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Many of you may remember the classic children’s book, Inside, Outside, Upside Down, that demonstrates the very basic concepts of objects, people, and spatial relationships. It’s the story of an overly curious bear who climbs in a box, gets loaded on a truck, and bumped off to the side of the road before running home to tell his mama that he went to town, “Inside, outside, and upside down!” Well, call me crazy and accuse me of over simplifying the gospel, but I think that is a good summary of our scripture passages today.
Today, God’s word speaks to us of Insiders, Outsiders, and a world turned upside down by the Epiphany of Christ!
Isaiah tells captive Israelites that all the world will literally pile its wealth upon them. Those inside the covenant will triumph over the outsiders as an unjust world gets turned upside down. And there is also that little hint that followers of the way of Jesus have held on to for generations. “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”
Just like their enslaved ancestors – the occupied Israelites were looking for a powerful leader, and the gifts of the Magi confirmed that Jesus was the one. Living after the resurrection it is easy to see how wrong they were about the power of Jesus, but doesn’t it seem like we are still looking for that same kind of power? One of these days those people are going to get it – straight from the hand of God.
This is not a new thing. The Psalmist echoes that same desire for God to provide a leader to right the wrongs – particularly for the poor – once and for all. In some ways it seems that it has always been fashionable – if not at least reasonable – to ask God to look out for the powerless, the poor, and the oppressed. The poor have always been with us. Power has always been abused, and people can always be trusted to be selfish and to take advantage of one another.
Who else could do anything about any of this but God?
Is that the Epiphany, the moment of enlightenment and clarity, that we are expected to celebrate as we move from the manger toward the Cross of Christ? Or is there something more that is revealed by the star, the coy king who was secretly mad with power, and the three unsuspecting outsiders who were moved by a relationship with something greater than they could conceive?
I think that is the challenge of this story – to see it from the outside, and to realize that we do not own this story as much as it owns us. I think that is what Paul was trying to say to the church in Ephesus when he wrote, “Of this gospel, I have become a servant.” And the gospel he wrote about is not an exclusive claim on a doctrinal truth. This gospel – this good news – is the news that the Creator of all that is has made it clear through Jesus that love and community and belonging to one another is not exclusive but entirely inclusive.
Not only that, but when we offer grace and mercy and acceptance to one another in the name of Christ – it has an impact beyond our greatest imagination. “Through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” God has chosen that through you and me – in our relationship together as the church – the very fabric of reality might shift in a way that indicates that God is present and active in a world where people live in doubt and fear and alienation.
That might sound like it puts a lot of pressure on you and me, and perhaps it does. Taken individually, and even as a group of believers gathered in a limited – though very dedicated – community, it sometimes seems like the issues we face are too big. After all, we have a hard enough time just maintaining our building and taking care of one another. And when we do want to do something that goes beyond taking care of ourselves, we either can’t do a thing without a committee or we can’t do anything because of our committees.
You know the old saying! How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb? Well, there are two answers. One possibility is to let you know after the Session appointed task force advises us on how many people to elect on the nominating committee who will then determine those individuals called by God to determine if said light bulb needs to be changed. The simpler answer is a question: Change?
But what if demonstrating the wisdom of God in a way that even the heavens gain a new understanding of grace and mercy is simpler than it sounds? What if it means recognizing that sources of inspiration and knowledge of God might even come from outside of our tradition and experience? Even Herod, the King so paranoid about succession that he killed his own sons, figured that one out. And what of these so called “wise men” who came seeking the child who was born King of the Jews?
All we know of them from the actual scripture text is that they traveled from the East because they saw a new star, and that they had precious gifts to offer the newborn king. In the Greek they are μάγοι (magoi), and many associate them with the science and religion of Zoroastrianism – which was a mystical form of astrology common in Persia.
The Magi – and their assumed wealth – stand in stark contrast to the shepherds of the Christmas story in Luke’s Gospel. On the surface they remind us that God calls the rich and the poor alike to give glory to God and acknowledge Jesus as Lord. For centuries they have stood in our nativity sets, and they have been the inspiration for legend and folklore and heated debate. They have been used as an example of the idea that every race and nation will one day recognize Jesus as Lord. Their gifts have been said to represent Kingship, Divinity, and Death, as a symbolic representation of life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
But, again, what if their visit and their gifts challenge us with something simpler than we want to accept? The Magi are never confirmed as non-Jews, but their practice of astrology is certainly outside of the tradition of Judaism. There is no particular conversion event or change in practice, except that they go home by another way. God is never directly involved in their story – not even in the dream that warns them not to go back to Herod.
Either way, they come and go as seekers of – and participants in – a reality that is bigger than their own actions, their own treasures, their own futures, and even their own pasts. I believe their story challenges us to look and listen for what God is doing in the world so that we can be a part of it. And to do that we have to see injustice and poverty, and we have to honor God by doing something about it with the gifts that we have to give. We who are on the inside of society, protected by our safe and healthy boundaries, have to be careful not to become like Herod – protecting ourselves no matter what it costs anyone else.
And when someone comes to our safe and healthy bubble from the outside with a vision of who and what God is about, we need to find ways to hear that so that we can enter into a greater understanding of God’s grace and mercy and justice. Because, in the end, no matter how carefully we might try to order our own world, God is going to find a way to turn it upside down until we realize that it is only through participating with God that we can move into an understanding of the deeper order of the universe.
Truly, God has chosen the church to be the place where we come inside the embrace of grace and mercy. Truly, the experience of grace and mercy pushes us outside of our own desires and limitations. Truly, once we get beyond our own desires and limitations our view of the world can get turned upside down, and we might just have to go home by another way. We might just have to tell someone that we’ve been to a new place inside of our hearts, outside of our understanding, and that now we see the world upside down.
You see, I believe that God has fulfilled the promises of Isaiah and answered the call of the Psalmist through the person, work, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. I believe that Jesus came to announce God’s eternal rule, and I believe that the church of Jesus Christ exists to demonstrate love and forgiveness and living together in brokenness. I believe the Epiphany of Christ is that eternal life – whether it is lived enjoying God’s presence or not – has no beginning or end. And that means that we don’t need to wait until we die; instead we just have to learn how to live – inside, outside, and upside down. And all of this to the glory of God. Amen!