Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Flawed Dreams and Unexpected Love

Brad Sullivan
The Epiphany, Year C
January 6, 2019
Emmanuel, Houston
Isaiah 60:1-6
Matthew 2:1-12

Flawed Dreams and Unexpected Love

Happy Epiphany y’all.  Christmas ended yesterday, and the joy of Christmas now continues on in the Epiphany, the revelation of Jesus, of the God-baby to the nations through the Magi, and if I’m being honest, I feel the joy of Christmas continued on into Epiphany, and at the same time, I’m having a hard time feeling the joy right now.  Over the first five to six days of Christmas, I really got to feel the joy of Christmas and let everything else fade into the background.  I was at Camp Allen with my family on a clergy family retreat the weekend after Christmas, and other clergy were concerned about Emmanuel after Andy’s death, and they kept asking me, “How are you?”, not just to say “hi” but actually wondering how I was, with the knowing expression in their voices, expecting a sad response. 

My answer shocked several folks because I said, “I’m doing great.”  One friend seemed a little confused by my answer and said, “I’m sorry, I thought you were working with Andy at Emmanuel.”  “No,” I told him, “I was, I am.  It’s just that for right now, I’m enjoying time with my family.  For right now, it’s a great Christmas and I get to just be with my family through New Year’s.  For right now,” I told him, “Andy hasn’t died.  When I get back, he’ll have died again, and I’ll begin mourning again.”  He got that.

So now, it’s like the regular post-Christmas blues, but magnified, and I want to acknowledge that because I’m guessing I might not be alone in that grief and struggle with joy right now.  That’s ok.  For those who are joyful, we get to be joyful.  For those struggling with joy, we get to struggle with joy.  The reality of the post-Christmas blues is, I believe, in the realization that the dream of Christmas has not fully been realized.  We celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, and then we find that as before, there isn’t yet peace on Earth. 

I heard an interview on Fresh Air with Terry Gross a few days ago with Israeli author and peace activist Amos Oz.  He had just died and they were rebroadcasting previous interviews, and in the one I heard, he was talking about one of his books, Black Box, and he said it was ultimately “a novel about great dreams, about great expectations, about bigger-than-life visions and, indeed, about the morning after and the sad realization that every dream come true is bound to be flawed by coming true.”

He went on to talk about the modern nation of Israel, about Israel itself being a flawed dream come true.  There was such hope, such Messianic hope, in the re-creation of the nation of Israel, that it would be an idyllic, egalitarian country, that nations would flock to it and they would be a light to bring peace on Earth.  With all of the good that Israel is, the reality has of course fallen short of that dream.  The same could be said of the United States, of the city on a hill and light to the nations that we strive to be, and the reality that falls short of that dream, and the same can be said of the Church and every other dream we have.  That’s life. 

“Every dream come true is bound to be flawed by coming true.”  That struck a chord with me regarding Christmas and the Epiphany.  The dream of the Messiah and of peace on Earth.  Did the Magi, after seeing Jesus, feel “the sad realization that every dream come true is bound to be flawed by coming true?”

Who were these guys and maybe galls, these Magi from the east?  Ultimately, we don’t exactly know, but from the text, we know they weren’t kings.  They were more like astrologer, pagan, mystic, tarot card-type folks who were decidedly not Jewish.  So, star guiding them or not, why were they looking for or expecting some Jewish king or messiah?  Israel had a king, and they went to Israel’s king to ask about this newborn king/messiah guy, so this obviously wasn’t a geopolitical greeting and first summit around a new world leader.  So what was going on?

Again, we don’t exactly know, but my guess is this.  These magi had heard stories from Jewish people they had lived with or encountered.  My guess is further that the stories they heard included stories from the prophets about a messianic figure, about the restoration of Israel, and about the peace on Earth of God’s kingdom fully realized that such a Messiah was thought to bring about. 

Perhaps they’d heard stories from Isaiah 2 about nations streaming to Israel and people beating “their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; [when] nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”  Maybe they had also heard stories from Isaiah 60 about the light of God coming upon Israel, of the good fortune for all through that promise, culminating with “they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”  Maybe the Magi had heard that verse and therefore brought gold and frankincense to proclaim the praise of the Lord…except for poor dumb Steve who thought Myrrh would be a good idea.  Poor Steve the Magi.

We don’t know how the non-Jewish, pagan Magi came to know about a baby king born in Israel and spoken of in the prophets, but my guess is that they had heard these stories of Messiah and had heard the hopes Jewish people whom they had encountered that the Messiah would be born and bring peace on Earth. 

So, were the Magi then disappointed with “the morning after and the sad realization that every dream come true is bound to be flawed by coming true.”  Were the Magi the first to experience what we call the post-Christmas blues because, of course, there was not peace on earth after the birth of this Jewish Messiah.

Not even when God became human, even Messiah, the Christ, came into the world was there peace on Earth.  There was not perfect peace on Earth, because God still left the earth in our care.  Of course life is still going to be imperfect and flawed even with Messiah, even with the Christ.  Perfection was never the point of the Christ.  Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, came; God became human to show us how to be human, and to join with us fully in our broken and flawed humanity.  There is love.
Love is the Epiphany.  Not perfection.  Love, with its life, its beauty, and its pain is the Epiphany that the Magi saw.  These pagan, astrologer, tarot card reading type folks who were the antithesis of Jewish devotion to God were the ones to whom God gave this Epiphany of love.  They were pagan, gentile, totally other than the people of Israel.  In the eyes of the religious elite, they would have been totally unworthy of any kind of blessing or love from God, and yet the Epiphany of God’s love was given to them.  Pagan, Gentile, they were loved by God. 

They may have had some disappointment after seeing Jesus that the messianic hopes and fervor of peace on Earth had not been realized, but I’m guessing the Epiphany of love stuck with them.  During the post Christmas blues, God’s Epiphany is love.  No matter who you are.  No matter your religious devotion or non-devotion.  No matter where you are from or what you have done.  You are loved.  You are so loved.  That is the Epiphany of Jesus.  That is how Christ heals us, how Christ helps us to become fully human, that we know, in our hearts, that we are loved.  That is God’s Epiphany of love.  You are loved.  You are so loved.   

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