An Epiphany Story

 

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Le Breton, Jacques ; Gaudin, Jean. Adoration of the Kings, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=29420 [retrieved January 6, 2016].

This was my sermon on Epiphany Sunday 2016, a fictional story of the magi.

Centuries ago, many say after the return from exile in Babylon, Jewish teachers and rabbis developed a method of teaching and preaching Scripture called midrash. Midrash attempts to find the holes in the text, the little parts that don’t get as much attention, and see what we can learn from them. Midrash aggadah focused on the stories of the Scriptures and tried to see what we can glean from everything from a throw-away detail to an unnamed or underappreciated character.

Christians, too, centuries later developed traditions around the Bible to fill the gaps in the stories. These traditions gave us the names of the Gospels and their authors, they helped flesh out the fate of the apostles, and even name and number the magi we honor today. These stories don’t fall so neatly into the categories of fact and fiction – or fact and falsehood – that we typically rely on today. Instead, the stories of midrash aggadah and Christian tradition seek to find a truth in the story and then run with it. The stories, then, are not necessarily factual but they communicate core truths of the Scripture – they tell us what the Bible wants to tell us but in a new way. Plus, they make wonderful stories like many of the traditions we associate with Christmas and Easter.

So, instead of a traditional sermon, I thought we could just settle in together tonight and listen to a story – if only we had some hot chocolate and a warm fire. This is a story, a midrash, of the magi. We’ll call them Mel, Casper, and Bell. This is a story of how they met Jesus. It’s a tale of suspense and mystery, of struggle and temptation, and hopefully of a little bit of truth.

***

A long time ago, in a land far, far away, there was a small group of star-gazers who looked up at the night sky with all the wonder, fear, and curiosity that it deserves. Mel, Casper, and Bell were university students in Babylon who had all been drawn there by the stars.

Mel was from Babylon, a Persian, and he had never dreamed of traveling very far. He was too interested in the unreachable and unattainable heights of the stars to be bothered with earthly travel. Mel was enamored with the movements of the stars, how they seemed to predict changes in season or come before important events. Unsurprisingly, Mel dedicated his studies to the stars in astronomy.

Casper had come to study from much further away. He hailed from Pushkar, in distant India. Fascinated by all that he had seen under the stars, Casper had decided to study history. He hoped that by studying history, he would be able to help break the continual cycles of violence he had seen all over the world. Peace under the stars, he thought, was only possible if we learned our history.

Bell came from a closer, but still fairly distant, place called Sana’a (suh-nawh) in Arabia. Bell had lost her family and sought a new one in Babylon. She had known many people in her time and she had noticed that all seemed isolated from one another, a truth that bothered her deeply. She also longed for a family, a name, to call her own. When Bell looked at the stars, she noticed that everyone lived under the same points of light, so there must be something that connected them all. With such mystical questions, Bell chose to study the worlds’ religions.

Despite their different interests, Mel, Casper, and Bell became fast friends when they arrived at the university in Babylon. They ate their meals together, they went on weekend trips, and they studied together almost every night. They poured over the seemingly endless supply of books on the top floor of the university’s library, quite literally burning the midnight oil. Each night, they finished their day with the same ritual. As the oil for the lamps began to run out, they frantically shelved all their books and put away their work so that they didn’t leave behind a mess. Then, they shut the doors behind them and went out on the balcony of the top floor of the library. They had set out pillows and chairs, and every night they would sit together and look up at the stars.
Continue reading “An Epiphany Story”

johnthebaptist

Bad News

[[This sermon was given at Union Grove United Methodist Church, where I am currently serving as a pastoral intern. It was the Third Sunday of Advent.]]

Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust and not be afraid,
For the LORD GOD is my strength and my might;
God has become my salvation.

With joy you will draw from the wells of salvation.
And you will say on that day:
Give thanks to the LORD;
Call on God’s name;
Make known God’s deeds among the nations;
Proclaim that God’s name is exalted.

Sing praises to the LORD,
For God has done gloriously;
Let this be known in all the earth.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, O Royal Zion,
For great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

Isaiah 12:2-6

“You brood of vipers!” John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him. “You. Brood. Of Vipers. Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Don’t BEGIN to tell yourselves, ‘But we have Abraham as our ancestor!’ No, I tell you, God could raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Even now, the ax is at the root of the trees; Every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit, it’s cut down and thrown into the fire.”
“What should we do?” the crowds asked him.
“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none,” John said. “And whoever has food must do likewise.”
Even the tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked John, “Teacher, what should we do?”
“Collect no more than the amount you are supposed to,” John said.
Soldiers also asked John, “And we, what should we do?”
“Don’t extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations,”
John said. “And be satisfied with your wages.”
The people were filled with anticipation, and they were wondering in their hearts about John. Could he be the Christ?
John answered them all, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear the threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.

Luke 3:7-18

That is such an odd way to end this passage. “John proclaimed the good news to the people.” He starts out by saying, “You brood of vipers!” He warns them with violent images: “the ax is at the root of the trees,” “every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire,” and “the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

“John proclaimed the good news to the people.”

What about any of this passage is good news? It may be news, but I’m not sure that it’s good news. Continue reading “Bad News”