Category Archives: biblical reflection

Unsettled by the Visit of the Magi

I must confess regret that for my 30-some years of pastoral ministry, I have not made a big enough deal about Epiphany. Liturgical purist that I too often have been, if it didn’t fall on a Sunday, we didn’t celebrate it. As I do, I looked back through my preaching files, and found no sermon from the last 20 years on the Epiphany gospel from Matthew. That’s really too bad. Because there’s so much in the story of the Magi coming from a distant land to worship the newborn king.

Scholarly consensus holds that the Magi were wealthy and educated, members of the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism, a Persian religion. Early Zoroastrians paid particular attention to the stars. This priestly caste gained an international reputation for astrology, which was at that time highly regarded as a science. So these Wise Ones from the East were scientists and practiced another religion and God used their faith and knowledge to bring them to the Christ. They came to worship, bowing the knee and bringing valuable gifts. In one of the greatest ironies of the story, God used these scientists who practiced another religion to let King Herod, the chief priests, and the scribes in on the news that their Messiah had been born.

God seems to do whatever it takes to reach out to and embrace all people. God announces the birth of the Messiah to shepherds through angels on Christmas, to Magi via a star on Epiphany, and to the political and religious authorities of God’s own people in through visitors from the East.  From a manger, where a child lies wrapped in bands of cloth, God’s reach, God’s embrace in Christ Jesus, gets bigger and bigger and bigger.  Jesus eats with outcasts and sinners. Jesus touches people who are sick and people who live with disabilities. Jesus even calls the dead back to life. Ultimately, Jesus draws all people to himself as he is lifted up on the cross. In Jesus, no one is beyond God’s embrace.

As a pastor in the church, pushed by this story to contemplate God’s radical grace, I find it a little unsettling. What could it mean that God led ancient scientists who practiced another religion and lived far outside the geographical limits of Judea to come and worship Christ? What could it mean that God used these outsiders to announce the good news that comes to the world in and through Christ? What, then, does it mean to have faith?

I have been trained and conditioned to think that there is one pretty narrow and formulaic way to come to Christ. For me, it’s always been through the church — preaching, Word, liturgy, sacrament. I’ve always held that the local congregation is the body of Christ through whom God gets God’s work done in the local community. Those are things that I hold dear. Yet the Magi came seeking the Christ after studying the night skies. As someone who holds on to favorite, cherished ways that God uses to proclaim the gospel and bring people to faith, it’s both wondrous and unsettling to realize yet again that God’s own work of embracing all people is more “mystery” than “formula,” because God’s ways are always bigger than my understanding.

When I think about it, I can see that God has been reaching out to embrace me in new ways. A new call and a new setting, learning how to be a good pastor in a very different context. Trying to keep my mouth shut and listen to my siblings of color who are helping me to see my blind spots about race and privilege and who are teaching me what it means to be a neighbor. I’m learning from Asian and African and South American and womanist and LGBTQ Christians that my way of reading the bible is not the only way to read the bible, and certainly should not be the privileged way to read the bible. As always, I learn much about truth-telling from reading classic and contemporary fiction. I’m learning that the whole world, all peoples, all cultures can be the places where God is at work, revealing God’s self and God’s truth to me, to us, to the church, and to the world. While I love to bask in the starlight that I know as the church, I am led to wonder about the implications of the Magi coming to faith apart from the church or outside our formulaic approaches to how faith happens.

I’m still learning to be less suspicious and judgmental about people whose experiences of faith are different than mine or different than what I might think is normal. It’s has been challenging for me. I wonder how many people’s experiences of God over the years I have shattered and slaughtered because they didn’t fit my patterns, practices, and perspectives.

I’m guessing that it will continue to be a struggle and a challenge for me (and the congregation I serve) to proclaim God’s ever-expanding embrace in the midst of my own need to protect and preserve. One lifetime seems far too short to figure these things out. Still, I’m grateful to be on the journey.

(Thanks to Bishop Craig Satterllee and his essay on WorkingPreacher.org for the inspiration for these reflections.)

O King of All Nations — December 21

Since the 8th century, during the last seven days of Advent, leading to the Christmas celebration, the Christian Church has been singing a set of antiphons that were written as introductory prayers for the singing of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer. They are popularly known as “The O Antiphons” and serve as the basis for the well-known hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Each day uses a name for the coming Messiah drawn from the messianic hopes of the First Testament. They proclaim the coming of Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promised salvation.

A strange king, the king we worship, the king whose coming we soon celebrate, the king whose first cradle was a feed trough.

The king wore no crown of precious metals and jewels, but  crown of thorns. He sat on no gilded throne, but was nailed to the throne of the cross. That unkingly ascension transformed all of history – divided it into before and after, made possible the transformation of our lives from slaves to sin, lost, condemned – to children of God, free to serve God and serve our neighbor, subjects in a kingdom of grace and love.

Because Jesus chose to wear a thorny crown and not a kingly crown, it tells us not only about Jesus the king, but about God. Because we have come to know God in Jesus suffering, death, and resurrection, this is what we know about God:

  • God loves us. Period. Doesn’t depend on how we feel or on the strength of our faith. It doesn’t depend on what we do or who we are. We aren’t excluded because of what we’ve done or who we aren’t. God loves us. Period.
  • God is with us. Yes, God is with us in the joys, the pleasures, the successes. That’s not hard to believe. What’s harder to believe is that God can also be with us, even bringing us blessing in the times of our grief, our pain, our suffering. God has come to us. God has chosen to meet us in the messes of our lives, the tragedies that come along, the disappointments, the failures, the broken relationships.
  • God is even now bringing all things to the fulfillment of God’s purposes. Through Christ the servant king, all the contingencies of human history are moving along toward the fulfillment of what God intends to accomplish.

O King of all nations and keystone of the Church:
come and save man, whom you formed from the dust!

O Radiant Dawn — December 21

Since the 8th century, during the last seven days of Advent, leading to the Christmas celebration, the Christian Church has been singing a set of antiphons that were written as introductory prayers for the singing of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer. They are popularly known as “The O Antiphons” and serve as the basis for the well-known hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Each day uses a name for the coming Messiah drawn from the messianic hopes of the First Testament. They proclaim the coming of Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promised salvation.

I’m a morning person. It’s my best time of the day. I live in the woods and in these short days and long nights here in the north, I get up in the dark. I make a cup of coffee and go to my desk, surrounded by windows and sit in the quiet. It’s my prayer time, my quiet time, my thinking time. And it’s also a time to watch the day gradually dawn.

The day doesn’t explode into light. It’s a gradual transition from darkness to light. Even though the weather app on my phone tells me the precise time of the sunrise, in actual experience, there’s not a precise time when I say, “ok, the night is gone and the day is here.” Gradually the light overtakes the darkness and almost imperceptibly, the day is here.

During these days of advent, we have stood with the prophets who waited patiently for the coming of the Morningstar, the One which today’s O Antiphon calls the Radiant Dawn.

In the darknesses of my own life, the Light has come. Often slowly, sometimes imperceptibly, but always relentlessly, irrepressibly, the light comes. Into the dark corners of my heart, my life, and into the dark corners of a fear-ridden world, the Light comes.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the
shadow of death.

O Key of David — December 20

Since the 8th century, during the last seven days of Advent, leading to the Christmas celebration, the Christian Church has been singing a set of antiphons that were written as introductory prayers for the singing of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer. They are popularly known as “The O Antiphons” and serve as the basis for the well-known hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Each day uses a name for the coming Messiah drawn from the messianic hopes of the First Testament. They proclaim the coming of Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promised salvation.

In Charles Dickens’ novel, Great Expectations, there’s a scene in which Barrister Jaggers’ clerk, John Wemmick, walks through a London prison. “Wemmick walked among the prisoners much as a gardener walked among his plants.” Wemmick was highly popular among the prisoners, personally recognized each of Mr. Jaggers’ clients. Wemmick inquired about each of them, taking note of their condition since his last visit.  But it was clear that he was not there to bring them the deliverance the prisoners were hoping for. When a prisoner might ask for something that Wemmick could not deliver, his reply was, “It’s no use, my boy; I’m only a subordinate. . .don’t go on that way with a subordinate.” At the end of the scene Pip and the clerk come to the end of their walk through the jail, they come to a man known only as the Colonel; the Colonel speculates that he’ll be out of jail by Monday. As they leave the jail, Wemmick instead reports that the Colonel is to be executed on Monday.

The Key of David is no subordinate. Indeed he cares about those locked in their deathly prisons, those of us — all of us — sentenced for our rebellion. The One whose birth is near, was born to die and in his death and resurrection he has opened the prison doors, set the prisoners free, and invited all into Life and Freedom.

O Key of David,
opening the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom:
come and free the prisoners of darkness!

O Leader of Israel — December 18

Since the 8th century, during the last seven days of Advent, leading to the Christmas celebration, the Christian Church has been singing a set of antiphons that were written as introductory prayers for the singing of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer. They are popularly known as “The O Antiphons” and serve as the basis for the well-known hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Each day uses a name for the coming Messiah drawn from the messianic hopes of the First Testament. They proclaim the coming of Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promised salvation.

In the O Antiphon for December 18, Christ is called the Leader of the House of Israel.

Call to mind the great leaders of the nation of Israel: Moses, who let God’s people out of slavery, through the long wilderness wandering, and into the promised land. Deborah, the prophetess who masterminded the assault against Jabin, king of Canaan and his military commander Sisera. David, the great warrior king who got his start as a young shepherd boy who slew the giant. Esther, the Jewish queen of Persian who foiled the plans of Haman to have all the Jews in the land killed.

The Messiah was to be the great leader of God’s people all rolled into one. “He will lead his flock like a shepherd,” Isaiah proclaimed.

The shepherd who himself was led to slaughter. The shepherd who became the Lamb. The shepherd who was stripped, beaten, crowned with thorns, and led outside the gates of Jerusalem to the place of the skull where in his mighty cruciform power he rescued all creation.

O Leader of the House of Israel,
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
come to rescue us with your mighty power!

O Wisdom — December 17

Since the 8th century, during the last seven days of Advent, leading to the Christmas celebration, the Christian Church has been singing a set of antiphons that were written as introductory prayers for the singing of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer. They are popularly known as “The O Antiphons” and serve as the basis for the well-known hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Each day uses a name for the coming Messiah drawn from the messianic hopes of the First Testament. They proclaim the coming of Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promised salvation.

They say that wisdom comes with age and experience. I wonder.

While I hope that my blunders are fewer and that have learned a few things along the way, I still manage to do some things that in hindsight are pretty dumb. And with age and experience comes the possibility (the probability?) of making mistakes that are more costly, both economically and relationally, and have deeper lasting consequences.

In the O Antiphon for December 17, Christ is called the Wisdom from on high, the one who brings divine knowledge.

Throughout the gospel of John, the gospel writer is nearly obsessed with the theme of Christ as the one who has come so that we might know God. Except contrary to the way western theology has typically been ordered, the truth about God that Christ came to bring is not propositional truth; it is relational truth. God comes to us, dwells with us, takes up residence with us, hangs out with us, so that we might know God in God’s unimaginable, never-ending, limitless love.

Certainly there is a certain practical, utilitarian wisdom that smooths the skids of daily life; it may or may not come with age and experience. The greater Wisdom comes to bring life; that wisdom is rooted not in facts and figures or the school of hard knocks, but in divine love, Love Incarnate. Only when we acknowledge that we cannot know God — and therefore, cannot know real Life — except by God’s grace, God’s invitation, and God’s enlightenment, do we begin to know true wisdom.

Muscle Memory

Most Wednesday evenings, I momentarily plunge into a tunnel of darkness.

Thursday is the day they pick up the garbage at our place.  By 6 am on Thursday morning, the two big plastic garbage cans on wheels have to be rolled down our long driveway to the road. Usually, it’s after dark on Wednesday before I get around to it. Close to the house, the sky is open; the same at the road. But in between, there’s a section of driveway that is covered by a canopy of thick cedar branches. So, even when the moon is bright or the stars are out, it is completely dark. I’ve walked it enough times now that I can get through just on muscle memory. Still, for those few moments and those 50 or so steps, I’m putting one foot in front of the other with no visual confirmation that I’m going in the right direction.

I gathered with some of my people earlier this week for bible class. There was a heaviness in the room. We had been together on Sunday morning; there and then we acknowledged the violent week we had just lived through — the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, the spate of mailed pipe bombs, the shooting at the Kroger store — but no one was able to give voice to their grief. At bible class, we took time for that. Ironically, we were scheduled to study John 6 that morning and began with John’s account of Jesus walking on the water (vs. 16-21). As John tells the story, he does his best to paint a picture of the proverbial dark and stormy night. There’s darkness, a sudden and strong wind, an angry sea, and an absent Jesus. I can’t help but picture John writing to his people for whom the experience of the world was dark and stormy. And the message is clear. In the midst of all that, Jesus comes.

I believe that. I believe that in the midst of all the darkness — and believe me, I feel the darkness. As we run up towards next week’s election, the fear-mongering rhetoric is getting ramped up even more. I wish we could have a break from all of that. But my experience over the past two years tells me that we will not get a break, even after the election. That’s the new normal.

Yet, we live in hope. That’s part of my calling as pastor to remind people that we live in hope. Part of that hope is knowing that as a community of the called, gathered, and enlightened people of God, we know what to do, even when it’s dark. In the darkness, we live from muscle memory. Even when we can’t see the way forward, we know what to do. When we can’t see, we still put one foot in front of the other. We know what to do. It’s the little, common, ordinary things. Love those around us, and love them fiercely. Look out for our neighbor, especially the vulnerable ones. Reach out to the stranger. Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God.