Epiphany Sunday, January 6, 2013
There are two notes of music that literally have the power to inspire fear in our hearts. Just hearing them sends shivers coursing up and down our spines. For some people, this kind of fear is exciting. For others it brings only a sense of dread. But I guarantee you whatever specific reaction we might have to them, we probably don’t want to hear them at the beach.
What are these two notes of music? (impression of the opening notes of the Jaws theme) Even my faulty musical impression still brings to mind the movie Jaws and the excitement and fear and dread and chills that the movie inspired.
I was just a kid the summer the movie Jaws was released, which meant I was too young to see it. But everyone was talking about it, so I knew enough about the story line to know the basic plot of the movie. It terrified me. I could be at the pool at the YMCA, which was an indoor pool mind you, and someone would jokingly imitate the Jaws music, and I would be out of the pool like a shot. Just those two notes alone would send me into a panic that somehow a great white shark would find its way to Nashville, Tennessee – landlocked Nashville, Tennessee – and get me. I even had a nightmare, which I remember to this day, about the shark showing up in the pool and chasing me.
I finally dealt with this fear by sitting up all night, a fact unknown to my parents, and listening to the radio. I snuggled up in my bed, reading, with the radio on low. And it seemed every hour on the hour the trailer for Jaws would run. And guess what it would start with? Those notes. That theme. Most children would turn the radio off or at least down when the scary ad for the scary movie came on. But not me, I turned it up. I listened to it. It scared me but I forced myself to listen to it, because somehow listening to it over and over again made it seem less scary. By the next morning I was exhausted but I could deal with Jaws. At least I could deal with the scary soundtrack. It took me another ten years before I actually got up the nerve to watch the movie. But dealing with the soundtrack at that age was triumph enough.
The point of that story was not simply to show what a weird little kid I was. I was, but that wasn’t the point. The point is to illustrate that fear is a funny thing. It’s peculiar. It can be a tremendous motivator. The fear from a health scare can motivate someone to change habits and get healthy. Fear, and the adrenaline rush that goes with it, can transform us into superheroes – at least temporarily. A man in New York saw a woman fall onto the subway tracks and jumped down to save her. A dear friend of mine confronted gang members in Chicago with a commemorative Chicago Cubs baseball bat because they were harassing a neighbor. Maybe in retrospect these actions weren’t smart, but they were driven by fear for the safety of someone else.
Yet fear can also cause the opposite. Fear can shut us down. It can rule our lives. It can motivate us to do terrible things because something or someone is so unknown to us, so strange and different, that we fear it. And too often what we fear we also try to destroy.
I think this kind of fear is a large part of Matthew’s story today; the Epiphany story. I realize that fear is not something we automatically associate with Epiphany. This is the story of the wise men from the East who see a great star shining in the sky, realize it is the sign that the Messiah has come, follow it bearing gifts and present them to the baby. Often in our Christmas pageants Luke’s version and Matthew’s version are sort of mushed together so that the wise men show up just shortly after the shepherds. Jesus is still a newborn. Mary and Joseph still have that deer-caught-in-the-headlights-we’re-new-parents-what-do-we-do-now look about them. And then all the characters gather around and stare lovingly at the baby king.
The reality of the story is very different. Scholars believe that they were most likely from Persia. They were probably Zoroastrian. They were magicians, although not the kind of magicians we might think of, the ones who conceal rabbits in their hats. They were astrologers, charting the stars. They were definitely outsiders, others. Yet their status as outsiders does not prevent them from recognizing that God’s Messiah has been born, that the world has been irrevocably changed, and that paying homage and bringing gifts is the only fitting response to God among us. So they set out to Jerusalem. And when they get there and begin asking about this new king, what is the response to their queries? Is it joyful surprise? Excitement? Worship? Alleluias? It’s fear.
“When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.”
The wise men’s announcement that a king had been born, that not just any king, but the messiah of God, had been born doesn’t excite Herod. It scares him. It is a threat to his power. So how does he deal with his fear? He slaughters the innocents. We all know too well that that kind of horror is real.
While we may not respond to fear by committing unspeakably horrible acts, it still has an effect on us. It makes us pull in on ourselves, circle the wagons so to speak. I think the fear of change is so overwhelming that many people and institutions – including churches – would rather die than change. Sadly, they often do just that. Fear of scarcity makes hoarders out of us. Fear of rejection keeps us from reaching out to others. Fear of failure keeps us from trying.
I think the most telling aspect of the Epiphany story is that those who should have been the first to welcome Jesus into the world, his own people, were the ones who were the most fearful. Yet the ones who saw God in him were the ones on the outside, the strangers, the foreigners, the others. The star that led them to Jesus shone for all people. All people had access to that magnificent light. The only difference is that the supposed outsiders greeted it with joy. The ones who should have known the promise of God the best greeted it with fear. For those of us who know the rest of the story, we know where that fear ultimately leads.
So what are our fears? Do they motivate us or do they control us? How do they prevent us from seeing the glory of God, the light of God made manifest? How do they keep us from seeing God in our midst?
It seems to me that the surest antidote to fear is trust. But trust is not easy. Maybe the best way, the only way, to become more trusting is to act as though we already are. Trusting won’t drive fear away entirely, but it just might make it loosen its grip. We’re scared that there won’t be enough but we give anyway. We’re unsure of the stranger next to us, but we treat them like a friend. We’re shaking in our shoes at the possibility of failing but we try regardless. We can’t prove by scientific empirical evidence that the claims of our faith are “real” but we believe anyway. The more we act as faithful people, the more we become faithful people. The more we trust that God will reveal Gods’ self to us in surprising, wonderful and sometimes scary ways, the more we are able to see that God is already doing just that. God is already doing just that. Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”