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Based on the Lectionary readings for Epiphany:
Isaiah 60:1-6
Matthew 2:1-12

2004 January 4
Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

Miracles: Seeing More in our Midst

As many of you know, my father lives in a small town in Maine about an hour west of Portland. It is a hill town of about fifteen hundred, surrounded by forests and fields and populated by a rich mixture of long time locals and newer professionals. Since he has lived there only three decades, he is a newcomer.

Even newcomers take on some of the characteristics of the locals, and one of these in rural Maine is a distinct suspicion of folks from anywhere else. They are called "from away," which is second only to being a "highlander," the definition of which is rich and inappropriate for church pulpits.

I am not sure where this suspicion of things from away began but it is not always bad, as long as you can live without meeting anyone new or learning anything new. And it is often the way it is there, which is not to say it may not change.

In fact, just about three years ago, a new woman went to town, a nun who lives in a constant state of meditation and prayer, and she stayed in a local home, and she visited a local woman who had been blind in one eye since childhood, and she cured her, and now this woman can see. I know this because this formerly blind woman is the sister of my father's barber, and now I've learned that this nun has a history of healing folks wherever she goes.

Now in Dad's small town there is a Baptist church, a Congregational church, and a Roman Catholic church, and the story of this healing raced through them, and faithful folks started making up lists of their medical and physical needs and asking if this nun could come to their parish not only for themselves but for family and friends and so on. In the beginning, the Catholics wouldn't let her come because she wasn't from a local order, and the Congregationalists had a meeting and couldn't agree on what to do about her, and she just kept sitting and praying and healing people, ready to move on whenever that was right.

Many people in town believed that what happened to the blind woman was a miracle. When I heard the story I was suspicious. I wondered if this barber's sister really was blind and if this visitor really was a nun. And I wondered why the local churches were so suspicious, although it's not like I haven't seen that before. Maybe you're having the same reaction. You may even be suspicious of why I would tell this story and aware of the many ways that it may be misleading or flawed. Back to topAren't you wary when you hear something like this? Wariness, you might say, is healthy and normal.

But I'm mindful of something else, too: miracles are messy. Many of the years that I have taught confirmation I have shown the movie Agnes of God, where a cloistered nun has a baby. And we've discussed its central question: what does the modern world do when it encounters a miracle? In that movie the answer is simple: we silence it. Which is a common reaction, because belief in miracles is so complex. To believe in them and have them be true is costly to our way of life. To believe in them and have them be false is psychologically devastating. So to disbelieve is much more tolerable. And I do preach tolerance, don't I?

But where does that leave our faith in God? How do we apprehend the story of Jesus' birth or of the Epiphany? Where are we left with Advent's miracles of hope, peace, joy, and love? Well, in a place of need and choice, which is a start.

Long ago in our family history, there were folks who not only accepted miracles, they expected them. Among others, these were the Magi of today's Gospel. We don't know that there were exactly three of them or that they were all men or all rulers. We just hear about three gifts from folks who studied the scriptures, the stars, and the political world. They looked to God, nature, and local conditions, and they found in them a reflection of the presence of divinity. And you know parts of their story by heart, although the bits that aren't in We Three Kings can get overlooked. Like the fact that Herod's call to them was in secret, that he was as transparent and outdated as an encyclopedia salesman, and that other highlights of the story are too often forgotten. Such as, when the Magi find the star, it says they were "overwhelmed with joy." And the writer's message that existing political and religious institutions never liked Jesus from the start. And, as James Taylor says, once the astrologers meet Jesus they go home in a new way because you just can't follow the same path once you've encountered Jesus. There is a great deal more to this story than three kings and a star.

There are those who say that this whole episode is made up of bits and pieces from the Hebrew Bible: that references from Isaiah, Numbers, and Psalms (Num 24:17, Ps 72:10) are compiled to create a story. There are those who say it never happened or has a perfectly reasonableBack to top explanation. They could be right.

After all, what does Isaiah say? Well, after three chapters of talking about conditional salvation for God's people, today's bit speaks for three chapters about unconditional salvation. A light will come and Zion, the temple, the people of God, will be a light to the world, to all the world and even folks from away will be loved, no matter what type of "away" they embody. And Isaiah says more. He says, as an accepted people, get a move on, and take the actions of faith. Darkness is powerful in this world. Share your light. Have a mission. But he says more, too. In a place where the people know lots about war, for Israel was always being overrun by armies, peace will come. In a place where young men and young women were taken from their homes as a cost of war, children will be returned: it literally says that. And when that all happens, when you show your light against the darkness of the world, when you pursue the gifts of peace and an end to war, then Isaiah says, wealth will flow to you, the whole world will learn from you, and it is God who will do this for you. If it's not a miracle story, it's a pretty amazing political treatise of mission, inclusiveness, and peace, and who was expecting that in church this morning?

By the middle of the 1800's much of modern theology, which had gotten very bright about science, said that miracles were covers for human ignorance. If we understood how everything was determined by laws of nature, this idea goes, we'd see nothing exactly miraculous. Of course by the end of the twentieth century science has re-examined positivism and strict determinism and noted the contingency of space-time and matter, and many scientists do not dismiss the existence of God. So once it was polite and even intelligent to be suspicious of miracles. I wonder now if we can believe again? You see, I do believe.

David ben Gurion, one of the founders of the modern state of Israel, said fifty years ago "Those who do not believe in miracles are not realists." But I'm still cautious. We have learned to ignore pregnant chads. It is quite a leap to accept pregnant virgins, moving stars, and voices from heaven, much less nuns with healing power. It is more reasonable to wait and see, not rush to the manger or the peace table and certainly not rush to the cross where we may be identified with this Nazarene and his mission and his God.

Except for this: God makes miracles. Back to topWe need miracles. Our world, our Church, needs some voices from heaven. Why?

Listen to an idea from William Willimon. He thinks lots of this stuff is hard to believe. But he says, with his tongue close inside his cheek, that if we open ourselves to the idea of a virgin birth, if we open ourselves to the idea of astrologers and stars and exiles from all around the world seeking some grace from Jesus, then maybe we will open ourselves to some other incredible ideas too. Like the idea that our economic system can and should support the poorest and most in need even as it supports the privileged. Like the idea that possessions can be dangerous and burdensome and even deadly. Or that our international relationships can hold peace and multilateral decisions as values even if we are the most powerful nation state in history. That in the same way that Jesus embraced women and outcasts, we are not only allowed but expected to cross every boundary to welcome every identity at his table. That in a world where the death penalty is a logical reaction to a heinous crime, it is not a reasonable decision for people who strive to follow the example of Jesus. Once we start believing in one group of things, there is no telling just where it may lead us.

I'll never prove to you scientifically or satisfactorily that any of these events happened as reported or that God really exists or that your life or our world can change. All I can do is tell you what I see, what I study and experience and believe. That is all that I can do for myself: open my eyes and my heart to the possibilities in my midst and watch God, nature, and local conditions to see if I sense the presence of the divine. Isaiah and Matthew do claim that God is present to us and that we have a task of sharing that presence. And in my need I suspend my wariness and choose to believe.

This is not a call for Christians to check their brain when they come to worship. It is a call for us not to leave our faith behind when we leave the sanctuary.

For I do know that there is no time in our history, no place in our world, in our faith or in our church family where we don't need the power of miracles, the presence of God. I do know that we need real hope for change in our postmodern world today. I do know that darkness is still powerful, and light is still right at hand. So in the end perhaps what we can learn from the Magi and the small town residents in Maine is to expect a little more from God, expect something miraculous in our midst, and follow it right away.

You know there is a star that shines at night on the top of our church tower. It is crooked and antiquated and obviously the work of human hands. But if it points to tolerance and love and peace and stewardship, it is pointing to things that are bigger than any group of us. How do you explain that? Amen.

Copyright 2004 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.

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