Text: Isaiah 60:1-6 & Matthew 2:1-12
This season the Epiphany Team chose the theme “Who Are You?” And this is an excellent question to ask at the beginning of a new year. In fact, it is THE question we ask ourselves at the beginning of every new year – “Who Are You?” Because we must ask that question of ourselves BEFORE we can make our New Year’s resolutions. Because New Year’s resolutions are statements about change. Statements about transformation. Statements where we acknowledge just how short we have fallen – from society’s expectations, family’s expectations, our own expectations. We make these resolutions because we asked ourselves, “Who are you?” – and got an answer we didn’t like. And so we resolve – we promise – we vow – that this year is going to be different. This year is the year of the new me. This is the year that I make all things new – at least about myself.
The website statista.com lists the top New Year’s resolutions that Americans made last year. 53% of those surveyed stated that their New Year’s resolution was to “save more money.” 45% resolved to “lose weight or get into shape.” And 25% of Americans surveyed resolved to “have more sex.” And yet, according to an article in Forbes magazine, just 8% of people keep their New Year’s resolution by the year’s end. And according to U.S. News and World Report, 80% of those New Year’s resolutions fail by February. So, I guess that Americans are not “saving more money”, “getting into shape”, or “having more sex” as we would like. Perhaps that attributes to the high levels of stress, anxiety, and frustration within our country.
And the biggest reason why we don’t keep our New Year’s resolutions is because resolutions are about change. Resolutions are about transformation. Resolutions are about acknowledging that how we are living isn’t the way we should be living. That we have failings, issues, and sins that are a part of who we are. And the truth is, most of us have become either accustom to or satisfied with being that way. So much so, that we no longer see these things as failings, issues, and sins. We no longer feel the need to be self-reflective – to know ourselves. We are happy just the way we are. And yet – and yet – deep down, we are miserable. And most of all, we are fearful. Fearful of what we might discover if we truly reflected on the question, “Who are you?”
John Calvin – who is the father of the Presbyterian tradition – began his theological treatise, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, by writing “Without knowledge of self, there is no knowledge of God.” In other words, you can’t know yourself until you know who God is. And that you can’t know WHOSE you are until you know WHO you are. The knowledge of self and the knowledge of God are inextricably linked to one another. And so when we refuse to be self-reflective. When we reject the suggestion that there might be something we need to change about ourselves. When we resist any movement towards addressing our deeper, inner fears and anxieties – then we are also refusing, rejecting, and resisting to know who God is. And in doing so, we also refuse, reject, and resist the salvation that God offers us in Jesus Christ. And we refuse, reject, and resist our salvation because it means having to go into that deep, dark place within ourselves that is terrifying.
Our text today is one that is familiar to us all. The arrival of the Magi, or the Three Kings, or the Wise Men, or – if you are from New Jersey – the Three Wise Guys. It’s a story that we love to see enacted over and over again in children’s Christmas pageants. And the typical interpretation of this text, given by most preachers, is to ask the congregation, “What gift can you give to Jesus this year?” Now while we may like this interpretation of the story, because it’s easy, requires little self-reflection, and is made popular in songs such as “The Little Drummer Boy” or “In the Bleak Midwinter” – if we are self-reflective, if we are seeking to know ourselves and God better, then there is a deeper, darker, more frightening element to this story that we must dive into. One that forces us to ask ourselves the question – “Who are you?”
There is a key verse in the Matthew text that tells us exactly how Jesus’ birth was received by those in power, by those who desire to maintain the status quo, by those who refuse to change. When the Magi come to King Herod and ask “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”, the gospel tells us that, “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” Listen to that text again, “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” Did you catch that? Jesus’ birth insights fear – not just in King Herod but “all Jerusalem with him.” Jesus’ birth is a frightening, terrifying event, to not only the current “King of the Jews” but to the entire city, the entire establishment of Jerusalem. And so, Herod commands the Magi, “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.” Yet, we all know that Herod does not plan to give a gift. Herod merely wants the threat to his throne dead. Because unlike Jesus, unlike many of the Israelite kings before him, Herod rules NOT to serve, but to BE served. Herod desires his own, shallow self-interests. And Herod is not interested in having anything about that change.
The birth of Jesus and the arrival of the Magi insights fear because it means that everything we’ve ever understood about the world isn’t GOING to change – it’s already changing, and changing dramatically. Nothing we ever understood about the world will be the same once the Messiah arrives. Even the categories of “insiders” and “outsiders” are being torn down by Jesus’ birth. Despite our use of the term “Three Kings”, the Magi are NOT rulers from another land. The Magi were priests in the Zoroastrian religion – the oldest monotheistic religion in the world. And if foreign priests of another religion are being included in God’s story of salvation – then that means the dividing lines between race, nationality, ethnicity, and even religion are being dissolved by the birth of Christ. And if that happens, then there’s no telling who else God will include through Jesus. Where will this radical inclusion end? Who else will Jesus include? Women? Prostitutes? Tax collectors? Zealots? Sinners? And if all the dividing lines are erased, then so will the fear that keeps people separate from each other. The fear that allows people to keep one another in their socially designated places. How can Herod rule over a people with no boundaries? Over a people with no fear of each other?
Fear is a powerful thing socially, politically, and religiously. Using fear, any leader can manipulate an entire nation of people into believing that the true cause of their suffering is those outside of them. By labeling those of a different race, nationality, gender, sexuality, or religion as “other” as “those people” as “them” you can frighten people into submission. You can frighten people into committing horrible atrocities. Just look at Hitler and Nazi Germany and the way it “othered” Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and anyone else who wasn’t considered a part of “the master race.” And so, those who lead by fear keep redrawing dividing lines, keep rebuilding boxes to cage in and categorize people who are different. To give them a label so that they lose their humanity and become the scapegoats for the sins of self-interested leaders and their fearful followers.
In Nazi Germany, such fear and “othering” lead to the “Final Solution” of the Holocaust of 6 million Jews. At the time of the Magi, this fear led Herod to order the murder of thousands of Jewish toddlers a biblical event known as “The Murder of the Innocents.” Because those who lead by fear will do anything to stay in power – even allow children to die in our streets, in our schools, and even in camps – all while convincing us that the fault is the “other” instead of their own self-interests.
But leaders with a servant-heart, like Jesus, do not need fear because they lead with love. In 1 John 4:18, we are told that the opposite of love isn’t hate, but fear. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” Love and fear are biblical opposites. If you fear someone, you cannot love them. And if you cannot love them, then you have broken the commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself” and have therefore sinned against BOTH your neighbor and God. To fear another is to fail to love your neighbor. To fear another is to sin.
So, you must repent. However, we must remember that the word “repent” in the scripture does NOT mean, “to say you’re sorry.” To repent means that you must ask yourself, “Who are you?” To repent means that you must be self-reflective enough, know yourself well enough to discover this fear, this lack of love within you. And once you’ve acknowledged that lack of love, once you’ve named that fear and discovered its causes, you must resolve to change who you are. Because to repent means to change your life. To turn your life around. To live differently from how you live right now. And if you do not change your life in such a way that you no longer fear that other person. If you do not live your life differently so that those you once rejected, you now welcome – then you are an unrepentant sinner.
Now if I was an evangelical, I would go on to say that unrepentant sinners are condemned to Hell. But I’m not an evangelical. I don’t even believe in Hell – at least I don’t believe in Hell in the sense of an afterlife of eternal, conscious torment. I do believe, however, that we create our own Living Hell here on earth. And most of the time, that Living Hell – that living, conscious torment – is caused by our constant desire to label ourselves and others with certain classes, categories, and achievements. Because those classes, categories, and achievements are created out of fear. And that perpetual state of fear, that constant state of anxiety and worry, is our own Living Hell.
It can be our desire to labeled as part of certain socio-economic class by having the right kind of car, clothes, or colleagues – because we’ve all seen, and even been guilty of, the way our society views the poor as lazy and sinful and the rich as hardworking and virtuous. And so we strive to avoid the label of “poor” because of the fear of what our society means by that label.
It can be our need to categorize people as Democrat or Republican, Conservative or Liberal, Christian or Atheist, Native or Foreign, Black or White, Male or Female, Gay or Straight because it sets us apart from those that are different from us. But it also allows us to attach additional labels to those categories like “normal and weird,” “strong and weak”, “good and evil.”
It can be our need to achieve all the things that society, our family, or even we believe we are “supposed” to achieve – such as the American Dream. Yet, we quickly learn that as soon as we achieve something, the bar gets bumped a little bit higher, just out of reach. And so we are constantly fearful that we will never be “enough” – for society, for others, and even for ourselves. And so, all that these classes, categories, and achievements do is put us in a constant state of anxiety. A constant state of fear of becoming the “other” you are taught to fear. And that, my friends, is a living Hell.
But the Good News is, Jesus came to save us from all of it.
Jesus came to save us from the Hell we create for ourselves.
And freedom from Hell means freedom from classes, categories, and achievements.
And freedom from classes, categories, and achievements means freedom from fear.
And freedom from fear means freedom to love.
Being free to love means there are only Children of God, loved by God
Being free to love and be loved means there are no more “thems.”
No more “those people.”
No more “others.”
No more “insiders” and “outsiders.”
No more “church members” and “non-members”
Being free to love and be loved means, as Paul said to the Galatian church, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Because Jesus is the Light of the World that illuminates the Hell we are in. Jesus is our Epiphany, our realization, of the truth that the Hell we create is also the Hell we can escape.
That’s where the evangelicals ALMOST get it right. It’s not that unrepentant sinners will GO TO HELL, it’s that unrepentant dinners simply continue in a LIVING HELL! Unrepentant sinners are those who refuse to be self-reflective enough to change their lives and free themselves of the classes, categories, and achievements that trap them in a state of perpetual fear.
And until you “Arise, shine.” Until you “wake up” to the deep, dark reality within you. Until you have the Epiphany, the realization, that “your light has come and [that] the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” to reveal the Hell of your own making. Until you can receive the Light of Christ to illuminate – the classes, categories, and achievements that trap you in a constant state of fear. Until you are willing to follow your star and let its light reveal the presence of Christ in the midst of your deepest, darkest Hell, you will never free yourself from it. You will never know WHO you are – much less WHOSE you are.
And so today, instead of thinking about what gift you can give Jesus, I want you to receive the gift your star – quite literally. In this bag are 150 stars, each with a different word on it. A “Star Word.” You will reach in and take a star at random. You don’t get to pick your Star Word. Your Star Word picks you. Some of you will look at your Star Word and know right away what it means to you. And others will look at it and be completely baffled by it. But give it time – because even those who THINK you know what it means may come to discover something different later in 2019. Because I want you to place this Star Word somewhere you will see it regularly – on your fridge, your bathroom mirror, in your Bible, your laptop, or (better yet) your cell phone. I want you to follow your Star Word throughout 2019. And by “follow your Star Word” I mean take a moment of every day to look at this word, meditate on it, reflect inwardly as to what this Star Word can help you learn about yourself. About your joys and sorrows. Your triumphs and failures. Your gains and your losses. About your faith and your doubts as you go through this year.
As you follow your Star Word, pay attention to the categories and classes you see breaking down around you? The dividing lines and labels being erased within you. What is changing, is transforming within you so that you begin living on love instead of living in Hell?
And if you do this, like the Magi, as you follow your Star, you’ll find yourself getting closer and closer to Christ.
I look forward to hearing what you discover
– both about yourself and about Christ
– as 2019 progresses.