January 2, 2022

"Unlikely Gift?"

Rev. Scott Landis

Isaiah 60:1-6 & Matthew 2:1-12

The story that we just sang about in that very familiar Christmas Carol — We Three Kings — is right up there as one of the most misunderstood AND misinterpreted stories in the entire bible. For example, Matthew never refers to the central characters as “Kings” at all – nor does he say that there were only “3” of them. While we may sing (with gusto) “We Three Kings,” Matthew actually described them as “wise men” who have come from the “East.” Some believe that they were astrologers. Others think they were magicians. But who they were is not nearly as important as what they were doing and why – and this bugged the heck out of KING Herod.

For some reason these “wise – men” were compelled to follow the guidance of a star that led them to Judea. They initially made their way to Jerusalem (the seat of power) – which makes a whole lot of sense. Looking for the one they describe as the “child who has been born King of the Jews,” they went to the current holder of that position. Surely King Herod would know.

But this was not a welcomed visitation for Herod. Paranoid and insanely jealous, he immediately received their query as none other than a threat. After consulting with HIS chief priests and scribes – he requested of the wise men to “go and search diligently for the child – and when you have found him – let me know of his whereabouts so that I, too, may go and pay him my respects.” Yeah right!

So, the wise men listened to their hearts. They continued their search and followed the star. They were led about 5 ½ miles to the tiny village of Bethlehem (House of Bread) where they found Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. While a strange and unexpected sight, they knew intuitively that this was the One they had been seeking – this was the Source upon whom the rest of history would be written. They knelt down – paid their respects – and knew they had found what they had been looking for their entire lives. BUT – having been warned in a dream – they returned not to Herod – but back to their own country “By Another Way.” [Pause]

We have all read or heard or seen this story depicted in nativity scenes countless times, like the one next to me. It’s the story that wraps up our Christmas Tableau. Epiphany (the twelfth day of Christmas) traditionally marks the end of this miraculous holiday season, but it leaves us with so much to ponder. I think it leaves us with a most “unlikely gift.” [Pause]

All kinds of jokes have been made about the ridiculous nature of the gifts the wise men brought for the baby. Whatever would a baby do with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. On the contrary, countless sermons have been preached about the symbolic importance of those special gifts as they depict the regal nature of the child, as well as foreshadowed his impending and untimely death. But I’d like us to focus today not so much on the gifts that were given – but rather the gift that was received by those who humbled themselves to pay homage. A gift we may still receive today if we do likewise.

I’m fascinated by this story for so many reasons. First, these wise men were true seekers. They knew they were searching for that “pearl of great price,” something that meant more to them than anything else. While they were not entirely sure WHAT they were looking for, they knew they could not stop until they found it. And they also knew that they would know when they had come upon the source. [Pause]

Some of us Keawala`i members have recently completed two sessions of an `ōlelo Hawai`i (Hawaiian language) class. Our kumu (teacher) Leilani Sayers, began each class with a Hawaiian proverb. Her most recent one is most relevant to this story. It says simply, E nānā i ke Kumu – which means “Look to the source.”

The Wise did not stop seeking until they found what they were looking for. I believe their example is one we all ought to heed. Each one of us is born with an innate longing, our heart’s desire, or what Paul Tillich referred to as one’s “ultimate concern.” The longing is spiritual in nature and will NOT be satisfied until we look to and find “the source.”

Many of us will try and satisfy that longing with things that will ultimately fail. Money, power, prestige, all of which have the lure of ultimate satisfaction for us. They may even sate us temporarily, but ultimately will fail. We may even try to up the ante a bit – the use of substances like drugs, or alcohol, or a whole host of other addictions may fill the gap for a time, but ultimately they too will leave us unsatisfied — unfulfilled. The “source” our spirit longs for will not be found in achievement or substitution. No, this source is spiritual in nature. It’s an unlikely gift that can only be received if we – like the wise – are truly seeking its rightful place in our lives. And when we have found it, we will be humbled, awed – as we realize just how precious and satisfying that gift is for us. The source becomes our only means of wholeness, deep peace, and ultimate fulfillment.

And, like the wise, once we experience that in our lives, we can never really return to the way things were. We are transformed. There is a freshness in our spirit. In a way, we are born anew – at one – with the God who longs for our yielding. [Pause]

I was sharing with a church group recently about how much time, money, energy, and effort I put into my education and career. I was driven to achieve advanced degrees, pastor larger congregations, and climb the ecclesiastical ladder as high as I could. I was well on my way toward top positions in the United Church of Christ. Until one day I recognized the futility of all my striving. It took several roadblocks to get my attention but I finally realized I was seeking the wrong source.

It took a few weeks of retreat in a desert monastery at a time when I felt most empty for me to begin to understand. Spending hours in silence and in prayer it finally dawned on me how hard I was trying — when what I really needed to do was simply - be still – to be silent – to be available to the God who wanted nothing more than to give me a most unlikely gift – the gift of the infant Christ who longed to be born and truly come alive within me.

I wasn’t immediately healed. No bells rang or angel visitations for me. But I had an inner sense of knowing that my priorities needed to change. Maybe for the first time I was able to look to and recognize the source which was my ultimate longing. [Pause]

Epiphany literally means appearance or manifestation. From Greek, it means “to show forth.” In our religious context its focus is on Jesus’ manifestation to the Gentiles (that is, these wise men from a foreign land). It also means “illumination” or “insight” an “inner knowing.” As I said earlier, when the wise found the source of what they were looking for – they knew. They had their “Epiphany,” and they knew what they needed to do. Even I understand that now. [Pause]

As we turn the page of the calendar and move from a very difficult 2021 into what may be an equally challenging 2022, we can be assured that our lives will be buffeted by many forces some of which have been with us far too long. Others will be completely new. We can spend the lion-share of our time on them – constantly responding and reacting – some of which we will need to do. But let us not forget - E nānā i ke Kumu – remember the invitation to “look to the source.” That which may guide everything else we do.

When we do that, when we seek in humility, we too will be the recipients of a most unlikely gift – one that just may change our lives forever.


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