A sermon preached on Epiphany Sunday, January 2, 2011 based upon Matthew 2:1 -12.
For me, the interesting question regarding those magi – the wise men — is this: How does a person decide to make a journey such as the one they made? I mean, it certainly wasn’t the usual path to choose — to set off on such a long and arduous journey into the unknown. It involved extraordinary sacrifice, enduring hardships, taking themselves out of the familiar and comfortable, and exposing themselves to countless risks.
Presumably they weren’t especially young. To be referred to as “wise” requires you’ve lived a few years to attain your wisdom. And if you’re not young, you know the way age diminishes one’s physical energies, making the decision to embark on such a demanding journey all the more remarkable.
What would it take to do such a thing?
They studied the stars and astrology. We might say, well, their study led them to conclude that this is what they should do. But there’s a problem here. When it comes to setting forth on a course that requires a commitment of every part of one’s being, a mere “should” — or an “ought” — just won’t cut it. It’s hard enough to get yourself out of bed on the morning on your day off to take that walk you “should” take because your doctor said you “ought” to lose a few pounds, especially when its cold and wet outside and your bed feels so warm and comfy.
It wasn’t a matter of one day the magi held a meeting where they weighed the pros and the cons for making the journey, and concluded that the pros outweighed the cons. Their motivation had to come from a deeper place than merely the conclusion of their rational brains — not when staying home would have been so much easier.
They read books — a rarity in those days. They had dexterity with words, but it wasn’t so much words as an image that caught their attention: a strange, bright star arising in the night sky that called to something deep within — like a dream, that you can’t let go of after you wake up.
It would have been pretty tough for the magi to put into words why they were setting off, at least in a way that would convince others that it made any sense. Imagine the response of others: How do you know this isn’t just a wild good chase? Think of all the dangers awaiting you once you leave home!
But something arose within their souls that was expressed in the star arising in the sky, and provided what was needed to get these middle-aged men to set off in a completely new direction, on a quest.
My son Andrew was home for Christmas from graduate school in Denver where he’s studying in a MFA program. He was telling me about some fascinating stuff he’s been studying about the left and right hemispheres of the brain. It is a gross simplification, but the left hemisphere is the part of the brain that is associated with the rational, logical, sequential capacities of thought. It is where our capacity to use language is based, through which we impose order on the confusion of reality.
The right hemisphere, in contrast is associated with imagination, creativity and emotion. The thoughts that arise in this section of the brain often arise as images rather than words.
There is a tendency for people to be dominant in one side over the other. Men tend to live more out of their left brain than women do. In general, however, since the age of enlightenment, where the kind of organized thought required for scientific inquire began, most of us have been left brain dominant.
These distinctions are overly simplistic. For instance, we may think of scientists as being strictly left brain people. But the best scientists – like the wise men before them — blaze new trails by thinking “outside the box” to come up with new theories that advance our understanding of reality, and inevitably this kind of thinking involves the right side of the brain. They tell stories of insights that came to them in dreams — images that arose for them seemingly spontaneously that provided a way of conceiving reality that was beyond the capacity of the left brain to conceive.
God made us with two parts to our brain, presumably with the intention that we would put them both to use. To be truly whole involves having both sides fully engaged, but in truth, more often than not we don’t live that way.
Clearly, the passion and insight that made it possible for the magi to decide to set off on their great journey arose from the right brain.
I am reminded of the parables of Jesus. The realities that Jesus was pointing to were, in a certain sense, beyond the capacity of the right brain to grasp. That’s why Jesus spoke indirectly about these realities through the images of his parables.
A number of times he spoke about seeds. Using this image, when it comes to charting the path forward in our lives, we would do well to look for the seeds that are buried within our souls. Locate the seed, and the direction begins to become clear.
These words of Jesus strike me as a commentary on the story of the Magi:
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Matt. 13:44-46)
In the course of searching the sky, the magi caught a glimpse of the treasure buried in the field – the pearl of great value – and having caught that glimpse, they are empowered to sacrifice all to pursue it.
The language used to describe the holy spirit also provides a way to think about what it takes to set forth on a journey like the magi. Jesus said to Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8) The wind is mysterious; we can’t control, or even see it. But if you take the time to discern which way the wind is blowing and get in line with it, wonderful things become possible. In contrast, if you try moving against the wind, you will soon give up.
On Pentecost, when the holy spirit was given to the first church, the prophet Joel is quoted where it speaks of God pouring out his spirit leading to young men seeing visions and old men dreaming dreams. (Acts 2:17) Again, it would seem to be the right brain that is engaged when a such a life-giving new beginning occurs.
I am also reminded of the people of whom Jesus spoke glowingly regarding their “faith.” They were all grasped by a vision of wholeness that gets their whole being in motion. To give but one example, consider the four friends who bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus for healing. Finding his house so crowded they can’t get in the door, they think outside the box, refusing to give up. They climb up on the roof of Jesus’ house, tear open a hole, and lower their friend down. Jesus is much impressed by their “faith” — the vision that has taken a hold of them to lead them to do something which others would have found purely irrational.
So yesterday was New Year’s Day. It is traditional for people to make resolutions regarding new courses they’ve decided they will chart in their lives moving forward. Many of us long ago gave up this practice, because each year we found ourselves making resolutions that we quickly discovered we didn’t have the will to carry out.
Why was this? Well, most likely we came up with our resolutions with our left brains. We thought about what we “ought” to do, or “should” do, for instance, eat better, lose weight, get exercise. But as I said earlier, “oughts” and “shoulds” don’t come from a deep enough place to provide the motivation and energy necessary to truly change the course of our lives.
Resolutions, if they are to have any hope of being carried out, have to arise from a much deeper place.
And so the best way to make a new year’s resolution is to begin by locating the seeds God has buried within us… of catching a glimpse of what the kingdom of heaven would mean embodied in our own lives… of determining which way the wind is blowing in our lives and letting the wind carry us.
So I invite you to give yourself permission to dream dreams. Give your imagination free reign. Ask yourself, what have I dreamed of doing, or once dreamed of doing, but haven’t given myself permission to do so recently, because it didn’t seem practical? I am reluctant to name particular possibilities, because each of us is unique, and the realm of possibilities of what the new journey might mean for us is infinitely broad.
If you think you’re too old – that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks – consider those old wise men.
If we want to find out what it is God wants us to do with our lives, a good place to begin is with our deepest longings. Not the superficial longings – I want a donut, or I want a fast car – but the deepest, most exquisite longings of our hearts. God put these longings there. We would do well to pay attention to them.
We imagine God to be the harsh taskmaster – the God of the oughts and the shoulds before which we can never quite measure up. What if God’s greatest desire was to see us live out our deepest longings?
If you find yourself hard pressed to come up with the dreams and longings that are buried deep within you, perhaps a place to begin is to simply pray to God to reveal some signs of what these might be.