EPIPHANY 2013 | Is 60:1-6; Eph 3:1-12; Matt 2:1-12
As a young man, I felt fairly devastated by my experience of church. We had been part of a congregation in the Chicago suburbs that was so extreme in its fundamentalism that it was very much on the fringe of the Southern Baptist Convention at the time. Just so you know, if you’re so over-the-top conservative that even the Southern Baptists view you with suspicion, you’ve gone too far.
We had clearly gone too far, and we left a lot of wreckage in our wake—my own soul included. For several years I just gave up on God. It was all sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll—but far geekier and a lot less cool than that actually sounds because, you know, this is ME we’re talking about.
But all the while I was sowing my wild oats, I had one finger in the Christianity water bowl. Just one. But it was an important one. There was this singer-songwriter named Bruce Cockburn—and at the time (well, in fact, for some time to come )I was fairly obsessed with his music. His lyrics were profound, shot through with a visceral mysticism that touched me deeply.
His songs were disarmingly honest—both confessional and revelatory of a greater purpose at work in the world that was always just out of sight but often impinging on daily life. He always asked the hard questions, and he never gave the easy answer. He wrote about being confounded and moved by beauty, wonder, and at times even evil, and of the incessant interior struggle to be a person of mindfulness, compassion and integrity.
Consistently, in listening to Cockburn, I was confronted with deep questions about what it meant to be a truly human being, and was challenged to be a better and more honest person. But the thing that most confounded me was that much of his ruminations came from his Christian faith.
Bruce was, in fact, an Anglican mystic. And I was so impressed and moved by him, that at that time I felt I could not dispense with Christianity altogether because THIS MAN was a Christian. There was something in his songwriting, his poetry, his ideas that called to me, that spoke to me of something that I deeply wanted for myself, that pointed to a well-examined and well-lived life.
He might have just been a folk and rock-n-roll artist, true—and rock stars are not generally noted for their altruism or their piety. But the truth is, I TRUSTED him, and he kept saying that there was something important about Jesus. I was too wounded to claim that for myself at the time, but I trusted Bruce, so I hung in there and kept the door open, just a crack at first, but still open. It was enough.
As I look back on that period of my life today, I see that what influenced me was Bruce’s authority. I trusted him, and he pointed to Jesus. So I had to look at Jesus. Our reading from the Gospel According to St. Matthew today contains precisely this same kind of appeal to authority. There’s no record that the three wise men were songwriters, but they certainly were people of authority in the eyes of Matthew’s readers.
Now, typically, this text is viewed as a foreshadowing of the appeal of Jesus’ message amongst the Gentiles, and I think that interpretation is definitely fair. But one would expect that sort of message to pop up in Luke’s Gospel, not in Matthew’s Gospel. This point, quite frankly, gave me fits this week as I pondered our lessons. It just didn’t seem to FIT. The message of God’s Good News crossing the line from the Jewish world to the Gentile communities is precisely what the Gospel of Luke is ABOUT. But Matthew’s Gospel has its roots in the Jewish Christian community. It is very much an inwardly focused Gospel—written by Jews, to Jews. What meaning could the story of the wise men have in this context?
I believe it is precisely this question of authority that I’ve been speaking about. Yes, Jesus is the Messiah because trusted authorities—the Hebrew prophets—spoke of him, and predicted his coming. But there was a less likely but no less real source of authority that the author of Matthew’s Gospel wanted to appeal to as well. The Jewish people at this time thought well of Zoroastrians. It was, after all, Zoroastrians who conquered Babylon, and who set them free and permitted them to return to Israel. It was the Zoroastrian king Cyrus whom the Hebrew prophets called, “the son of God”—it’s right there in the Bible. It was Zoroastrian theology that so impressed them that they appropriated huge portions of it for themselves—like monotheism! And all of our beliefs about angels, demons, heaven, hell, the final judgment, the resurrection of the dead, and a coming messiah are borrowed from Zoroastrianism.
In short, they might be filthy Gentiles on the outside, but on the inside the Jews recognized the Zoroastrians as people of God. They respected them, admired them, and invested their scriptures, their priesthood, and their theology with authority. So when Matthew wanted to convince his readers that Jesus was the messiah, he appealed to two major sources of authority—insiders, the biblical prophets, but also outsiders, the trusted Zoroastrian religious leaders.
This is why Matthew shows us three Zoroastrian priests travelling all the way from the East to recognize and worship the Christ child. It was an appeal to authority—both Jewish authority and a respected gentile authority as well.
Of course, an appeal to authority isn’t proof. It’s more like a character witness. But that’s not nothing. It was, presumably, convincing for many of Matthew’s readers—otherwise he would not have included it, nor would it have survived the Gospel’s many redactors. It was the same for me: Bruce didn’t prove that Jesus was worthy of my time and attention, but his testimony carried a lot of weight.
And that’s important. The truth is, I’m not sure if I would call myself a Christian today were it not for Bruce Cockburn’s witness. At a crucial time in my life, he figuratively grabbed my arm and said, “Don’t throw this out. There’s still something for you, here.” And because I listened to him, I am standing here today.
It’s humbling, because it makes me wonder in what way I do that for others. Crazy as it sounds, there are people for whom I am an authority. Just as there are people for whom YOU are an authority. Our words, our witness, the things to which we give our attention and energy carry weight with other people.
There are people watching us all the time—family members, friends, and even total strangers—who look to us for clues about what is worthwhile in life. Our actions, our decisions, and our commitments speak far more loudly than our words—although our words are important, too.
My assumption is that you are here tonight because Jesus is important to you. There’s something about him—his teaching, his life, his authority, maybe his integrity or his divinity—that speaks to you. But would other people know that from watching you day-to-day?
Even watching Bruce Cockburn from afar, following his musical career, he pointed me to Jesus. Do I point other people to Jesus? Do you?
Do we live our lives in such a way that people are impressed by our integrity? Does our faith strike people as so compelling and real that they cannot dismiss it out of hand? Are we faithful stewards of the happenstance authority that we have accumulated, just by being who we are, where we are, when we are? If not, why not?
After all, God has made good use of unlikely authorities. Rock-n-roll singers and heathen clergy and me and YOU. Sounds exactly like the kind of company Jesus would keep, doesn’t it? Let us pray…
God, we never know who is watching, but someone always is.
Help us to live our lives in ways that are worthy of the authority people afford to us.
Help us to live lives of integrity.
Help us to honor you in such a way that no one can dismiss us
or the place that YOU hold in our lives.
Make of us living witnesses to the grace, gifts, and love
that you have given to us,
so that others will find it hard to dismiss you out of hand
and may find the meaning and community and covenants
that have made our lives sweet.
For we ask this in the name of him to whom we point
In our prayer, in our work, in our art and in our lives,
Even Jesus Christ. Amen.