Powers and Principalities
Sun, Jan 06, 2019

Epiphany

Duration:15 mins 40 secs

1In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

They were looking for a water route that would connect the Pacific Ocean to the Mississippi River. Everyone knew that it must be out there somewhere. That assumption inspired President Thomas Jefferson to commission Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their team known as the Corps of Discovery to find the route which would lead to: “the most direct and practical water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce.”

And so Lewis and Clark set off on their quest. It was a difficult and dangerous journey, but finally, after 15 months of hard travel, seemingly endless days of back-breaking, upstream slogging, Lewis and a small scouting party followed a small trail up a creek and arrived at a spring. The little trickle was the source of the Missouri River, water that would flow all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. It was a moment of elation for no person of Eurpoean descent had been to this point before.

They thought the end; the goal of their journey was in sight. Lewis believed that he would walk up the hill, look down a gentle slope that would take his men a half day to cross with their canoes on their backs, and then they would see the Columbia River. After fifteen months of going upstream they looked forward to letting the current swiftly whisk them to the Pacific Ocean. They would crest the hill, find the stream, and coast to the finish line.

They could not have been more wrong.

What Lewis actually discovered in front of him was not a gentle slope down to a navigable river running to the Pacific Ocean. No, stretching out for miles and miles as far as the eyes could see were one set of peaks after another. The Rocky Mountains. There was no Northwest Passage. There were mountains like none of them had ever seen before.

Professor Tod Bolsinger writes:

At that moment everything that Meriwether Lewis assumed about his journey changed. He was planning on exploring the new world by boat. He was a river explorer. They planned on rowing, and they thought the hardest part was behind them. But in truth everything they had accomplished was only a prelude to what was in front of them.

Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery were about to go off the map and into uncharted territory. They would have to change plans, give up expectations, even reframe their entire mission. What lay before them was nothing like what was behind them. …

The true adventure – the real discovery – was just beginning.

Bolsinger goes on to use Lewis and Clark’s experience as a metaphor for the church today. The assumptions under which we have operated for generations, the way we have trained and prepared leaders, and the world in which we now seek to share the good news of the gospel are all different, they seem out of date. We have left the map; we are in uncharted territory; it is different than we expected. Bolsinger says, “We are experienced river rafters who must learn to be mountaineers.”

On this first Sunday of a New Year, as we ordain and install our new class of elders and deacons, I want to invite us to really to pray with and for them, for it will take faith and courage to lead us as a congregation off the map and into a new world. It is the same courage the magi showed in returning to their country by another way after visiting the baby Jesus. They had traveled “a far” as the old hymn suggests. I cannot imagine that it was an easy or quick journey. They arrived in Jerusalem and went to the palace because that is where you would expect to find a new king. But the king they sought was not in the palace. So, they continued their journey, until “they saw that the star had stopped, [and] they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother.” After their visit they could have returned to Herod. They could have traversed back home on the expected route that they already knew. And yet, something was now different. Their lives were changed and they could not go home the same way. We do not have a record of their homeward journey, but as pastor James Howell has written with the help of the poet T.S. Eliot:

“We returned to our places... but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.” Jesus does not make my life more comfortable; Jesus doesn’t help me fit in and succeed. We are no longer at ease in a world not committed to Jesus. A strange, unfamiliar road is now our path. But the road is going somewhere.

Yes, a strange, unfamiliar road is now our path. Of course, we could choose another option. Meriwether and Clark could have turned around and gone home; decided the journey ahead was too difficult. The Magi could have returned to Herod. Herod is one committed to the status quo, to the way things have always been, to the established map, to operating out of fear instead of faith. If you are at all like me, and I suspect that you are, I must confess there is more “Herod” in me than I like to admit. It seems easier to just sit still, to ignore the star, to assume that I already know everything I really need to know about the church and ministry, to believe that everything will work out if we just keep working harder at doing what we have always done.

But if that is the case then we have no need for Jesus. No need for any greater power beyond ourselves and our own efforts. No need for the magi to leave their places and follow a star. No need for the Corps of Discovery. No need for faith and hope in a world that is desperately crying out for them.

My friends, in this New Year, I believe Jesus is calling us to learn to be mountaineers instead of river rafters. Jesus is calling us to return to our country by another way. Jesus is calling us to start a new adventure with him. As Tod Bolsinger writes,

How do you canoe over mountains?

You don’t. If you want to continue forward, you change. You adapt. Meriwether Lewis looked at the miles and miles of snow covered peaks and knew that to continue his journey he would have to change his entire approach. … We keep on course with the same goal, but change absolutely everything required to make it through this uncharted territory. We ditch the canoes, ask for help, find horses and cross the mountains. And when the time comes, we make new boats out of burnt trees.

You let go, you learn as you go and you keep going, no matter what.

My friends, I do not have to spell out the particular challenges you face on this first Sunday of a New Year, the places where what lies ahead does not look like what you expected, where you feel unprepared to meet the demands of new circumstances, where fear threatens to overwhelm your faith. But I can assure you of this: the child born in Bethlehem is Emmanuel, “God with us;” and he will be “God with us” every step of the journey ahead. “God with us” is the king of the past, the present, and the future. He is with us on the journey when the challenges seem overwhelming and when the river carries us swiftly along. So we let go, we learn as we go and we keep going, no matter what.

And even more, as we travel together, we discover the church is always at its best when we are forced to journey closely with him.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: