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Reading the Signs

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men[a] from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising,[b] and have come to pay him homage.’ 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah[c] was to be born. 5 They 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[d] my people Israel.”’

7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men[e] and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 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.’ 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising,[f] until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped,[g] they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

There’s this thought experiment that preachers like to offer sometimes, where they (I guess “we”) ask the question, “If Jesus came today, do you think you’d recognize him?” And I continue to think that’s a pretty good question. Because when Jesus comes the first time around, it wasn’t exactly easy to recognize him as royal or powerful or, you know, divine. His dad was a poor carpenter, and recently some Biblical scholars have raised the possibility that Mary may have actually been a slave, which means that Jesus would have been raised as a slave also. Regardless of whether or not that’s right, everything in our Scriptures shows us that Jesus is not someone who comes into the world with any marker or display of greatness. The Messiah doesn’t arrive where you’d expect a messiah to arrive, which raises for us the question of how God is present with us now. How do our own perceptions and expectations make it hard to notice the presence of the divine in our midst? Can we recognize God in the flesh here and now?

Epiphany is the season where we work with that question. Christmas is the holiday where we celebrate that God comes near to us in the flesh, that God is at work in the world; Epiphany is the season where we give thanks that God helps us to recognize the miracle of Christmas. Sometimes that question, “Would you recognize Jesus?” gets offered as a kind of taunt, like “Of course you wouldn’t you worm! That’s why you need me!!!” But during Epiphany, we remember that God’s Spirit is present with us, that we’re not on our own to notice and discern the reality of God’s love and grace; God’s love and grace are already with us making us sensitive to the reality of God’s work in the world. We love because God first loved us.

Our story this morning begins with these three “wise men” or magi from “the East.” Now that word, Magi, was a title for the priests of an ancient religion in the Persian empire called Zoroastrianism. These people don’t seem to be Jews. They are familiar with the Jewish scriptures, maybe because of Jewish communities who still lived in the Persian Empire, but when they see a star rising in the East, they recognize the star as a sign that the king of the Jews will be born in Bethlehem. So this whole story is about these three people noticing what really they had no reason to notice. Judah is not a significant place from the perspective of the Persian Empire, and these guys bring very expensive gifts with them, so they occupy a different class than Mary and Joseph. But somehow, they notice. They recognize the something special has happened from hundreds of miles away because they see meaning in the appearance of the star.

These people are not on the inside, they don’t have the same kind of stakes that the Jews living in occupied territory do, it’s not like the Magi were looking for a Messiah, but the news of one breaks into their world anyway. It would’ve been so easy to miss that sign, to miss that news. The sky is speckled with stars, especially in a time without light pollution. Hundreds of thousands of stars in the sky. Even in a society that cared deeply about astronomy, it would’ve been so easy to miss one tiny star, or even if they did notice it, it would’ve been so easy for them to read it as significant within their own theology and stories. It’s a miracle that they noticed, and even more so that they would have the insight to connect what they were seeing with some obscure prophet from a religion they don’t even follow. What we have here is a moment of revelation, of God’s Spirit making God known in the world through the world.

I think this is important for us, that God is already at work in the world and already making grace manifest before we even notice it, because for a long time, Christians set up a binary between “nature” and “grace.” There’s the natural world and then there’s the supernatural world; and they’re fundamentally separate. The natural world has it’s own rules and ways of doing things, it’s own patterns which are proper to nature; and so the work of God is added on to nature, but not inherent to it. God set up the patterns of this world but then let’s the world run according to those patterns and so is basically distant.

And this distinction has a couple of effects. On a personal level, it means that you’re not good enough. You, by yourself (and you are very much by yourself) are inherently depraved, so much so that the only hope you have is to become so ashamed of yourself and your desires that you ask God to add grace into your life and save you. To be “natural” is to be a problem in need of fixing, and it’s no coincidence that this was how European colonists narrated the lives of indigenous peoples—they were living in a “state of nature” apart from the grace of God. And likewise, your “natural” desires, your urges or your fatigue, need discipline because they are distant from God.

But the other effect, on a social and political level, was that God established a “natural law” or “orders of creation” so that nature functions according to its own rules and grace has its own rules. Martin Luther even wrote that the revelation of grace in Jesus was from the “right hand of God” but God also worked through God’s “left hand,” which was the state that ruled by the sword.

And if both of those are true, that you’re totally depraved and that we are supposed to live according to the orders of creation, then all of us work against our depravity through a “calling” which is our job within those orders. This is why Martin Luther very famously argued that it was possible to be a Christian executioner, as long as you were the best executioner that you could possibly be, because you were fulfilling your role within the world. I think we all have our examples of this today, it’s so baked into our way life, into the stories we tell about ourselves, that we’re good and worthy insofar as we work hard enough and show that we’re responsible citizens who don’t disrupt the status quo.

All of those impulses, that the world has to be this way and so we have to play our part in the world as it is, come from the assumption that there is no grace in nature. Grace is something special, beyond this world, which we can’t expect for ourselves or each other in this world. The stars are just burning sphere’s of gas or the gods that are really just our own cruelties writ large. There are no signs, because signs point to something beyond themselves, and there really is no beyond, there is no depth, there is no multitude of meaning, there’s just the world as it is.

That’s what Herod wants the Magi to believe when they get to Jerusalem. They’ve seen this sign and recognized it’s meaning, but Herod tries to loop them into his own schemes. He tries to use the sign of good news to reinforce his own kingdom and he tries to recruit the Magi to help him, to make Herod’s purposed their calling in this world. Which is why it’s so interesting to me that they avoid going back to Herod because of a dream. This story starts and ends with a sign. A star and a dream. In our very modern world, many of us look at interpreting dreams with the same suspicion as we do with interpreting the stars. But even in modern psycho-analysis, where our dreams are expressions of repressed consciousness, they show us things that our waking minds didn’t allow us to notice. Even if our dreams are our subconscious processing features of our lives that we haven’t assimilated, then they are still revelatory. And if God’s Spirit is closer to us than we are to ourselves, why couldn’t we say that in some mysterious way our dreams are a kind of revelation?

I’m not saying all this to get you to believe in magic or to try out some new superstition. I am saying that capitalism has shaped our very modern superior world so that as many pieces of it, of the natural world and of ourselves, can fit in and out of its production lines and workplaces. It’s hard to get much work done if any aspect of this world could be a sign of God’s grace. If we accepted that as true we might be tempted to spend our days chasing down stars rather than filling out expense reports. We might refuse the shame that makes us seek peace in commodities. If the patterns of this world are Herod’s invention rather than God’s, we might just become a little more unruly.

Part of what this story is showing, I think, is that nature is already an expression of grace. There is never a time or place where God’s Spirit is not already at work, is already calling out to us. It’s at the heart of Christian belief that existence is the overflow of God’s love and grace. There’s not some brutal world set up down here that can only pine for the utopia up there. This world was always supposed to be a temple for delighting in grace and love. Herod’s the one who tried to make it it’s own thing.

You may be messed up—I don’t know that any of us would deny that—but you are still fundamentally a creature bearing the image of God. This world may have it’s own rules and ways of functioning, but our calling isn’t to participate in them, and even if we have to sometimes, you’re welcome to do so begrudgingly. This story shows us that God doesn’t want the world to be this way, and God doesn’t leave us on our own inside of Herod’s world. God is with us and working with us to such an extent that God is stirring us up to notice the ways that God is already here, the ways that grace and love are already active in our midst.

That’s why we celebrate Epiphany, to give thanks that we’re not on our own, to give thanks that the Good News of Christmas makes itself evident and continues to do so even in our time. And even though God’s Spirit is present everywhere, in this story, there are tangible places where the Spirit reaches out to the Magi. In the star, in the prophet, in the dream, and gathered at the manger itself. We need those places, those tangible places and acts, to invite the Spirit to show us grace and love. So during this season of Epiphany, we’re gonna spend each week considering a practice that we do as Christians, not because those are the only places where the Spirit’s working, but because they are habits that help make us sensitive to God’s work in the world.

Over these weeks, my prayer for us is that God’s Spirit would make us sensitive to the movements of grace around us, that we would read the signs and find depth and meaning within this dreary landscape, that we would be so moved we might set out to follow the stars and our dreams and find the presence of God exactly where we expected because our expectations have been transformed. Amen.

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