Epiphany – Following the Light

We’ve been living for a few weeks in the in-between times.  In between the half-seasons of television shows, I mean.  Since the beginning of December, most series have taken a hiatus, and this next week, the dramas and comedies return in full force.  Not least—Downton Abbey Season Three starts on this side of the pond tomorrow night/tonight at 9pm.  Our recording devices will return to their usual, almost-full-to-capacity status, and our ache to find out if the hero will return from his coma will, hopefully, be sated.  We are desperate to discover whether the heroine will ever find true love, we despair along with the couple who seek an adoption, but keep falling into heart-breaking loopholes.  Of course, this could be more than just television; we could be facing these sorts of hopes and tensions in our real lives, too.

These stories, great and small, deep and vapid, true and fictional, speak to our need for a narrative of a love so extraordinary as to change everything it touches.

This is, perhaps, something of what the wise men sought as recounted in our Gospel passage today.  Matthew tells us they packed up their camels and trekked across a continent to meet this new baby King.  These wealthy, busy men didn’t send a messenger, or even have Babies ‘R Us ship a gift to Jesus.  These studiers of the heavens had seen something big—this light in the heavens—and whatever it was that caused the light had to be seen in person.  They were desperate understand and to be near the event that had made even the predictable skies look new.

They rushed to Jerusalem to congratulate Herod on this great event that had taken place in his backyard; they were eager to get directions from Herod about where exactly to find this child-king.  Imagine these impressive, imposing men standing on your front porch, knocking on your door.  They’re wild-eyed and overcome—bursting with joy for the adventure they’ve undertaken.  Herod opens the door in his bathrobe, having been roused from the couch watching reruns on TV, and stares at these men blankly.  What are you doing here?  What do you want?

They practically bulldoze him, rushing through the rooms of the house, tearing down the hallways, spouting their research and the prophecy they had found as they hunt desperately for the person they desire.  It quickly becomes clear that Herod hadn’t been paying attention to the lights in the sky and the signs around him.  He pulls his bathrobe around himself a bit tighter, and a cloud forms over his eyebrows.  He narrows his eyes in thought, “it’s not bad enough that I’m living in the Roman Boondocks,” he says to himself, “now there’s a rival that everyone knows about except me.”  As soon as the wise men stumble off to Bethlehem, he returns to the couch to brood and to cook up a scheme to unseat this new king.

The wise men troop down the Jerusalem hill, out into the countryside.  They’re on edge, they know they must be close to the place where the world has been changed, the place the light has been leading them on their long expedition.  They arrive in Bethlehem, on the main street.  The light keeps alluding them, they duck behind buildings and then stretch high on their camels to keep an eye on the light.  As they get closer and closer to the light, they realize they’re in a shady part of town.  There’s the coughing of illness, the stench of poor plumbing, probably a few ladies of the night in some doorways.  The tension is incredible—where are they going to end up?  What’s going on that the light is leading them to this kind of place?

Suddenly, almost imperceptibly, the light halts—they were, perhaps, confused, but as St. Matthew puts it, they were absolutely “overwhelmed with joy.”  They stood on another front porch, much less-grand than the last one, still seeking a king.  I imagine this greeting was very different from the grumpy ruler they’d left in the big city.  Joseph and Mary were still in the throes of sleep-deprived early-parenthood, and to make matters more stressful, they’d both been having dreams and it was becoming clear that their reality—the quiet life they’d envisioned, raising a happy little family in Nazareth—was not the way that things were going to play out.  Now, foreigners showed up on their doorstep, and they begged to see the newborn.

Can you imagine the scene?  Joseph and Mary, bleary-eyed, but trying to be hospitable, the travelers, dusty and exhausted, but rapturous finally to be in the same room as this child of promise.  Each of them were stretched to their absolute limit—emotionally wasted and physically spent.  The light had led each of them to this place—the very edge of survival; and it was here that they found Jesus.

Are you there this morning?  Perhaps the holidays were especially hard this year—so much changed in the last twelve months, and 2013 stretches as far as the eye can see.  A long trip, even a cross-continent, trek on a camel, sounds like a dream-like escape.  Overwhelming joy would be a lovely feeling to experience, but there’s so much evil in the world and so many broken relationships in your life that “joy” doesn’t seem like a state of mind meant for you.  I wonder what it was that made the wise men overwhelmed with joy—if it was their aching feet, or their home-sick hearts, or some other force quite outside themselves.

In Jane Austen’s novel, Emma, the young heroine is satisfied with her unmarried life, contentedly spending her time matchmaking others.  Throughout the novel, she is plagued by her brother-in-law, Mr. Knightly—his much-more-pleasant brother had married her sister.  At the climax, Emma has realized, by his absence, that she is desperately in the love with him and must marry him, and he returns, she thinks, to admit his love for her best friend.  Her despair turns quickly to joy when he says that his trip to his brother’s house in London was no comfort—that her sister reminded him daily of his feelings, and that he returned to the country just to be near her again.  He says, “I rushed back, anxious for your feelings, I came to be near you.  I rode through the rain, but I’d ride through worse than that if I could only hear your voice telling me that I might at least have some chance to win you.”

Jesus went on a very long journey in order to arrive in Bethlehem.  The Son of God was with God from the very beginning—even before time, as the Gospel passage from John told us last week.  And after the creation of the world, after centuries of time passed and after God developed relationships with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Moses; he wooed the Hebrew people and showed his love for humanity by telling us how to follow his light and how to thrive in relationship with him.  Finally, the Son of God came to earth, as the most extraordinary act of love ever known.  He ended up in Mary’s womb, where he grew for nine months, he got crowded in there and made the long, dangerous trek that we all do into the big, wide world.  In response to this incredible odyssey Jesus Christ undertook, the wise men thought that the least they could do was to take a trip to see him for themselves.  The light came to them and they responded.  They traversed the wilderness to witness the miracle of the greatest love the world has ever known—God himself coming just to be near us.

The Feast of the Holy Innocents – In Remembrance of the Children of Sandy Hook Elementary School – The Church of St. Michael & St. George

On Monday, we gathered in this very room with our families and with dressy clothes and candles and a great glorious noise to celebrate the coming of God to dwell among us as a human.  This is the miracle of our faith.  Here we are, four days later, still in the midst of the Christmas season—you can see the flowers and the festive hangings—remembering the slaughter of infants in Bethlehem for the sake of Jesus Christ.  We also remember tonight all innocent children who have been killed throughout time, especially those babes at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  In this world, there is grief in the midst of rejoicing.  Our God is not afraid of our grief, nor does he shrink from our questioning and doubt.

In grief and fear, we have choices about how to respond in our questioning.  As we wonder about power and love and God, we can try to shore up our power and leverage it for other’s fear, which is as close to love as you can get when you want to keep ahold of your power.  We can also try to use our love to leverage power—we can try to legislate love into others’ lives, demanding that they behave lovingly, or else!  Finally, we can try to love without inflicting power, which is easiest when we have none, but possible when we have a lot of it, too.  Let me tell you stories that might illustrate these three approaches for you.

There was a man who wanted to have a lot of power.  In reality, he was not very powerful, people didn’t listen to him the way he thought they should, and this made him very angry.  He was isolated and this made him lonely, and it made him resent the attention that others received when he thought people should be paying attention to him.  To deal with his pain and with his powerlessness, he realized he must silence those who were stealing attention from him.  His loneliness obscured the truth that there is plenty of attention—that is, plenty of love—for us all.  He grasped at the little scraps of power that he had and he threw them as hard and as cruelly as he could at the object of his hatred—those who had love, though they had no power at all.  Babies.  This man’s name was Herod.

Another man, knowing that power alone would not solve the problem, turned to love.  He was certain that if we just loved each other harder, we could solve all the problems.  The real answer, this man, Lawrence Krauss, argued on cnn.com,[1] was to provide better mental health care and gun control.  This scoffer-legislator, a professor at Arizona State, dredged up self-righteous religious commentary to expose the inadequacy of the other side, as he saw it.  Why do people turn to religion, he asked, it is full of halfway love, emasculated love.  For example, our president himself said, “‘let the little children come to me,’ Jesus said, ‘and do not hinder them. For such belongs to the kingdom of Heaven.’ God has called them all home. For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on.” I think he meant to be comforting, but both professor Krauss and me take umbrage with the sort of God who would choose to gather up young children into his kingdom by subjecting them to brutal murder in their first grade classrooms.  Dr. Krauss doesn’t stop there, though, he bolsters his interpretation of the Judeo-Christian God by invoking Mike Huckabee’s recent comment on Fox News, “We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools.  Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?”[2]  These statements both enrage Dr. Krauss, and lead him to mourn the situation in which non-religious people find themselves—being told that some all-powerful deity visited judgment on their children because of the state of society.  Angry at the injustice he sees and the inadequacy of this God’s supposed love, Dr. Krauss declares the only solution: jettison the illusory God and take love into our own hands.  We must work tirelessly for policy that provides emotional and communal support for grieving families, and fight for better mental health care and gun control.

God has survived thousands of years of humanity misinterpreting and maligning his name, and he surely does not need a diminutive twenty-six-year-old woman defending his honor.  The God who calls little children home is not the God I know.  He’s not the God whose character is revealed to us in the Bible.  We know the Bible’s stories and the loving, righteous, just nature of our Lord.  He asked the children to come to him unhindered because their parents were embarrassed at their offspring’s exuberance.  He accepted a prostitute’s kisses and care, knowing that she recognized him as God and desired to express with all her being the regret she felt and the love she had for him, her Savior.

A third man happens to have a lot of power in his situation, but chooses not to wield it at all.  He surrenders his options and chooses the hardest thing—to love. In Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the heroine’s husband, Count Karenin, a prominent member of the government and a very wealthy man, accepts into his home and lovingly raises the child his wife conceives with her lover, Count Vronsky.  Karenin surely didn’t joyfully call for this child to be created—“oh please, dear wife, be unfaithful.  Be so fully and repeatedly unfaithful that even in your twilight years of fertility, you bring forth a child with another man!”  But once this child has entered his house under less-than-ideal circumstances, Karenin welcomes her warmly, with open arms, and treats her as his own.  Even after Anna dies, and no one is around to hold him accountable for his actions toward the daughter of this extra-marital liaison, Karenin gratefully and gracefully accepts the results of others’ sins, loving both the sinners and the children they affect.