The mystic magi journey: discovering a new way of seeing

The word, ‘mystery’, Paul mentions four times in the text assigned for the Day of Epiphany.[1]He calls receiving God’s grace “the mystery of Christ.”

A mystery is not something that ought to scare us. Like how we feel when reading a whodunit and murder-mystery novels so popular. We have lived in a culture that sees mystery as something bad, something to avoid, something that is opposed to a life of faith. If something is mysterious, it can’t be of God.

That, what appears on the surface, at first sight, is division, discord, disharmony, a profound and inherent disconnection in our lives and in the world.

A negative view of mystery also implies that to know God means there is nothing more to know. To claim some cerebral notions of God—we call this doctrine—and to conform our knowing with others means there is no longer anything to learn. Change, growth, diverse thinking—the consequence of something that is difficult to understand—these have been an undesired mystery.

The journey of the magi suggests we need to take another look at “the mystery of Christ.” The prophet Isaiah, from another text assigned for the Day of Epiphany,[2]encourages us all to “lift up your eyes and look around … then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.” There is apparently a great benefit in seeing anew.

Isaiah speaks as if this ‘seeing’ is more than a mere observation of what is immediately in front of you. This spiritual seeing is about perceiving a deeper reality. Some would say it is seeing with the eye of the heart, or the mind’s eye. Sight, here, is not just a biological function of the eyes, but involves deeper more subtle capacities within us.

From the perspective of faith, mystery means, “endless knowability.”[3]Mystery is not something we cannot ever know; or, conversely, some riddle that we must solve once-and-for-all. Rather, mystery is a journey of learning more, growing, a continual expansion of our awareness, knowledge and perception.

The reason Matthew includes the story of the magi in his rendition of the birth of Jesus is to describe what is true for anyone on the journey of life and faith. 

For one thing, we never arrive at the fullness of truth on this journey we are on. That was the credo of the old science, that somehow once we figure something out, it never needs to be revisited or rethought. This approach affected the way of the church; that is, once you are confirmed or become adult or affirm your faith or join the membership … well, you’ve arrived. You are saved. And you don’t need to do anything more. Or change, or grow in faith, or explore different dimensions of the faithful life.

To say, “I don’t know”, in response to a question meant there is something wrong with you and your faith or your understanding. To confess “I don’t know” according to the credo of the old science was an admission of weakness, that something was not just right, or complete, with your faith. And this was shameful.

And yet, Paul challenges such arrogance (ironically since he was an arrogant guy himself) by focusing our attention on the “boundlessriches in Christ” whose intent is “to make everyonesee … the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.” [emphasis mine]

The magi of old studied the stars to gain understanding of God’s creation which included the boundless reaches of the universe. They sought the incarnation of God’s grace in Christ, and so followed the star. But when they arrived at the site of the nativity in Bethlehem—the apparent destination—was their journey over? Truly?

Far from it. Not only did they have to deal with Herod and his wiles, they continued by a different road. On earth, what is the destination of your faith? The destination of our yearning, searching, and endless knowing doesn’t mean the journey is over and done. And we have nowhere else to go. We continue on, seeking new expressions of God’s grace and God’s presence in Christ.

In a TV series called “See”, starring Aquaman superhero Jason Momoa, a post-apocalyptic humanity is blind. No one can see. Everyone is completely visually impaired (with few exceptions). The producers and actors do an excellent job of conveying to the viewer how individuals and communities arrange their lives to move and live without sight.

In a powerful scene, a ragtag group led by Jason Momoa is forging down a forest path, his sword cutting the air in front of them. It all seems to be a tranquil setting when suddenly he shoots out his arm to stop them from moving one step farther.

“What wrong?” another asks.

He shakes his head lifting his unseeing eyes ahead. “It doesn’t feel right. It is not safe.” Being physically blind has developed other, intuitive, senses – smell, the feel of the air, sound—to paint a picture of the truth in front of him.

As it turns out, they were walking into a narrow canyon ideal for an ambush. The ambushers, of course, were also blind. But as soon as they heard the subtle sounds of someone walking far below them—the scrape of a foot on stone, the crunch of dried leaves or the snapping of twig, they would aim their cross bows in the direction of the sound and shoot with deadly accuracy. Jason Momoa’s group was saved by a knowing that was deeper and richer than mere physical sight.

God has given us capacities beyond what we have known. There are unfathomable depths to our being in this universe and an immeasurable limit to our understanding. In describing a life of faith, Paul writes that we have confidence walking our journey of faith, “not by sight.”[4]There is more to it than a visual, observable certainty.

When someone asks you a question about your faith, and you find yourself saying, “I don’t know”, you need not say it as an admission of weakness. You can say, “I don’t know” with confidence because you are still on a journey of learning and discovery. Scientists today who study the stars will suggest with confidence that the universe is always expanding. New stars and solar systems are being discovered. We are endlessly knowing. The journey isn’t over. It never is.

And, what is more, scientists today will readily admit that there is indeed something at work in the universe that goes beyond the mere, yet important, crunching of numbers. Something they cannot put their analytical fingers on, yet something people of faith have been claiming since the beginning of time:

That our lives have purpose and meaning beyond the collision and interaction of molecules. That everything that happens in our lives is somehow intertwined, that there exists an almost imperceptible connection between ourselves, our past and our future, a connection that is leading somewhere, a connection that brings healing and wholeness to our lives.

A connection leading us somewhere eternally good.


[1]Ephesians 3:1-12

[2]Isaiah 60:1-6

[3]Richard Rohr, “Mystery is Endless Knowability” Paradox(Daily Meditations, www.cac.org, Tuesday, August 23, 2016)

[4]2 Corinthians 5:7

Seeing Jesus

Jesus says, “the person who sees me and believes will be raised up” (John 6:40). 

If I polled the assembly gathered here this morning and asked you to raise your hand if you ‘believed in Jesus (or God)’, my guess is I would get a decent showing.

But if I asked you to put up your hand if you recently saw Jesus, I’m not sure I’d get the same kind of response. If you did raise your hand to that question I might look at you with some degree of skepticism. I might not take your statement at face value. I would want to ask you more questions. 

Seeing Jesus sounds like a conversation for the mystics and contemplatives. If our faith is limited merely to a conversation about the historical, biblical Jesus, we will be challenged at this point of acknowledging the living, immanent Jesus who is also always more — an unfolding Presence in the course of all history.

Where do we see Jesus? This is an important question. How can we see the living, resurrected Lord in the world and in our lives today? How can we account for the presence of Jesus?

There is the problem of sight. Here, Jesus obviously is not talking about physical vision. Otherwise why would he even say, “the person who sees me …”? Of course the people to whom he originally spoke these words standing on the sandy, rocky ground in first-century Palestine saw him. Jesus is talking more about a perception of the heart, mind and soul — an internal dynamic.

If you follow any of my social media sites online, you might have noticed there recently some sunset photos over Lake Huron where my family vacationed over the past couple of weeks. Aside from the inspiring sunsets, this is not what I remember the water to look like:

  
Normally, as I recall from my childhood summers spent on these shores, Lake Huron is fairly active. More days than not you would see a lot of wave action, and white caps carving up the horizon and rolling in over the surf. You would feel the constant high winds buffeting the tree-lined shore.

For the fourteen days we lived by the shore last month, however, the Lake was mostly calm. The water was placid, where there would be no more than a ripple on the surface and a splash on the shore line. In fact I would be hard pressed to say there was more than two days of wave action that came close to my childhood recollections. Needless to say, the quiet, peaceful waters made for much stress-free sea-kayaking and swimming along the coast.

  
At sunset most evenings we sat around the fire pit a stone’s throw from the shore, enjoying the very soft breezes and the relatively flat surface of the water.

And, if you watched the water, once in awhile you would see a large white fish breach the surface and flap it’s broad tail. The slapping sound often caught my attention if I wasn’t looking at the exact spot on the water. 

This sudden sound, amidst the relative quiet of the expansive scene of resting water, air and land before us, also caught the attention of the other members of my family (I would add, they were preoccupied by their hand held devices, swatting the bugs, and chatting incessantly with one another!). 

“What was that?” they looked up.

“Oh, a fish, jumping out of the water,” I responded.

“Cool! Where? Where? I wanna see!”

“Well, you need to be watching the water. Keep scanning the water up and down the shore line close to the edge.”

“I don’t see anything!”, one says, scratching another mosquito bite.

“You need to keep watching the water. There,” I point over the water toward the island, “there was another one!”

“Where?”

“Were you watching the water?”

“Uh, no.”

And on and on it went. I had a restful holiday. No, I did. Really!

The problem is not so much an incapacity to see. It is first to confess how distracted we are as a people in a culture that is impatient, anxious, that does not want to slow down, that keeps us from seeing what is already there. Perhaps Jesus is there for us to see. And we, like the Pharisees with whom Jesus often sparred, are “blind” to this truth. Jesus gives us precisely what we need to live, fully (Matthew 23; John 10:10). Do we not see it?

Before the cross became the central symbol of Christianity, the sign of the fish identified the early Christian movement. In fact, the cross was for centuries rejected by Christian who naturally recoiled at the thought of having an instrument of torture and capital punishment the central symbol of the faith. 

The fish was a symbol for Jesus Christ. Food. Like bread, fish gave faithful people ongoing strength, sustenance and nourishment for life. No wonder the miracle of multiplication of bread and fish became a popular Gospel story about Jesus feeding the multitude on a hillside in Galilee (Matthew 14, Mark 6, Luke 9, John 6).

The new logo of the Eastern Synod reflects this original, early Christian identification with fish:

  
In the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John especially, Jesus compares himself to bread — bread that sustains us and feeds us everything we need. Everything. Not more. Not less. In the Old Testament, it was manna that God provided to the people in their desert wanderings. 

The desert was the place where the people had to learn to give up control, which is mostly what ‘making plans’ is all about. “Like us, the Hebrews weren’t initially too excited about all this vague mystery. The people didn’t just complain that they were out of food, they also began to romanticize about the good old days back in Egypt where they ate their fill of bread …

“God responded to the people’s anxiety about food in a very tangible way. He provided the daily blessing of bread from heaven called manna. It was a fine, flaky substance which appeared every morning. And it came with some instructions (Exodus 16:1-8). Every family had to gather their own. You couldn’t store it up or hoard it, or the worms would eat it. So you had to gather it every day, except on the sixth day of the week when you could gather an extra portion for the Sabbath. It wasn’t much — just enough to keep you going on the journey.

“All of these descriptions [like bread and fish] are wonderful metaphors for how God cares for us along the way in the desert journey: daily, tangibly, personally, and sufficiently, although never enough to remove our anxiety about tomorrow. We have to trust there will be more manna when we need it [emphasis mine].

“This is what Jesus had in mind in teaching us to pray, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. To pray those words is as if to say, ‘No matter how hard I try to secure my life with money, exercise, relationships, or work, I know that only you can give it to me. And you will do it one day at a time.

“The best reason for seeing the manna as a blessing [of Jesus’ presence, I might add] comes from its name. The literal translation of manna is ‘What is it?’ This means that every morning the people would go out and gather the ‘What is it?’ The mothers would prepare it as creatively as they could, which was tough because there was no ‘What is it?’ -helper. The family would sit at the table to eat. The kids would ask, ‘What is it?’ The mother would sigh and say, ‘Yes.’ They’d bow their heads and pray, ‘Thank you God for What is it?'” (Craig Barnes, Insights from the Desert, “Nurtured in Mystery” Shadyside Presbyterian Church, 2010)

What if we lived out of gratitude for what God has already given us? What if we made decisions — even small ones, each and every day — based on trust in Jesus being there for us, just beneath the surface of our lives? There for the watching. There for the catching and gathering. Grace and Gift, available to us. Before we even lift a finger.

Do we see the elephant?

You think when something happens frequently in a short period of time, perhaps I should pay attention to it? A sign? A reflection of something happening on a deeper level?
In the last couple of weeks I’ve attended a couple of administrative church meetings reviewing minutes taken at their annual meetings. One was the Christian Council of the Capital Area (CCCA) and the other was our very own monthly council meeting. And, in both cases, I sat around a large table while members studiously reviewed the draft minutes. In the silence, you could hear the crickets.
“Fine!” “Good job!” “Everything looks great!” “Thank you!” “Yup!” — the responses came rapid fire. And then — in both cases — someone caught it. “Ahh, it says at the top ‘Annual Meeting 2013’. Wrong year. Minor detail. Yet significant. It was worse at the CCCA where there were two different incorrect years on the front page highlighting different text!
I mention this not to slight our very capable secretaries, because it is the responsibility of the entire council to ensure the final copy is in order. But, I say this to emphasize how easy it is to see, but not to see. How very human it is — natural — to stare something straight in its face, and not have it register. 
In the Liquor Store the other day I was looking for Jessica’s favourite white wine from Chile. So I went to the South America section, where it always is. And I couldn’t find it! I stood there for an entire minute rubbing my chin and scanning the shelves. Finally I went to the desk somewhat frustrated. The attendant smiled and said, gently, “We have it.” I said, “No, you don’t.” He calmly led me to the exact same shelf where I stood staring at — I don’t know what. But there it was!
Psychologists might point to the need for us to be more ‘mindful’, in each and every moment of our lives. People of faith might consider how we are present to God’s presence always in our lives. There is often a disconnect, is there not, between my perception and reality? Some have called it ‘the elephant in the room’ that everyone feels is there but for whatever reason refuses to name it, address it.
The Gospel text for this last Sunday of Easter, is about Jesus’ prayer to God (John 17). It is, what liturgists call ‘intercessory prayer’ — that is the genre, or form, that this scripture takes. Prayer is the context. Jesus prays for his disciples, as they take over the mantel of responsibility for Jesus’ mission on earth, after Jesus ascends to heaven.
Since the time Jesus gave this ‘high priestly prayer’ over two thousand years ago, the church — the Body of Christ, the people of God — has continued to pray. I like that. Because no where that I can find in the Gospels does Jesus command his disciples to ‘worship’ him, to ‘praise’ him, to engage in the act of worship to which we contemporary Christians have come to narrowly define our Christian lives ‘on Sunday morning’. But Jesus does say, very often, ‘follow me’ and ‘pray’ and ‘do this in remembrance of me’ (referring to the Holy Communion), and ‘love your neighbour’.
What we are talking about here, is a lifestyle of following Jesus. And with this understanding, I believe, we can get a better handle on what Paul means when he says to “pray always” or “without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). This phrase makes no sense if we see prayer merely as ‘asking God for things we want’ — how is it physically possible to do this? 
Prayer is not about trying to get God to change, according to our grocery list of desires and wants. Rather, when we pray what we are doing is asking God to change us. Prayer is about allowing God to change us. Always be open in your connection with God in Christ to being changed, transformed, grown in your own life into the image of God and the person God created you to be — regardless of what or for whom we are praying.
Problem is, some of us may be thinking: why would I want to change my life? There isn’t anything that needs changing. I am happy the way things are. Why would I want that? 

We may not able to be always ‘mindful’. But at least, could we not confess our sin in not hearing the voice of God calling us, not seeing and accepting the answer to prayer already right in front of our eyes?  I think it was Meister Eckhart who defined sin as simply refusing — by our actions and thoughts — to see ourselves as God sees us. What is the elephant in our room? What are we doing that is disconnected from what God is doing and what God sees in our lives?

We come to church with our pains, sufferings, hurts. But we also come to be Christ’s hands, heart and mind to those around us. We don’t come just to see ‘what’s in it for me?’ ‘What can I get out of this experience?’, like a consumer. We don’t come just to have my selfish needs, social or otherwise, met. Rather, we come to pay attention to those others who are hurting in any way.
What does God see? How are we paying attention to those in our midst with mental illness? Are we giving any time or effort of love to these people? How are we paying attention to those who come with marital or relational problems? Are we attending, with compassion, to this need at all? How are we paying attention to those who come, who are financially poor or new-comers to Canada, or students with all their complex needs? Talk about the elephant in the room when all we do when we come to church is notice the elephant poop in the corner and complain about that. Talk about the elephant in the room when all we do is talk about what colour paint we should apply to the walls of the room.
After eighteen years of pastoral ministry and leadership, one of the top-rated questions that has come my way, is: How do I know the voice of God? How do I know that it is God’s voice speaking? How is that in prayer, God communicates to us? How do we know it’s God and not just my ego?
I wonder whether it’s the elephant in the room syndrome that so much defines or characterizes church life today. Perhaps the answer is staring us in the face. And we just don’t want to see it. We don’t want to see it or confess it because we are afraid. And we are addicted. Addicted to a lifestyle that is all about consumption. Getting more. And more. And more. For me.
The Executive Director of the Mennonite Church in Canada, Rev. Dr. Willard Metzger, said during the “Justice Tour 2015” stop in Ottawa last week, that those of us who are older are addicted. And it is much harder for us in the second half of life to divest of our material addictions, compared to most young people today who will never earn the kind of pensions that, in general, retired folks today are enjoying; young people whose starting incomes will likely not increase to the same degree that was the case a generation or two ago; young people, more of whom will be working at full time jobs but barely making enough to enjoy the kinds of lifestyles most of us older people are enjoying today. Yes, we are addicted. And we don’t want to let go of this. And we don’t want to make sacrifices along these lines. Not easily, anyway.
National Bishop Susan Johnson (ELCIC) said at the same meeting that ‘the cries of the poor, this is the voice of God in our time. Are we listening?’
In v.18 of the Gospel text, Jesus’ prayed, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” While Jesus also says the disciples “do not belong to the world” (v.14), this does not mean escape from the world. While we affirm values and beliefs that do not correspond with the world’s values, we are not called to abandon the world, disengage nor hide from it, however bad it is. Because, Jesus prays that his disciples “may have Christ’s joy made complete in themselves/among themselves” (v.13). The joy that Christ gives is not found in escaping the world’s reality, but on the ground, in community engaging the world with all of its distorted powers, pressures and conflict.
God’s voice calls us into the world, not away from it. At the same time, God does answer our prayers, in a sense, because God already knows what we need (Matthew 6:7). And it’s a consistent answer, that we will read and hear about more in the coming season of Pentecost. God’s answer is the gift of the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13). And the Holy Spirit is all about power. So, God’s answer to all our praying, is the power of God to do what is right, even if it means a sacrifice of part, or all, of our lifestyle and our privilege. God gives power more than answers (1) to change ourselves for the better, and for the sake of the world that God so loves (John 3:16).
May we be faithful in listening to God’s voice, and responding in the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s answer to prayer. We’ve prayed, in this morning’s service. Now, we are called to follow Jesus into our lives, away from this place.
(1) read especially chapter seven in Richard Rohr’s, “Breathing Under Water”