The Wise Men followed a star for what I imagine was hundreds, maybe even thousands of miles. Their destination was a person, not a geographical location.
When we travel to some place, we consider driving or flying. We browse flight schedules or check maps. Getting from point A to point B involves changing our location, our coordinates on the map. We expect to be the same person once we’ve reached point B as we were at point A. Only our whereabouts will have changed.
It so happens that the Wise Men traveled a great distance, but the goal of their journey was not a specific place. They wanted to know and to be known by the newborn king.
|Stanley Spencer’s “The Coming of the Wise Men”|
The distance we travel developing a relationship is not measured in miles and the destination is not defined by locale. Who we are as we progress changes, grows, surprises us, and sometimes confuses us.
Reflecting on the Wise Men’s journey reminds us that our life’s destination is not a place. It is a person, a relationship, a relationship with the Person who made us and who saved us and who sustains us even when we’re utterly oblivious to him.
The terminus of all our struggling and striving, yearning and seeking is God. He is the love without which our hearts remain restless and our lives feel hollow. We want to know God, not only with our minds, but with our whole being. With our heart and our mind and our soul. With our sinews and our senses and in our very bones.
Let’s think about our journey toward knowing God by reflecting on three questions.
First, what does it mean to know God?
Second, why does God seem so real to some and like a mere fantasy to others?
Finally, how does knowing God change how we live in the world?
Knowing God starts with God. God lets himself be known. He is, after all, a person. Not a rock or a galaxy or a microbe. Measuring his dimensions, tracking his movement, and observing his behavior is not what we mean when we talk about knowing God.
Knowing a person means sharing in his or her interior life in a way that only he or she can make available. Persons can reveal and can hide themselves from each other. And so, we can know God only if and when he wants us to.
For instance, I can tell you my wife’s eye color and height. But so can the DMV. What really counts is that I know things about her that I could never share with you. They are hers and hers alone to share, and she has trusted and loved me enough to show them to me. She has shared with me her “who-ness.”
In other words, we know God because he reveals himself to us.
We can get confused about revelation, especially when it comes to God. Our confusion probably arises from the fact that we live in an era dominated by the model of empirical observation and scientific discovery. We think of knowing God on the model of how we know things.
|Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin’s “The Attributes of Science”|
We know things through empirical observation. Anyone with properly functioning senses and intellect can record the events of the world around them in an orderly, objective way. Scientific discovery is open to any rational mind patient and keen enough to discern the patterns in the events of the natural world.
That’s how scientific discovery works. Things are simply there to be observed and understood through proper methodology.
Revelation differs significantly from scientific discovery. God shows himself. We cannot see him unless he reveals himself to us.
God is a person, and we know him on analogy with knowing another human. We will see of him only what he chooses to show us when he chooses to show it. And the curious and wonderful and surprising thing is that God chooses to reveal himself so that we can be in a lively relationship with him.
And yet, we scratch our heads when we see God’s handiwork in a stunning sunset and someone else sees only the intersection of physics and optics. Our hearts ache when our own children think our God-talk and our genuine devotion are meaningless jabber and superstitious habit. We are puzzled by the fervor of the new atheist movement.
Apparently, we humans can look at the very same world, read the same holy book, attend the same religious services, and hear the same music while experiencing widely different realities. Some of us see and hear and taste a God-saturated creation while others see a beautiful, complex, and yet godless universe.
What is up with that?
Or, to put it more precisely, why does God seem so real to some and like a mere fantasy to others?
Eyes to See, Ears to Hear
For the most part, we keep our guard up. There are only a few people with whom we speak our minds freely, to whom we bare our rawest emotions, and with whom we share our darkest fears and fondest dreams. In other words, we only reveal ourselves to people we really trust.
Maybe you think that God operates like that, and that’s why so many people don’t know him. He only lets his guard down with really holy, morally upright people. Or maybe you think he favors theological brainiacs or social justice movers and shakers.
Well nothing could be further from the truth.
The first birth announcement of the Son of God went to shepherds, the social equivalent of sanitation workers in Jesus’ day. For his inner circle, Jesus chose fishermen, tax collectors, and a terrorist who ended up betraying him.
|Odilon Redon’s “Closed Eyes”|
Jesus filled his social calendar with lots of dinner parties, and his fellow diners were vagabonds, women of ill repute, people with physical and mental handicaps, and victims of highly contagious diseases.
These people knew God in Jesus Christ.
What do all of these people have in common? As Jesus himself would say, they have eyes to see and ears to hear. (Ezekiel 12:2: Mark 4:9, 23, 8:18; Luke 8:8, 14:35)
In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s final conversation with the Tin Man captures the point. She says:
[If] I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard.
Dorothy had to ride a tornado, fly over the rainbow, follow a yellow brick road, kill two witches, live to see monkeys fly, and out-wiz a wizard before she could see what was right in front of her all the time. All of her adventures finally opened her eyes and ears.
And that is at the heart of every journey on which God will lead you, and me, and all of his beloved children. Mostly our journey leads through hardship and triumph, heartbreak and ecstasy, through disappointment and good fortune, confusion and clarity.
But there is one juncture at which all of Jesus’ friends pass. The shepherds, the streetwalkers, the tax collectors, the fishermen, and the vagabonds. They all come to the place where they have to admit their own incompetence at being the master of their own lives.
With the best of intentions they have made terrible messes. Anxiety and the desire to be right and envy and the need to control keep infecting their most cherished relationships.
The world is such an unfair place and needs straightening out, and yet they have trouble keeping their own kitchen counters uncluttered.
Their hearts are broken. They have broken others’ hearts. No tool at their disposal can ever properly mend them.
And so, they cry out for help. They admit that they need a Savior. And then they can see. And then they can hear. They know Jesus Christ as their Savior.
And this brings us to our third and final question. How does knowing God change how we live in the world?
To put it briefly, we begin looking for and finding God in inglorious places.
That’s one of the lessons learned by the Wise Men. Their worldly lights led them initially to seek the Messiah in Herod’s palace, a place of earthly power and glory. By contrast, the star brought them to a manger, an inglorious place like hundreds, thousands of others.
Once we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we begin to realize that what we call palaces only seem to be better than what we call stables. Jesus shows us that even our earthly palaces have dust under the carpet and mice in the walls. There is something decidedly stable-ish about human life.
Jesus befriends the poor, the outcast, the powerless, the sick, and the lonely.
He joins the buck-toothed, the blemished, the awkward, the plain, and the unpopular at the school lunch table.
|Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s “Prostitutes Around a Dinner Table”|
Christ dines with the dysfunctional family with their cracked plates and mismatched glasses, their spilled milk and petty squabbling.
The world works unceasingly to make insiders and outsiders, to put a few at the top of the heap and the rest of us somewhere under the pile. That’s one messy stable. Jesus has come to dwell in its midst, but not to leave it the way he found it.
With unflagging perseverance and eternal patience and infinite tenderness, Jesus is working to reverse the world’s way of doing things. By embracing outsiders and diving into the bottom of the heap, Jesus is saying that the last will be first and the first will be last.
No more insiders or outsiders. No more top or bottom. Everyone is at the very center of God’s loving attention.
And when we acknowledge Jesus as our Savior, we join him in this world-changing life. We befriend the stranger, feed the hungry, visit the sick, shelter the homeless, release the captive, and defend the weak.
The journey we are taking to know Christ is making us someone new, someone surprising, someone free and happy. And in Christ we are committed to imparting that freedom and happiness to the world.
This sermon was preached at Epiphany, New Iberia, on the Feast of the Epiphany.