by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
24 February 2019
This Epiphany Season we have explored what it means for us to be Children of God. When we are baptized, we are marked by God in a special way, as we commit ourselves to follow Jesus. What are the implications for our identity and our ethics?
One implication we have explored is that we must live an ethic of “covenantal neighborliness,” to use Walter Brueggemann’s term. Here in today’s passage, part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, we get the most radical edge of Jesus’ message. We are called to view even our enemies as neighbors.
Hear now this sermon of Jesus, from the Gospel of Luke:
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Heavenly Parent is merciful.
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
For the Word of God in scripture,
For the Word of God among us,
For the Word of God within us,
Thanks be to God.
“As if the Beatitudes were not radical enough, the sermon now pushes vulnerability to fresh extremes,” writes Brendan Byrne in his commentary on this passage. Jesus wants us to love our enemies. What can that possibly mean, and how can we possibly do it?
Byrne writes that Jesus wants us to respond to “injury or unreasonable demand with nothing but generosity and the abandonment of all claim to retribution or restitution.”
This is clearly a very different way of living than our contemporary American culture teaches us. No revenge. No getting even. No carrying hatred or bitterness. But generosity, vulnerability, and love.
Now Brendan Byrne wants to let us off the hook a little bit. He admits that Jesus is speaking in exaggeration: “[Jesus] is not laying down maxims to be followed literally,” Byrne writes. Rather, Jesus wants us to aim at being “as extravagantly generous as possible.” Even to the degree that others think we are foolish.
I’ve talked before about our attitudes to the vulnerability of the human condition. One way we often respond is to try to control every situation in order to minimize our vulnerability. The theologian Elizabeth Gandolfo writes very critically against this attitude in her book The Power and Vulnerability of Love. There she identifies privilege as one of the ways we try to minimize our vulnerability.
Two weeks ago we heard Lawrence Richardson preach about joy from the margins. We heard from someone who did not grow up with privilege. He grew up African-American in a predominately white neighborhood. His parents were impoverished teenagers with mental illness. As a child he experienced neglect, homelessness, physical and sexual abuse.
And yet he stood before us a successful minister filled with joy. He couldn’t escape the vulnerabilities of his human condition. Instead he has embraced them and grown stronger, more joyful.
Those of us with more privilege have socially acceptable ways to minimize our vulnerability and try to ignore it or control it. Elizabeth Gandolfo writes, “Privilege is the produce of human anxiety over vulnerability; it is a collective attempt to alleviate anxiety through control of vulnerability.”
Our privileges help to buffer us from the risks of human life, but the problem is that the way privilege generally works in this society is that some have it and others do not. The underprivileged are then harmed by denial of resources or access to power and influence, and thereby they suffer even more. Gandolfo writes that privilege, then, ends up causing more suffering and enacting greater harm.
So, instead, Jesus wants to cultivate an ethic of neighborliness, of generosity, of vulnerability. But how do we do it? How do we follow Jesus in ways that are healthy?
Recently I read a fascinating book Light in the Dark by Gloria Anzaldua. I wrote my column in the newsletter about it a few weeks ago.
Anzaldua was an American scholar of Chicana cultural theory, feminist theory, and queer theory. Light in the Dark is a discussion of how we put ourselves together again after we’ve been broken apart by trauma.
She wrote, “We are all wounded, but we can connect through the wound that’s alienated us from others.” I believe this wisdom helps us to understand how we follow Jesus into an ethics of vulnerability and generosity that loves even our enemies.
Anzaldua drew upon an Aztec myth of the moon goddess Coyolxauhqui. In that myth Coyolxauhui is dismembered and then restored. The myth resonates with the story of Jesus—wounded by the crucifixion and carrying those wounds into his resurrected and glorified body.
From the Aztec myth, Anzaldua developed what she called “The Coyolxauhqui Imperative” which is “the act of calling back those pieces of the self/soul that have been dispersed or lost, the act of mourning the losses that haunt us.” In other words, how we put ourselves back together again after we have suffered.
The Coyolxauhqui imperative is to heal and achieve integration. When fragmentations occur, you fall apart and feel as though you’ve been expelled from paradise. . . . Coyolxauhqui is also my symbol for reconstruction and reframing, one that allows for putting the pieces together in a new way. The Coyolxauhqui imperative is an ongoing process of making and unmaking. There is never any resolution, just the process of healing.
For Anzaldua, after wounding we enter an in-between space. We’ve been unmade and haven’t yet remade ourselves. She called this in-between space nepantla from a Nahuatl word. It is the site of imagination and the possibility of transformation, for, she wrote, “We can transform our world by imagining it differently.”
When we are in this in-between space, we are able to get in touch with our shadow sides. She wrote, “Our collective shadow—made up of the destructive aspects, psychic wounds, and splits in our own culture—is aroused, and we are forced to confront it. In trying to make sense of what’s happening, some of us come into deep awareness of political and spiritual situations and the unconscious mechanisms that abet hate, intolerance, and discord.”
In other words, after we are wounded, we are able to see the shadow sides of human nature—ours and everyone else’s. This vision enables a new imagination, to see the world in a different way.
I also believe this vision enables us to understand our enemies differently. We see their vulnerability, their woundedness. We understand better what we share in common. Anzaldua encourages us to learn from our experiences of trauma and to turn those experiences into the creative powers necessary to lead ourselves and others into a new and better world.
When Jesus tells us to love our enemies, he isn’t calling for us to ignore their violation of our dignity. No, he is calling for us to recognize even theirs. He is calling for us to find solidarity in our vulnerability, and to then turn that realization toward imagining, that ultimately works to create a better world. A world where violations of our dignity are less likely to happen.
Jesus calls us to a radical love, that is inclusive, expansive, generous, neighborly, and vulnerable. A love that treats everyone with dignity.
Let this become our love, for we are children of God.
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
10 February 2019
In his commentary, The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel, the Jesuit scholar Brendan Byrne writes about this story that, “The context of the call is humanity thirsting for life. The disciples are to become Jesus’ apprentices in the project of drawing people to the hospitality of God.”
We are disciples of Jesus—those who follow on the Way. And that Way is about extending God’s hospitality to all people, because all people are thirsting for abundant life.
Byrne continues, “The call communicates the sense of ‘capturing’ people with the word and bringing them to the more abundant life of the kingdom of God.”
So, we fulfill our call when we bring more people into God’s abundant life.
This Epiphany season we are exploring the implications of our baptisms upon our identity and our ethics. Back in 1982 an international, ecumenical gathering of the World Council of Churches meeting in Lima, Peru adopted the statement Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, which was later approved by many different denominations, including our own, as an expression of our shared understanding.
In the section on baptism, there is a description of the “life-long growth into Christ” that should be true for all Christians. Here’s what the document says:
As they grow in the Christian life of faith, baptized believers demonstrate that humanity can be regenerated and liberated. They have a common responsibility, here and now, to bear witness together to the Gospel of Christ, the Liberator of all human beings. . . . . baptism, as a baptism into Christ’s death, has ethical implications which not only call for personal sanctification, but also motivate Christians to strive for the realization of the will of God in all realms of life.
As followers of Jesus, our commitment is to continue to grow in faith to become more like Jesus. And we do that by sharing in our common responsibility to participate in the liberation of humanity. Our spiritual growth is not simply about the improvement of our own character, but our responsibility to manifest the way of God in all areas of our lives.
So on the lakeshore that day, Jesus was boldly calling Simon Peter, James and John to a mission of high responsibility. Maybe that’s why Simon initially asks Jesus to go away. Simon realizes the power and authority of Jesus, but isn’t sure that he wants this call on his life.
And in that way, Simon Peter is pretty similar to most figures in the Biblical story who receive a call from God. They initially try to get out of it. Usually by stating their own inferiority for the task.
Yet, maybe this self-realization is an essential part of the call?
In his commentary Brendan Byrne writes that it is “just at this moment of painful self-knowledge and truth that the commission comes.” Only when Simon has realized his own “unworthiness and weakness” does Jesus call him.
Byrne concludes his commentary on this story by saying, “Only those who have plumbed their personal fragility in the context of God’s generosity are apt for leadership in the community that celebrates the hospitality of God.”
Those who are called examine themselves, realize their vulnerability, embrace it openly, and then offer themselves for service on behalf of humanity.
Yes, this special mark upon us by Jesus comes with high responsibility.
Next Sunday our guest preacher and forum presenter is Lawrence T. Richardson who pastors Linden Hills United Church of Christ in Minneapolis. Katie and I heard Lawrence speak last October in Des Moines at the annual meeting of the Iowa Conference. We were both impressed by him and found his story to be moving.
Lawrence has written a memoir entitled I Know What Heaven Looks Like: A Modern Day Coming of Age Story. I finished the book this week. Some of the passages were very difficult to read, because Lawrence had a harrowing childhood, affected by poverty, neglect, and abuse.
But his story is one of healing and overcoming obstacles, precisely because of his faith and his experience of God.
Early in the book he is the victim of abuse and is rescued by his paternal grandmother who brings him to church. This is a black church with an altar call and in that moment, he feels the urge to run down the aisle and throw himself upon the altar, where he breaks down crying. The pastor came to him and resting his hand upon Lawrence’s head said, “God sees your pain. I speak healing over you in the name of Jesus.”
Lawrence writes that it was this moment where he felt church as a place that could bring him peace. He felt closer to God than ever. And so he whispered, “I’m yours God, please take me.” This was his call.
That day, after worship, driving home with his grandmother, he asked her, “Granny, what happened to me on the altar today? Why couldn’t I stop crying—I didn’t feel sad?”
She responded, “You caught the Holy Spirit.”
Lawrence then asked, “How did I catch the Holy Spirit?”
Grandma then gave a little theology lesson, which shows some profundity on her part. “God is everywhere. But sometimes, if enough good energy—or what I like to call God-energy—is jumbled up in one place, you feel God so powerful that you can’t contain yourself. Some people sing, some people cry, some people dance, some people create—we all do different things when we catch the Spirit.”
Young Lawrence then asked, “How do we hold on to the Spirit once we catch it, so we don’t lose it?”
He writes that his grandma began to laugh as she said, “Baby, you don’t hold the Spirit, the Spirit holds you. You can’t control when or how the Spirit moves, but you can nurture the good that’s inside of you so that you’re always able to recognize the Spirit when it comes.”
God wants to grab onto each of us, like both the fish and the fishermen in the Gospel of Luke and like Lawrence in his story. God wants us because God wants to give us a more abundant life. The call to that abundant life begins in self-realization and leads us outward into service to others. We receive the high responsibility of being agents of God’s hospitality, bringing even more people into abundant life.
Let the Spirit grab hold of us today.
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
3 February 2019
One of the things I enjoy about pastoring this church, is its rich history. Fortunately, generations did a great job of archiving what they were doing and telling stories, so that you can learn about the past. I particularly like reading about the pastors who proceeded me, most of them gifted leaders with vision and innovative thinking.
Harold Janes was the pastor here from 1946-1958, in that post-World War II boom era for Mainline Christian churches. One of our history books describes his pastorate as “outstanding” and said, “It can hardly be questioned that during his ministry the church has never been busier. A great number of new organizations, projects and religious services have been inaugurated by him. It would be impossible to name all of them.” It then proceeds to list a bunch, at the conclusion of which the annual Jordan Festival.
What’s that you ask?
Then we are told, “This last originated in 1949 as a means of celebrating the baptism of Jesus, one of the most important and yet neglected events of the founder of the Christian Church. As a result of this annual observance, First Central Church has become known as the Church of the Jordan Festival.”
Now, see, this is the sort of tantalizing tidbit that sends me pouring through archives to learn more.
The first place I learned more was in the booklet for the Capital Campaign that was launched in 1953 called “Program of Progress.” Joan Eddy gave me the book a few years ago when I approached her wanting to know more about Harold Janes and his pastorate. You might be interested in some of the things that were included in that capital campaign: Air conditioning, new choir robes, the antiphonal organ, remodeling the chancel of the sanctuary, supporting medical missionaries in Angola, supporting the camping program. Then there are a few others that never happened: completing the bell tower, ensuring there were adequate parking lots of the future, adding counselors to the church staff, establishing a senior care residential home, building a cloister to run along the north side of the sanctuary connecting what we call the South Patio Entrance with the Narthex, and then building a 125 seat chapel off of the northwest side of the narthex running along 36th Street where the patio currently is. Janes and the church leadership had ambitious, visionary goals.
Now, I said this document told me more about the Jordan Festival. That’s because fully funding it was the first item in the capital campaign. What had started as an annual worship service was supposed to grow to include weekend conferences, lecture series by visiting theologians, commissioning new choral and dramatic works, and producing those for the community.
Finally, they were going to install a quote “beautiful wood-carving of the baptism of Jesus” at the back of the chancel there where the table and cross now are to “be a source of constant inspiration to those who come within the sanctuary.”
Before this week, I knew all of that, but this week I pulled out seven years of church bulletins from the 40’s and 50’s and scanned through them to learn more about this Jordan Festival. The February 10, 1952 bulletin announces that year the expansion of the festival. It had begun in 1949 with three weeks of preaching culminating in a big worship service which gained national attention interestingly enough. Then in the following years, Martin Bush, who was this church’s organist and music director from 1906-1955 (Stephen, to beat that you’ll have to be here till at list 2048) . . . anyway Martin Bush composed a choral anthem for the festival entitled “In Those Days Came John the Baptist.” He composed the work because he realized there was a dearth of music about Jesus’ baptism. By the way, I went looking in the music library, and sure enough, that piece is still there in our collection. I couldn’t find another Martin Bush original piece “The Ballad of Judas Iscariot,” however. I was really interested in seeing that one.
Anyway, this festival was growing every year, and in 1952 they added an original one-act play to the many-week program. The play was entitled “He Came Seeing” by Mary P. Hamlin. Included in the choir performing that night was one Contralto Miss Joan Eddy and the part of Hilkiah, a Jewish aristocrat, was played by William Wiseman, Tracy and Wendy’s dad.
Why all this for the Baptism of Jesus? It appears that Harold Janes wanted this holiday to become as big as Christmas and Easter. He must have been nuts. I can’t imagine any sane clergy person wanting a third holiday as involved as the other two. And even more nuts for putting it in between them!
But he had his reasons, in that 1952 newsletter announcement, we read,
The inception of the festival was based on the idea that the baptism of Jesus was one of the most transforming, yet much neglected, events in His life. Its celebration, we thought, would remind us of the source of individual religious power, of the true basis of our democracy, and the nature of the church.
I really wish I could locate one of Harold Janes’s sermons about this so I could get more details, especially how he connects baptism to democracy.
Last summer our Worship Ministry read an essay by UCC theologian Walter Brueggemann entitled “Back to Basics,” and in the fourth section that essay, Brueggemann wrote that one of the ways our worship and preaching should get back to basics is “articulating and processing the profound either/or of our baptisms.” As we discussed this section of the essay, the Worship Ministry was persuaded, we needed to spend some time exploring the implications of our baptism for our understanding of our identity and our ethics. And that’s why this Epiphany Season we are doing that during this series we have called “Children of God.” What does it mean to be God’s children, marked in a special way, committed to following Jesus?
For Walter Brueggemann our baptism is a commitment to one way of life in direction opposition to another. The way of life we are rejecting is the dominant culture’s value system. In the time of Jesus this was the Roman Empire and its “predatory political economy” which specialized in “the desires of the flesh.” Brueggemann writes that these values “consisted in mean-spirited self-promotion and uncaring self-induldgence.” He adds, “The empire functioned to generate appetites that could be satisfied only by anti-neighborly action . . . that put the satiation of the self at the center of reality.”
What, then, is the alternative way-of-life that we commit ourselves to in our baptism? “Covenantal neighborliness” is what he calls it. Particularly as that is directed toward “the poor, the immigrant, and the enemy.” And this neighborliness finds expression in the fruits of the spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” All of these virtues are alternatives to the dominant value system.
In today’s story from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus angers his hometown crowd by reminding them that God does not show favorites, but includes within God’s care and God’s family, those outsiders and aliens, even the enemies of the people, like the Syrian general Naaman.
The hometown crowd apparently didn’t like hearing the truth about God, so they wanted to throw Jesus off of a cliff and kill him. A rather violent reaction.
This story is a reminder that living as a child of God is not easy, that living the truth can generate opposition, particularly opposition in defense of the dominant value system which attempts to divide and exclude people rather than build an ever growing neighborhood of kindness and compassion.
My predecessor, Harold Janes, was onto something then. We do need to be reminded of what we are committing ourselves to in our baptism. We need to be reminded because the dominant value systems are so powerful. But we are more powerful. We have the Creator of the Universe on our side, filling with us the Holy Spirit.
And maybe there’s something to this connection between democracy and our baptism. I don’t know what connection Harold Janes made, but here’s the connection I will make. Our democratic society can only thrive and endure when we live together in covenant as neighbors, expressing kindness, generosity, and faithfulness to one another. So, if the reality of our baptism reminds us to live a more spiritual life, then maybe it will also help us to be better citizens.
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
13 January 2019
One of my favourite political and cultural commentators to read is David Brooks, one of the conservative columnists for the New York Times. Back in 2015, Brooks wrote a column entitled “What is Your Purpose?” in which he discussed the lack of conversation in our society of meaningful discussion of how to live a good and worthwhile life. He wrote,
Public debate is now undermoralized and overpoliticized. We have many shows where people argue about fiscal policy but not so many on how to find a vocation or how to measure the worth of your life. In fact, we now hash out our moral disagreement indirectly, under the pretense that we’re talking about politics, which is why arguments about things like tax policy come to resemble holy wars.
According to Brooks, we’ve turned too many discussions into political discussions, instead of having the deeper conversations about morality. He continued,
The shift has meant there is less moral conversation in the public square. I doubt people behave worse than before, but we are less articulate about the inner life. There are fewer places in public where people are talking about the things that matter most.
As a result, many feel lost or overwhelmed. They feel a hunger to live meaningfully, but they don’t know the right questions to ask, the right vocabulary to use, the right place to look or even if there are ultimate answers at all.
Brooks came to understand that a fundamental problem in our society is that “we are morally inarticulate.” From this conclusion came his book The Road to Character, which our Theology Brunch read and discussed last summer.
Near the conclusion of that book, Brooks presented “The Humility Code,” his fifteen propositions for how to live a better life. Under the first one he wrote,
All human beings seek to lead lives not just of pleasure, but of purpose, righteousness, and virtue. . . . The best life is oriented around the increasing excellence of the soul and is nourished by moral joy, the quiet sense of gratitude and tranquility that comes as a byproduct of successful moral struggle. . . . Life is essentially a moral drama, not a hedonistic one.
Brooks is worried about a loss of moral articulation and discussion of character. And the deeper problems of our society. We have lost our understanding what people are for, what constitutes a good life, what is our meaning and purpose.
How, then, would you answer those questions?
Well, I’m a baptized follower of Jesus Christ and member of the church. Which gives me answers those questions.
When we are baptized, we become part of the Christian church, announcing that the name of Christian will identify us. Our Christian identity will help us to make commitments, to determine what is good, and to decide how to act.
Walter Brueggemann, the great UCC biblical scholar and theologian, writes that our Christian baptismal way of life is “an alternative of covenantal neighborliness.” We have decided to follow God in treating our fellow citizens, the poor, the stranger, the enemy according to neighborliness. Which, he writes, yields the fruit of the spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
A Christian, then, shouldn’t lack moral articulation, as we receive a deep and rich tradition of moral understanding, the practices that help to cultivate the virtues, the community of formation that encourages us along the road, and the spiritual guidance that inspires us to our best.
On this Baptism of the Christ Sunday, as we confess our faith and remember our vows, it is an opportunity for us to commit ourselves once again. Not to a list of ideas. But to a way of life. To a certain way of viewing the world, of determining what is good, of shaping who we are. And that way of life is centered in the story of Jesus the Christ, for in him the life-giving purposes of God are revealed.
First Central is family with open hearts, rich traditions, and curious minds and together we are on a spiritual journey, exploring every angle, embracing uncertainty, and pursuing wisdom. And that journey finds its source in this story, the story of Jesus.
And this story, and the tradition it birthed, tells us that we are Children of God, beloved of our heavenly parent, radiant with glorious light, marked in a special way, called to a life of adventure and goodness, entrusted with a holy mission.
Today, let us remember our baptism, remember who and whose we are, and be thankful.
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
6 January 2019
If you want to fall down an internet rabbit hole, go searching for information about the Magi. I know, because I did that this week. This story and these mysterious figures from the East have fascinated people for two thousand years. And the accumulation of myths, traditions, art, and music about them, their gifts, and the star are fascinating.
Magi is originally a Persian word referring to the priesthood of the Zoroastrian religion. These priests were internationally known for their close observations of the stars and other historical sources from the Roman world mention visits of these priests from East.
It was the King James Version that translated the word as “Wise Men” because of the negative connotations of magi with the occult in 17th century Britain. But one article I read suggested that for the original readers of the Gospel of Matthew the point was not that they were wise, but that they were fools.
The article explained that the only previous appearance of the term magi in the biblical tradition is in the Book of Daniel were the magi are the foolish sages of the Babylonian and Persian courts, opponents of the prophet Daniel.
There is also a connection with the character of Balaam from the Book of Numbers. Balaam is the prophet from the East hired to curse the Hebrews during the exodus. He’s the one whose donkey talks to him, in one of the most bizarre stories in scripture. Balaam ends up speaking blessings instead of curses. That is definitely a story about foolishness.
So, the article I read suggested that the original readers of Matthew would have understood these characters to be fools, with the message of the story being, even fools realize who this child is and worship him.
In the Christian West, particularly after the writing of the Venerable Bede in the 8th century, the Magi became known as the “Three Kings” with specific names—Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar. Originally they represented three ages of men—one young, one middle aged, and one elderly, to signify that men of all ages had recognized and adored the child Jesus.
But eventually they came to represent various nations, though the traditions vary. Sometimes one is European, one Asian, and one African. Sometimes one is an Arab, one is Persian, and one is Indian.
But these are just our Western traditions. There are many others. For instance, there is the tradition that Gaspar was in fact Gondophares I, the founder of the Indo-Parthian kingdom. He appears in an apocryphal work, The Acts of Thomas, where he is visited by the Apostle Thomas. The historic Gondophares gave his name to the Afghan city of Kandahar.
Ethiopian churches give the Magi the names Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater. The Armenians name them Kagpha, Badadakharida and Badadilma. Some Syrians use the names Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas. But the oldest Syriac tradition is that there were 12 magi, not three.
Oh, and some Chinese Christians believe at least one of the magi came from there. The Mongol Khans believed themselves descended from the Magi.
This myriad of differing traditions does emphasize one of the key theological points of this story. Here’s how minister Stephen Bauman puts it: “Everyone has been invited to God’s natal party, even those who have been traveling radically different paths on their search for their true home.”
This is a story for all humanity, as spiritual seekers. Something radically new has happened. The star, the magi, and the gifts are signs to pay attention to this new work of God, which is going to benefit all of humanity.
Professor William Danaher, Jr. describes the star as a “physical marker of a new outpouring of heavenly light.”
His commentary sent me reading a number of Epiphany sermons of Leo the Great, who was Bishop of Rome in the early 5th century. In Sermon 31 Leo discusses the curiosity and intellectual desire of the magi, who set out on a journey to better understand this star they’ve seen in the heavens. Leo preached that God “gave the sign, gave to the beholders understanding of it, and caused inquiry to be made about that, of which He had thus caused understanding, and after inquiry made, offered Himself to be found.”
Thus when the Magi encounter the Baby Jesus, their desire is fulfilled. Leo preached, “They adore the Word in flesh, the Wisdom in infancy, the Power in weakness, the Lord of majesty in the reality of man: and by their gifts make open acknowledgment of what they believe in their hearts, that they may show forth the mystery of their faith and understanding.”
Leo believed this to be a story about intellectual curiosity fulfilled, a new spiritual insight gained.
But what happened when these seekers finally discovered the Baby Jesus? In Sermon 37, Leo preached about what the magi witnessed:
When the brightness of a new star had led three wise men to worship Jesus, they did not see him ruling over demons, not raising the dead, not restoring sight to the blind or mobility to the lame or speech to the dumb, nor in any action of divine power. They saw him, rather, as a Child - silent, at rest, placed in the care of his Mother - in a situation where there appeared no indication of power.
What the magi saw was humility. Humility was the new work of God in Jesus. From this Leo draws a lesson for us, “Consequently, dearly beloved, the whole learning of Christian wisdom consists not in abundance of words, not in cleverness at disputing, not in desire for praise and glory, but in a true and willing humility. . . . Whoever, therefore, humbles themselves like this child will be the greater in the kingdom of heaven.”
So this is also a story about our greatest virtue—what kind of character we should have as God’s people.
There’s more. For Leo the Great, what is significant is not just understanding what happened in the past, but discovering the lasting meaning of the story for new generations of believers. He proclaimed,
Today those joys must be entertained in our hearts which existed in the breasts of the three magi. . . . For that day has not so passed away that the mighty work, which was then revealed, has passed away with it, and that nothing but the report of the thing has come down to us for faith to receive and memory to celebrate; seeing that, by the oft-repeated gift of God, our times daily enjoy the fruit of what the first age possessed.
This is an on-going story. God is still working to bring insight to seekers and teach us humility. Plus, the True Light continues to shine, leading humanity out of darkness and visiting our minds with splendor. We continue to experience wonder and awe at the epiphany of God incarnate in the Baby Jesus. “Raise your hearts, dearly beloved, to the shining beauty of eternal light.”
And so the story is about the light continuing to shine through us, as we gain insight and live humble lives. We become the signs of God’s work in the world.
Shiny disciples is a theme in the Gospel of Matthew, where the followers of Jesus are the light of the world who are to let their lights shine. The Gospel of Matthew opens with the nations bearing witness to who Jesus is and closes with the disciples of Jesus taking the light out into the nations of the world, baptizing “into God’s new chosen people” [Paul Achtemeier].
So who are we? We are Children of God. Curious spiritual seekers. Humble agents of God’s power. Lights shining in the darkness.
The story of the Baby Jesus is that divinity has taken on humanity. Our humanity has been lifted up. We share in the glory and the power of God. From this flows our dignity.
To acknowledge this baby as our Sovereign and King is to commit ourselves to following Jesus in a new way of living, a new humanity. To become our best selves.
In this new year, this season of opportunity and possibility, may the Light shine upon you and through you.