My husband David acquired his first set of glasses when he was about five years old: thick, heavy glasses; the sort that you acquire when your eyesight is in much need of assistance. And when he set forth into the world wearing those glasses, he made a couple of important discoveries. Walls are made of bricks – of separate, individual bricks separated by mortar! And trees have leaves – hundreds of individual leaves! He had had no idea.
Today, we have all kinds of ways by which we can enhance our sight: glasses, contact lenses, laser surgery. Many of us wear bi-focals or tri-focals or graduated lenses. (Some of us, like me, are struggling to get it right as our vision undergoes a period of rapid change.) On the whole, until the challenges of very advanced age overcome our technology, we can find ways of seeing bricks, and leaves, and the words on a page.
But, while our physical eyesight can generally be improved, we still struggle with the enhancement of vision in its broader sense. We still struggle to see anew, to see differently , to see things we haven’t noticed before, or things we’d prefer not to recognize at all.
In our own lives, what do we not see? What do we not want to see? The relationship gone sour. The behavior that needs to be addressed. The expanding waistline. The direction that begs for a change of course. You know what I mean.
In the church, what do we not see? What do we not want to see? The smaller numbers. The young people not here. The former members who have drifted away. The empty classrooms.
We don’t like change, do we? We try to close our eyes to change.
And yet, the truth is, we’ve all, every single one of us, we’ve all discovered that we have the wherewithal to adapt to change – even to embrace change. We’ve all been faced with situations that have demanded that we make changes, that we adapt, that we accept new ways of doing things. We already have lots of experience with change, which means that we all have lots of experience with seeing in new ways.
In our own lives, when have we seen more clearly -- but perhaps forgotten to celebrate the renewed life that has come to us as a result? Perhaps we have tried to ignore a child’s struggles, telling ourselves that “it’s just a stage; this too will pass.” And then a friend, or a teacher, or a doctor, has insisted that we take another look – and after some testing and assessment, we see the bricks or the leaves separate. We see the reality before us with a new clarity – and then we see the doors of opportunity open, in the form of tutors or special programs or new therapies that bring new life.
What about in the church? We all know that numbers are down, that regular Sunday worship – or any Sunday worship at all – is no longer a given in our culture, that people are more likely to turn to a talk show than to a pastor, or to turn to a popular self-help book than to Scripture, for guidance and help in life. But isn’t this reality also an opportunity for a renewal of vision, for a clarity of both insight and out-sight? If the church is not merely a cultural given, if it’s no longer just part of the background noise of our lives, if it’s no longer an obvious expectation – then perhaps it can become something special. Perhaps if it’s not just “what we do” on Sundays, it can become a focal point for genuine encounter with God.
And notice that I said “focal point” – I didn’t say “place.” The church of Jesus Christ is not a place. It’s not a building. It’s not a particular group of people who sign a membership role and pay regular dues. The church is a point – one of many – at which God and God’s people, which is to say all people, encounter one another and from which we go forth together in love.
The magi who followed the star to find the child Jesus provide us with a paradigm for a willingness to see anew, to respond to a new vision, an enlarged vision.
What’s a paradigm? It’s a pattern, a model, an arrangement.
And how do the magi provide us with a new one, a new paradigm? In some ways, they might have been the kind of people expected to do so. The story tells us only that they were wise men from the east following a star, with treasure chests of gold, frank-incense, and myrrh. From that small bit of information we have explored the history of the time and elaborated on the basics, and often conclude that there must have been three wise men, and that they were kings and astrologers – those who knew the skies and scanned them in order to tell the future – a respected occupation in those days . And the east – that probably meant Persia, which today we know as Iran. It really isn’t all that surprising that men of scholarship, of wealth and means, would have noticed an unusual occurrence in the heavens and have been able to put together a caravan to make the long journey across what, on today’s map, would be the mountains of Iran, the deserts of Iraq and Syria, and on into the small towns of Galilee.
In another way, it’s quite a surprise that the magi are the ones who show up, that they are among the first to whom Jesus is revealed. Today we celebrate Epiphany – which means a showing, a manifestation, a revelation – the day that God was revealed to the magi through Jesus. And, remember, who are the magi? Not Jewish princes or kings, not Jewish priests of prophets. The magi are outsiders. The magi are from far away, and they are not among the people to whom the promises of the one Jewish god have been made. What is God doing with them?
Perhaps God is choosing people who have the capacity for vision. People who are accustomed to looking for new things and seeing in new ways. People who will put in long hours and great effort in order to search out the unexpected. People who can embrace the surprising
So here they come, the magi. Tired and hungry, after a long journey. “A cold coming we had of it,” the poet T.S. Elliot tells us in the opening line of his famous poem, “The Journey of the Magi:”
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed,
Lying down in the melting snow.
Imagine that journey. Imagine the arrival: The chaos, the animals milling about and the servants shouting out greetings and directions, the unexpected discovery of a young family and a new child. The thick darkness bespoken by the prophet Isaiah separating before the blinding light that reveals the presence of God. And the magi, offering to us a paradigm, a pattern, for seeing with new eyes, for expanding our vision. How do they do that?
First, they see: “They [see] the child Mary with his mother.” Perhaps not who or what they expected. Perhaps they imagined celestial fireworks. Perhaps they thought to find the most bejewelled of queens holding a newborn king in the most ostentatious of palaces. But instead they see the revelation of God in the most humble of circumstances, in one of the most helpless forms in nature: a poor and seemingly insignificant human baby.
Second, they reverence what – whom – they see. “They [kneel] down and [pay] him homage.” The ordinary, the unexpected , the small, the insignificant, the poor, the homeless – then, as now, these clamor for reverence. For acknowledgement as holy. As sacred.
Thirdly, they open. The Bible tells us that “they [open] their treasure chests.” That which they possess, that which defines who they are, that which gives them identity – the containers in which they protect their wealth – those they open to the new vision. They are willing to open themselves in ways they may not have done before. Do you think that back in Persia, back in their palaces and gardens, they opened their gates to the poor and nondescript? Do you think that back there their vision enabled them to see beyond the obvious to the presence of God among them? Probably not. But here, before this child, they see anew, and they become vulnerable – opened – to the God who has called them forth.
And fourthly, they offer. They offer gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Christ Child. They offer what they have – which may, with the exception of the gold, seem like worthless gifts for a child. But they offer what gifts they have to offer, as we all might, with the hope that they will be transformed.
And so, the magi, the people who follow a great star, the people willing to be transformed themselves by vision: They see, they reverence, they open, they offer.
What about us?
Let’s ask God this year to expand our vision, to enlarge our field of view.
What might we see and reverence if we allowed ourselves to be guided as if by a star? To what might we open ourselves and what gifts might we have to offer if we approached others as if they were the Christ Child beside whom we kneel, bearing our treasures of skill and insight and wisdom and time, and offering them so that God might transform them?
How might monochromatic walls resolve themselves into building blocks? How might trees leaf out into sunlit glories of God?
In our individual lives – at home, at school. at work, in the places in which we volunteer? How? In our church? How? How about outside our doors – in the town of Nankin and beyond? How? How might we see and reverence and open and offer?
The church goes where we go. The walls of the church protect and secure us, but we are unlikely to see the vast, wide, starlit kingdom of God unless we step outside and journey forth, just as did those unlikely visitors from the east.
O God, let us be guided by your star this year. Remind us that wise men and women in all places look up and out, seeking to know and serve you. Enlarge our vision, and send us forth!