Monday, January 6, 2014

January 5 Sermon: Follow the Star

(Click here to listen to this sermon)

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “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.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘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.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then 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.”
9When 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. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On 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. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Whatever they were, and we aren’t exactly sure, the wise men who came bearing gifts sure have sparked our imaginations. We sing of the three kings, have even given them names: Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior, and yet we do not know how many of them there were—the Bible does not say—and we certainly don’t know their names. We don’t know if they were kings; and we’re pretty sure they showed up once Jesus was a kid in his house, rather than a baby in a manger.
For all we don’t know—and it is a considerable sum--the biggest mystery of the magi is this: why? Why would they drop everything to follow a star? Why would they leave the comforts of home for such a journey? Whatever they were, they had money; one does not have gold, frankincense, and myrrh lying around the house unless one has means. And like most of us, I’m sure they felt like they deserved what they had. They’d earned it.
And yet, they dropped it all. Left it behind, followed the star straight to the savior, and then went home by another road.
For all we don’t know, the biggest mystery is why—why go at all, and once you have gone, what is next? For it is the case that once you have seen the savior, you cannot unsee him. Once you have experienced God, there are only two options: either pretend it didn’t happen and go about your business, or no longer be at ease in the old dispensation, go home by another road and discover that what you left just doesn’t compare to what you’ve found. This is what happens when you see something so amazing, when you are transported beyond yourself.
And yet even if you go the route of pretending, even if you stuff the memory of such a gift down as far as it will go—I believe the technical term is “becoming an adult”--it will peek out from time to time, saying hello when the old ways just don’t seem to work anymore, or when you find yourself suddenly doused in wonder.
I was sixteen when it happened to me, first with my driver’s license, and that’s wonder enough, the freedom to move about, the gift of open road. But it was not the freedom itself, so much as the freedom to look, and so I set out late one night with my friend, David, to find it, to find wonder.
We lived in the suburbs, and at night, the artificial light of the streetlamps seemed to fill every nook and crack in the pavement with the same electric beige, crowding out any dark corner wonder might scurry into. The sky was not much better, and you could make out the North Star, of course, and the Big Dipper if you squinted and tossed up a little imagination, but the streetlights crowded the sky, as well, and so David and I quickly realized that if we were going to find it, if we were going to find wonder, we were going to need to leave the ‘burbs, get on the interstate and find a patch of land where the only artificial light would be our flashlights, and so we did, we hopped in his Buick and left the house, looking for wonder.
We drove, talking for a spell and then sitting in silence, until David pulled over and said, “this is it.” I couldn’t tell you where, I hadn’t been paying attention, but it didn’t matter, because it turned out that our flashlights scared away any wonder that might have been living there, in the holes in the ground, under a log, inside it. It was late, and the night mist turned our flashlight beams into pillars of light, and when we finally turned them off, we realized that we didn’t need them at all, for the stars were light enough, so bright that you could save your imagination for tasting the sweetwater in the big dipper or wondering just what it was Orion the hunter was trying to shoot with his bow, and how tired his arm must be after all these millennia of holding the string.
And it was almost enough. It was almost enough, that light, the still, expansive light, but for the fact that we were still near enough to the road that an occasional car would drive by and pull us back into the present in the way only a catalytic converter can do.
So David and I looked at each other, took one last look at the sky, and without a word or much thought walked away from the road, toward a hill not so far in the distance. You know, you don’t think about the practical aspects of such an adventure at sixteen, which is good, because the search for wonder is not about the practical aspects anyhow. There’s nothing practical about the search for wonder, any more than the idea that somehow following Jesus is about anything other than following for the sake of following, as wise men would follow a star. There’s nothing practical about it; this business of following Jesus won’t make you rich, ought not make you famous, and while the side effects of love, and compassion, and service, and justice are good things, they are not worth chasing for their own sake, for as the poet TS Eliot writes in “The Journey of the Magi,” the birth you find is just as much a death. He ends the poem this way:
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
The birth you find is just as much a death to the idea that the old dispensation will do, for once you have experienced God and the incredible gift of a new way to live, nothing else will suffice, and so if you are hoping for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, a giant check to reward you for your hard work, you’re going to be disappointed.
The journey of following God is less about practicality and more about the wonder of discovery, and for as much energy as we’ve put into trying to meld Christianity and financial success, Christianity and happiness, I must warn you that Jesus never promised these things. Neither did he promise misery, but that’s the point—the promise is not about you, anyhow. It is a promise about God: about love and wonder. About a new way.
It is a good thing the journey is not practical, because David and I took nothing but our flashlights and a cooler, just in case we found something, and we started up the hill, hoping to discover something in the silence we had not found by the road. And we climbed, on a slow grade at first, picking up in fits and starts, which incidentally is how life seems to work, and it was not long before we were holding onto branches, pulling one another up steep cliffs and leaping, fifteen, twenty feet sometimes it seemed, slipping occasionally but continuing to climb, until, just before dawn, we made it to the top.
You can’t hear anything but the sound of your own breath in that stillness, can’t see anything but the stars, and it is enough to distract you from the crick in your neck from staring straight up. There is nothing to do in that moment but to be, to be in the presence, and really, that is enough.
It was not long before daybreak was splitting the sky, beginning to drown starlight, and I knew that if I were going to do it, this was my last chance, so I stood on my toes and reached up to grab a souvenir of our trip, a star to put in the cooler we’d brought with us, as if I could keep wonder locked up, and look at it when it was convenient for me, like was a relic.
I stopped just before I grabbed it. I don’t know if that kind of thing burns, after all, and if I’d taken it, that would be one less star for others to follow, one less journey of wonder for those who are yet to come. So I left it there, just hanging above our heads, and we turned to go home, noting with a smile that the journey had been worth it, even if we left the souvenir behind for somebody else to find.
That’s when I heard it. I can’t tell you how I heard it, and I can’t promise you that my memory of that morning has not been superimposed with something beyond that day, but then, God is not bound by time or memory, anyhow. In the still morning air, as the sun spilled into the sky, pooling around the stars and drowning their light, it was as if I heard them speak. It was as if they were whispering just to the two of us words that one finds only in a journey of this kind: I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal. Thou art mine, and I am thine. May the covenant which I have made on earth be ratified in Heaven. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment