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In-Breakings, Homily for Epiphany 2019

Here we are: We have been called into worship by Isaiah beckoning us to “arise and shine,” even in the midst of dark times, with radiant hearts swelling with joy. We have joined the Psalmist in prayer for leaders who care for the afflicted and needy and outcasts—bringing prosperity to all, not just some. The Ephesian epistle has invited us into a mystery in which all kinds of formerly-taboo people approach God with free confidence. And we have heard of the journey to Bethlehem by strange emissaries from the East.

What do we make of all this? Here’s an attempt to capture it in a sentence:

God uses unlikely means to invite unlikely people to encounter God in unlikely forms; infuses them with love as they give themselves in worship, then inspires them to live that love wherever they are.

Central to this is the giving of self in worship.

Some years ago, I was leading a new church, and we surrendered our office lease to pay a youth pastor. One day, I was sitting at Tully’s—where I now spent my days—when someone from church walked in with a friend. He introduced me as “Pastor John.” I reached out to shake hands, but, instead, his eyes narrowed: “Who put you on a pedestal to tell everyone how to live?” he demanded. I was more than a little taken aback.

Telling people what to do is not my style. I err in the opposite direction: I hate telling people what to do. A member of that same church informed me one day that I was fired as his personal pastor, precisely because I wouldn’t tell him what to do!

Back at Tully’s: I responded articulately with, “Um, er, um… that’s not how I, um, what I think I’m really, er, like….” They walked out. I was left contemplating: “Why am I in ministry?”

Here is my answer: I am in ministry because I fell in love with God in the midst of worship. In my twenties, I was part of a church whose practice was to sing deep songs for forty-five minutes straight, getting swept up and basking in God’s presence. I learned to play bass as an act of worship, giving every note to God. I loved God, and I loved worshiping God. My heart resonated with Psalm 84, “Just one day in the courts of Your temple is greater than a thousand anywhere else. (Psalm 84:9a, The Voice)

God uses unlikely means to invite unlikely people to encounter God in unlikely forms; infuses them with love as they give themselves in worship, then inspires them to live that love wherever they are.

Worship is at the center of this journey, but the people worshipping are not who we might expect.

We are so accustomed to the nativity—our popular-culture rendition—that we miss the real scene. Who are these sojourners? “Magi from the East,” they devote their days to exploration of their universe using the best science of their day.

  • As astrologers: they mapped stars and searched ancient writings to understand human events.

  • As alchemists: they experimented with natural materials, for medicine and healing rituals.

  • As Persians: they were outsiders to Israel.

  • As priests, they practiced a foreign religion.

  • It is said they possessed supernatural powers.

We might call them “magicians”—but their craft isn’t for show. Some might scornfully label their art “witchcraft”—but they were good, wise, and sincere.

For fun, let’s imagine them wizards: Gandalf, Dumbledore, and Merlin—and maybe Tom Bombadil, and Harry Potter himself—all gathered around the baby in Bethlehem. Or maybe Richard Dawkins, Ellen DeGeneres, and the Dalai Lama!

And consider how they got there. They studied star charts—not like a navigator—but as astrologers do, looking for heavenly signs. Sixteenth-century astronomer Johannes Kepler identified a convergence of Saturn and Jupiter in Pisces in 7 B.C. as a candidate for what attracted the Magi. In the lore of the day, Pisces pointed to the Hebrew people, Saturn connoted Palestine, and Jupiter presaged the rising of kings.

Scientists no longer take astrology seriously, and religious folks reject horoscopes; but here is God using exactly those means to bring Persian wizards to the holy infant’s bedside.

God stretches our comfort-zones!

The sages brought gifts—offerings we take for granted as intrinsic to the tale—gold, frankincense, and myrhh—but why these gifts?

Not long ago, I began a practice of regularly reading the Psalter, and I kept coming across the sentiment, “I will meditate upon your law.” I, however, was pondering Psalms, so I switched course and turned my gaze to Exodus. Moses’s second book presents the Ten Commandments, expounds on them, then moves to God’s tabernacle, detailing each piece—even the incense to be offered there.

Guess what the incense was made of? A precise blending of frankincense and myrhh—valuable perfuming resins— a sacred formula devoted only to God’s worship. Also, in constructing the tabernacle, gold is everywhere! Gold, Frankincense, Myrrh: symbols of God’s presence in God’s tabernacle, the locus of human encounter with God, where people go for forgiveness and cleansing. The significance?

Now, with no tabernacle, Jesus in that cradle is the locus of God’s presence and is where we find forgiveness, restoration, and healing. Those wandering wizards presaged that truth, and they brought just the right gifts to the infant who is “God with us,” the presence of God among humankind.

God uses unlikely means to invite unlikely people to encounter God in unlikely forms; infuses them with love as they give themselves in worship, then inspires them to live that love wherever they are.

God infuses us with love as we give ourselves and our gifts to God in worship. The problem with love, though, is that we mistake it for mere sentiment—warm feelings and general niceness.

Given that, let me recall attention to Psalm 72: the commissioning prayer for the righteous ruler. Here is described the concrete love for which the Psalmist hopes the righteous king will contend in society:

  • A king who will bring justice;

  • A ruler demonstrating personal righteousness,

  • An individual of unbiased judgement

  • Ensuring justice for the sick, injured, disabled, and mentally ill.

  • Managing resources to bring enduring prosperity to regular people

  • Creating systems to care for the aging

  • Abolishing poverty, bringing quality of life to all

  • Attentive to children’s needs

  • Having compassion on the weak, needy, and helpless

  • Defending victims of oppression and violence.

This is the concrete love God requires of all leaders. Societies and institutions must be characterized by compassion and empathy. Congressmen, senators, mayors, governors, presidents, and judges—parents, teachers, coaches, lawyers, entrepreneurs, salespeople, entertainers, managers, and medical professionals: all are called by God to ensure these values permeate society and are systemically available to all.

I was alarmed this week to encounter an interview with a nationally-known Christian leader who contends that Christian values play themselves out only on a personal level—and are not needed or required of government or governmental leaders.

Can you see how far this is from the truth?

Yes, God’s call to love plays itself out on the personal plane—but also on a societal scale.

God uses unlikely means to invite unlikely people to encounter God in unlikely forms; infuses them with love as they give themselves in worship, then inspires them to live that love wherever they are.

Where are you in this journey?

  • Maybe you are one of the unlikely people God is inviting, but you fear you are a little too unlikely.

  • Or maybe you don’t like the people God invites. God might be urging you to open your heart that much wider.

  • Perhaps you are stuck at the idea of worship, wanting, instead, something more like a relationship of equals with God.

  • Or is there something inside you—or outside—that makes it hard to express God’s extravagant love where you live.

We begin now to move toward the table in worship and prayer. As we do so, I urge you to bring a surrendered heart and to open yourself to a divine work in your spirit.

#sermons #homilies #Epiphany #SoupBread


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