Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
All our Longings
As we enter a new year, what are your longings? What do you long for. One expression of our longings is New Years resolutions. In general they tell us about our longing for better selves and thus I think a better world. In particular if you mad New Years resolutions, how do they express your longings, do they somehow touch upon your deepest longing? On this Sunday of the Epiphany I wonder what sort of longing was there in these magi of our gospel that they'd leave on a journey of some cost and time, with the dangers of travel of the day, or wayside robbers, or border crossings, carrying considerable wealth with them, not for trade and further wealth creation but simply to offer them to a child whose birth was announced by a star. Are we like the Magi, have we gone in search of Christ out of a deep longing seeking Christ out at great cost? Who are these Magi and why do we remember them on a feast called epiphany, the manifestation?
The Magi are fascinating and mysterious characters who only appear in the Gospel of Matthew. We know relatively little about exactly who they were, Matthew simply says, Magi, wise men, from the east came to Jerusalem, having seen the star at its rising. We aren't even told how many there were, they are among the nameless faceless Characters of Scripture. They make an appearance and mysteriously slip away to avoid King Herod. They appear and melt away, and they witness to the appearing of god in Human flesh, and worship the Christ Child in Bethlehem and that is their story. Over time their story has been filled out, Melchior, Balthazar and Gaspar, sometimes to show that they are representatives of the nations they are seen as being of different nationalities or races.
Much has been written about these Magi, wise men, the story even captivates atheists and agnostics. The author and humanist atheist Isaac Assimov spends considerable time on this passage in his own commentary on Scripture. He examines the various explanations of who these Magi were and what phenomenon the star might have been. He even gives his preferred explanation before finally saying that it really doesn't matter, its all quite academic because the Magi and the star where all inventions of Matthew to show the fulfillment of this prophesy in Isaiah 60. And yet something in Asimov can't quite ignore these Magi, and these 12 simple verses of Scripture, he is captivated by them; Asimov had his longings, for a better humanity, the cessation of war, for the growth of goodness. There is something about the search of humanity and its longings in the story of the Magi coming to worship the Christ child.
Asimov is not entirely wrong, there is a purpose that fits with Matthews telling of the story of Christ and it is important to Matthew that Gentiles appear here. It is true that Gold Frankincense and Myrrh are all symbolic, and that what sort of astronomical phenomena this Star that appeared in the east, what these Magi from the east followed is of little importance; Or at least of little importance compared with the importance that these Magi are Gentile witnesses to the birth of Christ. The magi come, they are Gentiles, they represent the nations, and probably are seen in Matthew and certainly in the Tradition as the fulfillment of the prophesy in Isaiah 60 we have read. Gentiles come inquiring about the birth of the Messiah, and the religious leaders in Jerusalem scour their scrolls and give the answer but don't seem to think that these Gentiles really know anything.
One thing we long for in our culture is inclusion, and this story of the wise men and the understanding that this is seen as the beginning of the inclusion of the Gentiles and thus the precursor to Paul's gentile mission and proclamation that the people of God includes Jew and Gentile. We in our longings are tempted to make a principle of radical inclusion out of Paul's mission to the Gentiles and the story of the coming of the Magi. If the primary issue for the story of the coming of the Magi and Paul's mission is about inclusion, then the mystery Paul proclaims, the Gospel, is reduced to our own longing for acceptance and inclusion. We then become identified with the correct interpretation of the Gospel and the Gospel becomes a reflection of ourselves and our longings. And then we can ironically exclude those who we believe are not about radical inclusion. We in the end don't actually escape the distinction between whose in and whose out, even when we focus on inclusion. But the Gospel isn't about principles, it is about a story, it is about God and our response to what God has done. It is true that God includes all, the invitation is to all, but the lesson here is not that we need to be radically inclusive. Rather the message here is that we need to accept the invitation our selves. In the end the radical inclusion is that all are invited to come to Jesus Christ, the one who will turn no one away, but there is also the reality that one can refuse to come. Much of our culture longs for inclusion, longs for equality and no boundaries. Yet we don't stop and examine the source of our longing, the source of the boundary lines drawn, and of the ways we simply are limited and thus exclude others. We hide ourselves from the ways in which even our attempts at radical inclusion exclude those who do not agree with our sense of inclusion and exclusion. When we make the Gospel about this we make the Gospel about ourselves. And in all the grandeur and Mystery about these wise men, the story isn't about them at all, or the Scribes and Priests in Jerusalem or Herod. Rather this is the story of the appearing of God in a small helpless human being!
This we find reflected in the acts of these Magi from the east our own path to Christ. They see a sign in the sky most likely because they are astrologers, their culture and their faith tells them that the stars can tell them about things happening in the world and in the spiritual plain. A star appears and they interpret it to mean that a very special person has been born a king, who deserves their tribute though they are not from his nation, or people. He is but an infant, he has no real authority, no claim on them, they are not Jews, and yet they recognize something. I'd like to think something in their longings recognizes that what will satisfy is other than what they long for, is other than the particular things they long for. And so they go. They travel they follow this star, or rather they follow its meaning to Jerusalem and submit to the other. They have seen the star but they don't claim to know all there is to know, they consult those among whom God has already worked. These Wise men, these men of great wealth wisdom and supposedly power, they can demand audience with the leaders and the powerful; they have an audience with Herod. They simply offer what they know and ask for more wisdom from those who should know, who are already the chosen ones. And when these answer they go and they come to the Christ child and offer great wealth, gold frankincense and myrrh. Surely such a great travel and a great offering shows a deep longing and yet an admitting that their longing pointed here to this one, Jesus Christ. We are not told why, only that the magi came. We are to be the magi. We are not those who should seek to include but those who should seek to be included. Our longings should point us here. What is your star that have you followed it to Christ, and what is your gold Frankincense and myrrh that you are to lay at Jesus' feet. Have you accepted that you are fully included in God's people, that only in so being joined to Christ is their any satisfaction of your longings.
We are not asked by this story and Paul's Mission to the Gentiles to have unbounded expansive hearts, rather we are asked to have a heart that longs to come and worship the Christ, Jesus the Lord. Allowing that longing to expand our hearts and announce to all the invitation and that God has come in our midst and we are to worship. No one will be turned away but not every one will come. This is not about whose out or whose in, nor if we are including enough people, or have too close boundaries, or if we have a firm center but open boundaries. All those things are about us, we human beings, or our communities. Rather Epiphany is about the manifestation of God in human flesh to all. The Magi left their community to come into the community of the Christ Child, and it lead them home by another way. Our longings may be the beginning but they are not where we end up. We will come home but it is by another way.. We will find ourselves taken way from the path of our longings, away from ourselves to our true home in God. We are transformed but not by tearing down boundaries, but allowing the expansive love and invitation of God to so permeate our selves that we invite all to come and see and worship with the Magi.
The manifestation of Christ is the fulfillment of all our longings. This is why the Magi come bearing the most expensive of gifts. They lay themselves, and all human longings and fears at the feat of the Christ Child, God the word made flesh. Today, and everyday, we are invited to do the same as the Magi. We are, to lay our very selves at the feet of Christ, to give ourselves over to this manifestation of God that reveals both God and our true humanity. In this our lives our world is illuminated, all else is darkness, a great darkness. Come lay yourselves your longings before Christ as gifts. This is what we do , with bread and wine we offer all we have all that humanity has, all its longings and potentiality all the gifts of the world and they are transformed taken by God and given back to us as the life giving flesh and blood, of Jesus Christ. Let yourself long deeply, let your deepest longing and sorrow come to the surface before Christ and receive back the only thing that will satisfy and fulfill all your longings, Christ and God's own self. Amen.
(Following the sermon members of the congregation are invited to bring some token or symbol of their longings and place in a basket sitting with the gifts of bread and wine and will be carried to the altar in preparation for communion. paper is provided if that symbol or token is something drawn or written.)