(I am captivated by and participating in the beauty of Port Alfred in this Christ Mass week and so too lazy to write a full Blog)
Here is my micro sketch of my sermon for Epiphany this Sunday.
I have been contemplating how the Magi contrast with the rash of arrogant religious Wise Guys out there at present. You know the people who have words from God for everyone and who have it all packaged and sealed. Real Wise Guys…..Ugh!
Seems to me the Magi were very different from the Christian Taliban.
They read and studied widely beyond their own culture.
They were prepared to go on a journey to discover truth.
They were discerning, and saw through Herod’s power play.
They were not too arrogant to bow the knee before mystery when they found it.
John 1:1-18 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
There is a spine chilling moment in Goethe’s Faust where Faust, the dry as dust academic in mid life, begins the play by bewailing:
Ah! Now I’ve done Philosophy, I’ve finished Law and Medicine, And sadly even Theology: Taken fierce pains, from end to end. Now here I am, a fool for sure! No wiser than I was before: Master, Doctor’s what they call me, And I’ve been ten years, already, Crosswise, arcing, to and fro, Leading my students by the nose, And see that we can know – nothing! It almost sets my heart burning. I’m cleverer than all these teachers, Doctors, Masters, scribes, preachers: I’m not plagued by doubt or scruple, Scared by neither Hell nor Devil – Instead all Joy is snatched away, What’s worth knowing, I can’t say, I can’t say what I should teach To make men better or convert each. And then I’ve neither goods nor gold, No worldly honour, or splendour hold: Not even a dog would play this part!
In desperation Faust decides to rewrite his life and begins with the Gospel of John:
It’s written here: ‘In the Beginning was the Word!’ Here I stick already! Who can help me? It’s absurd, Impossible, for me to rate the word so highly I must try to say it differently If I’m truly inspired by the Spirit. I find I’ve written here: ‘In the Beginning was the Mind’. Let me consider that first sentence, So my pen won’t run on in advance! Is it Mind that works and creates what’s ours? It should say: ‘In the beginning was the Power!’ Yet even while I write the words down, I’m warned: I’m no closer with these I’ve found. The Spirit helps me! I have it now, intact. And firmly write: ‘In the Beginning was the Act!’
(Goethe’s Faust Scene I &III)
At that very moment Mephistopheles the embodiment of evil, the shadow, the devil that stalks every one of us, enters the room disguised as a poodle (the very dog that Faust said wouldn’t play his part), and the game is on. Faust will live on trying to integrate all of his being in what remains of the second half of his life that he has extended in a bargain with the devil. All the time Faust is aware that if he fails, he stands to lose his soul. It is a dark deal. We know it well. We have made in myriad ways ourselves.
Robert Johnson that great explorer of the Golden world of the unconscious mind has described Faust as, “… one of the great statements of optimism, hope, and redemption in Western Literature” (Transformation: Understanding the Three Levels of Masculine Consciousness. Johnson, Harper Collins.1991)
It would seem that the dilemma of modern humans is that, like tired Faust, we have become sceptical of words, God knows, we have produced enough of them! (This from WordPress as I write “The best of 388,445 bloggers, 608,093 new posts, 352,786 comments, & 126,353,072 words posted today on WordPress.com.”)
We also have become doubtful of the ability to act in any way that will significantly integrate and heal the world through words or even deeds.
Like Faust we come on this Christ Mass day tired of words, and exhausted from our many acts. We drag ourselves away from Turkeys and Tinsel, Egg Nog and Alka-Seltzers and stumble into church not really expecting anything to happen here that will help or change anything.
We tell ourselves we have come for the children. That they should remember “the reason for the season,”. Now there is a hackneyed cliché if ever there was! Ho Ho Ho! I know of families where children are not permitted to open presents until they have been to church. What a terrible conditional religion!
So here we sit, exactly where we sat last year, and all the Gospel seems to have to offer is more words about Word. Every fibre of our exhausted minds wants to scream with Eliza Doolittle who in My Fair Lady sang, “Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words! I get words all day through; first from him, now from you!”
Do we want to rewrite things like Faust, In the beginning was the Mind, the Power, the Act?
Yet, what if we could get behind our verbage strewn present into the mind of the Gospel writer in his Hellenistic world we may discover that when he said Word(Logos), he didn’t mean the empty shells we have come to see words as, but rather understood that Mind, Power, Act and more were contained in that Logos that the Greek philosophers believed was the very core of Being in the Universe? The Word John writes of here is not an exhausted collection of letters, it is the very core of existence. Word(Logos) for the Greek mind was what the Higgs-Bosun (God Particle) is for ours
Could we perhaps attempt a modern day Faustian re-translation and say “In the beginning was the Life Energy”?
If we do we might get close to an understanding that enables us to take the truth of our religion into the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and say, “Here is God’s manger” and at the same time, fly up to Hubble’s lens and sensors and say, “Look as far as you can, and you are seeing just the interior of God’s Cosmic crib”
Like you, and Eliza, I am nauseated by the surfeit of words. So I need to stop this flow which is probably only adding to my toxic verbal footprint.
I will try to be succinct.
Imagine the biggest and smallest manifestations of life energy that you can.
Now imagine all of that appearing in the magic and mystery of a vulnerable human life.
Get that, and you get the greatest gift of the Christ Mass.
“The Life Energy of the Universe, became flesh just like us and camped out amongst us”
Faust spent his final years in simple joy, not writing, seldom speaking, merely reclaiming land from the sea. May all of us who come home to the indwelling Christ Word do the same.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “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.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘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.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 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.”When 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. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
There is, without doubt, something very attractive about the exotic. Exotic people, exotic places, exotic food, exotic clothes, all hold a fascination for us, which delights our travel agents and the airlines no end.
This is not always true however. Sometimes the exotic and different can be threatening. The same stimulus that triggers fascination can also light the short fuse of fear. Xenophobia and fascination differ only to the degree that the difference of the other we encounter comes with a background of benignity or a history of conflict. If we have has a bad experience with a specific people group, then xenophobic racism is a far more expected response than interest and fascination.
I am a fifth generation Euro-African. I know.
Knowing this truth of the xenophobic and the fascinating in our response wiring as human beings makes the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus, all the more interesting.
A brief visit to one of my new favourite websites, http://www.greattreasures.org informs me that the word we translate for wise men in our gospel for Epiphany, is: μάγος (magos Strongs 3097) wise man great, powerful; magus, plural magi, the name for priests and wise men among the Medes, Persians, and Babylonians, whose learning was chiefly astrology and enchantment.
Now Medes, Persians and Babylonians did not have a great relationship history with the people of Israel. The Old Testament is packed with that history of conquest, oppression and exile for the people of Judea. A modern day equivalent reference would be, “Nuclear physicists from Yemen, Iran or the Peshawar province in Pakistan, came to Bethlehem.” The declared motivation for their visit, “to pay homage” to a new Jewish King, would have been seen as a smokescreen to gather intel and probably “remove” any political threat to the stability of the region. Could this be why Herod engages them so actively, because astute politician that he is, he guesses the “real” motive for their mission is in keeping with his own power games to maintain hegemony for himself?
Medes, Babylonians and Persians do not come to David’s town to worship, they come to spy and conquer.Yet on reaching, the place where Jesus is, they do what they say they came to do. They offer him homage and present him kingly tribute.
Isn’t it so disappointing when people we are suspicious of, act with integrity and honesty? It’s hard to keep hating when they behave out of the character our prejudice has scripted them to play.
This reflection leads me to three speculations on this Epiphany Sunday.
History is not a justification for ongoing suspicion and xenophobia. Not if we are seeking Jesus together.
Where people are from, how they look, and what culture they observe, does not determine the behaviour we may expect them to exhibit. Not if we are seeking Jesus together.
There is at the heart of the Universe a truth, a wisdom which is able to transcend xenophobic fear and suspicion. That wisdom is found in the life and presence of Jesus.
I find the idea of a beckoning star on the horizon of a new year, exotic and inviting and so I pray, “Lord Jesus, give me grace to be intrigued and not intimidated by the different and exotic people who, with me, will follow the star to your heart.”