In November I was fortunate enough to attend a preaching workshop in Toronto with colleagues from across Canada, and the main text we focused on was this very text from the gospel of Matthew. In preparing to preach, one of the things that Anna, our workshop leader insisted on is that you have to go into the text and wrestle with it until it speaks to you. And so, after spending time with the text, reading it, questioning it, discussing it, looking at commentaries, whatever, the first question that you have to ask yourself before you start preparing your sermon is this:
What is the moment in the text that gets you? That is, that fascinates you, troubles you, thrills you, haunts you, disturbs you, or otherwise jumps up to meet you?
We broke into small groups for this exercise, and we asked that first question. What is the moment in the text that gets you? And we went around the room:
“overwhelmed with joy”
“overwhelmed with joy”
“overwhelmed with joy”
All six of us picked the same moment: “When the wise men saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”
Then we moved to the second question of our exercise, “Why does this moment in the text get you?” and our responses again were the same. It was because the phrase “overwhelmed with joy” awakened a deep longing in us, a deep longing to be overwhelmed with joy. There was a wistfulness in our midst. We had caught a glimpse of something in the text, and we wanted it. We really wanted it. Real bad.
Do any of you have a great longing to be overwhelmed with joy?
Do you remember a moment when you were overwhelmed with joy?
We asked that question too in our group. And, again the answers were remarkably similar, at least at first:
“The birth of my child”
“when my child was born”
“The birth of my child”
“I don’t have any children”
The wise men in today’s gospel had a deep longing. They must have had a deep longing, otherwise why undertake such a long and arduous journey through the desert. They were seekers, and they saw something in the night skies that inspired them to set off on their quest. “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?”
It’s a strange story, this story of great longing. Wise men, who naively ask the King of the Jews about the child who has been born king of the Jews. Do you see the problem here? This is the same ruthless King Herod who put his own children to death to avoid any risk of premature succession. He will not respond well to the question of the wise men. Strange too is the behaviour of the star, which goes ahead of the wise men to Bethlehem and then stops over the place where the child was. Stars don’t normally do that. And the wise men, who had journeyed long and far, not quite sure of what they would find, not quite sure of where they were going, when they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage. And I expect that Mary and Joseph found all of this a bit strange!
Our stories of longing are often strange stories. Our deepest yearnings tap into something that we don’t fully understand. On the Camino de Santiago, it’s a common experience for pilgrims to burst into tears of joy when they finally arrive at the Cathedral of St. James, the end point of the journey. At one level we understand why. It is the end of a journey, the culmination of months of effort and determination. Sometimes we have a good idea of what it is we’re longing for. Expectant parents long for the birth of their child. Pilgrims long to arrive at their destination. Wise men from the east long to see the child that has been born king of the Jews.
But at other times it’s hard to articulate just what it is we’re longing for. We have this deep yearning for something that may seem just beyond our grasp. Throughout the ages, poets and mystics have entertained the possibility that these deep longings have something to do with God. The Hebrew poet writes in Psalm 42,
“As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you O God. My soul is athirst for God, athirst for the living God; when shall I come to appear before the presence of God?”
St. Augustine in the fourth century also felt within himself a restless yearning for God. “O Lord,” he cried, “our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
More recently C.S. Lewis wrote in his autobiography Surprised by Joy how even as a child he experienced deep yearnings, longings for something beyond, moments of which he labelled as joy. Later, as an adult he wrote about these experiences:
“If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
Do you have this sense of longing within you?
Do you know what it is you’re longing for?
And if you get there, or if you glimpse it, will you let yourself be overwhelmed with joy?
My colleague, the one with a great longing to be overwhelmed with joy but who hadn’t yet experienced it in the birth of a child the way some of us had, she took some time to think, and then she had an insight.
“Maybe I’ve never been overwhelmed with joy because in my life I just feel so overwhelmed most of the time.”
I think she’s on to something. Life can be overwhelming at times. And so with that in mind, let’s return to the wise men, and see if we can learn anything from their story.
I think that a first lesson from the wise men is that if we want to be overwhelmed by joy, we need to make time and space for what matters. Clear the clutter. Simplify. In order to go on their journey, the wise men needed to leave many things behind, and they had to put lot of things on hold in order to spend months and years traveling across the desert. Create the time and space to go on your journey.
And then, when you get to a place of joy, stop! Follow the example of the star. When the star arrived at the place where the child was, it stopped! And so did the wise men. It would have been easy to rush on to the next thing. After all the wise men did have Herod on their tail. But they stopped. They allowed themselves to be present, and they were overwhelmed with joy.
And not only did they stop, but even more importantly, they knelt down and paid him homage. They worshiped. They gave thanks to God. They connected with the divine dimension of that experience of overwhelming joy. They gave gifts, and they celebrated. Take the time to worship, to celebrate and to connect with the divine in your moments of overwhelming joy.
And finally, don’t be afraid to be naïve. We don’t have to have it all together, we don’t need to look good, we can’t always justify our longings and our quests. When Matthew’s readers first heard the story of the so-called wise men walking up to the ruthless King Herod and asking him where was the child who had been born king of the Jews, they would have laughed at how naïve and foolish those wise men were.
Your deepest longings are a gift of God. They are holy and they are good and you should pay attention to them, even if some might think that naïve. Make time and space for what matters. When you get to a place of joy, stop! Kneel down, pay homage, give thanks, worship and celebrate. And may you too, with the wise men, be overwhelmed with joy.
Homily: Epiphany, January 8 2017, St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 60.1-6, Ps 72, Eph 3.1-12, Matthew 2.1-12
Image by Stuart Anthony (Creative Commons)