Epiphany (Matthew 2:1-12)
The old and the new – it would be easier if we could embrace just the new. Then a new year would mean old habits, old worn out ways could be replaced with the new ways of the One born at Christmas.
Jesus said, “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” Jesus also said I make all things new. Let the new represent conversion – away with the old. The problem is that the new gets old just as the future becomes the past.
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 camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
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.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)
The “Coming of the Magi” is about Eliot’s struggling journey of faith. The magi’s journey was a hard one. They were on their way to worship a new king. Eliot had just been converted to Christ and baptized in the Episcopal Church when he wrote this poem. But it was hard to give up his old ways. How do you belong to Christ and the world at the same time? You cannot. Jesus said, no one can serve two masters – you will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.
The problem is that we want to live the Christ like life, but we’re constantly being pulled by the world around us to live for ourselves. The truth is the old has to die in order for the new to live and grow within us. Again, we hear the words of Jesus in our ears. Those who want to save their lives (meaning those who want to live like everyone else) will lose their new lives in Christ. And those who are willing to lose their lives for my sake will find them. Eliot’s poem breathes the truth of this frustrating reality. We live in a world of nature. It has its beautiful moments, but it also has a dark side. Hurricane Sandy is just one example. And we live in a world of insanity and wrong doing. Why do we kill one another? Even animals seem smarter than that. They only kill to survive. Even when we have all we want and more, we still hate and kill others. Why is that?
There are so many who tell us that Jesus makes no difference. Life belongs to those who take care of themselves. Life is in the hands of those who gain the advantage. Life is for those who enjoy the moment and get all they can while the getting is good.
Living for Jesus by serving others, forgiving others, and losing your life for others is a fantasy and those who do that are losers. And yet, this is just what these wise men on their journey to the Christ child believed and they were not Christians or Jews. They were Zoroastrians, members of a near eastern religion that worshipped the light. That’s why they were stargazers, astrologers believing that a bright light in the heavens meant a new ruler had been born. They were crazy enough to follow that light even while others along the way told them their senseless journey was sheer folly
And so it is with us. The world, the community, and even some of our family members tell us the same thing. The advertising world, the fashion world, the food industry, even the intellectual and scientific world tell us we are following the wrong star. And even if we find the ruler, he grows up to be a servant who dies as a common criminal. There are so many reasons to doubt, even reject this infant king. There is this other king and we give him the power of life and death over us. He lives and reigns over us in our music, our sports, our jobs, our government, our technologies, our fears and our false securities. “A cold coming we had of it…”
T. S. Eliot in his poem uncovers all of the reasons why it’s hard to follow the wise men, why it’s hard for us to follow Jesus. Anyone who is comfortable following Jesus isn’t following Jesus. Any congregation who is comfortable needs to look again at who it is following.
But even those of us who want to give up the old ways and embrace the new life in Christ have doubts. We have to live in and around the old dispensation with alien people clutching their gods of money, power, consumerism. And so we continue to be tempted, pulled away from our desire to fall down and worship the real king. We continue to live the scarcity life, afraid to invest everything in the infant king, afraid to follow the true light, convinced that living in semi-darkness is better than giving up everything to live in the light. “I have come that they might have life in abundance,” said Jesus. But that life is found in a long hard journey and it involves dying every day to make way for the new life that is eternal. Now can you see why Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that when Christ calls us he calls us to die?
I tell my confirmands that the truth comes in many packages. Who can understand the ways God works to bring all people to Christ? His reach keeps expanding just as the universe keeps expanding. He can bring people to us through so many doors. They may have had epiphany experiences far greater than ours. Will we welcome them? Can we receive their gifts even if different from ours? Immoral shepherds and pagan astrologers were the first to worship the infant king.
Will we be glad of another death in order to receive life eternal, right here, right now?