Searching

180315 living waters bowlThe Living Waters Bowl, FPCEIn Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 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.” —Matthew 2:1-2 On the church calendar, today is the Day of Epiphany.  We don’t think much about Epiphany today, but in some eras of history, and some places even today, Epiphany is the day of gift giving, and a bigger deal than Christmas. For this last day in the Christmas season, the lectionary schedule of readings offers us the gospel text that tells us about the wise men, celebrated in Christmas songs and children’s pageants.Just who were these wise men? Church tradition offers the names Gaspar, Balthazar, and Melchior.  Some have said that they came from Africa; others say that they came from Arabia or Babylon.  Matthew doesn’t really tell us that they were kings; he doesn’t even tell us that there were three of them. We infer three because they brought three gifts, but there may have been two or ten, we don’t really know. The word that Matthew uses to describe them is “magoi,” which we transliterate as “magi.” “Magi” was the term applied to Zoroastrian priests from Persia.  Zoroaster, who had lived about 600 years before Jesus, had predicted the coming of a number of Messiahs, and his followers were interested in the motion of stars. To many, it seems likely that the visitors mentioned in Matthew were priests of Zoroastrianism who had come from Persia.Whatever their origin, wherever their homeland, they must have made a long trip. Perhaps their journey had been a straight line, or perhaps they had wandered like the ancient Hebrews. Perhaps the duration of their journey was months, or perhaps it was years.When the magi seek out King Herod to ask where the new king has been born, they may not have understood just how threatening and explosive such a question could be. Always imagining a threat to his throne, the paranoid king killed not only his wife, but also three sons. While it may not be readily apparent today, Matthew’s original audience would have understood that the journey of the Magi was not only long and arduous, but also politically and physically dangerous.So, why does Matthew include this account in his gospel? Many commentators say that Matthew is trying to demonstrate that Jesus will be the savior not only of his own people, the Jews, but also the entire world.  Matthew’s gospel is especially rich with the irony of Jesus’ rejection by those who we might imagine would have been most prepared for his coming. The people of Jerusalem seem unprepared to accept the new child. In contrast, the wise men devote time and treasure to finding him. Their searching displays their humble and open hearts.We live in a world quite different than the one of which Matthew wrote. But having a humble, open, searching heart still is a virtue. At certain points along life’s path, I think most of us crave an experience of holy mystery. We want to touch transcendence, to feel like we’ve made powerful, life-enriching contact with the Source of life. Sometimes, we want answers to questions of purpose: “Who am I?” and “What I am supposed to be doing?” “Where am I going?” “How will I not only survive, but thrive, while getting there?” Other times, we want answers that address deep pain: “Why do I or my loved ones suffer so much when we are innocent of any great wrongdoing?”  “Is there life after death, and what will it be like?” We’re also looking for the root of true values, a standard to help us know what is right and wrong. We want to teach morality to our children. When faced with complex choices, we want to know how to think, and speak, and act. Like the wise men, we are searching.[1]Some of us are reading a book entitled “Inspired” by Rachel Held Evans, an author who describes her spiritual search in a way that I believe many young Presbyterians can appreciate. Moving away from her childlike Sunday-school understanding, she writes, “I would leave my faith a dozen times in the years following, and return to it a dozen more. I got married, became Episcopalian, voted for Barack Obama, and discovered the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation …. My journey back to loving the Bible (she says) like most journeys of faith, is a meandering and ongoing one, a story still in draft. And like all pilgrims, I am indebted to … those saints of holy curiosity whose lives of faithful questioning taught me not to fear my doubts, but to embrace and learn from them …. Every page of Scripture serves as an invitation – to wonder, to wrestle, to surrender to the adventure.”“And so, at thirty-five, after years of tangling with the Bible, and with every expectation that I shall tangle with it forever, I find myself singing Psalm 121 to my baby boy each night. ‘He who watches over you will not slumber,’ I sing into his sweet-smelling wisp of hair, as many thousands of mothers and fathers have done before. ‘He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” I am teaching my son the ancient songs and hearing them again for the first time. I am caught up in the story, surrendered to its pull.”[2]Searching for God with humble and open hearts is a commitment reflected in the language and rituals of Presbyterian baptism. Each family who arrives at baptism gathers at our Living Waters bowl. As the artist said in his design statement, the technique used to form the bowl, blowing the glass into an open mold, and twisting it while it is still hot, creates a design that is peculiar and imperfect, and even suggests the crashing of waves. Yet, it is filled with water,  a symbol of life and rebirth. The Spirit of God hovers above the face of the deep, promising to bring good order from chaos. If you’re like me, you may gaze into the bowl, and see the whirlpool of living waters, calling you to surrender to its pull.There is symbolism here that I believe every parent can relate to on the day of a baptism. There’s the scheduling, and the preparing of the perfect clothes, and the meeting with the pastor. There’s the timing of the child’s feeding, the hope there’s no illness to spoil it all, the directions to find the church, and the instructions to family members to start early so that no one will be late. Even when you don’t feel it on the day of the baptism, God already is at work to bring order from chaos.  The parents, when searching with humble and open hearts, already are committing their family to a new set of spiritual priorities. It’s a set of priorities that affirms their child is God’s child, first and foremost. On all the future days when their family is claimed by societal pressures, school expectations, swim meets, and soccer matches, we are affirming that their child belongs to God. When they face the twists and turns of life’s challenging journey, we pray they will remember this day. As a wise preacher once put it, “By the waters of baptism and faith in Christ, they will know that their child has an imperishable inheritance. And nobody ever, ever can change the will.”NOTES[1]I’m indebted to Lew Hopfe, who pondered the meaning of spiritual journey in his sermon “The Eternal Search,” delivered at Plymouth Congregational Church, Wichita, Kansas, January 5, 1992.[2]Rachel Held Evans, Inspired, Nashville: Nelson Books, 2018, pp. xviii-xxi.