A long time ago, in a Galilee far away, or more accurately, a Syria far away, forces of an immense evil empire, at the behest of a power-mad and insecure ruler, attacked and killed scores of innocent, vulnerable people. This is part of our gospel story this morning. It is sadly, also part of the news of the world that comes to us every day. It also resembles one of the first big action scenes in The Force Awakens, episode seven of the Star Wars movie franchise. As I sat with my kids, and some friends, on five dollar Tuesday at Film.ca, I saw the old, old story, or nightmare of fear, abuse of power, and violence against the innocent acted out on screen. The forces of evil came in to destroy a whole village of innocent people, in an effort to root out a threat to the power of their Emperor. (show clip from trailer)
I was 16 when the first Star Wars movie came out, and I loved it. Star Wars movies are like opera, or ancient mythology, or comic books. These art forms often tell a story of the universal conflict of good versus evil, and of ordinary people who find themselves caught in the middle. That really is an unbeatable combination.
I remember going to a hardware store in Windsor with our landlord, a wise, practical, chain-smoking, hard-working, big-hearted old Ukrainian man. Windsor was then, and is still, pretty much a blue-collar town, with a mix of cultures and ethnicities. Most people I met there were fairly open to diversity.
John and I were looking for a kit to install an air conditioner in an attic window. The store clerk had trouble understanding what John wanted, and maybe couldn’t get it all through his accent. It was a frustrating conversation, and we ended up looking elsewhere. As we walked away, we heard the clerk mutter “stupid bohunk”.
John was such a good man. He must have read my face, because I really wanted to go back and have words with the clerk. John shook his head, and gave a look that seemed to express both gratitude for my indignation, and resignation to the cruelty and ignorance of some people.
John said, “Whaddaya gonna do?”
We went on with our mission, picked up what we needed at another store, and installed the air conditioner. It was one of those times when an elder’s wisdom won out. But I still would not have minded having a light saber.
John was right, I think, to have us walk away from the guy in the hardware store. Who knows why the clerk spat out his racial hatred in that moment. As the Scottish Presbyterian theologian Ian McLaren wrote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
People face all kinds of hard battles.
The folks fleeing Syria face the devastation of their home towns, and the rigours of hard travel, and the challenges of starting again, if they can make their way to a safe refuge.
Hospitals and care facilities are filled with folks who struggle with illness, and aging. Families face tough decisions about the care of loved ones. Ailments, accidents, diseases, and illnesses come upon people, and cause devastation with little warning. There is the general creeping along of mortality, as we all age, and face death.
Economic forces mess with people’s lives. The price of a barrel of oil goes up or down a few dollars, and there are either new jobs, or big layoffs.
Huge fuel oil burning container ships stain the water of our oceans, and sully our air, and contribute to global warming. They bring us thousands of tons of cheap consumer goods from places where the workers can’t afford to buy what they make for us.
Executives in the head office of a corporation make decisions to protect the price of their shares, and workers and their families hundreds or thousands of miles away lose their jobs, their security, their health benefits.
Power-drunk military and political leaders strike out against each other, wielding armies like pawns on a chess board, and using ideology and fear, and bad theology to justify their insanity.
There is so much that seems beyond our control, that just happens to us.
It can be quite soothing to read a story, or watch an epic movie with characters with whom we can identify. They are a little bit like us, except they may have the help of magic, or aliens, or fate, or the force and a light saber, and so they can join in the struggle, and make a difference as the forces of good battle the forces of evil. There is vicarious satisfaction in seeing good guys, and gals win. It can warm our hearts to see a lonely orphan child on a desolate desert planet discover their destiny as a hero who will help save a galaxy from an evil fate.
Last week I said I want to focus on teaching about Jesus, and hopefully, dig down through some of the layers of tradition and interpretation, and decoration and embellishment piled on to his story over two millennia. Today we celebrate Epiphany, which is one of the oldest, and I think one of the brightest and best traditions of the early church.
The story the church draws on for Epiphany is the visit of the Magi. Even though Jesus is the heart and reason for the story, most of the action does not directly involve him. This is a bit like an opening scene, or establishing shot in a movie, meant to offer us context. What world is baby Jesus born into?
It is a world in which rich and powerful people make decisions that cause poor people to leave their homes, and seek shelter against the cold night. It is a world in which an evil ruler can hatch plots against real or imagined enemies. It is a world in which violence is perpetrated against innocent and defenseless children. It is a world in which it is possible to feel insignificant, helpless to make things better. In other words, it is our world.
The gospels bring the Good News about God’s love for all people, and were written for people like us, living in a world in which there are many hard battles.
Epiphany is the English word that comes from ancient Greek words “Epi-phanos”, which translate roughly as “manifestation” or “appearance” or “making known”. It means that something previously hidden has been revealed. A sunrise is a kind of epiphany, a moment when darkness is sliced open by light- like a light saber.
The word epiphany gets used in non-religious ways to point to a moment in which something suddenly becomes clear. A good example is when the apple fell on Isaac Newton, and he had a sudden insight into the existence of gravity. There is a similar story about Albert Einstein struck as a young child by being given a compass, and realizing that some unseen force was making it move.
In the Gospel according to Thomas, an interesting, and strange, and mystical text that did not make it into the New Testament, Jesus is quoted as saying, “I’m the light that’s over everything. I am everything; it’s come from me and unfolds toward me. “Split a log; I’m there. Lift the stone, and you’ll find me there.”
That is a way of expressing the startling news of the Incarnation, the claim the Christian church has made almost from the beginning, that one of the things we learn from Jesus is that God is not distant, and uninvolved, looking down on us from some lofty height. God is with us in the midst of this reality. We don’t wait until we die and depart this existence to meet God. God is in the apples, and compass needles, and in the light, and in the split logs, and in the vulnerable child of Bethlehem, and in you and I. This is not to say that you are God, or that I am. The poetry of the Incarnation says to us that God is here, with us. God is with us, and there is hope. Amen