Do your homework and pay attention – a sermon

Today’s Christmas 2 Sermon is now available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

When I was in High School, I learned about a chemical phenomenon called Osmosis.  You’ve probably heard of it too, it is the tendency of a liquid to pass through a semipermeable membrane into another liquid where the solvent concentration is higher, thus equalizing the concentration on both sides of the membrane.[1]  Being a curious, albeit also a lazy high school student, there were a few nights when I attempted to push the limits of osmosis.  With a big test looming the next day, a test that I had probably not studied for at all, I would place my text book under my pillow hoping that the information that was highly concentrated in the book would osmotically make its way into my brain where the concentration of information on the subject was quite low.  Unfortunately, it never worked, and I usually did pretty poorly on the tests that I studied for by osmosis.  Eventually, I learned that the only way to really learn something is by doing my homework and paying attention.

As we wind down the 12 Days of Christmas and transition to the Season of Epiphany, the Lectionary provides us with the story of some men from the East who did their homework and paid attention.  The Wise Men, the Magi, the 3 Kings; whichever name you call them by, this story is as much a part of our Christmas consciousness as the angels, shepherds, and swaddling clothes.  It is through their part in the Christmas story that we find our place in the Kingdom of God.  It is through their diligence, their devotion to an odd, pagan religion known as Zoroastrianism, and their desire to pay homage to the newborn King of Israel that we get our first glimpse into how the birth of Jesus was meant to change more than just the fate of Israel: Jesus came to save the whole world.

The story of the Wise Men begins long before Christmas and far away from Bethlehem.  These men, traditionally given the names Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar were men who studied both the stars and the world around them.  They were keenly aware of the promises made by prophets and oracles around the known world.  They had read the holy texts of the world’s religions so that when a new thing occurred in the night skies, they might know what it meant.  On that first Christmas night, a new star shone bright in the heavens, and the wise men were paying attention.  They had done their homework, and knew that this particular star was rising in the west, announcing the birth of the King of Israel, promised by the prophet Balaam in the 24th chapter of Numbers.  They felt compelled to welcome the newborn King, to pay him homage, and so they began their long journey, following the star along their way.

After a very long journey, Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar finally entered the city of Jerusalem, home of the Throne of David, fully expecting that the now toddler to whom they’d come to pay homage would be found there.  They’d done their homework, but they’ve missed a few key details, and so “they strode into Jerusalem like a person wandering bare-footed into a snake pit asking, ‘Where’s the baby king?’”[2]  Eventually, they would find themselves face-to-face with the current King of Israel, Herod the Great, who also happened to be one of the most murderous madmen to ever occupy a throne.  The 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia describes Herod as “of commanding presence; he excelled in physical exercises; he was a skillful diplomatist; and, above all, he was prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition.”[3] Needless to say, Herod didn’t take too kindly to the question, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”  The Wise Men were schooled in the art of paying attention to the stars, but how about reading people?  Did they see the fear in Herod’s eyes?  Could they read the deception in his heart as he invited them to bring back word of his location?  Were they paying enough attention to see through his forked tongued hope to “pay the child homage?”  I can’t help but wonder if the dream that warned them not to return to Herod was the Spirit confirming their own suspicions honed by the reading of the stars, of holy writ, and of the many powerful people they had come to meet along the way?

We will never know what was going on inside the Wise Men as they finished their journey, following the star until it stopped over the house where the Holy Family lived, but we do know what happened when they got there: they were overwhelmed with joy and bowed down in worship.  Once again, I can’t help but think that these Wise Men were in tune with what was going on both within them and around them.  They had come to meet a King, but found themselves face-to-face with the Son of God himself, a holy child who would change the fate of the earth just as he had already changed the landscape of the heavens.  All throughout their journey, the Wise Men paid attention, learned new things about themselves and about the baby boy they hoped to find, and they came to realize that God was doing something amazing.

As we embark on a New Year as disciples of the King of Israel, I wonder if I’m paying enough attention.  Star gazing isn’t a part of my spirituality, but listening for God certainly is, and I believe that part of a fulfilling religious life is paying attention.  There are myriad ways in which God can come to us, seeking to “wonderfully restore” our relationship with Him and with the world He created, but if we aren’t paying attention, if we aren’t attuned to the voice of God, then most likely we’ll miss an opportunity for great things, and the key to paying attention is practice.

As Keith said in his sermon last week, a life of prayer is one in which God speaks, something happens, and we respond.  When our response is to actually do something, to see God’s hand at work and to roll up our sleeves and join in, then we become more and more able to see God in the little things.  We become accustomed to the nuances of the Spirit, the little nudges, the soft voice, the burning in our hearts.  Paying attention to God at work in the big stuff, enables us to better pay attention to God at work in the little stuff, and allows us the opportunity to see the wonderful works of God all over our lives.

Yet the world is full of distraction.  So many things battle for our limited attention.  Often I’m so busy worrying about me and my stuff that I forget to look for God in the world around me, and when I’m not paying attention, I miss out on opportunities to bless and be blessed that are beyond my wildest imagination.  The problem gets compounded in the church.  Too often, congregations get so wrapped up in their own needs and desires that they forget to pay attention to God’s call to get beyond what time Sunday services should be or what kind of music people like or whether or not the whole prayer list is read every week and actually make a difference in the world around them.

God can change our hearts through osmosis.  The Spirit can work her way in, even without us noticing, but the real gift comes when we pay attention, when we do our homework, and when we seek out the will of God in our lives: personally and communally.  May God bless us richly with open eyes, ears, and minds that are paying attention to his call to be his hands, his feet, and his heart in Foley and to the ends of the earth.  Amen.

[1] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/osmosis

[2] This paragraph owes thanks to Alyce McKenzie, “Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh: Reflections on Matthew 2:1-12” www.patheos.com

[3] http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7598-herod-i (emphasis mine)

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