Sermon for Epiphany in Lectionary Year C, preached at Grace Lutheran Church in Easton, MD. Special thanks to my mom, Karen, for the invitation to preach at her lovely parish! (And of course to the parish, for being lovely.) Text: Matthew 2:1-12.
Perfect Moments of Vehement Joy
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
A few weeks ago, I listened to a podcast called Radiolab. The theme of that week’s program was “Bliss,” and the producers chose to begin by describing a video that had recently gone viral on Youtube: a video of a perfect moment.
The video is of a man named Aleksander Gamme, a professional adventurer who makes a living doing things like biking the Sahara and climbing Everest. He made this video on day 86 of a three month trek to the South Pole and back by himself. He has been burying caches every 200 kms, holding everything from food to excess equipment he’s not going to use, because every spare ounce has to go. Alek himself has lost 55 lbs during his trek.
In this video he’s uncovering his last cache. He can’t remember what’s in it, because whatever it was, he buried it three months ago. “I’m quite hungry,” he says in Norwegian as he burrows into the snow. “I hope it’s something good.” He finds the plastic bags and dives into them, muttering as he pulls out item after item of, frankly, junk. Vaseline. Zinc ointment. But then…
“Yaaaaaah!!!” Aleksander starts screaming in joy. He holds up: a double pack of cheese doodles. He throws it up in the air and films it coming down. He screams again, and then freezes. “Is it real?” he says. And he starts to dig again. And: “Yaaaaaah!” he’s found a huge chocolate bar. And then it’s just one thing after another: food, food, food, after three months of hunger. Alek shouts and giggles and sings as he uncovers it all, lost in this moment of unbridled joy.
The text for today is so rich, and there’s so much in it that we could talk about, but because I had so recently heard this radio program, my heart was caught by verse ten: “When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.” I went back and looked at this verse in Greek, and it’s even more emphatic there. It says something like: “They were joyified with joy that was great and vehement.” Joy was something that happened to the magi: and it was enormous, profound, and so powerful that it was almost violent. It was scream-across-the-tundra joy. It was throw-your-cheese-doodles-in-the-air-and-sing-hallelujah joy. It was joy they didn’t have a choice about, joy that took them by surprise, maybe it joy that they had to stop in the middle of, to ask, is this real?
In the interview with Aleksander Gamme, the Radiolab people asked him, kind of rhetorically, “What stands between you and this kind of happiness?” and he answered literally: “Three months with hunger.” As Alek points out, this intense joy isn’t possible unless you’ve walked a path of unfulfilled need. For him, it was biting hunger. But I wonder…what was it for the magi in today’s gospel?
There’s a clue in the beginning of the story Matthew tells, and to get to it, we have to set the scene a little more clearly. Here come these magi out of the east—and I feel compelled to point out here that the magi, according to Matthew, weren’t kings. They were more like seers, interpreters of dreams, tellers of fortune. They read the future (and the present!) in the stars. Today they’d probably be relegated to psychic hotlines, but back in Jesus’ time, they were high status figures in foreign courts. But not in first-century Palestine. To the mostly Jewish population, magi represented the height of Gentile paganism.
So here come these magi tripping into Jerusalem, asking, “Where’s the king of the Jews?” Perhaps King Herod smiled indulgently when he first heard them inquiring, for he, of course, as client-king of Palestine under the patronage of the Roman emperor, was the king of the Jews. But the magi aren’t looking for the powerful, politically seasoned Roman. They’re looking for a newborn, one who was born King of the Jews. And that isn’t Herod—and he is painfully reminded of this by the constant low-level insurrection running through the Jewish population, as it chafed under Roman control. No wonder he was disturbed: the last thing he needs is a troupe of Miss Cleos coming to town with their foreign mysticism and talk about rising stars to remind the people of Israel that they were awaiting one who could truly lead them, like King David did in times of old.
But isn’t it strange that all of Jerusalem was troubled with Herod? After all, the magi brought with them the possibility that the prophecies had been fulfilled, and that one had been born Christ, the anointed one. This is what they had been waiting for. They should have been experiencing the violent joy that the magi soon felt. Why were they troubled? Why didn’t any of them go with the magi?
We have just emerged from a really tough advent: the shooting in Newtown made it so abundantly clear how broken the world we live in is, and how desperately we need the Messiah, and most of all, how we’re still waiting. From here, isn’t it easy to relate to the apathy that sets into a people who have been waiting too long?
The Israelites wait, experiencing false hopes that are soon dashed, for centuries, for one who would be anointed by God to restore them to the good old days. Eventually, they take on a “God helps those who help themselves” attitude, and start settling into a new regime. They quit looking ahead and start looking around, making a place for themselves within the power structure that controls their lives. And all of this is necessary and even good, until it comes to the point where the security such people have won for themselves is worth more to them than God’s promise. That’s when the promise becomes a threat. When the magi come into town, drawn by a star, speaking of kings, troubling Herod and causing him to review the old prophecies, it makes the foundations of normalcy tremble.
Have there been times when you’ve felt the pressure of the risk involved in trusting to an unknown, even if hoped-for future? Perhaps you’ve felt it just before you became a parent, or before you quit the job you hated to look for one that you loved. Perhaps you’ve felt it just before saying “yes” to some crazy idea or opportunity that God has laid in your path. To be sure, if you know that feeling of dizzying vertigo to which I refer when I speak of such moments of almost-yes, then you also know what it is to have been tempted by the “No,” and lured by the comfort and security of keeping things as they are. Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is all about this worrying possibility of saying yes to God. “Here am I, a servant of the Lord,” she says, and all of a sudden all she can sing about is an upending of the order of the world, casting down the mighty from their thrones, sending the rich away empty—because that’s God specialty, isn’t it, upending, uprooting, replanting, resurrecting?
We may long sometimes for the security of things staying the same, but what we need is the upending of Mary’s song. We may make do with people like Herod in positions of power, but what we need is a good shepherd. We may make stability our goal, pursuing it in the form of power or money or family or love, but what we need is vehement joy, joy that is only possible after walking through this vale of tears and finding justice and mercy, peace and love, where we hardly dared to expect it.
Today is Epiphany, meaning revelation or appearance, and it marks our celebration of the first time Christ appeared to the Gentiles: the Magi. The story of this epiphany is found in Matthew, the most Jewish of the four gospels, the one that is forever rooting Jesus in the Law and the Prophets, even as today’s text does. Yet in the midst of fighting for the Jewish aspect of Jesus’ identity—an ethnicity that is so often about being set apart to be God’s people—this gospel is the only one to offer us this particular story about God reaching outside of Israel to touch the lives of Gentiles, something Christ begins doing as an infant and never ceases doing his whole life long.
The good news of the gospel I want to share with you today is that when God does the upending, it can be scary, and frightening, and mysterious, but it’s also joyifying. For Mary, it meant teenage pregnancy out of wedlock, but she bore the Son of God. For the magi, it meant following a star in order to honor a king, but they ended up falling down and worshipping God made flesh. For us, it could mean any number of ways in which God invites us to say “yes” to God’s purpose.
As we prayerfully discern God’s invitation, in our life as a community of faith as well our lives as individuals, may we be filled with the joy of Epiphany. May we, with the magi, be conscious of the awesome grace of a God who has accepted and love us in spite of ourselves. May we be inspired, like the magi, to respond with gifts proper for the God who has saved us. We may not have gold to mark Christ’s kingship, but we have talents to spend in the service of our Christ in our neighbor. We may not have frankincense to sweeten Christ’s dwelling-place, but we have prayers that will rise up like incense on behalf of those in need. We may not have myrrh to anoint the king of the Jews, but we have the cross of Christ on our foreheads, and a charge to bring the word of the gospel and a spirit of compassion to all who have need of it.