This Sunday’s Lectionary Passage:  Mark 1: 21-28

21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Can you hear me now?…Can you hear me now?…Can you hear me now?…Remember that Verizon campaign with that now famous slogan.   It lasted for nine years and always showed a guy going to different places with his cell phone to show what fabulous network reception Verizon had.  He’d be out in a field or down in a hole or in some sort of tunnel and with those words, would test out how well his phone worked.  I suppose it was a fairly clever advertising campaign for the phone itself.  But it also acknowledged that there are other factors in play when it comes to trying to hear someone.  There’s the instrument of hearing itself.  There’s the distance between the hearer and what he or she is trying to hear.  And then there are those things that get in the way, whether they are physical impediments that stop the sound or other sounds and voices that interfere.  As we know, hearing is not that easy.  It involves listening and sometimes that’s not as clear as it sounds.  Sometimes we, too, have to hone our reception capabilities.  

But how do you hear the voice of God in the midst of this noisy, chaotic world?  Jesus…Jesus showed us that.  If we just pay attention, Jesus taught less about how to act and more about how to listen to the voice of God.  At first reading, our Gospel passage for this week seems to be about some sort of exorcism of demons or some sort of evil spirits.  Now, admittedly, that’s just downright odd for us.  But before we relegate it to the status of a B-rated horror flick, let us look at it from the standpoint of the one who Jesus healed rather than the demons themselves. 

Think about it.  I don’t think this was what we think of as “demonic possession”.  This is not “The Shining”.  This person was an interruption.  He didn’t fit.  He didn’t belong.  He was in the way of proper society and right religion.  But not only did Jesus acknowledge him but he also welcomed him and healed him.  Yes, the world as it was known with its comfortable rules and its “right” ways of being was ending.  Even that which doesn’t “belong” is being redeemed.  God is gathering everything in so that it can be re-created—even, I suppose the demons, whatever those might be.

We are told that Jesus brought an unquestioned authority to his teaching.  What was that?  Well of course, it was the Word of God.  But what does that mean?  It was not an overpowering; it was not a violent overtaking; it was a silencing, a silencing of the powers and voices of this world that are not part of that vision that God holds.  The Greek word is the same one used to depict the way Jesus calmed the storm, created order out of chaos.  Maybe that where we’re called to be.  Maybe that’s how God speaks—in the silences, when we’re listening.  You see, Jesus’ teaching was not just about words; it was about transformation.  It was about taking that which did not belong and speaking it into being again.  It was about silencing those voices that were in the way of hearing the voice that we’re called to hear.  It’s about clearing those things from our lives that are so loud that we can’t listen to that which we’re supposed to be listening.   Shhh!  Can you hear me now?

Listening is about more than just words.  A listening faith affirms that God sees more than we see, imagines more than we imagine, and believes in us more than we believe in ourselves.  We’d like this voice to which we’re called to listen to be clear and concise and controllable.  If we’re honest, we’d like to be able to turn it off once in a while when it’s uncomfortable or inconvenient.  But that’s not how it works.  Changing the world (and changing ourselves) is sometimes messy and wild and even dangerous.  Living into God’s vision might sometimes mean that we have to speak the voice of God and probably more likely that we will actually be called to silence our own perceptions and desires and fears that the world might not be what we think it should look like so that we can hear God speaking our Creation into being once again.  Our main work is listening, rather than speaking.  In fact, on some level, we have neglected to perfect the language of listening.  We have not learned to empty our filled-up lives so that God can speak them into being.

Barbara Brown Taylor wrote a little book called When God Is Silent that is so full of words and thoughts that we people of faith need to hear.  In it, she quotes French philosopher Max Picard who claimed that silence was the central place of faith, the place where we give the Word back to the God from whom we first received it.  Surrendering the Word, we surrender the medium of our creation.  We unsay ourselves, voluntarily returning to the source of our being, where we must trust God to say us once again.  She speaks of silence as the womb from which we came and so returning to it, is to allow ourselves to be recreated.

We need to remember that faith is not about affirming our old shopworn lives.  It’s about newness; it’s about re-creation; it’s about following God down pathways that we’ve never walked before.  Faith is drifting off a little in a sermon and then finding yourself in a new land. Faith is about singing a song that you’ve never heard before and realizing that in the deepest part of you, you already know the tune.  Faith is about hearing unexpected voices say things that we never thought we’d hear.  Faith is listening and learning when to speak and when to hear.  And the more faithfully we listen to the voice within us, the better we will hear what the world is trying to tell us and what God envisions that we should hear.

So where are those voices to which we should be listening?  I think they’re here, all around us.  They are out there on the street.  They’re on that chaotic mess that we call television and they are all over the internet.  They’re in the sanctuary and they’re on the Zoom call and they’re in the streaming worship to which you’ve become so accustomed.  They are there.  But we have to learn to hear the voices that God is calling us to hear.  God is not silent.  God is straining to be heard by us above all the other voices.  But knowing which voice is one to which we should listen is deep within us.  In the moment of silence when we begin to hear, the words settle into our hearts and begin to be claimed and shaped into who we were meant to be.  And, through it all, we “unsay” ourselves so that God can re-create us. So, can you hear me now?

God speaks in the silence of the heart.  Listening is the beginning of prayer. (Mother Teresa)

Grace and Peace,


It’s About More Than the Fishing

This Sunday’s Lectionary Passage:  Mark 1: 14-20

14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

So, I have to be honest.  I’ve never really liked fishing.  I like the thought of it and I love to eat fish and I understand the relaxation and the spiritual component that it holds for some people.  But I’ve just never really been big on the actual act of fishing.  When I was little, part of our ranch had a lake on it that my Grandfather had put in with the specific intent of having a place to fish.  And my brother and I each had a fishing pole in the truck so that we would always be prepared to fish.  (Yes, that was what I wanted to do was always be prepared to fish!)  Even then, I didn’t get it.  It was either really hot or really cold or really windy and usually we got in trouble for making too much noise and tipping the fish off that we were in their vicinity. And then there was that whole fish-cleaning thing!

My grandfather had this little boat that he used to lay trout lines across the lake and then part of going to the ranch with him was getting in this little boat and sitting there quietly and very still, feeling either too hot or too cold or too bored, while he slowly and painstakingly went across the lake checking to see if one of the hooks had a fish on it.  We always wanted to take the boat up and down the lake but usually we just went across and back along the lines. I have to confess that I always thought that was sort of cheating—laying the fishing line out for the fish to bite when you weren’t even working for it.  I mean, these poor fish would think no one was around and that they had just miraculously happened upon some random worm and then they were hooked.  But I would sit there for what seemed like an eternity as we went across the lake.  Like I said, I never really got fishing.  In fact, I didn’t enjoy it at all.  But, truth be told, those are wonderful memories.  Because it wasn’t about the fishing. It was about spending time with my grandfather, sitting in our little boat trying to be quiet.  And looking back on it, he could have bought fish at a store.  Maybe he just wanted to spend time with us. See, I don’t think it was about the fishing. 

So, in the passage for this week, do you think Simon and Andrew and James and John got up that morning planning to be approached by the Son of God?  I mean, really, they were just minding their own business, trying to eek out a living like the rest of us, trying to perfect this art of fishing.  And, really, how many people plan their day around God calling them?  I’m sure they all had some other plan in mind.  Well, there is an old Jewish proverb that reads “whenever someone says, “I have a plan,” God laughs.”

Yeah, I’m pretty sure that most of us do not plan to be a prophet or a disciple or even a heavily-involved church member.  Most of us barely plan to do what it is we do.  And when we have everything perfectly planned, when we’re not really paying attention to anything but our carefully-hewed pathway, God calls.  Now not all of us pick up our stuff and start following immediately.  Who are we kidding? Almost NONE of us do that.  Maybe God has that response of ours already sort of baked in.  Because so many of us pretend that we didn’t hear it, or convince ourselves that it was meant for someone else, or we bargain and plead because we just don’t have the time or the money or the inclination to do what we’re being called to do.  The “lure” (do you see what I did there?..aargh…aargh) of this world—money, employment, security, control, comfort—almost always gets in the way.

But think about it.  The disciples were actually probably relatively prosperous fishermen.  They had a boat; they had gear; they had a plan.  Within their culture, it implies that they were not uneducated or untrained or impoverished.  They were not out of work.  They had a pretty lucrative thing going.   The point is that they actually had something that they had to give up to follow Jesus.  They had to give up the self that they had fashioned to become who they were meant to be.  See, God never promised that this road would be easy; the promise was that it was the one that was right, that was the way to who we are.

So this call story is not so drastically removed from our own.  We are called each and every moment to change pathways, to become who we really are.  But it means that we have to give up this self that we’ve created, this self that we’ve tried so hard to fit into this world.  We have to follow.  And that’s what discipleship is all about.  It is not what we do; it is who we are.

Well, somewhere along the way this whole “fishers of people” thing caught on.  We put it on T-shirts; we put it on posters; so does that mean we’re supposed to hook people when they’re not paying attention?  And what about those of us who don’t really like fishing?  The thing is, God calls us where we are.  If fishing is what you do, then you keep doing it.  You just make it about something bigger.  After all, it’s not about the fishing. But we are not being called to do just anything (regardless of how many volunteers a project at your church claims it needs). We are called to use those unique gifts that God fashioned in each of us, to respond in the way that God envisions so that we can become who we are meant to be.  Whatever gifts you have, whatever occupation is yours, whatever life you live, God is calling you to use.  Because it’s about something more.  Maybe it’s about showing others the way that you’ve been shown; Maybe it’s about grace; Maybe it’s about just spending time with God.  We are not called to be something that we’re not, but to become fully who we are.

Barbara Brown Taylor is one of my favorite writers.  She tells in one of her books about a time in her life when she was struggling mightily with sense of call. She simply could not figure out what it was that God wanted her to do and be. Did God want her to be a writer? Did God want her to be a priest? Did God want her to be a social worker? Did God want her to teach? She simply didn’t know. And in her frustration and exasperation, one midnight, she says, she fell down on her knees in prayer and said: “Okay, God. You need to level with me. What do you want me to be? What do you want me to do? What are you calling me to do?” She said she felt a very powerful response, God saying, “Do what pleases you. Belong to me, but do what pleases you.” She said it struck her as very strange that God’s call could actually touch that place of her greatest joy, that she could be called to do the thing that pleases her the most.

Frederick Buechner says, “Our calling is where our deepest gladness and the world’s deepest hunger meet.”  Think about what that means.  God calls us.  Sometimes it’s pretty scary.  Sometimes we want to run away.  Sometimes it means that we have to leave the life we’ve built behind.  But following wherever God leads means that we will truly find joy.  We will finally know what it’s all about.  And it’s about more than the fishing.

The most secret, sacred wish that lies deep down at the bottom of your heart, the wonderful thing that you hardly dare to look at, or to think about…that is just the very thing that God is wishing you to do or to be for [God].  And the birth of that marvelous wish in your soul–the dawning of that secret dream–was the voice of God telling you to arise and come up higher because [God] has need of you. (Emmett Fox)

Grace and Peace,



“Calling Disciples”, He Qi (from Art in the Christian Tradition,
a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN)

This Sunday’s Lectionary Passage:  John 1: 43-51

43The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Most of us love the stories of Jesus calling the disciples.  I have this image of Jesus walking around, just an ordinary guy calling ordinary people to become a part of this new way of being, this new way of living, this new Way of understanding God and how God relates to us.  But don’t limit it to “The Twelve”, as if they are some sort of elite management team of Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus was always calling people.  Some stayed on the edges of the movement, not really wanting to get too involved.  Some wandered off, only to return when it was convenient or when they felt like they wanted to be a part of it.  (They probably showed up for Christmas Eve and Easter!…kidding!)  And there were some that chose not to participate at all, opting instead to continue down their very carefully-planned life’s path.  But some, a few, went all in, becoming disciples and walking with Jesus through it all.

In the Gospel by the writer we know as John, this account follows the beginning of Jesus’ calling of the disciples.  He left Jordan and John the Baptist points Andrew and Simon Peter toward Jesus.  They follow him and then we’re told that Jesus found Philip, who was from their hometown.  Now in this week’s passage, we’re told that Philip then tries to recruit Nathanael.  But Nathanael was seemingly unimpressed, almost skeptical about what Philip was telling him.  Nathanael was the first person that we know that dared to ask questions about Jesus and this new Way. I mean, “who was this guy?”, he thought.  “Why should I follow him?”  But notice that Philip doesn’t give up.  He doesn’t argue with Nathanael.  He doesn’t berate him for not getting on board immediately.  With great faith, Philip’s response to the question was not a hard-baked answer but rather an invitation: “Come and see.”

We are all Nathanaels.  We have questions.  Sometimes we have doubts.  Sometimes this does not make sense at all. And despite what some current-day religious folks will tell you, that’s ok.  God never laid out some definitive answer or even one pathway to walk.  God never desired that we be right; God desired that we have faith.  Those two things are not interchangeable.  Faith is not a math equation where we’re trying to pursue the right answer to understand everything.  Faith is a journey full of questions and doubts and twists and turns in our pathway that lead us not to the answer but to the next step.  That’s where God is trying to lead us—the next step toward relationship, toward oneness, with God.

And look at what Nathanael did.  He wasn’t completely convinced but he turned and he looked.  And he saw.  He saw who Jesus was.  After all this time of searching, all this time of wandering around lost, he found what he had been looking for.  And, more than that, Jesus found him. The passage ends by reaching back into what Nathanael knew, back into the Scriptures that he had known even as a child.  It ends with an allusion to Jacob’s dream at the place we call Bethel.  Jacob dreamed of angels traveling up and down a ladder (actually, more of a ramp or stairway or maybe even a Mesopotamian ziggurat).  It is an interesting image, implying that our faith pathway is not a “one-way” road but rather a way that the spiritual and physical realms are connected as we travel back and forth with our searching and our questions.  And Jacob’s response to it, “Surely the Lord was in this place—and I did not know it!”, is our response over and over and over again.

Our world is strange right now, I know.  We thought the new year would bring us relief from Covid-19 and just days into it, we are met with an insurrection on The Capitol.  Are you kidding me?  It’s easy to question, to even feel lost.  It’s easy to find yourself overtaken by fear and anger.  I know I have.  But when I read this Scripture, what struck me was the notion of being “found”.  As I mentioned before, I don’t think of our pathway to faith as one limited way.  God is everywhere, inviting us to “come and see”, come and see everything, come and see all ways and all people and all incarnations of God.  Maybe lostness doesn’t happen by getting “off the path”.  Maybe lostness happens when we become so convinced that we have the answers, when we become so convinced that we are right, that we shut down or, even worse, we lash out.  I pray for all of us.  I pray for those that were victims of that attack on The Capitol.  And I pray for those that for whatever reason felt so compelled by their “rightness” (and some, dare I say, by their “whiteness”) that they would be willing to throw everything away to force what they think on others.

God is so incredibly patient with us.  God lets us wander around, sometimes aimlessly, searching and trying and trying again.  God lets us test our faith, and defy our faith, and find our faith yet again.  And in those incredible moments when we, too, feel that “surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.”, God celebrates that we have found it again.  And God reminds us that we were always found.  We just have to “come and see”.     

Come near to the holy men and women of the past and you will soon feel the heat of their desire after God…They prayed and wrestled and sought…in season and out, and when they had found [God], the finding was all the sweeter for the long seeking.” (A. W. Tozer)

Grace and Peace,


Standing in the Waters

This Sunday’s Lectionary Passage:  Mark 1: 4-11

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

So after weeks of going through the announcement and birth of Jesus, suddenly the story seems to stop.  We must wait, almost suspended in time, until Jesus grows into an adult.  From our 21st century seat, we know that Jesus is figuratively waiting in the wings, waiting to emerge with the Spirit of God in his very being. But remember, it wasn’t just the thirty years before Jesus committed to public ministry that we waited.  It was the centuries upon centuries and ages upon ages that all of Creation had waited for the dawn to break.  In essence, Creation has been groaning and straining for this very moment. And so Jesus goes to John at the Jordan to be baptized.  And just as each of us received the gift of water in our own Baptism, Jesus kneels in the Jordan and John bends over him and baptizes him.  The work has begun.

The writer of the Gospel According to Mark depicts that at this moment of Jesus’ baptism, the heavens are opened and the Spirit emerges in the form of a dove.  We read of the heavens being “torn”, violently ripped apart so that they could not go back together in the same way.  The Greek word there is a form of the verb schitzo as in schism or schizophrenia. It is not the same word as open. I open the door. I close the door. The door looks the same, but something torn apart is not easily closed again. The ragged edges never go back together as they were. Mark wasn’t careless in using that word: schitzo. He remembered Isaiah’s plea centuries before when the prophet cried out to God, “Oh, that you would tear the heavens open and come down to make your name known to your enemies and make the nations tremble at your presence.” In other words, at this moment, God’s Spirit on earth becomes present in a brand new way.  A new ordering of Creation has begun. 

It was at that moment that the heavens opened and spilled onto the earth.  The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove.  And we hear what the world has always been straining to hear: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”  Even though the writers of several of the Gospels have presented Jesus as the Son of God in the birth stories, it is not until this moment that the title is actually conferred.  This is the moment toward which all of Creation has been moving.  This the moment for which we’ve been waiting.

The story of Jesus’ Baptism calls us to remember our own.  It, too, is our beginning as the gift of God’s grace washes away those things that impede our relationship with God and gives us new birth, new life.  And it calls us to do something with our life.  But I actually don’t remember the day of my baptism.  It happened when I was a little over seven months old, on Palm Sunday, April 15, 1962.  It was at First United Methodist Church, Brookshire, TX and Rev. Bert Condrey was the officiant.  I had a special dress and lots of family present.  That would be all I really know and the only reason I know that is from one picture of my grandfather holding me in front of the church.

And, yet, we are reminded to “remember our baptism”.  What does that mean for those of us who don’t?  I think “remembering” is something bigger than a chronological recount of our own memories.  It is bigger than remembering what we wore or where we stood or who the actual person was that touched our head with or even immersed us in water. It means remembering our very identity, our creation, what it is that made us, that collective memory that is part of our tradition, our liturgy, our family.  That is what “remembering” our baptism is.  It’s not just remembering the moment that we felt that baptismal stream; it is remembering the story into which we entered.  It is at that point that we affirmed who we are (or it was affirmed for us) and we began to become who God intends us to be.  And for each of us, whether or not we noticed it, the heavens tore apart, spilled out, and the Holy Spirit emerged.  And we, too, were conferred with a title.  “This is my child, my daughter, my son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

And in that moment, whether we are infants or older, we are ordained for ministry in the name of Jesus Christ.  We are ordained to the work of Christ and the work of Christ’s church.  Caroline Westerhoff says that “at baptism we are incorporated into Christ’s body, infused with Christ’s character, and empowered to be Christ’s presence in the world.  [So then], ministry is not something in particular that we do; it is what we are about in everything we do.”  In other words, our own Baptism sweeps us into that dawn that Jesus began.  And, like Jesus, our own Baptism calls us and empowers us to empty ourselves before God.  As we begin to find ourselves standing in those waters with Christ, we also find ourselves ready to be followers of Christ.  

Jesus was still wet with water after John had baptized him when he stood to enter his ministry in full submission to God.  As he stood in the Jordan and the heavens tore apart and spilled into the earth, all of humanity stood with him.  We now stand, wet with those same waters, as we, too, are called into ministry in the name of Christ.  As we emerge, we feel a cool refreshing breeze of new life.  Breathe in.  It will be with you always. Submit your life, empty yourself, so that there will finally be room for Christ in this world.  Then…it is up to you to finish the story.  This day and every day, remember your baptism, remember that you are a daughter or son of God with whom God is well pleased and be thankful. You are now part of the story, part of this ordering of chaos, part of light emerging from darkness, part of life born from death.  You are part of God’s re-creation.  And it is very, very good.

You must give birth to your images.  They are the future waiting to be born.  Fear not the strangeness you feel.  The future must enter you long before it happens.  Just wait for the birth, for the hour of new clarity.” (Rainer Maria Rilke)

Grace and Peace,


What Now?

Lectionary Passage:  Matthew 2: 1-12

2In 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.

New Year’s Day is always somewhat mixed for me, filled with hope for the future, maybe a chance at a “reset” but also regrets for what the past year has left undone and a sadness for what is left behind.  I always have this feeling that I’m somehow leaving those that are not here to celebrate behind, like I’m moving into a place where they are not.  This year is especially bittersweet.  The good part is that 2020 is over.  I don’t know about you, but I’m glad to see this one leave.  But as I write this, there are officially 346,859 Americans that are not stepping into the new year with us because of Covid-19. One of those is my funny, flamboyant friend Brian.  And left behind with him is my friend Lahonda and sweet Maynard, the wonder dog.  Brian and Lahonda were musicians.  Maynard just sort of had his own song.  The music is still here but it is different.

This Scripture is used for Epiphany, which is not until January 6th but is celebrated by most churches this Sunday.  But it’s also a good reading for New Year’s, for that time of resetting what is normal, of rethinking what it is that is your life, and perhaps figuring out a way to carry the past with you in a new way. Now is the time to go back to what is “normal” (or in our case, parademic-normal).  But, regardless, what does that really mean?  What do we do after it all ends?  What now?  The truth is, “after” is when it begins, “after” is when it becomes real, and “after” is the whole reason we do this at all.

The text that we read begins by setting us “in the time of King Herod”.  And in it, we find that the last question of Advent comes not at Christmas but afterward and is asked not by an individual but by a group.  They believe that the star (or, for some, an unusual conjunction of heavenly bodies that produces an especially bright light—hence the “Christmas Star” name given to the recent conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in our solar system) marks the birth of a special child destined to be a king.  And they ask, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?

And so Herod hears that a king had been born in Bethlehem.  Well, the formula is simple—a king is born, but a king is already here; and in Herod’s mind and the minds of all those who follow him, there is room for only one king.  The passage says that King Herod was frightened and all Jerusalem with him.  They probably were pretty fearful.  After all, there was a distinct possibility that their world was about to change.  It seemed that the birth of this humble child might have the ability to shake the very foundations of the earth and announce the fall of the mighty.  Things would never be the same again.  So Herod relies on these wisest ones in his court.  The writer of Matthew’s Gospel says that they’re from the East.  Some traditions hold that these wise ones were Magi, a Priestly caste of Persian origin that followed Zoroastrianism and practiced the interpretation of dreams and portents and astrology.  Other traditions depict them with different ethnicities as the birth of this Messiah begins to move into the whole world.  In fact, the early Western church gave them names that depict this.  (No, these names are not in the Bible.)  But according to tradition, Melchior was a Persian scholar, Caspar was a learned man from India, and Balthazar, a scholar with a Babylonian name.  These three areas represented the known world at that point.  The Messiah had come to every nook and cranny of the world.

But, regardless of who they were, somewhere along the way, they had heard of the birth of this king and came to the obvious place where he might be—in the royal household.  So, sensing a rival, Herod sends these “wise ones” to find the new king so that he could “pay homage” to him.  We of course know that this was deceitful.  His intent was not to pay homage at all, but to destroy Jesus and stop what was about to happen to his empire.  It was the only way that he could preserve what he had.

According to the passage, the wise men know that Christ was born; they needed God’s guidance, though, to find where Christ was.  When they get to the place where the star has stopped, the passage tells us that they were “overwhelmed with joy”.  They knelt down and paid the new king homage and offered him gifts fit for a king.  Even though later interpreters have often tried to place specific meanings on these gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, it is possible that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew simply thought that these gifts, exotic and expensive as they were, were gifts that would be worthy of a great and mighty king.  They were gifts of joy, gifts of gratitude, gifts of celebration. 

And then the passage tells us that, heeding a warning in a dream, these wise and learned (and probably powerful and wealthy) members of the court of Herod, left and returned to their own country, a long and difficult journey through the Middle Eastern desert.  But rather than returning to their comfortable lives and their secure and powerful places in the court of Herod, they left and went a different way.  They knew they had to go back to life.  But it didn’t have to be the same.

We often profess that Jesus came to change the world.  But that really didn’t happen.  Does that mean that this whole Holy Birth was a failure, just some sort of pretty, romantic story in the midst of our sometimes-chaotic life?  Maybe Jesus never intended to change the world at all; maybe Jesus, Emmanuel, God with Us, came into this world to change us, to invite us to travel a different way.  Maybe it has to do with what we do after.  It has to do with how we choose to go back to our lives.  Do we just pick up where we left off?  Or do we, like those wise visitors choose to go home by another way?  Do we choose, then, to change our lives, to listen to the familiar music in a new way?

God did not just visit our little earth so long ago and then return to wherever God lives.  God came as Emmanuel, God with Us, and that has never changed.  The birth of Jesus means that God was born in a specific person in a specific place.  The Christmas story affirms to us that God is here, that the Messiah for whom we had waited has come, that we are in God’s hands (and God is in ours).  But the Epiphany story moves it beyond the manger.  And all of a sudden we are part of the story.  We are part of the Incarnation of God, the manifestation of God’s Presence here on our little earth.  The God in whose hands we rest danced into our very lives and is now all over our hands.  It is our move.  God was not just born into the child Jesus; God is born into us, into humanity.  And the world really hasn’t changed.  I don’t know. Maybe it never will. But we have.  Our music is the same; but it sounds different to us.  Because, it’s up to us.  Christ’s coming means that we need to get going.  We are called to change the world.

When the song of the angel is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone, 
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
     To heal the broken,
     To feed the hungry,
     To release the prisoner,
     To rebuild the nations,
     To bring peace among brothers and sisters,
     To make music in the heart.
(Howard Thurman)

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, ‘Give me a light that I might go safely out into the darkness.’ And he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God.  That shall be more to you than a light, and safer than a known way.’ (M.L. Haskins)

Happy New Year!