St. Paul’s Within the Walls
January 10, 2016
Recently I was speaking with a good friend who had just returned from a post-Christmas trip to the Carolina Coast.
She was telling me about how it was uncharacteristically warm at the beach, and about how much fun it was to be there with family.
But one phrase and image she mentioned captured my attention, and has remained with me all week.
She said, “Austin, you know, it’s so strange. Here I am at a beautiful beach, with infinite sand and sky and sea all around me, and my head is just continually down as I walk, looking at only what’s right in front of me.”
“There was so much more to see all around…”
“Why couldn’t I just look up?”
My friend was hunting for seashells, but the larger point was not lost on me…so often we can miss the big picture because we get overly focused on just a small swath of sand at our feet.
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, one of the major feasts of the church in which we remember the arrival of the wise men to the place of Jesus’ birth.
It’s a story that has been memorialized in films, in hymns, and visual art.
Sometimes Epiphany sermons focus on the nature of the gifts that the wise men bring: the gold to represent Jesus’ kingship, the frankincense to represent his priesthood and the Temple, and myrrh to represent his death.
But today I want to talk about looking up.
You see the wise men in the Gospel were wise because they knew how to look up.
They studied the stars and saw in the heavens a special sign that took them from their homes in a faraway land into the palace of the reigning Jewish monarch, Herod.
“Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews,” they ask. “For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
I can just see Herod fuming.
This aging monarch is so trapped in his lust for power and his small vision, he is even willing to kill innocent children in the off chance he can eliminate his newborn rival in Jesus.
He feigns a desire to pay homage as well, and sends the wise men onward to Bethlehem.
They keep looking up as they go, and the star they have followed eventually rests over the place where the true king for whom they search lays.
These are Gentiles we are talking about…from a foreign land… and they have come to give gifts and pay homage to a Jewish king.
Had they simply been focused on the reality in front of them, the king of record was Herod the Great, and he had a building record and a tenure that was impressive.
However, their looking up led them to a sort of king that no one could have imagined…a fragile child whose reign was in the world, but not of it.
The reading from Isaiah, also affectionately known to those who pray Morning Prayer as the Third Song of Isaiah, is a canticle about hope for Jews who had been sent into exile.
It exhorts the people of Israel to “Arise…Shine, for your light has come.”
It is a call for faithful and hopeful Jews to look up from the present state of exile and despair and pay attention to what God is doing among them.
Instead of exile, Isaiah speaks of nations coming to the light of Israel.
The prophet speaks of them bringing gold and frankincense, a restoration of the adornments of Solomon’s Temple which was destroyed and which marked the beginning of the Babylonian exile.
And now here are these wise men with their gifts.
The thing I find most intriguing about the scene is that the ones who are always “looking up” in the gospel are Gentiles.
The wise men are Gentiles who are looking up, who see the star, and who arise and shine and make their way with the gifts spoken about in Isaiah to pay homage to the light of the world made known to us in Jesus Christ.
But this was a prophecy primarily for Jews!
It turns out that the visit of the wise men is the beginning of a major shift in understanding who really has access to the promises of God.
Jesus will grow up as a faithful Jew, steeped in tradition and the scriptures, and yet he will later look up and see a Syro-Phoenician Gentile woman and know that God is bigger than that tradition alone.
He will go to the Gentile lands across the sea of Galilee, and the towns called the Decapolis, and cast out demons there and heal.
And he will go to the cross and die, be laid in a tomb with myrhh, and after three days rise again in order to show the entire world that God’s love knows no bounds.
His whole life, death and resurrection are an extended call for people of all races and nations to look up and see the new thing God is doing…to Arise and Shine…to not be content to settle for the limited conception of who God is, but rather to wake up to a larger reality and be transformed.
How fitting that this is what happens to the wise men when they find him…they are no longer the same and cannot return to Herod, but rather go home by a whole new way.
And also how fitting that our own patron St. Paul, who was himself an ardent Jewish traditionalist whose vision was once so limited that he even persecuted the followers of this same Jesus…
…how fitting that after Paul looks up on the road to Damascus and hears the call of Jesus, he is transformed and begins to proclaim God’s adoption of the Gentiles as fellow heirs of the kingdom.
On this Epiphany, we celebrate the great gift that this looking up has rendered…namely that all people, of any nation, of any language, or any means have a place in God’s reign should they be willing to let God lift their own limited vision upward.
So that is the question that stands before us today dear people of God.
Are we willing to look up from whatever pettiness and smallness that may wish to ensnare us and keep us from something greater?
Are we willing to follow the examples of the wise men, of Paul, and of Jesus himself to look up from what is comfortable and be led into the transformation God desires for us?
I think about this congregation and what looking up might mean to us.
What limitations are we all too comfortable to accept?
What boundaries might God be calling us to cross by raising our vision from what’s merely in front of us to what envelops us?
Perhaps it has something to do with what sort of congregation we wish to be…perhaps it has something to do with whom we serve and why.
I don’t know the answer.
But I do trust that if we look up together, God will lead us to the place we need to be.
The wise men got there.
Paul did as well.
Even Jesus had his vision expanded in this way.
What will you see if you look up…if you arise and shine and raise your eyes to the light?
Maybe some sort of epiphany…maybe a whole new way back home.