January 2, 2022
On this Sunday as we celebrate Epiphany… before we get to that familiar story of the Magi in Matthew’s gospel… I want to explore a few words and phrases from this Ephesians reading.
We heard Meg say words like “purpose” and “plan”… and these words… these words with how our brains have been trained to think and organize the world around us… these words set our minds down a particular path of thought… a causal path where this idea leads to that idea and everything can be expressed in a list or some manner of flow chart or diagram. I feel like… sometimes… the default setting of our brain is Rube Goldberg. Do you know who Rube Goldberg is? You do whether you know the name or not. If you’ve ever seen an old Warner Bros. Looney Tunes cartoon you know what a Rube Goldberg machine is. And for those of you who are too young to have been raised on Looney Tunes, there are also many examples of people constructing Rube Goldberg machines on Instagram or Tik Tok. It’s 2022. We’re hip. We’re in the know. I know what Tik Tok is. So, anyway… a Rube Goldberg machine is one of these wild contraptions where something like a boot on a wheel hits a ball and sends it rolling, which knocks over a stick holding up an ironing board that sends the iron with a knife tied to its handle down the now inclined plane to cut through the rope that’s holding up the anvil that falls on etc. etc. etc. Right? If it’s from a Looney Tune cartoon there has to be an anvil in there somewhere. Anyway… you get the picture. Causal thinking. This leads to that which leads to this which will lead to that. To be exact… causal thinking with always a certain end already in mind. Its just a matter of putting the different pieces together in the right order to reach that end. You just knew in order to build one of those Rube Goldberg machines the animators had to start at the end and work their way backwards to the first chain of events.
Conspiracy theories… those things that are plaguing our society at the moment… conspiracy theories are an example of causal thinking turned up to eleven! Its causal thought gone off the rails… but there’s something in there that feels like it all makes sense… that if we can just see how the different pieces work together then we would understand… we would understand how everything works. And in our understanding we would have a sure sense of control then over our chaotic world. There’s something about causal thinking that’s addictive to our brains. And the crazier it is the better… again like watching those wildly bizarre Rube Goldberg machines in the old Looney Tunes. The crazier the machine the funnier it would be… in the cartoon. In real life, the crazier the machine… the crazier the parts that add up to this fantastic whole… then the closer we must be to understanding the ultimate truth. At least that’s what we tend to believe. That’s the idea that gets us trapped into locked systems of thinking and understanding.
So… words like “plan” and “purpose” push that pleasing button in our brains… and we start to… pretty much automatically… create these systems where everything fits together and works. Adding the words “divine” and “eternal” is like throwing gas on the fire… and the cogs in our brains really start spinning to create these watertight systems of theological thinking so that we know… we know how this stuff works. Ephesians, though, keeps sliding in the word “mystery”. And you might think that would slow us down a bit. Savor the mystery. Be humbled a bit that there are ideas and experiences that cannot be easily explained by our Rube Goldberg thought machines. That, perhaps, control is overrated. But no. That’s just more fuel for the fire. Who doesn’t feel the need to solve the mystery? Get to the answer? Understand how this stuff works! Be the master.
The theological landscape is littered with individuals and groups who had figured it all out… who… again… were in the know. Had the secret knowledge that everyone else failed to recognize. There have been plenty of epiphanies… in the sense of people having a sudden insight… an “aha” moment where a new cog in the system suddenly occurred to them that would reveal the true form of the system at hand. Not just the true form but the only form so that their mastery became the truth that everyone else must acknowledge and align to in order to be one with the ultimate truth. Paul was a part of one of those groups in the form of the Pharisees… their greatest strength also being their greatest weakness. Always so sure. Always so right. Their authority built upon those two qualities. Their attraction to others always built upon those two qualities. Never underestimate people’s appetites to be a part of sureness… of absolutism. Again… it pushes that button in our brains… it fills the hole in our hearts… it gives our souls substance. Or so we want to believe. Absolutism gives us the right amount of blind confidence to build the most sure of Rube Goldberg thought machines that predictably create the results we knew to be true from the beginning. With an ends justifies the means ethic, we can go anywhere we want with our systems without accountability or question. Again… it is the great self-deluding addiction of our times.
Which is why Paul’s story is so relevant to us… especially today. Paul’s moment of blinding epiphany in his encounter with the risen Christ breaks apart his Pharisaic thought machine. Paul encounters the one thing he cannot create a thought machine to predict. The grace of God. Because God’s grace comes from a wholly independent God who is not bound by anything. A wholly independent God is always a mystery… cannot be explained or contained by a predetermined process. God’s free grace comes from a free God. And this tears down all of Paul’s carefully constructed thought machines… machines he had used to justify his right to rule over others… machines he had used to justify his right to persecute and murder… to treat his fellow human beings as objects to either be made to conform with Pharisaic absolutism or to be dispensed with and disposed of as unnecessary and invalid defective pieces that had no place in the machine.
Here’s a question for you… what is the difference between Paul before his encounter with God’s grace and the authoritarian playbook of Herod’s in this story of the Magi? Authoritarianism is predictable no matter the form it takes. From the charismatic individual in the middle to the true believing moths drawn to the flame to the greater number of supporting cogs who might not believe as much in the absoluteness of the system, but who make the whole system works because they personally benefit from it. Doesn’t that describe Herod’s Jerusalem, the one the Magi walk into? The Magi, themselves bound by their own thought system of astrology, go to the wrong place. Don’t find what they seek… their machine only allowing them to find what they are expected to find… a king born in a palace. Herod’s authoritarian response is just as predictable. Use the Magi to his own ends. See only threat to his own authority. Murder innocent children because they do not work to uphold his system. Actions I’m sure that were seen as justified and likely made legal since Herod’s word is law. Objectivity is corrosive to tightly bound thought machines.
Even as Herod turns to his chief priests for answers, the priests give answers that speak of a system of belief, but there is nothing in their answers that actually moves any of them. Of course, there is no room for a Messiah in Herod’s authoritarianism. But there is also no place for a Messiah in the priests’ carefully constructed system as well. None of the priests bother to leave Jerusalem and make the short trip to Bethlehem. Their curiosity isn’t stirred. No hope takes shape. Nothing changes. Because seen through their faith vision, God is static and predictable when there is some manner of action on God’s part. Truth be told, the God they ought to have been serving has been replaced by the system they are currently serving. A Temple complex. A system of belief with its predictable work to be done year in and year out. Sacrifices to be offered. Temple court business to oversee. A system that is theirs and in their control.
Which… again… is what makes Paul’s epiphany so amazing. He encounters a Messiah whom he believed to be dead. Murdered through the predictable forces of systems firmly in place. Murdered as the means to dispose of cogs that threatened to unbalance the system or might change the machine so that it didn’t produce the predictable results for which it was constructed. Of course, Jerusalem is the city that murders prophets… especially those prophets that shook up the words “plan” and “purpose”. How could it be otherwise? The old Paul was fully invested in that. The new Paul experienced grace and his understanding of Emmanuel… God with us… was turned on its head… his sure system breaking… mystery reentering… the need for him to be present and in the moment with his own faith coming to the fore.
The same thing seems to happen to the Magi in their own way. Their system of astrology fails them. It takes them to the wrong place. All their assumptions are left worthless. But something else happens to them. They encounter a different word… one that had been locked away in the priests’ system. Something different happens to them taking them to Bethlehem. They encounter an unexpected child in an unexpected home. Instead of falling for the machinations of Herod’s authoritarianism… they leave for home by another road. Always my favorite phrase from this story… “by another road.” Maybe their systemic independence is not as dramatic as Paul’s will be many years later… but a clear seed has been planted. Grace is setting them free. A God who is not bound by this system or that carefully constructed system is being revealed in a way that the stars themselves could not inform.
Our yearly celebration of Epiphany is supposed to mark how the good news of Christ spread outwards from its roots in Judaism to the Gentiles. But for me, the celebration is how the good news of Christ continues to spread outwards… continues to spread… breaking through our present day systems… finding voice and agency in our world of yesterday, today, tomorrow… shaking us up… causing us to have to switch from the automatic setting to being in the moment of here and now… and seeing how that free God with that free grace is at work. Epiphany is at the same time both scary and exciting… as any encountered mystery is. This is a new day where anything might happen.
Listen then as God speaks to you… here at the end of the sermon… from the gospel according to Matthew, chapter 2.