At Times, Reality Is Unbearable. Especially When We are Eyeball to Eyeball with Waves.
Sermon Delivered to Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church January 2, 2005
This weekend people all over the world celebrated a new year. Ancient Babylonians were the first to make New Year’s celebrations. Early Christians believed they should reflect on mistakes and resolve to improve themselves in the new year. The idea of making a lot of noise exactly at midnight dates back to early pagan rituals. People believed that deafening noise would drive away evil spirits who flocked to the living at the start of the new year.
In the church today is Epiphany Sunday, the day we celebrate Light. Today the divine hits the earth’s pavement. God took on human flesh and now we pause lest we forget to make meaning of not only the babe in the manger but God whose light makes all things new.
Epiphany means to “shine upon,” to “reveal.” Today we remember the visit of the Magi to the Christ child. God’s light shone in the pattern of a star over the heads of the wise men to guide them out of desert darkness and to the light of all people, the Son of God. What was once hidden in darkness is now revealed in light.
Light is a salient biblical theme. In Genesis, light is the first act of Creation. God creates light for the earth and then the heavens; the sun for the day and the stars to be lights when all other lights go out.
It’s not easy to celebrate light when South Asia is covered in darkness. How do we make meaning of one birth when the whole world grieves over mass death? Mass graves cover 12 nations. Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, Thailand, East Africa, Burma, Maldives, Malaysia and Bangladesh didn’t celebrate light or a new year this year. Instead, there were tears and prayer vigils.
In many ways Matthew’s text sheds light on the situation in South Asia because the story of the Magi is more than a romantic story about Kings who bear gifts. It’s about the reality of life and death, human frailty and tragedy and a God whose light rescues us despite what we see with our naked eyes.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “Reality looked at steadily is unbearable.” The reality in South Asia is unbearable. In Matthew’s first century Palestine did not experience a tsunami but Palestine and South Asia share what we do not in our affluence: poverty, homelessness and mass death. Both worlds knew no hope. Matthew wrote in his text in about 80 AD after Roman legions seized the Jew’s Holy City. Mass deaths were the norm. Thousands died from hunger and disease; thousands more fled the city to be killed as they ran, to be crucified for Roman soldiers’ entertainment or to become helpless prisoners of war. (Horsely and Silberman 212) Roman general Titus ordered the entire city of Jerusalem to be leveled. There were no satellite pictures of Jerusalem for Matthew and others to compare, but if there were Jerusalem – like Sumatra today – was nothing but barren. Jews longed to know: Who will save us?
Enter the Magi who arrive at Herod’s court to announce the birth of the King of the Jews. The ones who pay homage are not Herod’s bible experts but wise men ignorant of messianic hopes and dreams. These wise men see nature change, not scriptures fulfilled and journey in the dark. One light lights the way.
Matthew is the only Gospel writer to mention the Magi and the star. In Matthew, the Magi are unnumbered, unnamed, and from the unspecific East. The Magi are star gazers, maybe pagans, set in contrast to all others in the infancy narrative: Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, John the Baptist, shepherds, Temple prophets, Simeon and Anna – all are Jewish. Matthew is a Jewish Christian who preserves the Magi as both vague and specific, about no one and every one to represent all nations and peoples who one day will pay homage to the one who will be King over all.
How did the Magi become Kings? This past Advent I taught a class on the origins of Christmas and the Magi’s origins. The early Christian converts who were non-Jews turned to the Old Testament to learn more and found a verse from Isaiah: “Nations shall come to your light and Kings to the brightness of your dawn.” From Psalm 72: “May the Kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the Kings of Sheba and Seba bring him gifts.” By the 3rd Century the theologian Tertullian wrote that the Magi were “kings from Arabia.” In the 4th, another scholar Origen said there were three Magi after he compared a passage from Genesis with Matthew’s in an homily. By the Middle Ages it was simply taken for granted: Matthew’s wise men were legendary three Kings from the Orient.
What was the power that drew the Magi to Bethlehem? Many believe that in about 7-6 BC there was a possible rare triple conjunction of three planets: Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. Others claim a supernova, a celestial explosion, but there is no evidence. Still others Halley’s comet, an actual historical event that happened in 12 or 11 BC well before the birth of Christ. Matthew doesn’t say what it is and we are left to plot planetary trajectories and scour extra-canonical histories.
I believe the Magi saw the exact same star they’d seen every night of their lives but this time – on this night – the exact same star looked different.
Last Sunday, thousands swam to the water’s surface. Light burst through the dark ash-colored sea. Some made it, some didn’t. One man named Dayalan owned a Maryland townhouse and sold it to start an orphanage in Sri Lanka for children who’d lost parents in the civil war. Early Sunday, his wife ran into the kitchen screaming, “The sea is coming.” He told his wife, “Be calm. God is with us. Nothing will ever harm us without God’s permission.” He piled 28 half-dressed kids and his wife into his small boat and pulled away in the knick of time only to watch water destroy his home. (Washington Post Foreign Service “Outracing the Sea, Orphans in His Care,” December 30, 2004)
With the sea tossing his boat he paused and recalled Isaiah: “When the enemy comes in like a flood, the spirit of the Lord shall raise up a standard against it.” Dayalan raised his hand in the direction of the flood and shouted, “I command you in the name of Jesus – STOP!”
He said the water “stalled, momentarily. I thought I was imagining things.” When it was all over he sobbed. “Twenty years of my life put in here and it disappeared in 20 seconds. If there was anyone who should’ve got swept away it should’ve been us. We were eyeball to eyeball with the wave.”
Dayalan’s story and thousands like his stretch thousands of miles across the Indian Ocean. His story isn’t a story about darkness but light – if we look again with steady eyes. If there wasn’t light there would be no will to go on, to continue in the face of devastation. Light is what helps us to our feet when we’re on our knees. Light gives us the will to begin again when there is no sound reason. Light is the sun that comes after the storm. Light is the power that changes stars – and stops waves.
Most of us look with our bare eyes and see pain in the world. We look at each other and we see people, situations and events that disappoint us. We see tsunamis devastate 12 nations. We mourn; we watch television and see others mourn. Babies get sick. Friends are diagnosed with cancer. Look steadily at life and life is unbearable. However, the Magi in Matthew’s story and people like Dayalan who come face to face and eyeball to eyeball with the grimness of human life mandate we look again. Look at the exact same situation in your life and see the exact same situation look different. God’s Light changes what we see. God makes all things new. This is the power that drew the Magi to Bethlehem and the power that stood Dayalan on his feet with 28 half-dressed kids on a boat in a drowning sea and commanded the waves to stop – in Jesus’ name.
In John 16:33 in His final farewell discourse to his Disciples before his arrest, crucifixion and death Jesus says, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” If there is a wave in front of you today look again and make a joyful noise. Ann Weems writes in “Godburst,” because of Christ’s birth, life and death, “There is a rain of stars, a rushing of angels, a blaze of candles. God burst into our lives. Love is running through the streets.”
Love is here running through the streets – and stopping waves. Jesus has overcome the world. Now – that’s a reason to celebrate. Amen.