This is a copy of the manuscript Pastor KJ Norris spoke from as she preached on Sunday, January 6, 2019.
Did anyone get to see the new Mary Poppins yet?
I didn’t get to see it which is probably good because I won’t accidentally spoil it for you. But I love the old Mary Poppins from 1964—the one with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. As a kid, I would jump in front of the TV trying to do the whole dance of the chimney sweepers and I would imagine myself being able to jump into other worlds or laugh on the ceiling.
It’s an incredibly imaginative film. But it also has a serious side. Mary explains to the children at one point that sometimes people cannot see past the end of their noses. Past the end of their noses? Michael asks. Yes, Mary replies.
There is a woman, she explains that sells bird food daily. She is a poor woman and often goes unnoticed. Sometimes people can’t see the ones who are right in front of them.
Today we are beginning a new season in the church. The season of Advent lasted 4 weeks. For weeks of waiting in anticipation for Christ to come and to come again. Then we had 12 days of Christmas. It’s a good thing Christmas only lasts 12 days because if we celebrated and feasted for more than 12 days none of us would be able to move right now.
And today we enter into Epiphany. This season takes us right up until lent. It’s not 12 days. It’s not a month, it is actually a season lasting 8 weeks! Yeah, the length varies some depending on when Easter comes. But the wisdom in the church knew that we need a good bit of time to explore one idea. That one idea is: learning to see past the end of our noses. Learning to see the world, ourselves, our neighbors, all of creation—learning to see in the way that God sees the world, us, our neighbors, and all of creation.
The people of the Bible had a lot of trouble with this.
The story that always kicks off the season of Advent is a famous one. The coming of the Magi. You know the story. Sometime after Jesus was born, maybe even up to two years after Jesus was born, travelers came to inquire about a child king.
They proclaimed to King Herod, the ruler of the day, that they have seen a star and that star has lead them to the one True King. To the one who will rule all nations.
Well, Herod calls in the top brass—the greatest minds of his day—the religious leaders, priests and scholars—to find out what these visitors are talking about. The Scholars know their Hebrew Scriptures, they put together some verses from Micah and 2 Samuel and they tell the travelers, these Magi that the Messiah, the True King who will rule all, will be born in Bethlehem.
Herod promises to worship the child as well so he tells the Magi to come back after they find Jesus. But God reveals to the Magi that Herod is planning treachery. So, they go home a different way and Herod orders that all the boys in that region under the age of 2 should be killed.
When we pause to reflect on this story, we see that the story shows us not one, not two, but three sets of people who cannot see past the ends of their noses.
Of course, the first person is obvious. Anyone who sets out to kill children is misguided, to say the least. Herod sees a child. A little, poor, helpless baby born in a manager, as a threat to his kingdom. Instead of realizing that it is his job as a world leader to support the poor and downtrodden; Instead of living into the God-given mandate to protect the orphan and widow and stranger; Instead of creating a region is that supportive to all peoples, Herod oppresses those who are not Roman citizens and orders the extermination of all the little Jewish boys living in his region.
Herod is clearly the height of one who cannot see past the end of his nose. Instead of choosing love, he chooses oppression. I can’t even image what would have happened if Herod had embraced Jesus instead of planning to murder him. Perhaps Herod would go down in the history books as a hero. As the foster-father to the one True King, to the God of the universe on earth. It’s silly to go down that train of thought because that is not what happened in history, but the point is, if Herod had made different choices, he would not be remembered as the evil villain of our story.
Herod could have chosen to live his life in the way of God. God makes it clear over and over again that true power is not found in oppressing others. True power is not found in trying to hoard wealth for ones-self or in stamping out all those who could oppose you. True power is found in the way of Jesus. In giving. In loving. In serving.
–When we start to make ourselves big by keeping others down. When we try to create more room for ourselves by keeping people out. When we try to become rich by refusing to give, we are not living within God’s plan and purpose.
In this season of Epiphany, we want to learn from Herod’s mistakes. We want to seek to live in humility and peace with all people, seeing the image of God in every human encounter. Trusting that God will provide as we live a life of generosity.
The second group of people is not so easily understood as ones who can’t see past the end of their noses. This is a group of people who should have known better. It’s the priests and scholars of the day. Sure, they know things. They know the Scriptures really well, in fact. They are able to put together two pretty obscure passages and realize where the Messiah is going to be born. They are super smart.
And yet, they have no idea that the Messiah has come. And even when they are told that the one they have been waiting for has come—even when they learn that God’s promise has been fulfilled in a way even more astounding that they can image—they still don’t go with the Magi to worship the One True King.
These are people who have promised to live in the ways of God and who have spent their whole lives learning the Bible, and still they do not really know God. They choose NOT to worship. They have become the kind of people Paul later warns us about saying that we may have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, but if we do not have love we are nothing. Nothing but a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
In this season of Epiphany, we want to learn from the religious leaders’ mistakes. Sure, we want to study the Scriptures like they did but we also need to go beyond memorizing verses or knowing stories. We want to truly worship. Our call is not a call to knowledge alone, but a call to love. To love God first and love our neighbor as ourselves.
The third group of people who cannot see past the end of their noses might surprise you. It’s the Magi themselves. Those who history sometimes calls the “wise men.”
In many ways, they are very wise. They can look at something ordinary—a star in the sky—and see something extraordinary. Paul speaks about this as well. In Romans, Paul makes it clear that God reveals God’s own-self to us through all of creation.
In the smile of a newborn, in the sound of the breeze through the trees, in the everyday miracles of healing that come through modern medicine—God is always revealing God’s self to us. God shows up everyday in the little miracles of life. And we should learn, like the Magi, to pause and see those miracles. To read the stars—to read the world around us and see God at work. When I was a kid, we use to call it God spotting. I had a youth leader who would ask us at the end of the day: Where did you see God today? Where did you spot God?
Do we see God in the stars? Do we see God in the faces of the lonely? Do we see the poor woman feeding the birds and know that God is at work in her life? The Magi are wise because they have a head-start on the rest of us—seeing God in the everyday.
But that’s not enough. It’s not enough to simply see God in the world. They do that, but then they don’t know how to worship. They cannot fully live for God on their own, they require the community—so they come to Herod and seek out people who know their Scriptures. They consult the Scriptures to get the fullness of God, to figure out who is this God, this True Lord.
In this season of Epiphany, we want to learn from the Magi. They see God in the world, but they also come to realize that they need the Scriptures, they need other people of faith, and they need to see Jesus for themselves. We, too, need to see Jesus. We need to come together every week to grow deeper in our faith, to learn more about the God of the universe, to study the Scriptures. Yes, God is everywhere, but if we want to learn to see past the end of our noses, we need to do more than just see God in nature. We need to learn who Jesus is through prayer and study, and most importantly, worship.
If we learn what not to do from the characters in our gospel today, we receive the Good News from our passage in Ephesians. Ephesians assures us that Jesus Christ—God in the flesh, fully God and fully human—that Jesus Christ came to earth so that the mysteries of God would be revealed.
The Good News is that we don’t have to be the same person today we were yesterday. We don’t have to be like Herod or the scholars or even the Magi who can’t see past the end of their noses. Jesus came that our eyes might be opened. Jesus came that we might see the Truth. That we might know that we are loved so much that God was willing to come to earth and reveal God’s own self to us. God has come to reverse the power-structures in our world so that all people might experience peace and wellbeing.
God has come so that we can be forgiven. We are not perfect people. In fact, none of us are born with the ability to see completely. The Scriptures say it this way: right now we see in a mirror dimly, we only see in part. But through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can grow to see more and more each day. We can pray that God might reveal God’s glory more and more each day.
There is a practice for Epiphany that has become popular lately; it’s the practice of Star Words. Have you heard of this?
It’s based in the idea that we want to be looking for how God is at work, for how God is transforming our world or transforming us ourselves. So I’ve printed different words on stars. And each of you will soon receive a star with a word printed on it.
Friendship is right on top here. If you get friendship, you might ask yourself: What does it mean to be a good friend? Who are truly good friends to me? How can I be a better friend of God?
There are lots of different words, words like courage and hospitality and forgiveness.
I don’t know how the Holy Spirit is going to speak to you through your star word, but the idea is to simply pay attention during the next several weeks to how God is moving. We want to open our eyes, to look beyond our noses out into the world to see God at work.
There is no magic in these star words, it’s just a fun way to perhaps begin this season by looking beyond. By starting to see how the mysteries of God might be revealed to us.
Kids, will you come down and pass out the stars?
Spend a moment thinking about your word. What does it mean?
How do you already live out this word?
How might God be speaking to you through this word?
How does this word challenge you?
Let us pray.