Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
The First Congregational Church, Columbus
January 5, 2003 -- Epiphany Sunday
Rev. Ronald Botts, Preaching
Not long ago we settled in for the evening and put on a tape of that perennial classic, The Wizard of Oz. It's a children's tale that continues to appeal to adults as well. The story itself goes back to L. Frank Baum, a newspaper editor, who wrote it over a hundred years ago.
When the movie was made in 1939, teenager Judy Garland was selected to play Dorothy. Gathered around her was an outstanding cast which couldn't have been better chosen: Billie Burke, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Margaret Hamilton. Tapped for the part of the Wizard was veteran character actor Frank Morgan.
On the first day of dress rehearsal the costuming department put Morgan in an old fashioned coat they found on their studio racks. It had been bought from a second-hand store some years before, along with a variety of other dated clothes. Wardrobe was always on the lookout for things that might be used someday in a picture, so they frequently purchased ahead.
The first time he wore the old coat, Frank Morgan put his hand in one of the pockets and felt something pinned inside. Curious, Morgan reversed the pocket when he got off the set and found a laundry tag with the name of a previous owner. Later inquiry revealed that the coat and other old clothes had been sold as scrap by the man's family after his death.
Frank Morgan must have had a chill come over him when he read the words on the tag and even looked a second time to be sure. It couldn't be! The name read "L. Frank Baum," the author of the story they were filming. The little tag presented an amazing coincidence, or maybe it wasn't coincidence at all. Sometimes the seemingly impossible actually happens.
Well, what does this have to do with our Gospel for today? I think they both tell about something which would have seemed absolutely unlikely: the author's own coat used in the production; the promised Messiah born in a stable. Who would have thought? Who, indeed?
I think there's also a parallel between Dorothy, and her fellow travelers, and the Wise Men of today's lesson. They all journey toward a goal where they hope to find the answers they seek. Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion make their way to the Emerald City and the Wizard. The Magi follow a star that will lead them to Bethlehem and the holy one promised by God.
Actually two groups of seekers, according to the Gospel, paid a visit to Bethlehem. The first group was close by, just outside the town on the hills of the surrounding countryside. This, of course, was the shepherds and they made a short and comparatively easy trip.
Their act of commitment was made quickly and without much hesitation, a response to the emotion of the moment. The announcement of the Good News took place, they heard it, and went. It was impulsive, spur-of-the-moment, and done without planning. They received, they left, they found.
The Wise Men, on the other hand, observed a sign of something great in the sky, but they had to consider and discuss its meaning. When they were convinced that the star would lead them to the object of their longing, they had to plan and prepare for their journey. Only then did they undertake the demanding trek that would lead them to their goal.
All along the way they had to recalculate their route to follow the star as it cast a pale golden light on the rocky ground below. In a sense this was their "yellow brick road" and it, too, would lead them onward.
Both groups-- the shepherds and the Wise Men-- came to Bethlehem seeking the Promised One and, in their own way and time, each found what they had been looking for. Their journeys were different, but each was just as sure.
In truth, our scripture for today gives us more than just a story about those first people whose searching brought them to Christ. In a larger sense it tells us something about how all people come to Christ.
Some folks are raised in or close to the church. It is nor foreign territory. Many of us have come to know Christ via this route, for we grew up with an awareness of Jesus as Messiah.
The message was always there and we didn't have to look to find it. We heard it in our Bible School stories, we experienced it made real in worship, we saw it reflected in the lives of our parents and grandparents and other members of the church. And so, when it came time for us to respond, we simply had to "walk down the hill" to confirm that Christ was the one in the manger-- and he was there for us. Still, we had to decide to go on that journey, short though it may have been. That's the shepherds' approach.
But others have come into the church through a much longer path-- the Magi's route. Wherever we may have started, it has taken considerable time to get where we are now. Perhaps we had little opportunity to experience a living Christianity. Maybe what we saw was shot through with hypocrisy. It could even be that we got all the right exposure, but that our soul wasn't ready yet to undertake life's most important discovery.
This is a scientific age which denies anything that can't be proven in a tangible way. It's also a cynical age which is skeptical of anything that seems too good. And there are those who will consider you a bit odd if you aren't content with what life presents on its surface. The journey to Christ nowadays can often be filled with obstacles before the end is in sight.
Both the shepherds and the Wise Men got to the manger. I don't recall that the holy family thought less of these locals because they didn't have far to come. Nor do we read anywhere that they questioned the Magi about what took them longer. The main thing was that they both arrived.
Consider our journeys. We've come from many different directions to be here today. By that I don't mean where we live, but where we started from spiritually. Yet, in truth, the past doesn't really matter. What is important is that we're all here now. One manner of arriving isn't necessarily any better than another. It's simply the way we had to come.
In fellowship there isn't room for one person to feel superior to another simply because he or she has been a believer for a greater time. The crucial thing is not how long ago you found your way to Christ, but that you indeed found him. And a United Church of Christ pathway isn't necessarily any better than a Catholic pathway or a Baptist pathway or a Pentecostal. How you come to Jesus is a matter of circumstance; that you have arrived is what really matters. Long way or short way-- it's ultimately all the same.
What our faith further teaches us is that, once we have completed our search for Jesus, we are ready for our next part of the trip: our journey with Jesus. Something draws us to him initially, but continuing commitment is necessary for the second leg of travel. Faith involves more than just discovery, though that must be its starting point.
A fully realized life is the result of a search for fulfillment. It is movement from incompleteness to a feeling of being at one with God, the universe, and ourselves. The shepherds and the Wise Men are seen as the earliest examples of this kind of dedication. And we, if likewise motivated, can be among the latest.
As we begin this new year, let us start by bringing ourselves again to Bethlehem that we might acknowledge and worship Christ. Then let us have the dedication to follow him wherever he may lead. For God in the person of Jesus surprised the world that we might freely have what we could never achieve for ourselves.
How we find Christ doesn't matter. That we do, matters all.
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