Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Sunday, January 6, 2019

YEAR C 2019 feast of the epiphany

Feast of the Epiphany, 2018
Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12
Psalm 72:1-7,10-14

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  And if that’s true, then it doesn’t matter why you do something; what matters is the outcome.  You might intend to help someone across the street, but if they get hit by a bus . . . Or, you might have intended to make a romantic setting with candles throughout the house, but if the curtains catch fire . . . .  Well, you get the point.  But saying that intentions don’t matter—that results are what count—is a cynical approach to life, a pessimistic view of the world.  It’s a quantitative concept, where what happens is more important than why it happens.  This is how most businesses are run.  Why you do your job is no one’s concern.  The outcome of your efforts, that’s what matters.

So, is the opposite approach therefore also true?  You know, can bad intentions lead to good outcomes?  If we do something for the wrong reason, but the result is ultimately good, isn’t that just putting the shoe on the other foot?  It seems that God works this way all the time.  In fact, the central point of our faith, the resurrection of Jesus, is exactly this kind of thing, isn’t it?  God bringing good results from humanity’s bad intentions?  There is a very important distinction to be made in answering that question, and we’ll get to that in a minute.  But first, let us look east together.

In today’s gospel reading, we have the visitors from the East coming to look for the new king.  The first step for us this morning is to clear away all the baggage that these men have accumulated over the years.  (This will make their journey easier, I think.)  And before we even get to them, I want to take a moment to get everyone in the right gospel book.

The shepherds are in Luke’s Gospel.  The Magi are in Matthew’s Gospel.  These gospels have two very different Christmas stories, and the people in them are there for very different reasons.  In our Christmas decorating, we often put the Magi in the crèche, along with the shepherds and the infant Jesus, and an angel, surrounded by camels and cows and stuff.  And I understand why that is.  The more the merrier, right?  But, honestly, you kind of have to choose which group of visitors you’re going to talk about, because—as I say—they’re there for different reasons.

In Matthew’s account, Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem.  In a house, no less.  In Luke’s Gospel, they go to Bethlehem to be counted in the big census, and Jesus is born in a stable behind the inn.  In Matthew there’s no journey, and in Luke there’s no home.  So, when we mix it all up into one big story and try to claim that it’s the way it really happened, well, we’re going to get into trouble.  The shepherds are characters in Luke’s version, and the Magi are characters in Matthew’s version.  They are all part of the salvation story, but they are not the point.  The point of this Christmas story is the one who has been born, not the ones who come to visit.

So today we have the Magi coming from the east.  We don’t know how many there are in this group, but in the middle ages the number three came up, since there are three gifts, and then some names got assigned to these three visitors.  Then, at some point, they got promoted to being kings, which has been forever cemented in our minds because of a certain song calling them 3 kings of orient . . . are.  An alternate name for them is wise men, which is how their title typically gets translated, like in the NRSV, the translation we use here in church.

However, these visitors are not kings, and they are not wise men.  The best title for them would be something like astrologers: the kind of people who spend their days writing horoscopes.  They study the stars and planets, and make predictions about the future based on what they see there.  As today’s story goes, they saw the new king’s star rising and have come to pay him homage.  So that song should go, “We indeterminate number of astrologers are.”  Which is more accurate, but not very catchy around the living room piano.

So why am I telling you this . . . Well, because it’s important to Matthew’s Gospel to get these astrologers in the proper role.  They are not kings coming to visit the neighboring country’s new ruler.  They are not wise sages brimming with the wisdom of the ages.  They’re a bunch of guys who sit around looking at the stars, trying to use what they see there for their own personal advantage.  They are coming to pay homage.  Pay their respects.  Make alliances with the future ruler before he grows up and rules the land.  For the Magi to visit Jesus is like the stockbroker getting the inside tip, and sending a fruit basket to the company’s president right before the big public stock offering.  You could say they’re hedging their bets, or making a political contribution during the primary season.  Backing the right horse before the race begins.  They know from the stars that the new king has been born, and they come looking to drop off some Christmas gifts.

And we know they’re not wise men because they go to the current king and ask where they can find his replacement!  Hello!?!  Not exactly the sharpest knives in the drawer here.  Of all the people to stop and ask directions, Herod should be last on the list.  So, they’re not kings, and they’re not wise.  And it is important in Matthew’s gospel to get that point.  There are two kings in Matthew.  One is an evil tyrant who does and will do terrible things.  The other king has just been born.  For Matthew, these two kingdoms are in a battle to the end.  And, in Matthew, foolishness is wisdom.  Children enter the kingdom of heaven.  The wise cannot see the mystery of the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus and Herod are the kings, and the seemingly weak and helpless baby king will eventually conquer the strong and powerful king.

So, back to the indeterminate number of astrologers.  These Magi come in total innocence on the one hand, trusting that Herod will lead them to his own enemy.  And on the other hand, they bring these gifts assumedly in order to win favor with the future king.  It seems to me that they do not have good intentions, and based on what happens after they leave—what Herod does to all the male children—their actions have tragic results.  They have neither pure motives, nor good results.

And yet, they end up at the feet of Jesus.  In spite of the questionable reason for their journey, and in spite of the horrific result of their visit, they end up at the feet of Jesus, offering up the gifts they have.  Bad intentions, and bad outcome, and they still end up at the right place.

I don’t know whether the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  But I do know that the road to heaven is often paved with bad intentions.  You may know this from your own life’s journey.  That in spite of what you have done, or why you have done it, you still end up at the feet of Jesus.  But the really crucial thing is that God brings good results from all our intentions, whether they are good or bad.  Whatever the pavement of the road to hell is made of, whatever our actual intentions have been or will be, it is God who turns all things to work for good, in Jesus.

Whether you’re considered royalty or a servant, you end up laying your gifts before Jesus.  Whether you are wise beyond measure or make all your decisions based on the horoscope, you find your attention drawn to this king of the universe.  No matter how or why you have come, you are in this place today.  You have come to worship the king who brings peace rather than bloodshed.  You have come seeking the wisdom of the ages rather than hedging your bets.  You have been drawn by the one who draws all creation: Jesus the Christ.

We each come here offering our own gold, frankincense, and myrrh in the form of our time, talents, and possessions.  We bring what we have to the feet of Jesus, and through the magnanimous generosity of God, our ordinary gifts are  turned into extraordinary blessings for the world.  And, as we bring our bread and wine to the Altar, God promises to somehow transform it into the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Magi came in confidence that they would find Jesus at the end of their long journey from the East.  And we come in confidence to this Altar today, knowing that we will find Jesus in this place.

You and I have followed a star this morning as well, and it has come to rest over this altar.  The cross is the star that draws us, because the cross is the key to our salvation.  Whatever our intentions, God’s redemption shines by way of the cross.  Today, you and I bring what gifts we have to offer, and we find rest after our long journey, together here at the feet of Jesus, the king of peace, the wisdom of the ages, the Savior of the world.


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