"Epiphanies Can Be Habit Forming"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - January 6, 2008
Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
A number of years ago, I had a very insightful discussion with a good friend of mine, a friend who did not believe in the existence of God. He was bright. He had many admirable character qualities. He was very kind, generous, enthusiastic and optimistic. However, among the core values in his universe, he had no room for our Creator. Jim was curious, however, why I became so caught up in the God thing that I gave my life to it. He never had any extraordinary experiences that would suggest the existence of God and he wondered if I had. I had to answer that I had not.
I went on to tell him that throughout my life I have had a series of epiphanies. These are those "Aha!" moments that many of us experience. I told him that my sense of mystery and wonder about the world of spirit coupled with my imagination molded how I perceived people, events and opportunities.
Further, I reminded him that whether we understand that God exists or not has to do with our personal frame of reference and how we have trained ourselves to perceive--a process that has been years in the making for all of us. If we seldom focus on God, for us God will either not exist or remain a concept that may remain sterile and undefined.
This morning I want to talk about how such epiphanies can be habit forming when we deliberately and intentionally train ourselves to understand life through the consciousness of spirit. I am convinced that one day Spirituality will be taught on the university level. Spirituality has little to do with what happens within the four walls of a church, mosque or synagogue. Part of the role of our spirit is that it becomes the vehicle through which our personality is communicated. Since we create with our spirits, one day everyone will want to learn more about what gives them their motivation, insight, radiance and enthusiasm. They will want to know what fuels their imagination.
Today's lesson deals with the Wise Men. Tradition has given them such a label because of where and how they focused their lives. These men, however, have remained a curiosity for centuries.
One of the earliest Eastern traditions indicated that there were twelve of them. Another tradition indicated that these men were kings. Still another tradition gave them the names of Casper, Melchoir and Balthasar, well known names in ancient Persia. A later tradition provided detailed physical descriptions of the men. Matthew's account, however, is silent about these things including how many of them there were.
All the traditions about them, however, indicated that they knew a great deal about the universe. They had given their lives to the study of the stars. For example, they knew the ancient traditions concerning the heavenly bodies. When a bright star appeared in the east, amid their well-known canopy of stars, they understood what an uninformed person would not have grasped. Astrologers understood this astral event to be a sign that someone was born that would usher in a new world order.
For them epiphanies were habit-forming. Because they had trained themselves to study the universe, various aspects of the created order started to become clearer and clearer to them. They became intrigued with decoding the unknown. Every ancient culture from the Mayans and Aztecs to the Egyptians and the Druids had unique knowledge of the heavens. They knew precisely what day the sun would rise marking the beginning of spring and autumn. They were the pioneers who brought us our calendar and the science of Astronomy.
The Wise Men came to Jerusalem and made a request of King Herod, "Where can we find and pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews? We observed a star in the eastern sky that signaled his birth. We are on a pilgrimage to worship him."
These observant men noticed that Herod was not happy receiving this news nor were the important people in his court. Herod hastily gathered the priests and religious scholars in the city and asked them where the child was to be born. Those skilled in the traditions of their people knew the answer. The prophet Micah had foretold that Bethlehem would be the place of the child's birth.
The group of men left Herod and found the child. Peterson's translation of this portion of Matthew's Gospel reads, "They could hardly contain themselves: They were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time! They entered the house, saw the child in Mary's arms, knelt and beheld his magnificence. They opened their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh." Having accomplished their goal, they returned to their homeland, bypassing Jerusalem and its threatened king.
What gift, what insight could these mysterious visitors give us in the 21st century? These intriguing travelers entered the stage of history, accomplished what they set out to do and then vanished forever. Do they have a message for us that might influence the spirit of what we do and how we think?
Think about this: The Wise Men came, gave their gifts and left, allowing God's creation to unfold. We sometimes burdened ourselves with thoughts that there is something more we need to do or something more we must say to fix things. The reality is that God's will is being done in spite of what we do and say. There is nothing that can prevent God's will from happening. We are the ones who feel obligated to bring God's Kingdom to the earth in our time frame.
Think of all the worry and stress we create when all we may need to do is follow in the Wise Men's footprints: show up, give away our gifts and remain confident that God's will is being done as it has for billions of years. The message we can discern from the Wise Men perhaps is so simple that it can easily escape us. They never looked back. They did not wait around for a particular outcome. They were just passing through, having accomplished what they set out to do.
I could not change the spirit of my non-believing friend whom I mentioned at the beginning of my message. Jesus could not change the heart of Judas. We show up, give away our gifts and continue our journey. Is this not what Jesus did during his ministry? He arrived on the earth, gave away his gifts and left our world. Our Creator is doing the rest. It has taken two thousands years for us to understand what we currently know, but creation is always changing, always evolving. As the Apostle Paul wrote in I Corinthians 13:12, "Now we know only in part." If only more of us would remember that.
This idea may represent one of those epiphanies for us, one of those "Aha!" moments. We do not have to hold the world on our shoulders. We do not have to provide the solution for everyone's problems. We do not have to personalize the pain of others. In fact, the Wise Men ignored Herod's obvious pain by electing to bypass Jerusalem on their way home. In summary, epiphanies can be habit forming when we learn to let go and let God.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
We thank you God for the dawning of a New Year. Guide us to understand each day as our personal diamond to be polished. Inspire us to discard thoughts that do not serve the purpose of our spiritual growth. Guide us to address the habits and attitudes that have made us creatures of need rather than disciples who are motivated to serve. Teach us to practice living our faith by taking more risks, by reaching out to those we do not know and by completely trusting that your will is being accomplished. We want to remain confident that our lives are every bit as valuable as those we read about in the Scriptures. They had their turn in establishing your kingdom on earth. Now, it is our turn. We can only give away who we are and trust that you create through our words and deeds. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Loving and ever faithful God, most of us are so grateful for all the remembrances that we have experienced this Christmas season. Yet within the deeper recesses of our spirits, there is a joy that the New Year has come and our lives once again can return to some degree of normalcy.
So often, O God, the sharing of our greatest gifts does not come during moments in our lives when we are exchanging Christmas presents. They come while we are engaged in what we consider routine, when we are simply being ourselves and others find our caring presence the greatest gift of all. How often you bless us with gifts from your routines and we do not recognize them. Thank you for loving us.
As we continue our journey into the New Year, help us to discern new ways of coping, new ways of dealing with the unpleasant cyclical themes that never seem to go away, kinder ways of communicating and more time to think carefully before we react with displeasure. So often we go through all the themes of Advent, celebrate the birth of Christ and never refine the person we one day hope to be. Help us to learn that our epiphanies, those flashes of insight, can happen all the time when we allow our spirits to guide us rather than our emotions or our thoughts. Inspire us to remember that you are in charge of creation while we remain participants in the greatest drama in the universe B our partnership with you. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray. . .