sweep of the forest around us. But those moments never last too long. In my determination to trudge on, I quickly lower my gaze right back down again.
My parents live in a place no one has ever heard to before: Ruckersville, VA. It’s not way out there in no man’s land, but it is quiet and peaceful. Whenever I’m home, my dad and I walk our dogs together along their street. It’s a slow and contemplative stroll with Riley and my parents’ dog, Gus.
The light pollution in Richmond, where I grew up, is so that it was a rare night when we could look upwards and see anything more than Orion’s Belt, so my Dad has enjoyed his strolls outside with Gus in Ruckersville. It affords him time to stargaze. You can see it all out there. The sky is freckled with starlight, plane light, and planet light—all brilliant and visible, if you to take the time to look up at it.
One night, during this last trip, before we headed back inside for the night, my dad ran inside to get his two pair of binoculars. With them held up to our eyes, Karen, Andy, and I searched the skies up close, seeing what we could see.
My dad gave me one of those pairs of binoculars to take home with us. I haven’t used them since that night, but maybe I should have them out. Maybe I should take the time to glance upward more often. Take in the long view. Who knows what I could see if I spent more time with my eyes raised toward the heavens?!
Today, we’re celebrating Epiphany. Epiphany is that instance of wow and wonder—that moment we have every once in a while when we realize how big things are and how small we are among them. It’s that moment when the lights go on, and things seem clearer, and we’re able to see more easily. But in order to have epiphanies, we first need to pay attention. All the binoculars in the world cannot help us if all we do is gaze downward. There’s brilliance out there for anyone to see, but only if we take the time to train ourselves to recognize it.
That’s the real miracle and message of this story: a tiny town that no one had ever heard of called Bethlehem, there was a toddler—not any more than 2, who appeared to most everybody around them to be no more remarkable than any other 2-year-old, but who a band of astrologers from 100’s of miles away became fixated upon. This was more than mere curiosity. These Magi, who were astrologers from a land no one can place, set their sights westward, first curious, but then nudged by, and finally guide by, a brilliant light. And that light pulled them close, closer by day and closer by night, until they found its source.
That’s what epiphany is: a mysterious nudge in a certain direction towards an uncertain thing. Then a journey. A trek towards. We can’t just gaze from where we are and expect to understand. Any epiphany, whether large or small, must be answered with an effort of our own. Like the Magi, we must embark, set out on this journey, paying careful attention to the signs around us as they become clearer, letting their cues take us in the direction they point.
The magi were complete strangers to this God who hangs the stars in the heavens. They did not come into the presence of Jesus because their mom made them come to church when they were little. They knew nothing of scripture. They knew not a thing about a creator God. That this God had a name. They knew nothing about a tribe of people called the Israelites. They had no notion of what a Messiah was. Or what for. Nor did they set out because they heard a prophet or read a passage. They came simply because a star burned bright one day and it never went out. It persisted. So they persisted, traveling an immense distance to see what it meant.
Epiphany happens when God speaks to us in a way we can understand. And God gets our attention in strange ways, using whatever peculiar languages we can understand to get His message across. And these astrologers, they happened to speak Star, so God spoke Star to them.
What languages has God used to get your attention? What has made you look up from that bit of earth you spend most of your time staring down at? That little nudge or whisper—or whatever it may have been—that got you to pay attention to something more than the ordinary?
Whenever someone shares a story about their faith, they say things like, I heard God speak to me. I heard this voice, they say. And they’re quick to edit themselves—to clarify that they didn’t hear some audible voice. This voice, they might say, didn’t speak words, not necessarily. But it still spoke. They might say that there was a nudge. Some kind of push in one direction or another. Some moment where the haze that often shrouds our knowing lifted, and there was a clearing, some sort of deeper understanding. But the only real way we have to tell others about these moments is to say we heard God speak. That’s epiphany. Epiphany happens when we hear the strange language of God, and for just an instance, we understand.
What language does God use to get your attention? Is it the language uttered when paint meets canvas? When dough meets flour? When chisel cuts into wood or stone? Is it that moment when you hear your grandchildren laughing from the next room over? Can you hear God when you take needle and thread and weave them in and out of fabric?
Do you understand God most clearly through the language of conversation, or is it the language of silence that speaks to you in volumes? Do you best understand the language of service, when God speaks through the lips of strangers in need to something you can provide—whether it’s a listening ear, a warm meal, or a new winter coat? Is your language music? Do you understand God best whenever you give yourself to song?
And do we recognize those moments as epiphanies—little epiphanies? Do you recognize that when God speaks into our lives, clouds don’t have to part, and brilliant light doesn’t have to come flooding in? Do you know that we have to train our eyes and ears to see God in the smallest and most ordinary of moments? And do you know that the best way we can train our ears and eyes to spot all these little epiphanies is to take up a habit of prayer? Prayer is first and foremost the simple practice of paying attention.
Epiphany happens whenever we open ourselves up to the idea that God uses many languages to speak himself into our lives. And each day is packed full with a thousand tiny epiphanies just waiting for us to recognize—to gaze upward at.
What language does God use to get your attention?
God is always speaking to us in the languages that we most understand. And God will do whatever it takes to get the Message through to us.
But this faith we have, it’s more dialogue than monologue. For every star burning new and bright in the sky, there must be Magi who do more than merely observe its presence and movement, but set out in pursuit of it. Who go chasing after its Message and will not stop until they have discerned its meaning and seen for themselves the One it led them to. God first pursues us, but God’s pursuit demands our counter-pursuit. God speaks to us in languages that we understand, but every one of God’s Marco’s deserves our Polo.
As the Magi bowed down to worship Jesus, as they offered him their best gifts as well as the best parts of themselves, I imagined their eyes were opened to a new Way.
The Magi went home by a different route than they came. Perhaps to avoid King Herod, but I think Matthew is writing in a deeper language: Once anyone encounters Jesus, they know that continuing to take the same old path as before will no longer suffice.
The Magi’s language had changed. God had changed it. They were not so much star-struck and they were God-struck. They knew their rightful praise belonged to this Jesus, this new King among them. In this Christ child, they heard a bigger and truer message—a more profound language than any star could ever give them. And they traveled their way back home listening.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!