Friday, January 6, 2017

Seek and find

The following is a sermon I gave in January, 2013 on Epiphany Sunday at Magnolia Presbyterian Church. I am choosing to post it here mostly for posterity but also because Epiphany has become very special to me over the years and even more so in the past year.

Permit me one more memory from December, 2015. When we were meeting with Father W and Deacon S to plan Tracy's service we spent a great deal of time just talking about Tracy. Father W encouraged us to tell stories, share memories, and to offer up our own feelings about who Tracy was and what she meant to us.

Because Tracy and I spent so much time together as part of her parish women's group, I had a lot of insight into her faith and her spiritual journey. I was trying, but struggling, to put into words what my heart desperately wanted to communicate to Father W about Tracy's heart for God.

I eventually stammered out something very close to this (while going through multiple tissues), "She might not have been traditionally religious in the sense that she didn't read the Bible much, she wouldn't have been able to quote scripture to you, and she didn't necessarily go to church every Sunday. But from the time she was a teenager, she was on a journey. She felt God in her heart. She didn't always know what the "right" answers should be when it came to doctrine or theology, but she was....a seeker."

Father W nodded and smiled the whole time I was speaking. He then said simply this,

"To seek God is to find God."

In those words, he brought me enormous comfort.

Since then, I have looked up those words and found they originated with Gregory of Nyssa and the quote is actually completed this way,

"To seek God is to find God. To find God is to seek God."

I like the wholeness and the circular nature of the longer quote. Faith can so often feel like an endless of journey of seeking and finding and then losing your way again.

To me, Epiphany reminds us that the journey is worth it.

And that if we continue to seek...we will find.

(Please note: This was written to be spoken, which is always a bit different than if it were written only to be read.)

We Have Seen His Star
January, 2013

Years ago, I remember reading a Bible story to my oldest son, Jack. Jack is now a pretty big kid, almost 18 years old, but at the time he was maybe about six years old. Close to the age of some of you kids sitting here today. I don't remember exactly which Bible story we were reading but I remember that when we got to the end of the story Jack looked at me and asked me very seriously, "Did that really happen?"
Now I don't know about you but sometimes I get to this point in the church year- 12 days out from Christmas- Epiphany Sunday- after all of the traveling, family gatherings, eating, gift giving and receiving- and finally having returned home to mounds of laundry and a startling return to school and the daily routine- sometimes I feel just like my little Jack did when he asked me that question so long ago. I can't help but look around at times and ask myself, "Did that really happen?"
This amazing, miraculous piece of our Christian story. God choosing to be with us in the most humble, surprising way. A little baby, born in a manger. Angels greeting shepherds with the incredible words, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the city of David a savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord."
When we gather together on Christmas Eve and light candles and sing familiar carols, it's so much easier for it all to feel just that close. But now...almost two weeks after...Christmas Eve is already feeling like a memory. I'm sure it is for the kids among us. School is starting back up and I'm sure that some of you even already have reading to finish, projects to complete or you know that all of those things will be coming soon. Grown ups are back to full work-weeks and anxious to get all of the clutter of Christmas put back in the boxes and put away for another year. Soon, all of the tangible evidence of Christmas will be gone. No more decorated trees, wreaths on doors, lights on houses...
Did that really happen?
And that's what I love about Epiphany. Just when we are all tempted to put the Christmas story behind us and start pushing forward toward Easter- we pause to revisit the Nativity one more time. We take time to hear again one of the more puzzling parts of this familiar story and consider what it means for us.
When we read Bible stories downstairs in BLAST one of the things we sometimes do is to identify together 'what does this Bible story tell us?'- and 'what does this Bible story not tell us?' This can be useful when we are learning some of the more familiar Bible stories because it is interesting for the children to see how sometimes we remember stories based more on tradition than what is written in scripture. I remember when we did this a year ago with the story of the wise men the kids were particularly fascinated to realize how much of our retellings of the birth Christ are rooted more in our own imagination than in the words of the Bible.
For example: the kids were surprised to learn that nowhere in the words of Matthew does it tell us that there were only three wise men. We don't know where the wise men came from other than it was east of Jerusalem. We don't know the names of the wise men or even how they came to recognize the importance of the star they saw and why they would know that meant a new king had been born. We don't know how long they traveled or how old the baby Jesus was when they finally arrived. And even though we often refer to them as Kings, we don't know that they were kings at all since the Bible doesn't tell us so. And finally, other than knowing they took a different route home to avoid that evil King Herod, we don't know how their lives might have been different after having seen and worshiped the son of God.
So, that was a pretty long list of things this Bible story doesn't tell us. But anytime we go through this process in BLAST of figuring out what we know and what we don't know we always finish by asking one question. In fact, you would find this question printed out in big letters on our bulletin board down in the BLAST room. The question we ask then is, "What's the Big Idea?"
The reality is that the stories in the Bible often have some big holes. And that's why allowing some degree of imagination to fill in the gaps is completely understandable and even useful. Using our imagination to consider there might have been a fourth wise man named Hank, or whether the Innkeeper might have been a bit cranky about all the interruptions that big night helps us remember that these are real stories about real people. People who lived and breathed and had good days and bad days, but were all part of God's story. But even when we use our imagination to try and give some color to these stories we have heard so many times, there is still information missing that we might wish we could have. But if we look carefully, usually we can find a bigger message, beyond the details of the story, that we can take with us and apply to our lives.
So, What's the Big Idea in this unusual story about some unidentified wise men who followed a star to find the Baby Jesus?
Bible scholars far more knowledgeable than myself have come up with some pretty interesting answers to some of the questions as to the details of the story. There are educated guesses as to where the wise men came from, how many there were, who they were and why they were interested in the possibility of an infant king. But I want to keep it simpler than that today. I want to look at this in much the same way we would if we were downstairs in our BLAST class.
So, what's the Big Idea?
Well, the first thing we can say is that this story emphasizes yet again how incredibly important the birth of Jesus was. Important enough that men in a foreign land, not of the Jewish faith, decided to spend considerable money and time to witness this newborn king. We don't know how far they traveled or how long it took them to get to Bethlehem but it is easy to imagine that it couldn't have been a simple journey and yet the wise men clearly refused to give up on their quest to follow the star. We should be just as determined and courageous in our own decision to follow Jesus.
Second, the fact that these wise men came from somewhere other than Jerusalem and were not Jewish reminds us again of the angel's words from the gospel of Luke that he "will be for all the people." Jesus didn't come only to save the people of Israel, but to save all people. He didn't come to show God's love only to the Jews, but to everyone. The wise men are one of our first examples of just how far God's love can and does reach.
Third, one thing the scriptures do tell us very clearly is that when the wise men did find the Baby Jesus the very first thing they did was to fall down and worship him. We have no idea what sort of faith or understanding of God these men had and yet once they were in the presence of the Son of God they could nothing else but worship him. Somehow they knew this child was more than just special, he was holy. The wise men then are an example to us all of what our response should be to the presence of Jesus in our lives. Our response should be to worship him.
Finally, as I read and re-read this passage of scripture over the past week, the words that kept jumping out at me are the ones I then chose as my sermon title, "we have seen his star". Those words spoke to me for two reasons. The first, is this is another one of the clear and indisputable details of this story. The wise men saw a star that was in some manner so unusual and remarkable they knew it meant something extraordinary was happening. In fact they go so far as to call the star "his star" meaning the new king's star- demonstrating that they absolutely believed the star and this baby were unquestionably connected. Certainly other people must have seen this star if it was so noticeable, but as far as we know, only the wise men saw the star and followed.
But perhaps more importantly for us today, the other thing those words kept bringing to mind for me is the thought that WE have seen his star, too. You, me, kids, teenagers, grown ups... we have all seen his star. We have heard the story, we have sung the songs, we have celebrated his birth. We too have seen his star. What will that mean for us?
Will it quickly fade to nothing as we become busy again with daily routines and obligations? Will the star become a distant memory until sometime in February we find ourselves wondering, "did that really happen?"
Or, can we find in ourselves the determination of the wise men and keep following that star throughout the year, however long it takes, wherever the journey may take us, until we find ourselves in the presence of Jesus?
We have seen his star. We don't know how the wise men's lives might have been changed after having seen and worshiped the son of God, but I can't help but believe that their lives were changed. And my prayer for myself and for all of us this Epiphany is that having seen his star, our lives will also be changed. I pray we will all be moved with greater urgency and passion to follow the star, to fall down and worship the son of God, and to share our gifts with the world that God created and loves so much that he gave his only son.
We have seen his star- may it continue to shine in you and in me so that the love of God might be known to all people, everywhere.

"For we have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him."
Matthew 2:2

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