Monday, January 7, 2013

January 6, 2013 - Visit of the Magi

Indiana Jones Rides with the Magi                                                                                   
Matt 2.1-12 Visit of the Magi                                                                        Epiphany Day

            How in the world did the priests and scribes know to pull out that O.T. passage (Micah 5.2 as I recall) to answer the question raised by the Magi? Was that the only possible choice or are there other passages they might have used? What made them think that this one verse out of the entire O.T. held enough detail to answer the Magi’s question? They treated the scripture like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, waiting for the right configuration of questions so they could pop it into position. Worse, it seems unimportant what Micah the Prophet might have been saying through the 4 chapters that lead up to this verse. The lifted verse is all that matters.
            As I read the Bethlehem quotation in the scripture about the Magi this morning, I immediately started thinking about old Indiana Jones movies. I was particularly interested in *Raiders of the Lost Ark*. In the movie, Indie referred often to the ancient writings of the Bible and other places. Examples:
1. [Brody, Indiana Jones’ colleague said:] “The Bible speaks of the Ark leveling mountains and laying waste to entire regions. An army which carries the Ark before it... is invincible.” (He is referring to the Battle of Jericho when the Hebrews carried the Ark around the walls of Jericho, then blew their trumpets, and the walls came tumbling down.
2. [Indiana:] “The Ark of the Covenant. The chest the Hebrews used to carry the Ten Commandments around in.”
[Major Eaton:] “You're talking about THE Ten Commandments?”
[Indiana:] “Yes, the actual Ten Commandments. The original stone tablets that Moses brought down out of Mount Horeb and smashed, if you believe in that sort of thing. Didn't you guys ever go to Sunday School? Look, the Hebrews took the broken pieces and put them into the Ark. When they settled in Canaan, they put the Ark in a place called The Temple of Solomon, where it stayed for many years, till all of a sudden... whoosh, it was gone” (1).

It feels strange to hear the Bible employed in the work of the movie-maker’s art. Shouldn’t the words of scripture be reserved for holy purposes and for Sunday School teachers who spend their lives teaching us? Well, I think so. It almost seems sacrilegious that they use Biblical-sounding oracles in the service of making a movie. What are we all coming to, after all? These cheap uses of the Bible should stand silent in respect of the greatness of Scripture. At least, that is my opinion. //
            You see, the scriptures strive to speak of God and on behalf of God, knowing that no human can repeat clearly the word which God has spoken. No human being can claim to know all that God has in mind. So, we reach gingerly for the words of scripture just as Matthew reached with great respect for the words of the OT as he wrote about the visit of the Magi. We cannot impose our will on God’s Word; it does not do our bidding. God’s Word serves only God who spoke it.
            And yet, like Matthew, we have to speak – you and me. We have to make sense of the world; we have to give voice to the wisdom that we have. So, we speak in oracles – even from this pulpit -- knowing that our vision and our speech are fuzzy. We say what little we see, believing that God is acting in the unfolding of history, but knowing that clarity will elude us in the present *and* the near future *and* maybe forever. History will one day judge us, but even history will look through the lens of the questions asked and of the questions ignored by history’s writers.
            So, we speak to answer the questions of this age just as the scribes and wise of the ancient ages had to speak. Though we cannot see clearly and must be careful what we claim, we must speak. We are the oracles of wisdom for our time.
            Actually, there is no shortage of oracles in this day and age. They claim greater wisdom than the common run of humanity. They claim the microphone and call for us to listen. And we do listen, daily. Don’t bother going to the mountain to find the oracles and scribes of this age; you will find them shouting 24/7 all over the T.V.
            Ex: For the past several weeks, we have been teetering on the edge of the fiscal cliff. The learned pundits and politicians from every side have been delivering oracles at an astounding rate. Despite all their alarm, the vision of the future offered by every politician is imperfect because no one can predict the future with certainty. So, the greatest pundits and politicians of this age speak in oracles fitting for the magi of the post-Christmas story.
1. Rush Limbaugh has been shrill. On Dec 14, Limbaugh the Modern-day Prophet said about the events leading up to the last minute votes by the House and Senate:

**It's still just a posturing position for both parties.  In the case of the Democrats, they will never, ever willingly, voluntarily cut entitlement spending.  The only way that's gonna happen is if they're dragged kicking and screaming and when they have no choice.  The Republicans will reach a point where they really mean it.  But this whole thing is a cartoon because we know how it's gonna end up** (2).
2. The President has been firm: In a statement to the press, President Obama, hails the fiscal cliff deal but says there is still work to be done (3).
3. Grover Norquist speaks from his mountain top: “Technically lawmakers didn't violate the tax pledge by voting in favor of the fiscal cliff deal” (4).

But, despite the certainty each one claims, they speak in oracles – oracles that sound as obtuse and lacking in detail as Indiana Jones searching for the Holy Grail OR the obscure verse from the O.T. the scribes pulled out when the magi came looking for the Christ Child.
            The *danger of these times* is that we will hear the prophecies spoken by today’s wisemen beside the prophecies spoken by the ancients and assume no difference. Both can be maddeningly difficult to decipher. Both can read like a newspaper riddle defying all efforts to find a solution. And, in the resulting blizzard of learned-sounding words, we forget the difference between the prophecies of the scriptures and the prophecies filling the time on TV. It just becomes a game. Sadly, faith in the unseen God of the ages is undermined.

II. Is there a difference between the prophecies of the scriptures and the prophecies of this age? If the ancient scriptures speak in oracles, and if the modern magi speak in oracles, then what are we to make of all this?

Two responses:
1. As a person of faith, I declare to you that the oracle/the prophecy of God has power for us – not because of the words on the page, but – because they open our eyes to the activity of God in our world. The ancient prophecy is nothing without the hand of God moving it toward fulfillment.
            Indiana Jones got it wrong. The oracle from scripture is not merely a puzzle piece waiting for the right configuration of questions to fall into place so that the verse can pop in to complete the picture. The Words from scripture are always speaking of the movement of God in this world. Any other purpose beyond God’s story is our misuse and misunderstanding of their task. The task of scripture is always to bring us face to face with the living God. Despite the blockbuster movies we might create, it has no other purpose.
2. As a person seeking faith, I invite you to test the words of God. Unlike the words of the prophets of this time, the words of the Bible have stood the test of time. As Paul said in Romans 12.2:
2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may prove the will of God in your own experience -- what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12.2).

            The airwaves and the bookshelves are filled with advice on living:
·         +Getting skinny,
·         +Getting rich,
·         +Building a successful practice,
·         +Raising perfect children,
·         +Being the perfect man or woman.
But I tell you: the words on the shelf are not the same as the Word of God. The words of self-help and cool strategies will succeed depending on our ability to live up to them. If we don’t achieve the results we want, then
·         +we failed
·         +OR didn’t try
·         +OR were poor material to start with.
The losers will be left behind in our dust. But, when we take up the Word of God to build a life of faith, then the God who spoke walks with us, gives us strength, helps us along the way.
·         +And if we fail in our quest, God offers forgiveness and new beginnings;
·         +If we don’t try, then God is patient with us;
·         +If we are poor material from the beginning, it does not matter. God has great material for us as we continue along the way.

            According to the Christmas story, after the Christ Child was born, magi came from the East to Jerusalem asking,
            “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?
            For we observed his star at it rising.”

Despite all of the armies at the King’s command, he could not stop the coming of God. And despite all the wisdom of the learned scholars of that time, they neither saw God’s Child coming nor realized the sign that God threw into the heavens. It was a bunch of pagan magi who didn’t care about Israel’s religion or its laws who got it.
            The Christmas story stands as a caution to every one of us who claims to know what is coming.
·         God still has surprises for this world of ours. The birth of the Christ Child was not the last one.
·         God has not abandoned this world to its own devices. God stepped into history *again* in the birth of the Christ Child. Thus, we are not merely figuring out the stuff God left behind; we are witnessing the activity of God in our lives.
Come to think of it; all this is not a reason for caution. All this is reason for hope and confidence as we enter this New Year.

1. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Quotations from
2. Limbaugh, Rush. “The Fiscal Cliff Story is a Farce,” December 14, 2012.
3. President Obama. CNN, Jan 2, 2013.
4. Grover Norquist in an interview with Anderson Cooper, CNN. Reported on on Jan 2, 2013.

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