Epiphany Sunday, January 5, 2020
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
The following story is rated PG-13 for language.
In the insular religious world in which I was raised, morality was defined very narrowly and mostly by personal behaviors. It was largely about what you did not do. And what we did not do was smoke or drink of chew, or go with girls or boys who do. And we didn’t swear. Ever.
At my Christian liberal arts college, we had chapel services three times a week. One day a famous evangelical preacher named Tony Campolo came to address the student body. Campolo was a sociology professor and ordained American Baptist minister. Dr. Campolo was interested in moving evangelical piety far beyond the prohibitions against alcohol, tobacco and dirty words.
In his chapel sermon that day, Campolo recited a lot of statistics about hunger and the daily deaths from hunger-related causes around the world. I don’t know what the numbers were back then, but today approximately 25,000 people will die from a lack of food. That’s 9.1 million people per year. So Campolo regaled us with these grim statistics and then he paused for dramatic effect and announced: “These people died today and most of you don’t give a…” (rhymes with “fit.”) – The audience gasped. And then there was a stunned silence. Campolo continued: “And the really tragic thing is that more of you are offended that I said that word than you are that 25,000 people died from hunger today.” I don’t know how everyone else in the room experienced what he said, but I can tell you that my own Christian faith has never been the same. It was a very effective sermon.
A few years ago, I was reminded of Campolo’s influence on my life because there was an article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine about his son, Bart. Bart Campolo, like his father, had also been a dynamic Christian speaker. But Bart, unlike his father and unbeknownst to most, struggled with his faith. One day, while riding his bicycle, Bart hit a soft patch of dirt and had a very serious accident. When he finally woke up in the hospital, he admitted what had been true for him for a while: that he really didn’t believe in God anymore. The article detailed his journey from an evangelical preacher’s son to an evangelical preacher himself, and finally to a humanist chaplain at the University of Southern California.
I read the article with great interest, not only because his father had been such a significant influence on me, but also because I am fascinated why some people believe and others don’t. I too was raised by an evangelical preacher. I too have had periods of intense doubt. So what is the difference between us? Why do I still believe when Bart doesn’t? Why is the pinprick of light in an otherwise dark night sky enough for me to believe in the Light of the World?
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, wise men came from the East to Jerusalem looking for the King of the Jews. Traditional says there were three of them, but that tradition is only based on the number of gifts they brought. And we don’t know their names, although tradition named them Gaspar, Balthazar, and Melchior. And we don’t know what that they actually saw in the sky. All we really know about them is that whatever they saw, it was enough to get them to take the first steps of a very long journey.
Like so many other Bible stories, this one has been domesticated by time. Its transformative truths are buried under tradition and sentimentality and familiarity. But if we take a moment to unearth it from all of that, we find a subversive and transformative tale of how God works in our world.
What do I mean? Well, consider this: the heroes of this story are foreigners. And more than that, they are pagans. These Wise Ones received this revelation, not through the established channel of Judaism, but through their own religion. They were like Zoroastrians, practitioners of a monotheistic Persian religion founded six centuries before Christ was born. So, they were the wrong kind of people with the wrong kind of religion, and yet it was to them that the Christ was revealed.
And consider this: they literally found God in and through their observations of the natural world. It was a star and not a book or an approved theology that led them to Jesus. This story reminds us that creation itself reveals the glory and truth of God. And finally, the news of the Messiah’s exact whereabouts was delivered through the mouth of a duplicitous politician, wicked King Herod, proving once again that God can speak through anyone. These details, so often lost on us, are Matthew’s way of underscoring the new thing that God was doing in Christ – an out-of-the-box, draw- the-circle-wide, kind of thing.
But there’s one more detail in this story that breaks the mold of how we assume God works in the world. Matthew’s story also strongly implies that the way to Jesus is not illuminated by a blaze of glory. It is, more often, simply hinted at in the faint twinkling of a star.
What do you mean faint twinkling? Don’t we sing: “Star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright!” Indeed, we do. But that’s not what Matthew says.
Apparently, the star wasn’t bright enough to take them directly to where Jesus was. The Wise Men ended up in Jerusalem, which is about 5 ½ miles from Bethlehem. They had to stop and ask for directions before they could continue on their journey. And once they did, the implication is that it was still dark. Matthew writes: as “they set out; …there, ahead of them, went the star.” In other words, further revelation was only given as they put one foot in front of the other – meaning that they had just enough light to continue on their way.
In an essay about her decision to adopt out of the foster care system, Mennonite pastor Joanna Harader writes of her own experience of having just enough light to take the next step. She writes: “God did not lead us to adopt in any big and dramatic way. There was no voice from heaven, no angelic visions, not even a series of inexplicable coincidences. Just a dim gleam on the horizon, a slow but steady wind blowing in a certain direction, an accumulation of prayers and conversations that seemed to nudge us down this one blessed and treacherous path.”
Just a dim gleam on the horizon.
I don’t know why Bart Campolo concluded that there is no God. But I can tell you why I believe that there is. It’s that dim gleam on the horizon. It’s enough to get me to put one foot in front of the other. And every now and again, just like the Wise Men, I actually stumble upon the Christ. I turn a corner and there he is – the light of his glory blazing in my dark world, making everything clear. It’s only a flash and then it is gone. But it’s just enough light for me to know I am not alone. And neither are you.
Thanks be to God. Amen.