Sermons

Sun, Jan 06, 2013

Looking below the surface

Epiphany
Series:Sermons
As I floated and finned my way along Noarlunga reef on New Year’s day…
and peered down through my diving mask into the waters below…
there was not much activity:
a few Sweep and Drummers––
but not the sort of numbers usually encountered there—
the odd Zebra-fish…
and a few Magpie Morwongs;
but no sign of Leatherjackets––
which are Natasha’s favourites…
and are usually plentiful––
no Old Wives or Coralfish…
not even a normally ubiquitous Dusky Morwong…
let alone anything interesting or unusual.
Taking a deep breath through my snorkel…
I dived down…
glided to the sandy bottom––
which was only about five metres in depth at that point––
and quietly made my way to a rocky overhang.
There…
lurking in the safety of the semi-dark…
was a bright blue Horseshoe Leatherjacket…
and a small group of Bullseyes.
As I turned to begin my ascent…
a Coralfish emerged from another rock and began to feed…
presenting itself for a nice photo…
while a Boarfish swam past as I ascended.
Natasha dived down and found a large crab…
lurking in a crevice formed by three rocks…
its antennae and front legs only visible up-close.
Needless to say…
if we had simply stayed on the surface we would have missed all of that.
We would have gone home somewhat disappointed…
thinking that there wasn’t much to see.
But, as is usually the case…
to find the interesting stuff you have to go below the surface.
 
Of course, that’s a fairly simple and obvious illustration…
one which, I scarcely need to point out, is crucial when reading stories from the Bible.
If we are only looking at the surface, we really do miss so much.
And this morning’s reading––
from Matthew infancy narrative––
is a classic case.
As I’ve mentioned to you before…
this is a story that the author has composed to make some theological points…
one which he has done…
largely by expanding and elaborating upon various stories from the Old Testament.
It’s the tale of a group of foreigners––
we don’t know how many of them there were––
whom the author casts as Magi.
Despite how they’ve often been portrayed, they certainly weren’t kings…
and the term “wise men” doesn’t really fit either.
Historically speaking, the Magi were Zoroastrian priests from the Persian court.
They were astrologers­––
not astronomers––
regarded by most first century people as magicians or wizards.
And, although the Magi served the Persian kings…
they were also treated with some suspicion…
given their claims to supernatural knowledge and power…
and their penchant for predictions that threatened royal power.
As here––
naïvely or subversively––
arriving in the capital of Palestine and in Herod’s palace…
they announce the birth of a new king…
because they had seen a “new” star.
Such phenomena were believed to accompany the birth of great rulers and leaders––
men like Alexander the Great or the Emperor Augustus.
So, on a superficial level, it’s quite clear what the author is doing.
The point that he’s trying to make is quite obvious.
He’s staking a theo-political claim for Jesus.
He’s proclaiming that Jesus ranks on par with men like Alexander and Augustus.
But he’s also announcing that Jesus––
rather than Herod or his sons or his successors––
is the true king of Israel.
As I said, all of that is clear and obvious.
But there’s another, perhaps slightly more subtle comparison going on—
a comparison between the Magi and the religious leadership based in Jerusalem––
the chief priests and the scribes––
who, effectively, fulfil a similar function in the Herodian court…
to what the Magi did in the Persian court.
And the comparison that the story leads us to consider—
whether or not the author actually intended it––
is a religious one.
On the one hand, we have these foreign, pagan priests—
whom many of the original readers would have regarded as suspicious and subversive––
who spied a “new” star…
who interpreted its significance from within their own socio-cultural and religious tradition…
and reached a conclusion that was, in many respects, correct…
even if partial.
And, in response, they embark upon a spiritual journey…
a spiritual quest…
not knowing, precisely where it will lead them…
or, even, exactly what they will find.
In a sense, they symbolically represent those whose approach to religion is one of searching and questioning…
of being open to new insight…
of being willing to take risks.
 
On the other hand, we have the religious experts in Jerusalem.
The leading priests and scribes have a deep and intimate knowledge of the scriptures…
which, apparently, they are able to cite…
and to interpret…
freely.
On one level, they exude a knowledge and a wisdom that the Magi patently lack.
And yet, ironically, they fail to recognise what is going on.
It would seem that they did not even notice the “new” star…
until it was pointed out to them.
And even when it is pointed out to them, they don’t join the dots…
not like the Magi do.
They don’t draw the same connection.
They’re blind to new insight…
new revelation…
new possibilities and potentials.
They’re unwilling to acknowledge that any spiritual or religious insight…
that comes from outside of their own tradition…
is valid…
or can teach them anything.
In a sense, they symbolically represent those whose approach to religion is narrow and sectarian…
an approach that privileges a book…
and supposedly revealed traditions…
over searching, questioning, and insight.
Effectively, their religion only exists to prop up the structures of their society and culture…
to ensure their sense of comfort and privilege.
And they’re unwilling or unable to take any action that might jeopardise the status quo.
 
Implicitly, the author is privileging searching and questioning…
new insight and revelation…
journeying and meaningful action…
over scripture and tradition…
and inherited theological wisdom…
and certainly over scripture, tradition, and inherited theological wisdom…
devoid of any engagement or any action.
Perhaps, as the Australian theologian, Scott Cowdell, puts it:
“Epiphany unashamedly points the questing intellect and the restless imagination to God…The star of Epiphany leads the honest seeker on an energizing journey toward understanding and imaginative satisfaction. Many, however, have looked to the Church and its presentation of Christian belief, and have failed to find a guiding star which thrills them and beckons them on”.
 
So, whether the author of Matthew’s gospel intended it or not…
the Epiphany story, today, encourages us toward a religious journey…
one that is shaped by honest questions rather than pat answers;
one that is shaped by genuine seeking rather than assumptions of knowledge;
one that is open to new insights and new revelation…
rather than retreating into tired, inherited traditions…
and one that calls for risky engagement…
rather than safe indifference.
And, perhaps, like these mythical Magi––
it’s only by embarking upon such a spiritual journey…
that we will encounter the God who is incarnate among us.
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