Friday, January 04, 2013

January 6, Epiphany, On the Twelfth Day of Christmas

Isaiah 60:1-6,  Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

The twelfth day of Christmas is today, January 6. Epiphany completes the Christmas story, with the arrival of the Magi, who did not ever go to the stable with the shepherds, but some time later came to the house where the Holy Family was living. In our crèches of the Nativity we place the Magi and their camel behind the shepherds, but it is not Biblically accurate. Our traditions like to mix in all these things, and often the tradition is not Biblically accurate. The magi are not kings. They work for kings. The tradition calls them kings from the overlay of passages like Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72. The tradition can be misleading, and it can distract us from the real point of the story of the Magi, which we don’t include within our crèches, and that’s the contrast between the Magi on the one hand and King Herod on the other, which will result in Herod’s terrible slaughter of innocent children and the flight into Egypt and the second homelessness of Christ.

The Protestant principle is to scrap the traditions of the church because the traditions clog up the message of the scriptures, and they often do. But the Protestant Reformers did not anticipate that the traditions which are part of the marketing of our consumer economy have more power than the church traditions ever did to manipulate our desires and manage our imagination, and we have jumped from the frying pan into the fire, from the traditions of the church to the traditions of the market. So it is worth the risk for us to practice the traditions of the church, as long as we keep them measured by the scriptures and we honor the freedom of the Word of God.

We are committed to this balance at Old First. As much as we can we honor and employ the great traditions of the church. We do not reinvent the wheel. Some of our own local practices go back 350 years. But yet, when we believe the gospel calls us to, we take our freedom from our traditions.

It’s against the Christian tradition to have women pastors. But the gospel calls to this freedom. It’s against the Dutch Reformed tradition to have communion every week, but we listen to the invitation of our Lord Jesus. It’s against the human tradition to be fully inclusive of gay and lesbian persons without any conditions at all, but the gospel compels us, and this obedience to the gospel means freedom from the tradition.

In this regard I might have said that we are like the Magi and the gospel is the star, and we all have to leave the places of our safety and comfort and such, and follow that star across the moors and mountains of our lives without our having to think about the path that it might lead us on. But I cannot say that in good conscience, because the magi did not follow that star. Maybe in the tradition, but not in the Biblical text. Certainly not at first. For the star to have led them they will have had to see it in the West. But they told King Herod that they had seen it, literally, “in the East.” Had they followed it East they would have ended up in Pakistan, not Palestine.

What they did was to interpret it. That was their business, after all, for the magi were the royal astrologers of Babylon. Their job was to calculate the meaning of the stars by their risings and their transits and their relationships to other constellations. That is what they did with this new star, by the arts and skills of their astronomy and astrology, which back then were the same.

There’s the rub. The God of Israel, who had forbidden Israel to use astrology, was willing to use astrology for revelation. Well, it’s hardly the only case in the Bible where God may do some things which we may not. In the Old Testament, God is free to act outside the covenant as long as God’s free actions do not compromise the covenant. And here God appeals to the heathen practice of astrology in order to communicate with the Magi.

But not fully. Their calculations got them as far as Jerusalem, where their research would naturally lead them. It took the scriptures to get them to Bethlehem. And then they saw the star again, and for the first time it was before them, leading them to the house where the child was. Which tells us that the star must have been angel all along, who took the form of a star in order to appeal to them in a way that they could recognize. Which means that it is useless for modern researchers to try to identify that star with some comet or supernova or such. There will be no record of that star in historical astronomy. It was an angel, as came to Mary and to the shepherds and to Joseph in his dreams.

There is a lesson here for us. You pray to God leading and direction in your life, for help with what to do with your life and what direction to take and decisions to make. You should do this. But God will not provide you with some star for you to just keep following over the moors and mountains of your life. God’s direction for you may rise in a place quite opposite to where you need to go, and you need to interpret it, which requires you to use your mind and your heart and your brain, and never with full inner certainty.

There is great value to goal-setting and long-range planning. I do it for myself and our elders and deacons do it for the church. But in all of our goal-setting for 2012 did we ever plan that we would set up a relief kitchen to produce almost 100,000 meals by December 31? The last four months have been remarkable for Old First and we believe that God has been leading us but it’s not like we had some star out there in front of us. The gospel of Our Lord Jesus has risen once for all above Jerusalem, and we have seen it, and we do our best to interpret it by all the arts and sciences we know, and then we start walking forward as best as we can figure out.

You need to make plans for your life. You need to be responsible, and that for those who love you and depend on you. You direct your life as best you can. But then a storm slams into you, or you get sick, or your child gets sick, or your landlord sells the building, or your spouse tells you its over and you get thrown back, or you say something stupid and you pay for it, and suddenly you need new plans. “O God, please help, O give me some direction.” But the gift of freedom means some uncertainty. Even when things are good, God gives you no yonder star to follow.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with you. You can believe in the rising of the gospel, and then patiently apply yourself with all the ordinary arts and skills that God has given you to calmly address the next steps of your life, because while you are responsible there is also so much out of your control. Don’t sit and wait for a personal message which you can simply follow. You have to engage the message that has been given to us all, with patient openness and in humble consultation and in prayer, and patiently trust that gospel to help you address each new uncertainty.

Don’t worry about not getting it right. You will make mistakes along the way, you will get things wrong and do wrong things. There is a wonderful and liberating Calvinist doctrine with the unfortunate name of Total Depravity. What it means is that even the best steps that you take will have some wrong in them and even the worst things that you do will have some good in them, so that absolutely everything you do is under grace, which liberates you to use your freedom and take risks and make your mistakes. You are under grace, and you cannot prevent the hurricanes and  wall street crashes and other dangers will come into your life, so do not try.

Use your freedom. You will make mistakes but you will not end wrong as long as your goal is the Magi’s goal: to worship this Lord Jesus Christ, and to offer to him your most precious gift, the first part of your life and what you stand for, and whatever you do, the first part of the work of your hands and the first part of the work of your mind. With that goal, no matter how you go, you cannot end wrong, but, like the Magi, you will end in joy, the joy of worshiping Our Lord.

Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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