Navigating Darkness

Matthew 2: 1-12

One of the movies I caught over the holidays was A Monster Calls. The story is about a young boy, Conor, who finds himself just overwhelmed by life and not able to take much more of it. His parents are divorced, he’s bullied at school because he’s become so isolated, and now the one consistency in his life, his mother, is dying of cancer. He has this ongoing nightmare where he feels as if life is slipping through his hands. There’s so much uncertainly that he lives in this constant state of fear, let along the anxiety and anger he’s experiencing because of this deep grief.

But he encounters this “monster” which is the tree outside in the cemetery that comes to life. Even that distracts him from the nightmare he’s used to. He begins to call upon it. He begins to realize that the “monster” isn’t out there in the cemetery, it’s deep within him. The monster keeps assuring him that he’s leading him to healing, to this deeper truth that gets lost in the darkness of despair and this ongoing lie that he’s holding onto that everything will be alright and his mother will somehow survive. He begins to learn how to navigate through the darkness that has so often consumed his life and learns to let go. It’s not easy for us adults let along a young boy trying to navigate.

This whole season has been allowing ourselves to wander and navigate that same darkness in our lives. Christmas does not expel the darkness nor does it somehow destroy it. We seem to operate in the world that we can get rid of it which only leads to greater darkness. These Magi we encounter today are learning to do the same in their lives. Even their navigation is a bit off, leaning on their own expectations of a king being born. They find themselves a few miles outside Bethlehem in Jerusalem, in what seems to be their final challenge in learning how to navigate this great darkness, the Herod that lies within.

Fear rules Herod and the land and it’s what the Magi now must face within themselves. He was a tyrant and often believed to have been paranoid in the end of his days. He too finds himself in a position where life seems to be slipping through his fingers and losing control. However, he doesn’t let it go. Rather, he takes it out on the most vulnerable, on the children and has them killed. It’s fear, darkness, and despair when it comes to Herod but a valuable lesson for the Magi seeking life, the newborn King. it’s a struggle for many of us, the darkness within ourselves that is so often easier to cast upon the other rather than learning how to navigate it all. Jerusalem will become that same place for the disciples as the story goes on. They too won’t understand the Christ until they first encounter that same darkness. It won’t come in the form of Herod but in the form of a crucifixion by others who are plagued by darkness. Jerusalem becomes the doorway to Bethlehem.

And so they find their way to the Christ. They offer their own gifts, in someways symbolic of their own journey and the darkness that they too had to confront. The journey to the Christ took them where they’d rather not go, where we would rather not go, but like God, we are often led without even knowing, into the great unknown, into this deeper reality of mystery. For young Conor and for the disciples, it was about seeking truth and truth leads to darkness and to life. He had to let go of what he knew. It was no longer about the head knowledge that we want to cling to and how it’s supposed to be or how we want it to be, but rather a deeper knowledge. It’s deeper knowing and truth that so often is beyond words but lies deep within, ever so gently navigating us through that very darkness that we have feared.

As this season of Christmas draws to a close, the journey really just begins. We’ll hear the call of the disciples to go deeper. We’ll hear the call to enter into this journey and to begin to learn to trust something deeper within themselves as they too are led to uncharted territory, where all that they have known begins to slip through their fingers. They will be left with the same choice as the Magi as the encounter the Christ. Do they leave it all at that crib, with great humility, life and death, or do they cling to what they can see, what they know, what they are comfortable with in life? It is what is asked of us as well. With God’s grace, we can learn to navigate the darkest of times, but we can’t deal with the darkness of the country or the world until we first begin to master it within ourselves. When we do, like the Magi, we can no longer go home the same way. The seeking of and finding of the Christ changes the course of our lives where we too go home by another way. It’s no longer about going home to what we know but into the unknown, into this deeper mystery. No, and not that physical place we call home, but deep in the recesses of our hearts and souls, ever so gently teaching and guiding us, while casting light, to navigate the darkness of our lives.

The Further Journey

Matthew 2: 1-12

There’s a very thin line that the magi face in their lives, whether the star stops them short when the encounter Herod or recognizing there’s something and someone more; it hadn’t stopped over Jerusalem but further along. Yet, for many of us on this journey, we become captivated by the draw of the royal palace of Herod. We stop short, as the people of Jerusalem do by an illusion of peace, one brought on by fear rather than love. Yet, it’s comfortable in the palace. We have all that we need and know what we know. Isn’t that what this journey often becomes for us? We become comfortable here, in what we know, around the people that we know, safe and secure, until we find ourselves boxed in to the comforts, no longer wanting to grow and change. It’s the advantage that kids have over us adults, that they continue to have a sense of wonder and adventure, exploring, never satisfied, and looking for something more.

This story that we hear today of the magi or kings or whatever we choose to call them is really you and me. It’s our journey towards faith and love. They must encounter it all in this journey. They feel the heat of the desert, stripping layers off themselves, being with no one other than themselves. They too face the darkness and the unknown, heading out into unfamiliar terrain, looking for something, tapping into that sense of adventure and wonder, where it is that this star would lead them. But they too must confront the illustrious palace of Herod. They are invited into the inner sanctum of Herod. He shows them graciousness. He seeks their counsel and their wisdom. He finds a way to use them for his own benefit, but by now, they know there’s something more. Whereas we often find ourselves settling for the illusion of Herod and his palace in our lives, the magi invite us to a deeper place, a life of mature faith. Yet, this may be the greatest challenge we face in moving to that place because fear becomes what we know that we begin to think the illusion is the truth, is real. The magi know otherwise. We know otherwise, when we don’t allow that sense of wonder and adventure, the desire for more, to die within us. How could we possibly give up the palace when it’s what we know?

Faith is the continuation, that constant hungering for more that drives the magi from the palace to a more humble place where they find themselves today. If there were any illusions of the star stopping over Jerusalem that day, it has all been but lost. The journey they embarked on, into the unknown of God and into the unknown of themselves, leads them to this place, to this newborn king, who seems to promise much more than Herod ever could to them. Herod could hand them everything and it still wouldn’t be enough for what this child can give, a life now rooted in love, which casts out all fear. As a matter of fact, through the love of that child, who is love, and an encounter with the truth in that crib, the magi go home by a different route. Fear is no longer an option. The regalia of the palace is no longer appealing. It’s lost its appeal and all that goes with it. What has died is not the sense of wonder and adventure, the desire for more; all of that has only been given new life. What has died for the magi, and what dies for us in the encounter with this deeper mystery, is a life once known, a life of illusion brought by fear, a life that no longer satisfies the deeper longing of the heart, which leads us, too, on a different route home.

My friends, as we gather on this feast of the Epiphany, the magi point us in a new way, beyond the palace we’ve created for ourselves and the comfort of the known, to a journey into the unknown, the deeper mystery we call love. We know that palace can be very appealing to the eyes, but the heart tells us something more, something deeper that is desired, and calls us to leave that place and move to the place of greater humility, the place of the crib; where the star leads the magi, we too are led. Otherwise, we run the risk of encounters with mystery in new ways. Maybe the encounter comes through person of a different color. Maybe the encounter comes through a person of a different faith or a different way of practicing their faith, a different way of life. The illusion of the palace eventually begins to break down and we seek more in life; what once was lost becomes found, our own magi story, leading us to a place of deeper trust, deeper faith, and deeper love, to continue to allow the incarnation, God made flesh, to change our lives, lead our lives, define our lives, no longer by fear but in and through love.

Navigating Home From Within

Is 60: 1-6; Eph 2: 3-6; Matthew 2: 1-12

There’s not much we can be certain of in life. There is so much unpredictability and unknown that we encounter that it often seems to set us off kilter when things do arise in life. But I believe there is one thing that I’m pretty certain of in life, despite all that is uncertain, and that’s the fact that we all seek and searching for something. We spend a great deal of our lives doing just that, as if we are programmed to go out and try to find something. Heck, the whole commercial industry is based on that one fact. They know, because they are the same, that we are searching and seeking something, they often prey on that and convince us that what they got is going to be our quick-fix and do-it-all. Yet, what I am most certain of is that we seek and search for we already have within us. Now that doesn’t mean that we won’t stop looking and seeking in ways that takes us on many different paths in life, even leading us astray at times, but once we find what it is we are seeking and looking for, we no longer need to participate in that game.

I believe the same is true for this feast that we celebrate today, the Feast of the Epiphany, the manifestation of God’s love. Now this happens long before Jesus is born in Bethlehem. The Israelites were constantly finding themselves in situations where they are seeking the Lord. It takes them everywhere, including exile, leads them into the desert, takes them even into battle, they long and seek and search, and yet, can’t seem to find because they look everywhere other than where it is and has been all along, within. Today, in the reading from Isaiah, they are on return from exile. Jerusalem has always existed, and yet today, they see it in a new way. They see it as a manifestation of God’s faithfulness and love. They come home by a different route and by different eyes and now with a new navigation system as well, being led from within.

The Gospel we once again encounter one of the regular Christmas characters, Herod. We’ve heard his name the past couple weeks, but now in contrast with the Magi who are the archetypal seekers of Scripture. One represents the clamoring of power and seeking it from out, leading to great fear and insecurity for Herod and his people. The people know what he is capable of and live with great fear that he will follow through. Even the announcement of the birth of the Christ child causes great concern. He is classic politician. He goes where the wind blows and has no interior grounding and navigation system. Herod remains lost in his own darkness, insecurity, and fear. A good indicator is the mention of him calling for them in secret; he still lives out of fear rather than the grace of the moment.

These Magi, on the other hand, can’t and don’t settle for that. They should offer us some solace on our own faith journey as that this journey takes them all over, for a great period of time, under not the most conducive conditions, and won’t stop until they find the Christ child, the newborn King. When they do, their navigation begins to shift from the guidance of a star to their own interior navigation; they found the Christ child not only here in the crib, but here, in their heart, the eternal crib of the child. On the fourth Sunday of Advent I spoke of the empty crib. On Christmas I spoke of the fullness of the crib and view life through that lens. Today it isn’t now something that we go visit here at the foot of the altar, but in our very hearts and souls, navigating us through life. The manifestation of God’s love. How do we know they had this encounter, by the very fact that they return home by a different route. They can no longer go back to what was for them because of this encounter. They not only experience the newness of life and being led from their own exile, but they experience death at the same time, letting go of what was and what can no longer be; a life of fear is no more. They now know the lie of seeking “out there” and have found what they have searched for. They are now navigated by a different way and their lives will now become a manifestation of Christmas to the world.

As we journey through this Christmas season and through our faith, we may still be the seekers, looking for something to fill that crib within, and that’s ok; God can work with anything and anyone, and so often we must meet that vulnerable place of ourselves before the journey turns towards Bethlehem. We do that as individuals and even as a community. Nonetheless, we seek and we find and we are changed, converted in the process, letting go of what was in order to make room for what is and is to come. An encounter with the Christ is life-changing. If you’ve had it, you know what I mean; and once the Christ, the Shining Star, is found, you know you are different and can’t go back home the same way. And you know how? Like the Magi, your life takes a different course and me and you become that manifestation, that epiphany, of God’s love to the world.