Sermon for Sunday, January 6, 2013 ~ Epiphany!

Matthew 2:1-12

“Divine Encounters: Meeting God In Signs & Wonders In Creation (The Magi)”

Today is the seventh of a 7-sermon series entitled “Divine Encounters”

looking at the diverse ways the persons of the Christmas Story met God.

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ http://www.FranklinCircleChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

To hear a podcast of this sermon, click HERE:  130106SermonPodcast

To see a video of this sermon, click HERE: http://youtu.be/QcMU52Gj5o0

Pastor Allen as one of the three kings (now)

Pastor Allen as one of the three kings (now) [Thanks to Cody Corrigan for the pic!]

Pastor Allen as one of the three kings... then!

Pastor Allen as one of the three kings… then!

In a small southern town in the U.S. there was a outdoor nativity scene that showed great skill and talent had gone into creating it.  One small feature stood out.  The three wise men were wearing firemen’s helmets.  Totally unable to come up with a reason or explanation, a visitor decided to ask a local what it meant.  At a shop on the edge of town, he asked the lady behind the counter about the helmets.  She exploded into a rage: ‘People these days never do read the Bible!’ The visitor assured her that he did, but simply couldn’t recall anything about fire fighters in the Bible.  She jerked her Bible from behind the counter and ruffled through some pages, and finally jabbed her finger at a passage.  Sticking it in his face she said, ‘See, it says right here, “The three wise man came from afar.”’

Now, it may seem pretty generous to some of you that the three wise men gave Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  I’m not so sure.  You have to take into account that these were joint birthday and Christmas presents.  Not as generous as you would think at first.

Three wise men are following a star through the desert.  The star stops over a little village and begins to shine brightly on a barn behind a small inn.  The wise men walk into the barn and find a little baby lying in a manger.  As they approached the manger, one of the wise men walks into a plough and smashes his knee on the handle and in agony yells out “JESUS CHRIST!”  A voice came down from above and said, “That’s a much better name, I was going to call him Roger.”

Adoration, Master of the Vienna Adoration, c. 1410. Web Gallery of Art

Adoration, Master of the Vienna Adoration, c. 1410. Web Gallery of Art

The three wise men, also known as the three kings… well, let’s really begin by quickly getting the record straight for those of us who haven’t heard any of this.  First, scripture does not describe them as “kings,” but rather magos, a Greek word which was the name given by the Babylonians (Chaldeans), Medes, Persians, and others, to wise men, teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, augers, soothsayers, sorcerers etc. (1) The word magi is the plural of Latin magus, borrowed from Greek μάγος magos.  Since Matthew describes them following a star, it is much more likely that these magi were astrologers, but certainly nothing close to what we understand as royalty.  Their identification as kings in later Christian writings, perhaps as early as the third century, is probably linked to Psalms 72:11, “May all kings fall down before him.”

Second, there is no record in scripture of how many magi there were.  Tradition has it at three because of the three gifts presented – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – and probably not unrelated to the strong tradition of the Holy Trinity which lends itself to 3 being a holy number.  [Three shall be the holy number, and the number of the holiness shall be three.  Four shalt thou not consider holy, neither two, excepting that thou then proceed to three.  Five is right out.] In the East, the magi traditionally number twelve.  But that’s another holy number…

Third, there are no names in scripture for the magi.  Traditions identify a variety of different names for them.  In the Western Christian church they have been commonly known as: Melchior, a Persian scholar; Caspar, an Indian scholar; and Balthazar, an Arabian scholar.(2)  But this is complete fabrication.  These names apparently derive from a Greek manuscript probably composed in Alexandria around 500 CE.

So much of our current knowledge comes from the hymn we sang earlier in the service, “We Three Kings”, also known as “We Three Kings of Orient Are

John H. Hopkins, Jr. (1820-1891)cyberhymnal.org

John H. Hopkins, Jr. (1820-1891)
cyberhymnal.org

or “The Quest of the Magi“, a Christmas carol written by the Reverend John Henry Hopkins, Jr., who wrote both the lyrics and composed the music.  It is suggested to have been written in 1857 but did not appear in print until his Carols, Hymns and Song was published in 1863.  Hopkins, then an ordained deacon and later a priest in the Episcopal Church, was instrumental in organizing an elaborate holiday pageant (which featured this hymn) for the students of the General Theological Seminary in New York City in 1857 while serving as the seminary’s music director.  Thus Hopkins established an illustrious ritual that many of us would be involved in, either willingly or not, called “Living Nativity Scenes.”  (3)  I was a king when I was a teenager.  Norma Stearns’ grandchildren Kayla and Dylan most recently appeared as kings or magi!

[The Adoration of the Magi — i.e., their homage to the infant Jesus — early on became one of the most popular themes in Christian art, the first extant painting on the subject being the fresco in the Priscilla Catacomb of Rome dating from the 2nd century.  In the Middle Ages the Adoration of the Magi was often associated with two other major events of Jesus’ life: his Baptism, during which the voice of God publicly declared Jesus to be his son, and the wedding at Cana, at which he revealed his divinity by changing water into wine.  The three events (note that holy number again!), all celebrated on the same feast day, were frequently represented together in the monumental sculpture that decorated the churches of the period. (4)]

But enough about the magi, what I really want to talk about today is their powers of observation.  Today is the last sermon in a series of seven looking at the many ways in which we might encounter God.  Zechariah encountered God through the repetition of worship and engaging in ritual.  Mary encountered God through a mystical vision.  Elizabeth encountered God through physicality, her body experienced God’s presence.  Joseph encountered God through his dreams.  The shepherds encountered God by showing up and being fully present.  Anna and Simeon encountered God by waiting patiently.  Today, we see the magi, however many and by whatever names they were called, encountered God through their powers of observation of signs and wonders in creation.

Now, I had several thoughts on this.  Let me get one of my pet peeves out in the open first.  It is all too easy for us to create a wicked division in our world by focusing entirely upon God’s presence being known in the “natural” world and setting up that image over and against the “created” world, or, to use a more common phrase, the “man-made” world.  You know my shtick: Yes, absolutely and without a doubt God’s handiwork is most certainly observed in the lofty mountain grandeur and gentle breeze of nature.  As a matter of fact, the opening verse of one of most of our favorite hymns could very well have been sung by our magi as they approached the manger in Bethlehem:

O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder

Consider all the works thy hand hath made,

I see the stars, I hear the mighty thunder,

Thy power throughout the universe displayed;

The hymn, based on a Swedish poem by Carl Gustav Boberg and translated into English by Stuart K. Hine, was made enormously famous by the singer George Beverly Shea.  It is a beautiful song illustrating one way in which God’s presence is made real to us.

Downtown Cleveland, photo by Allen V. Harris

Downtown Cleveland, photo by Allen V. Harris

But I have committed my life to balancing this easy and prolific way of observing God in nature with the passionate belief that God can just as easily and wondrously be observed in the works of the creatures as well as creation itself!  Just because the bee has made the honeycomb or the ant the towering anthill makes it no less astonishing or divinely inspired!  Likewise, the majesty of a city skyscraper or a bridge that spans a great divide is no less God-given because they were built by the wisdom, hands, backs, and often the very hearts of women and men!  Even more so, the acts of human creativity, generosity, compassion, and love are as theologically astounding as are canyons, beaches, flowers, butterflies, and clouds!!!  So, my first point is that when we talk about encountering the Divine by observing signs and wonders in creation, let us not close our eyes to the wonders right outside our doors – or even within our walls – of our own making.  Let us not figuratively “roll down the shades on the train window” until we get out of town to look for God in the countryside.  Let us keep the shades up and look for God in both city and country, humanly crafted and natural worlds, and all that’s in-between!

The other point I wish to make is that we must be very careful not to judge one person’s divinely inspired observation by our own standards of sacredness or holiness!  In October of 1977, just a few miles from where I was attending high school at the

Shrine of the Sacred Tortilla, Lake Arthur, NM

Shrine of the Sacred Tortilla, Lake Arthur, NM

time, Maria Rubio was rolling up a burrito for her husband, Eduardo’s, breakfast.  As she looked down she noticed a thumb-sized configuration of skillet burns on the tortilla that resembled the face of Jesus.  Maria understood this to be a sign, and it was proclaimed that viewing the face of Jesus on the tortilla brought healing to the observer and by 1979 over 35,000 people had visited their home to see the holy tortilla.  Now, it is a bit hard to comprehend this because since then there have been many more such similar observations, but this really was the first of its kind.  Most previous manifestations were in hard to find grottos or within the walls of monasteries.  This was one of the first in the home of an everyday person. (5)

Now, some say this is not a sign from God but the delusions of a person craving divine and/or human attention.  Skeptics ascribe such “signs” to a human faculty called “pareidolia,” which is a perception of pattern and meaning from natural randomness.  Scientists say that we humans are hard-wired, so to speak, to look for and recognize facial patterns from our early ancestral days when our lives depended upon quickly recognizing another as friend or foe.

Others believe with all their heart, mind, and soul that the God of the universe has every capability of choosing to be manifested in the wrinkles and burn marks on a tortilla.  From Our Lady of Guadalupe to Our Lady of Lourdes, from Veronica’s Veil to the Shroud of Turin, on Tortillas, Toast, and Trees, the presence of God has been discerned by the faithful and the faker alike.  To me, I have no desire to question another person’s faith nor how they come to that faith.  If I am going to stand firm on the ground that I believe God’s beauty can be made manifest in the furry chest of a well built man, then by God I need to honor the fact that you might genuinely be moved spiritually by the image of Jesus Christ on a tortilla.

The defining quality should always be made clear by the question: “what does it lead you and me to do and to be!”  Jesus himself reminded us “You will know them by their fruits.” (Matt. 7:16) and the book of James reminds us, “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.” (James 1:23).  I think James would gladly add, “and not merely observers!”

The Wise Men Guided by the Star, Gustave Doré, 1865. Korea Computer Mission.

The Wise Men Guided by the Star, Gustave Doré, 1865. Korea Computer Mission.

Finally, and most importantly, the question is less about trying to authenticate another person’s experience of God, as much as it is about making ourselves ready and willing and accessible to encountering God for ourselves!!!  The most striking thing about the story of the magi is that they were watching!  Out of the bajillion stars in the sky, they were able to discern the one that led them to the Christ Child!  How, because they had prepared themselves to see it!  They expected something divine to happen!  They knew their stuff!  And they didn’t go it alone but, rather, consulted other wise folks along the way to help them locate the very spot where Jesus lay!

So, you magi of Franklin Circle Christian Church!  Are you ready?  Are you expecting to encounter the divine?  Where will you observe God presence?  How will you encounter the divine?  Let us not be like those about whom Jesus warned, “Seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.” (Matthew 13:13) but be like those he commends, “Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear,” (Matthew 13:16) [and I would add, more importantly, blessed are your hearts when they discern the presence of God!]

And my greatest hope is that all of us will be more attuned to the abundant presence of God everywhere we go, in all circumstances in which we find ourselves, and, most importantly, within the hearts of every person we meet!

May it be so.  Amen.

(1) Blue Letter Bible. “Dictionary and Word Search for magos (Strong’s 3097)”. Blue Letter Bible. 1996-2013. 6 Jan 2013. < http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G3097&t=KJV >

(2) From http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/356642/Magi

(3) From Wikipedia “We Three Kings” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We_Three_Kings

(4) From http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/356642/Magi

(5) “Shrine Of The Miracle Tortilla” on RoadsideAmerican.com at http://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/10166

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