Hands down, still one of my favorite movies of all time is “Dead Poets Society.”
In this coming-of-age movie from the 1980s, actor Robin Williams plays the role of a rebellious English professor at a prestigious preparatory school for boys.
I say “rebellious” because Williams’s character, Professor John Keating, breaks from the longstanding traditional curriculum at Welton Academy in Vermont and teaches the great disenfranchised, transcendental and Romantic writers — the “Dead Poets,” such as John Keats, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman…
“Carpe diem…,” he preaches to the boys. “Seize the day, boys.”
Early in the film, the professor invites the students to, one-by-one, stand upon their teacher’s desk to see a new perspective.
From their new vantage point, their classroom looks different.
Professor Keating says, “I stand upon my desk to remind (my)self that we must constantly look at things in a different way.”
Today, we celebrate the Epiphany — the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, or the non-Jewish people, who are represented by the Magi, or the Wise Men.
In other words, Jesus is revealed to ALL the world, not just to the Jewish world.
And it’s through this revealing that we can receive a whole new perspective on the birth of Jesus — but only if we change our vantage points; that is, how we look at things, and from where we see them.
With the birth of Christ, we are challenged to look at God’s vision for his world differently.
And so were the Magi, the shepherds, Mary and Joseph, and even King Herod.
So, today, I’d like us to look at what happens to God’s vision for the world — his revelation for us — when we change our perspectives and also what it looks like when we refuse to change those perspectives.
Epiphaneia is the ancient Greek word for the English word Epiphany, which simply means “manifestation.” Something revealed.
Who was revealed was Jesus Christ and his role messiah — the savior.
And who were the Magi? Later translations — that is, influenced by ancient church tradition — described the Magi as kings.
They were not kings; they were high priests from the East — most likely in the area of Parthia, which today is basically northeastern Iran.
The word Magi comes from the ancient Persian Magush. It was brought into Latin as Magi. We get the English word Magic from Magi. They were called that because they practiced astrology, divination and dream interpretation, etc.
They were considered wise men, and they were incredibly influential wherever they went. They were important, and people listened closely to them.
Herod was the king in Judea, which was all under the rule of Augustus Caesar, the ruler of the entire Roman Empire.
And Parthia was no friend to the Roman Empire. Parthia was right on the edge of the Roman Empire, and they fought continuously for 300 years, and were still warring at Jesus’s birth.
And so these Magi traveling from the East make this journey and stop off at King Herod’s palace in Jerusalem, where we pick up our reading today.
It’s at this point that we see King Herod sitting up in his chair a little straighter in his conversation with the Wisemen: Where was the messiah to be born?
Don’t for a second think that Herod and his scribes, priests and staff do not know the prophetic words of the Old Testament’s Micah, Isaiah and the Psalms that point to a new king, a savior, and the end of the imperialism that all of Judea finds itself under.
The prophet Micah, 500 years before the birth of Christ, writes:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah;
from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel (Micah 5.2).
Herod knows the prophecies, too. And so he tells the Wisemen in verse 8, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
Here’s what the Wisemen know at this point:
They have the influence to destabilize power in the world with their predictions. They have the power to unseat kings — to turn people against the power — with their predictions .
They are well versed in the Scripture, and they understood significant astrological signs could bring about important change.
And they are fully aware that they are not going to Jerusalem to submit to and worship Herod, but to submit to and worship the Messiah — Jesus Christ.
And so Herod sees his own end in the beginning of Jesus. And he’s afraid.
And just in case the Wisemen don’t see this, they are warned in a dream, Verse 13, not to tell Herod anything about what they witness in Jerusalem. Here God is stepping in to save his Son.
The Wisemen knew something big was happening, but with every step they took as they followed the star to the place where Jesus was, more and more was being revealed to them.
It was dangerous work, and they had choices:
* They could have chosen to remain back in Parthia, never having made the nearly 6000-mile trip into a hostile land with a brutal king;
* They could have turned back when they heard the fear and urgency in Herod’s voice; and
* They could have reported back to Herod what they saw, rather than risk their own lives by disobeying the king and returning home another way.
I mean, just imagine, having known all of this — the prophecies, the astrology, Herod’s urgency — then finding what?
They’re looking for a king, a king to rise up and save God’s people from the tyranny and oppression.
What were they expecting to find?
Because what they found was a little baby lying born to impoverished parents in the back country of Judea.
To recognize what this baby would mean to the world, they sure had to challenge their own beliefs, the beliefs of their social, economic and religious world, and look at Jesus’s birth from a totally new perspective.
Did they? Certainly.
How do we know that? Matthew, beginning in verse 10, tells us:
“They were overwhelmed with joy.”
When seeing the child, “they knelt down and paid him homage.”
And, finally, “Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
These were very expensive gifts — gifts for a king, not for just an ordinary baby.
We all know the value of gold. But gold represents Jesus’s kingship.
Frankincense — a type of very fragrant and luxurious incense — was a symbol of Christ’s priestly role.
Myrrh also was an oil, but was generally used in death rituals and embalming — and so is generally seen as a foreshadowing of Jesus’s death.
The magi were able to acknowledge and accept Jesus Christ as king because they were able to change their perspectives.
This is something Herod — and countless others, then and now, — cannot do.
What are you expecting to find?
So the questions for us today are How is Christ revealed to us?
What are we expecting to find when we accept Jesus as king, as savior?
It’s Epiphany Sunday — a day in the church when we look at this gift of Jesus that we were given on Christmas Day and begin to understand what has been and is being revealed to us.
It’s also New Year’s Day — a time when resolutions are made, when we look back on the past events that brought us to this day, and, mostly, a day when we look ahead to all that is offered to us.
In all of our resolutions, can we resolve to embark on a new spiritual journey this year — one that takes us to places in which we can see our lives, the world and God’s vision in a new light or from a new perspective?
Taking a new perspective sometimes is difficult. One of my best friends has some very different perspectives based on her church tradition. And that’s entirely shaped her theology and how she lives her life.
We were discussing a very sensitive social justice issue recently, but she took a very protectionist stance. That is, refusing to challenge her traditional beliefs, thinking it impossible that there could be any doubt.
In his book, “Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty,” theologian and pastor Gregory Boyd challenges Christ followers to doubt.
“People tend to assume the more certain you are, the stronger your faith is … and so then doubt is a sign of weak faith. We say, ‘Oh, so-and-so has such strong faith, they’ve never doubted the Bible or God’s word. Or so-and-so has such strong faith, they just know they’re going to be healed.” They’re certain of it.
“And so we have this thing where certainty becomes a virtue and doubt becomes a vice. So you create a culture of people who are striving for certainly, trying to convince themselves that what they believe is right…
“…And what happens is people’s security and sense of being special before God and having worth comes not from their actual relationship with God, but it comes from how certain they feel about their beliefs about God.”
Boyd says that leaves no room to grow in faith. And I agree.
The story of the Epiphany is all about perspective and challenging that perspective, as painful and dangerous as they may be.
The perspectives of the characters in our reading today — from the wisemen to Herod — show us amazing contrast in whether they can break from their long-held perspectives and dare to dream of a transformed world by the power of what appears to be completely and utterly powerless.
We don’t tend to look at a baby born in a lowly manger as powerful, do we?
That takes great faith! That takes great perspective!
Our spiritual journey
Like the wisemen, what is our spiritual journey today? What far-away land is God calling us from ?
What perspective are we 100 percent sure of, and how can we allow God to challenge that perspective?
Because Jesus called us to love, first and foremost.
What is our perspective on our faith, on the Bible, on religion?
What is our perspective on the economy, our political leaders, on world policy, on poverty, on social justice, on gay marriage, on liberating the persecuted, on accepting Syrian refugees, on building fences and fortifying borders?
The list goes on and on.
As we seek that baby under that bright star on our spiritual journeys, what is being revealed to us?
Do you know?
Are we being challenged to alter our perspective?
To say, “Well, maybe I’m not right?”
To say in earnest, “God show me what it means to truly love no matter how uncomfortable or dangerous that may be?!”
In the psychological discipline, we talk about reframing.
We take a situation or event and put it in a new frame, a new perspective, to create a value that has some redeeming purpose.
We all want the supernatural here. We all strive to “see” God. To make God visible.
To be sure…
This is part of the Epiphany: God made visible in Christ, in human form, just like us.
We, like the Wisemen, want to see the physical being so that we, too, can testify. Not so with Herod. He doesn’t want to see.
For the Wisemen, the baby comes.
And immediately, Herod orders all the children born in and around Bethlehem who were under the age of 2 to be slaughtered.
Do you see what not changing our perspectives can do?
When instead of seeing hope, we see fear.
What happens then?
When instead of daring to love, we segregate others and separate ourselves from them.
We’re safe, they suffer.
That’s the Herod model.
The wisemen’s model is a much different perspective, isn’t it?
It’s risk, it’s hope, its adoration.
It’s transformation. And it is good.
The Challenge of Epiphany
What perspective is God asking us to take in our lives and in this world?
Because, just like the Jews of Jesus’s day, when things get uncomfortable and aren’t going our way, we fall back to our old perspectives.
We stop looking at the new ways — those perspectives that God wants us to see — and we fall back to our old, safe and self-preserving ways.
In other words, how can God reveal something to us if we refuse to look at it the way he needs us to?
If we’re only looking at what he wants to show us from the perspective that we’ve always had, we refuse to be challenged, and in that way, we become like Herod — we refuse what this gift means.
We kill the child. We kill the hope.
See, God is speaking to us every moment.
We have a choice to look at the injustices of the world through the world’s eyes vs God’s eyes.
We have the choice to challenge the kings — the Herods — of the world to say, “No, this is NOT OK!”
We have the choice to build in our communities, or tear them down.
And most importantly, we have the choice to change our perspectives. Or remain mired in the darkness, never seeing that star in the midnight sky.
God reveals to the world Love and Light.
This is our saving grace.
This is how we change the world.
This is how we unbind the oppressive chains that bind us.
This is how we help those on the margins. This is how we help our depression.
This is how we break from our loneliness and isolation.
This is how we free ourselves from the gluttony of Western consumerism.
This is how we open our minds to see that we are all brothers and sisters.
And so this is how we stop judging and persecuting one another.
This is how we stop living in fear.
This is, in short, how we save the world.
This world has a perspective problem.
It fails to be recognize the true savior.
It fails to recognize that Jesus wasn't born and killed so that we can realize the American Dream, but that Jesus was born and killed so that we could realize the Kingdom Dream!
And us? Well, the church fails to consistently be the strong witness of light to the world.
Why? Because we lose our perspective.
Because we fail to stand upon our desks and remind ourselves “that we must constantly look at things in a different way.”
Just like the wisemen dared to did. Like the shepherds dared to do did. And like Mary and Joseph dared to do.
What Epiphany reminds us
The Epiphany reminds us to not destroy hope just because the risks are too high.
That we don’t look past the gift because it’s not what we expected.
That we don’t see God’s vision because we refuse to open our eyes.
No, today is a great reminder to look up to the night skies, notice that star that burns brighter than all the others and follow it to a place of revelation, place of promise, a place of hope, a place of new perspective.
And be open to that new perspective.
Make that our New Year’s resolutions.
To see Epiphany in our lives and then to live out what that revelation is, every single day.