This week we celebrate Epiphany in the life of the church, the celebration of the revealing of Jesus’ birth to the nations beyond Judea, beyond the Jewish people — a revelation to the Gentiles that a Messiah has arrived. In today’s Gospel lesson we meet the magi, commonly known as the Wise Men and the first of the Gentiles to receive the epiphany.
In going about their work one evening, studying the night sky and ever seeking wisdom, a particular star grabs the attention of the magi. With the discovery of this star, they also receive a divine message about a child born in faraway Judah — Jesus, the Messiah, the one called King of the Jews. Judah already has a king, King Herod, whom the Roman occupiers of Judea made their puppet king. Scholar Steve Heinrichs points out that Herod essentially bought the title for himself by serving the interests of the Roman Empire, which he did at the expense of the interests of the people he ruled (Heinrichs, Unsettling the Word).
When the magi arrive in Jerusalem seeking the king-child, Herod, the power-hungry, paranoid dictator that he was, becomes fraught with fear. He wants to know the exact whereabouts of this new threat to his reign, so he encourages the wise men to be sure to “search diligently” for the child and to let him know when they find him.
Herod claims to want to offer Jesus hospitality, to welcome him and to pay him homage. Further in the story we learn that Herod has no interest at all in showing hospitality, only in self-preservation.
The magi are about to discover true welcome when they meet one of our great teachers of hospitality, Mary, the mother of Jesus. God welcomed Mary into God’s Salvation Story for the world in a unique way, inviting her to welcome into her body the fullness of God. Mary responds to God’s hospitality by consenting to bear the child Jesus. Through divine providence, which to the world appeared scandalous–and into a hostile world–Mary helps welcome Jesus into being and onto his own divine path.
The Knox Board of Deacons has been in a season of discernment this past year, seeking God’s guidance as they ask the good and important questions about how and whether the deacon ministries are meeting the congregation’s current needs for care, realizing that with the passage of time and then the advent of the pandemic, needs may change.
Understanding that hospitality is the foundation of all their ministry, the deacons have been exploring the spiritual practice of hospitality led by Director of Congregational Care, Becky Bosarge. One aspect they have explored is God’s hospitality, which is another word for God’s grace — that unmerited favor we hear about all the time in the scriptures, our hymns, our liturgy. As author Nanette Sawyer puts it, God’s grace is God extending to us a deep welcome, a loving embrace, a holy hospitality that fills us up, and never ends (Nanette Sawyer, Hospitality, The Sacred Art).
We may relate to what some of the deacons discovered: that it’s easier to offer hospitality, to do good for others, than to receive God’s hospitality. By its very nature, there is nothing we can do to earn God’s grace; many of us may not feel worthy to receive it. No matter who we are, how we show up in the world, God welcomes us. Sawyer describes how God’s hospitality works: It is our consent — our “yes” echoing Mary’s “yes” — to receiving God’s hospitality that allows us and energizes us to be able to offer God’s hospitality to others, willingly and with joy. This giving and receiving of hospitality between God and God’s creation is the nature of God’s Realm.
The magi departed from Herod on their diligent search, following that star until it came to a stop over a certain house in nearby Bethlehem. While Herod was at home wringing his hands with murderous worry, the magi were joyful with anticipation. Mary extends hospitality to the magi, welcoming them into her home. The magi respond by pouring out their own hospitality, first with their bodies as they kneel before Jesus in awe, wonder and worship. They then pour out their treasure chest filled with gifts for Jesus, gifts fit for royalty — gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And when it was time for them to take their leave, they pack up their empty treasure chest, and depart with a new treasure, a felt presence of the Divine within them. They returned home altogether differently. Their actual route was changed thanks to a Divine warning in a dream to avoid Herod, and they were changed, in heart, mind and spirit. For no one can encounter the hospitality of God in Christ and leave in the same way they came.
Back in Jerusalem, Herod learns that he’s been duped by the magi, so he never discovers the exact location of Jesus. Intent on eliminating any threat to his power and control, and to secure his position as king, Herod orders the decimation of the very youngest of his population, forcing Mary, Joseph and their son Jesus to become homeless refugees as they fled the country to save Jesus’ life.
We have learned that behind hate lies fear, and beneath fear is the lie that one is separated from Love. This is Herod’s state — a terrified human, unaware of an eternally loving, welcoming God at work in the world and dwelling within him. The curse of such fear is that it blocks our ability to receive God’s hospitality, that inner treasure of grace assuring us we are not alone, that we are connected to Love — our generous Creator — to one another, to all creation.
Eckhart Tolle, in his book The Power of Now, tells the story of a man who had been begging by the side of a road for over thirty years. One day a stranger passed by this man. “‘Spare some change?’ mumbled the [begging man], mechanically holding out his old baseball cap. ‘I have nothing to give you,’ said the stranger. [The stranger] asked: ‘What’s that you are sitting on?’ ‘Nothing,’ replied the beggar. ‘Just an old box. I have been sitting on it for as long as I can remember.’ ‘Ever looked inside?’ asked the stranger. ‘No,’ said the beggar. ‘What’s the point? There’s nothing in there.’ ‘Have a look inside,’ insisted the stranger. The begging man managed to pry open the lid. With astonishment, disbelief, and elation, he saw that the box was filled with gold.”
Tolle’s point in telling this parable is that we can have ample wealth, success, and esteem, yet still be beggars ever looking out there in the world for more of what we think and hope will bring us “fulfillment…validation, security or love.” And in that pursuit, we remain beggars, for we are looking in the wrong place. Our true treasure is closer to us than that box full of gold was to the beggar who sat upon it. It is the treasure found within us of God’s eternally welcoming presence, the source of true joy and unshakable peace.
Whether we did anything to officially welcome the new year this past weekend, 2021 has finally arrived. If you’re like me, for months now you have been receiving humorous memes, texts, tweets about the desire for the awfulness of 2020 to end and that 2021 cannot come soon enough, and with it bring to an end the many challenges, loss, discord, and hardship of the past year.
But ends sometimes take time. Likely, we woke up on January first to a reality that appeared much like December 31. Things will change as they always do, as time does the holy work of healing us and our world. More and more COVID-19 vaccines are administered every week, and this increases our hopes for many things: that the number of COVID cases will begin to diminish; the economy will recover and more people can return to work; our hearts will heal from the great losses we experienced in 2020 — the deaths of loved ones, the loss of stable income and housing, a school experience we expected to enjoy but that was derailed by the pandemic. And we hope for unity in our nation, compassionate hearts for all the world’s leaders, racial justice, climate justice, the end to all that creates hunger, violence, refugees.
While we look ahead with hope for 2021 to bring brighter days, God invites us to stay right here in this present moment where there is no waiting needed to receive and enjoy God’s hospitality, which makes all things whole. We need only consent to receive it. Jesus will grow up, and he will spend his earthly ministry showing and telling the world how to find this treasure – this bread of life and living water as he calls it, that is nothing less than the Kingdom of God. What lies behind all our desires and longings is really a longing for God – a treasure not out there, not hard to find, but living within us, every moment.
After the magi returned to their own country, we can be sure they shared the news of their encounter with Jesus, because everyone transformed by presence of Jesus that we read about in the scriptures, always ran and told others the Good News of the indescribable treasure, the holy hospitality, the grace beyond measure of God’s love.
And may we so do also, to go and search diligently for all who need the treasure of God’s welcome, whether stranger or family, enemy or friend, wealthy or poor, citizen or asylum seeker. And to the Herods that live in our world today, may we consent as Jesus did and taught and as his mother Mary did before him, to speak God’s truth with love to the fearful that gives rise to hateful, in solidarity with the suffering. For there are populations still being decimated today, due to skin tone, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, social status. There are still millions of refugees and displaced people in our world, and more being made every day due to policy, greed and lifestyles that lead to global warming, and force the migration and threaten the existence of more of God’s people and creation each day.
In our diligent search for any and all who are in need in body, mind or spirit, may we pour out God’s hospitality in the name of Jesus the Christ, whose mother Mary welcomed the magi from a foreign land, who in turn welcomed her son, who was welcomed by strangers in foreign lands when he himself was displaced and in need. May we love in the way of Jesus who teaches us that the Realm of God is more precious than any gold, frankincense and myrrh, that it is a treasure that cannot be bought but only welcomed, and only grows when it is shared, and with every sharing brings healing and wholeness to God’s beloved world.