Faith or Folly? Matthew 2:1-12 Epiphany
Debra Bowman, Dunbar Ryerson United Church
Jan. 6, 2017
Yesterday Bob and I went to see the eagles in Brackendale, near Squamish. This is the time of year when they gather along the river in great numbers, arriving in the morning to feed on the fish. It’s supposed to be a spectacular sight; just the other day 100 of them were seen clustered along the river bank. Yesterday the skies were a brilliant blue and the ground and trees spectacular in a fresh dusting of snow; it was a great day for eagle viewing. We bundled up and set out with the dog. Drove out to Brackendale, parked and climbed up the little hill to the top of the dyke over looking the river and, nothing. Nada. Not an eagle in sight. Just some terribly ordinary seagulls wheeling around in the wind – something we could have seen every day when we lived in North Vancouver.
Sometimes the season of Epiphany feels a bit like this. We’ve spent the season of Advent preparing. Four weeks of gearing up for the arrival of the Messiah, for God’s time to begin amongst us.
Christmas Eve our hearts swell with the sound of the trumpets and the organ and the voices ringing out in song. Surely now the world will make a turn. And on Epiphany we remember the wise men or the astrologers who came to Bethlehem in response to the star, the star that represented the birth of a new King. The arrival the wise ones, the season of Epiphany, celebrates the awareness that all the hopes of all the years were indeed met in the little town of Bethlehem. On behalf of all creation the magi celebrate that this holy baby will be the Way to heaven on earth. The way in the wilderness has been cleared; the valleys have been lifted up and the mountains made low; the light shining over the stable marks the home of the Messiah. And we’re good to go. The world is about to turn.
And then, the glow of the candles and the stars and the good will begins to wear off, and we’re left wondering like that Peggy Lee song; “Is that All There Is?” Nothing seems to have changed. Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod, and today there are still enough King Herods to go around.
In “Journey of the Magi” T. S. Eliot imagines the hardships of the wise men as they follow the star for hundreds of miles. In the poem, one of the wise men says,
“’A cold coming we had of it, / Just the worst time of the year / For a journey, and such a long journey: / The ways deep and the weather sharp, / The very dead of winter’ . . . / And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters, / And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly / And the villages dirty and charging high prices: / A hard time we had of it. / At the end we preferred to travel all night, / Sleeping in snatches, / With the voices singing in our ears, saying / That this was all folly.’” (lines 1-5, 13-20)
“This was all folly.” We tend to overlook the difficulties of following the star, of finding the way to the heart and home of God. One evening we come to the Christmas Eve service and the next Sunday the magi are already here. Just about as quickly as we return to our regular lives; trees gone to the chipper or languishing out the back door, ornaments tidied away, last of the treats and cookies consumed and regretted. But in reality, it’s a hard and long journey to the heart of God. And perhaps more often than not, if we’re honest, we wonder if indeed it is all folly.
As we sing O Little Town of Bethlehem we declare that ‘the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.’
But often we cherish the hopes and skip over the fears. But indeed the fears are also encountered. On that holy night in Bethlehem fearful forces were roused awake; the movement of the shepherds and the song of the angels, the cavalcade of the magi stirred up the intrigue of Herod’s palace. The star in the east was a sign that a new king was born. Threatening news for Herod. Seditious news for the Romans. A revolution is anticipated. The forces of resistance are awakened and afoot.
After encountering Jesus, the magi are warned in a dream to not report back to the king. Wisely, they return home by a different road. Our reading for today stops at their departure. But the story doesn’t. “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, …” The massacres of the Crusades, the World Wars, the Holocaust, residential schools, Syria – when the light of God’s justice appears on the horizon, hopes and fears come together and God’s kindom does not break in without resistance.
Herod rises up, oppressing those reaching for the light, trying to stop their stretching for the star. In the ongoing resistance of our contemporary Herods, our hope for the holy can some days feel like folly.
“The light of Epiphany both illumines and darkens. The star produces a shadow; it evokes the human worst even as it testifies to the divine best. … there is good news of great joy to all people, wonderful comfort to those who are eager to receive God’s gift and reign. But woven into this comfort is a dangerous element that will unite Herod and Pilate and even Caesar – and all those who refuse to receive or yield to this reign of God.” (Thomas Steagald, ‘Blogging Toward Epiphany: A Life and Death Matter’, Christian Century, Jan. 3, 2012)
Now that I have dug us into this deep hole, I wonder if there is a way out? Can I take a different way home to the end of the sermon other than declaring as folly the road to the stable and the hope of the baby?
Maybe, like the magi and Joseph and countless others before us, we are waking up from a dream. Maybe we have been asleep for some time; lulled into a deep somnolence, assuming that things would always stay the same,
that the white Eurocentric English speaking middle of the road society and church would reign supreme forever. Maybe we’ve been asleep to the truth that creation is always changing, that God has not finished with us yet. And now, maybe, a dream has come to us. Like the magi, we have been warned in the night that the familiar path, the known path, the well trodden path back to comfort and familiarity, back to the courts of knowing how to do things, is not the path that takes us on the Way with Christ. Maybe we are waking up to the realization that God’s kindom does not come without cost, without commitment from us, without our participation and our risk.
In our time there are so many Herods that it can feel like a cosmic game of whack-a-mole trying to figure out what to resist first. Climate degradation, obscene wage disparities, rising racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, we can get dizzy turning round and round as we scan the globe’s horizon for life-threatening ideologies and undertakings. And the Messiah’s star can be hard to spot, often obscured by polluted skies and the murky vision of self-interest.
But nevertheless we are called to engage our world, to ponder the enormity and nuance of all the challenges that face us. It is not folly to follow this way, but faithful. Not folly but fierce resistance to all the Herods, to all the forces that work against God’s goodness breaking in.
German genius and poet Goethe wrote: “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sort of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no one could have dreamed would come their way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”
As Bob and I stood by the river bank and experienced our disappointment in not seeing any eagles, our perspective began to shift.
We noticed how very, very beautiful the scenery was. We listened to the silence, and then the crunch of the snow under our feet. And then, we heard them, that peculiar cry of eagles. Out of sight, around the bend of the river, but definitely present, definitely gathered to gorge on the fish. And then we saw one eagle perched up high in a tree. Hard to discern at first because her feathers blended in with the dark bark and her white head was one with the fresh snow. But she was there, they were there. Our trip was not folly, our expectations were fulfilled. And we headed home with a different appreciation for what it meant to ‘see’ the eagles.
We, all Christians, travel now by a different road – not a road really but a barely discernable pathway winding through any number of other pathways we could choose. We need to stay together and stay committed, calling out encouragement, pointing out signs, listening carefully, offering support rather than criticism when it gets hard, when we hear cries of ‘folly, folly’. May we travel confident, that whatever path seems right, whatever way is deemed faithful, will be a way on which God’s light will lead us and God’s radiance will greet us.
Thanks be to God. Amen