Who Can Kneel?
The United Methodist Church put out an ad a couple of years ago during one of their Igniting Ministry Campaign. Instead of telling you about it, how about we watch it…[play video]. I got into a heated discussion about this add with a fellow minister one day. He saw this video as promoting the idea that all roads lead to the same God. This is a common assumption by many modern people that all religions end up at the same God. This may sound good to the relative truth thinker but in reality offends about every religion in the process. This is how the other minister saw this ad but this ad though is not talking about something different.
Today we celebrate Epiphany. The actual day of Epiphany is January 6th but since we are good Methodists we don’t come to church on that day and we celebrate the day on the closest Sunday. Today we mark the end of the Christmas Season. Next week we will be back in Ordinary Time, as it is called in the liturgical calendar. Today we celebrate Epiphany or the manifestation of the Lord.
When Christians rank the High Holy Days of the year, they place Easter on top and next Christmas. Epiphany, for us Protestants, may make the top ten but since we don’t come to church on January 6th unless it is a Sunday, it is not in the top three. But this is actually a more ancient celebration than Christmas. The day of Epiphany actually focused on the nativity, incarnation, and the baptism of Christ. There are accounts of this day mentioned all the way back to 380 AD. Today our nativity is complete as we celebrate the arrival of the magi or wise men from the east.
First, let’s clear some things up, like we do every Epiphany. These people that come see Jesus are Wise Men or Magi, they are not kings. Scripture doesn’t say they are kings, the hymn we will sing next does and that is why we associate the Magi as Three Kings. We also don’t know the number of Magi that came. Why do you think we always think of three? Because we are told that they bring three gifts. They brought gold which represents Christ’s majesty, frankincense which signifies worship of Jesus’ divinity, and myrrh which is used for burials, which signify the reason this child comes to be. Because there are three gifts we think there are three Wise Men. Yet all we know for sure is that there was more than one. They also did not show up on the night in which Jesus was born and many scholars think it was a couple years later. We hold a lot of misconceptions about the Wise Men but they do teach us a lot of about how we should follow Christ. They have an amazing story which is a huge part of the Christmas story. Their story marks the end of the Christmas season. They are the book end of the amazing story of God being born into the world.
They are important because they represent us in the nativity story. Bethlehem is a Jewish town full of good Jews. Mary and Joseph were Jewish and it is though that the inn keeper and the shepherds were too. We though, are not Jewish. So far in the Christmas story the person who represents us, people who live over 6000 miles away from the place God was born. We are the outsiders, the gentiles, the ones looking in and wondering if this small town, this blue collar couple, and this baby in an animal trough can provide any answer to the questions we are asking.
That is the main reason these magi are looking for the Christ Child. These were wise men and they read the stars. They were educated in astrology and probably many other areas of wisdom. Since they were from the East it was unlike the knowledge we would come to understand or see as wisdom. Even today there are large distinctions between East and West cultures. Twenty years ago the idea of placing small needles into your body’s meridians to relieve pain or other issues like weight loss or help with quitting smoking was absurd. But now we understand that as acupuncture. These strange men, who came from afar, with their weird diplomas and practices, represent us in the nativity story.
They left their home land because they had found that the stars were telling them the King of the Jews was born. This made the current king of the Jews a little upset and he brought in the scholars of that day to verify the magi’s claims but it was true because the prophet Micah had said, “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.” Their path, strange as it may seem, lead them to the Christ Child.
That is what the commercial was about. The video showed people who followed different paths but all arrived at the same location. After a fight with a significant other, a women follows pebbles to the destination. An older woman follows red yarn. A younger gentlemen follows basketball hoops and another Post Its. They all came from different places but arrived at the same location.
The shepherds were doing their job, watching the flocks by night. Then an angel of the Lord told them to go and seek the child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. The wise men didn’t have an angel, they had a star which brought them to the Christ Child. None of us in this room have the same story on how we came to kneel before the Christ Child but we did come.
In a clergy meeting in August, our District Superintendent asked us to share our calling stories. People stood up and told the short version of how God had lead them into ministry. One minister said that it all started in a bar. He asked where he could find all the single ladies and the bartender told him Church groups. He found one close to him, found his wife, found Christ, and found his calling, but it all started in that bar. Many others told stories of God calling them into ministry from when they were young but they ran away from it and the church only to later come back and finally answer the call. As one of them said later, “They say the smart ones run, but God always catches you.”
If the smart ones run, then I’m an idiot. My calling story goes back to when I was 16 and was trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. I knew church was the place that I could be 100% myself and that you should do something you love and I loved youth retreats and youth group. So I went off to college thinking I would learn how to run a Christian Camp. After two summers of working in the Western North Carolina Conference Office I learned that ministers were normal people too. Bishops were normal as well and I began to feel a call into local church ministry. I attempted to dodge that calling by thinking I was to go into chaplaincy or some other form of ministry where I didn’t have to stand up and talk in front of people every week, something I hate to do, but God had other ideas. I stand here today, not because I want to, but because I followed my path, my journey, my star, and it lead me here.
The story of the magi is not a story about ordained ministry though, it is a story about people finding Christ. All Christians have that story. Some are particularly interesting and powerful. I heard one guy tell his conversion story and it involved a car accident, a bloody forehead and a prayer in the middle of a cornfield at night. That was a pretty good one. I heard another person who’s story involved waking up to a strange girl in his bed. As a teenage boy that one had some promise. Actually I always grew up wishing I had a better conversion story. But mine is simple and over the years I realized still powerful. For me, it was in an outdoor chapel during a lay witness mission at my church. The speaker was talking to the youth group and we were charting our history with the church. As I looked at my life I realized how involved God was in it. I realized that God was always there and that I never wanted him to leave. So I took the long walk from that chapel to the prayer rail. There I knelt down and I simply said, “Okay God, have me. I promise I will follow you.”
Sure it didn’t involve a corn field, blood, or a strange girl but that is the story of part of my journey. I am sure we could go around the church today and hear stories that vary just as much. Each of our journeys are different because each of us are different. But we all reach the same place. We all come to the Christ Child and it is there that we kneel and worship.
For the shepherds, an angel told them to come, and they did so with haste and excitement. For the Wise Men it was a star that guided them to the infant God-Man. For John Wesley, his heart was strangely warmed. For me it was in a quiet moment of revelation of God’s presence in my life.
I don’t know your story but God does. God knows the pebbles he placed in your life to follow or the Post Its he guided you with. I don’t believe there is a certain prayer that will get you into heaven, but what I do believe is that God wants us to open our lives up to him. Maybe you have sat in these pews all your life and have never agreed to that. Maybe you are here and for the first time it makes sense. Maybe you feel the Holy Spirit working on your soul today and like the Magi you are ready to kneel before the Christ Child.
As we partake in communion today, after you have the Body and Blood of our savior still on your tongue, take a moment to kneel before our Savior. Maybe this is the start of your path or this is a destination moment. Either way, let us all take some time to be with God as we share our journey with one another in a moment of Holy Communion.
And all God’s people said…Amen.