The Reverend Jonathan Chesney 1/5/20
Feast of Lights service for the Epiphany
St. Mary’s Cathedral
Have you ever gotten a gift you weren’t sure about?
Like, you really really wanted, had at the top of your Christmas gift wish list,
a brand new Tickle-me Baby Yoda doll (or action-figure!)
and you’re opening a gift from your parents and you see some big floppy green ears…
and *sighs* it’s just a rubber Old Yoda doll. Mmmm! (*Yoda noise*)
Or you’re Mary and some ZZ Top looking strangers
bring your newborn gold and incense.
It’s a baby, guys, how about a teddy bear?
But you smile and say “it’s just what I wanted,”
cause you know they love you and are trying to make you happy.
Gift giving and receiving shouldn’t be complicated;
but sometimes it is,
we’re so filled with expectations, hopes, desires, and assumptions.
Those are things I wonder about often in reading Scripture and in our relationship to God.
I wonder if he was what they expected…
Really, we could fairly ask that of anyone in our nativity narratives tonight,
but I especially mean the wise men,
as we begin to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany tonight.
I wonder what they thought they were traveling to see, or who, or why.
Matthew is pretty sparse on details.
Wise men, or astrologers, astronomers. Sometimes kings.
From or in the East, but that cardinal direction covers a lot of ground.
Probably from Persia, but who knows,
maybe India or China even, could you imagine?
They somehow know they’re looking for a child and
that he is Jewish and will be called a King.
Did they expect him to be at the palace in Jerusalem?
Are they surprised when the ruler and temple authorities don’t seem
to know much about what’s going on, outside of the prophecy?
They go out and find Jesus and the holy family.
Then, after a warning in a dream, they defy Herod and
leave for their country by another road.
I find that last line quite poetic, and of course it’s the poets
and the musicians and the artists who fill in the gaps of the story, factual or not.
Matthew just says wise men plural, but tradition gives us,
assuming one for each gift, Saints Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspard.
Their studies of the sky and stars told them a new king
was born to the people of Israel. They went to see it for themselves,
in a time and place where travel was difficult, costly, and dangerous.
They braved robbers, and wild animals, and war.
They left the comforts of respected offices, of their people, to search.
What did they want? What did they need?
They were filled with joy when they saw that they had come to the end of their search,
but did they find what they were hoping for when they saw the little Lord Jesus,
when they bowed in homage and opened their gifts?
Did they go home glad, hopeful?
Did meeting Jesus change their lives?
In his famous poem, Eliot pictures their knowledge and experience
as a burden almost, because they have been changed by their experience with Jesus,
but they go home to a world, a culture and people that have not yet been…
Perhaps some of you have had an experience like that after a Happening retreat.
The gifts God gives us sometimes aren’t obvious;
they sometimes aren’t what we think or what we think we want or need.
Maybe we’re Abraham and Sarah and we’re sent to an entirely new place.
Maybe we’re the people of Israel and we’re being led into the wilderness.
Maybe we’re the gentiles of the world and from that line
and small tribe of people will come blessings for all the families of the earth, ours too,
hope and salvation and light even for those far off in the East… or West, North or South.
Maybe you’re given a beloved child and you’re told
they will be a sword in your own heart,
even as you’re pondering them with delight.
I think, even at the Cross, that Mary would still have said, a thousand times yes.
The wisemen go home and I wonder if they lived perhaps
the rest of their lives wondering a little bit at their place in God’s story,
I’d guess especially when the world around didn’t seem
to reflect life-changing revelation of Truth and joy that they had, at least briefly, known.
Our own day is not really so different.
We benefit from getting to know more of the story,
especially some key parts we’ll celebrate in a couple months…
but we too have our own little stories woven
into one larger than we could imagine or know.
We too live in a dangerous world, war without
and violence within, tyrants and empires and people
in such great need of hope, of healing, of wholeness.
The world around us, often our own lives, at times doesn’t seem
to reflect God’s love given to the world that we have hopefully
experienced in the person of Jesus Christ.
Perhaps we have yet to experience Jesus as healer, as friend, as savior,
but we keep showing up to the occasional Christmas or Easter service,
or have shown up tonight.
Keep looking. Keep searching, whether you haven’t found it yet,
or it seemed a long time ago, in a place far far away, or you just need a reminder.
It may be a long and strange journey, and this gift that we talk about
in the Church all Christmas long that God
has given the world out of love, out of desire to be in relationship,
this little baby and soon to be man, carpenter, King, and God, and Sacrifice…
he may not be what we expect, he may not be what we think we want.
But the stories say he’s who we need. The stories our ancestors in faith
have helped to teach, and my own story, and I know many of yours as well,
have confirmed it, for me at least.
The Light who enlightens the world.
The healer who reconciles us to God and to one another.
This isn’t a “pull yourself up by your boot straps” sermon though.
I’m not trying to just say suffering builds character;
it can, but that’s our choice. Just the opposite;
that God has acted to help us, when we couldn’t, when we can’t,
that God’s love and promises for more couldn’t be contained
even within God’s own self, that it spilled out over and in addition to God’s chosen people,
our Jewish brothers and sisters, we too can be recipients of that gift, by grace, if we will receive it.
Sometimes it’s obvious, like a baby.
And sometimes it's less obvious, like a baby.
Maybe, that old Yoda doll is actually the authentic
and original Muppet used in Episode 6!
Maybe the gift is your parents weren’t willing
to punch someone at the melee on black Friday
and just tried their best and gave you what they could.
Either way, the road to God’s gifts for us can be a trip.
Tonight we celebrate that that journey,
that gift finding and receiving and giving, is part of a larger one,
and that we can carry the Light further down the road to a promised home,
even if there are perilous parts in between.
That we too, can be wise ones, and though I didn’t talk about them,
can be a holy family, can be shepherds:
we can be the ones who bear the Light and Love of Christ,
even when the world around us would blow it out.
A gift to the world, whether they know it or not.
Whether we know it or not.