Jesus Isn’t Us: (An Epiphany Sermon)

**Originally preached at the 4:00 Jazz Service at Fourth Presbyterian Church-Chicago on January 3, 2016**

Matthew 2:1-12


It’s been over a week since Christmas morning, but our Christmas story isn’t over. Today we celebrate Epiphany, which commemorates the three wise men—or magis’—journey to the Christ child in Bethlehem. We call this Epiphany because of the sudden and transformative discovery that Jesus Christ is the son of God in human form. Epiphanies are a part of life. We all have moments, big or small, when a sudden insight or realization strikes us and our perspective shifts as a result.

I had my own epiphany recently. I discovered, after years of believing otherwise, that Star Wars is awesome.

If you’ve gone to a movie theater lately, or walked into pretty much any store—in fact, if you’ve even left your house at all in recent weeks, then chances are you know that last month a new Star Wars movie was released.

Even if you’re not a fan of Star Wars, I’m guessing you know at least a little bit about it because the fan base is so passionate and visible that it is pretty impossible to ignore. In the weeks and months leading up to the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, there was immense excitement but also trepidation. As the movie’s premiere date drew near, the energy reached fever pitch. Would it live up to the hype? Would it be enough like the original trilogy? Would it do enough of its own thing?

I’ll admit to you that, despite priding myself on being one of the nerdiest sci-fi people I know, I had never really seen the original Star Wars trilogy. However, as buzz about The Force Awakens began to grow, I decided that the time had finally come to discover Star Wars for myself. So 2 weeks before the new movie came out, I marathoned the whole thing. Over the course of a single day I watched Han Solo be cool and Leia be awesome while Luke Skywalker became a Jedi, found out Darth Vader was his father, and battled the Darkside. I wasn’t sure if I would like the movies or hate them… what I didn’t expect was to become totally, obsessively hooked. But I did.

I saw the new movie the day after it came out, and again the day after that. I joined a secret Facebook group fully of nerdy pastor types where we could discuss the movie endlessly without spoiling it for anyone else. I’ve read more reviews and articles and analyses than I can count. So I can tell you that The Force Awakens has been received with open arms and childlike giddiness.

Like the originals, this new movie has an epic storyline with high stakes, intriguing characters, and stellar action sequences. It even has plenty of well-placed callbacks to the original movies. But there is one thing this new movie has that the originals didn’t: two main protagonists that are not white men. Instead they are Rey, an independent, young white woman who has the makings of a powerful Jedi, and Finn, a goodhearted, young black man on the run from the bad guys who raised him to be a deadly soldier.

By and large, movie critics and fans alike have heavily praised these two new characters, and excitedly dreamed about their potential significance for a more diverse Star Wars universe and more diverse storytelling in general. The conversations I’ve witnessed and participated in around these two new lead characters have mostly been full of hope and joy.

But not everyone has been happy with these new additions to the Star Wars universe. Some fans—predominantly white men—have heavily criticized the lead protagonists. In response to these critiques, others have called out that their discomfort stems from encountering, perhaps for the first time, a mainstream popular story in which the heroes do not look like them. One columnist, a woman named Laurie Penny, confronted this conflict head on with a piece entitled “What to do when you’re not the hero anymore.”

In it, she describes the shifting depiction of who can be a protagonist, and the power of witnessing a hero that looks like you when you’re not the normative ideal—a hero that is a woman, or black, or LGBT, or some combination thereof. She names the importance of these stories for the humanizing of those who have been marginalized and othered and for breaking down hegemonic privilege. I had my own powerful experience seeing a Star Wars hero who is a woman like I am, and noticing the possibility of a same-sex romance in that world. It’s significant to me my own future children might grow up in a world where such storytelling isn’t a novelty.

Some have suggested that those of us who are excited about this shift in hero representation are blowing it out of proportion, saying “it’s just a story.” In response to this claim, Penny writes,

“Only a story. Only the things we tell to keep out the darkness. Only the myths and fables that save us from despair, to establish power and destroy it, to teach each other how to be good, to describe the limits of desire, to keep us breathing and fighting and yearning and striving when it’d be so much easier to give in. Only the constitutive ingredients of every human society since the Stone age.

 Only a story. Only the most important thing in the whole world.”

 Our scripture for today is also just a story. I don’t mean to suggest that there isn’t truth in it, but many of the finer details are the result of scholarly guesswork and interpretation—how many magi, where they came from, how long it took them, and what exactly led them to Jesus—to name a few. But those details aren’t what is most important about this story. What’s most important is the truth it tells us about who Jesus is and what it means to follow him.

And believe it or not, in this regard, our story for today has more in common with Star Wars than you might think. Though we can’t pinpoint the precise location, what seems clear about the magi who come to pay homage to the Christ child is that they come from far away. A different land, a different people, even a different faith. Jesus doesn’t look like them, or speak the same language, or even share a common history or cultural ideals. But these wise ones are led, by a star, to travel across a veritable galaxy of experience and culture and humanity, to confront risk and danger at the hands of nefarious powers, all to encounter this tiny baby who is their savior as much as he is the savior of his own people.

For these magi—these wise men—Jesus is a hero—THE hero. But I’d venture to say that had you asked any of these ever-so-wise star-followers how they imagined a hero before the star called them to rise and follow into the unknown, I suspect they wouldn’t have described a small Jewish baby in Bethlehem. I think it’s fair to expect that they would have imagined a hero—a savior—that looked a bit more like them.

Like a flickering light on the edge of their vision, a far off star caught the attention of these magi and challenged them to leave behind what they thought they knew, in search of a deeper truth.

Jesus has come into the world, but he doesn’t come right to their doorstep looking like they expect a hero or messiah to look—looking like them. He’s outside of their context, and outside of their comfort zone, outside of their privilege. He is what they’ve been taught to see as “an other.” A common Jew, born of an unwed mother, without power or prestige.  An outsider. An other.

It would probably have been easier for them to stay put. To carry on with their well-understood life of scholarship and stargazing, surrounded by people and ways of life that they understand. To ignore this flash on the edge of their spiritual vision, and let life continue on as usual.

Jews and Judea and this carpenter’s son would have remained for them just some other people somewhere else. Not real, not important, not worthy of their concern. Certainly not the son of God or the source of salvation. They could have chosen not to follow the star. Or, like Herod, they could have chosen fear in the face of the unfamiliar. They could have chosen to dehumanize and criminalize and destroy rather than discover God as a tiny baby in Bethlehem.  But they don’t, they accept their call to a journey, they travel far beyond their comfort, they choose curiosity and hope, and they allow themselves to be so utterly transformed that they cannot return to what they were. They cannot go back the way they came.

They could have stayed as they were, safe and comfortable, refusing any idea of a hero that didn’t look like they imagined—but think of what they would have missed. The greatest story ever. Salvation. Grace. The Son of God.

This Epiphany story is our story too. It is a story that we need to hear and heed and be transformed by. Because the story of Jesus Christ is the story of a God who so loves us that God journeyed into human life, into the form of a small child, to reach us. It is the story of a God who comes to earth for us. But it is also the story of a God who is not us. It is the story of a Christ who is the other. Who challenges powers and expectations and status quo, who comes to be with us all, but who aligns himself first and foremost with those who suffer, who are outcast, who are oppressed and marginalized, cast off as unimportant and undeserving and even less than human.

Jesus Christ comes into this world not just for us and those like us, but for everyone. We are all bound up in his love and we are all called to journey across the barriers of brokenness that separate us to be with him and with one another.

Christmas is the story of God coming to us, but Epiphany is about our call to go to God. And we can only do that if we stop expecting a Jesus that is us. That looks like us. And that comes to save people like us.

The magi had to travel beyond their comfort zone, they had to relinquish their privilege so that they could see their savior who doesn’t look like them, and seeing him—so different than they might have imagined, so different from themselves—they had to be willing to let themselves be so utterly transformed that they could never again accept the world as they had known it before.

Epiphany is a call to transformation and to journey. It is the call to know that Jesus has come into the world and then leave behind our comfort and our expectations and the distortions of our privilege so that we can go to where he is. Our faith in Christ calls us to look beyond ourselves and see God in the other, in those we have written off or ignored or deemed less deserving of the story, less deserving of grace.

In our world today, grown so comfortable with violence and prejudice and brokenness that it has become the status quo, we may feel even farther from Christ than the wise magi were all those years ago. Journeying to where Christ is requires us to leave much behind. And that is especially true for those of us who enjoy power and privilege and the option of distancing ourselves from those who are not like us so that we don’t have to confront their stories and their truth. We can stay where we are comfortable—but think of what we will miss. Grace. Salvation. The son of God.

Star Wars is just a story. But our stories tell us who we are and how we are in the world. They tell us who to root for, who is a villain and who is a hero, who is deserving of justice and who is merely an acceptable sacrifice. There are stories surrounding us that tell us a 12 year-old black child with a toy gun is a thug while 100 armed white men are a militia. There are stories telling us that Syrian children are just evil terrorists not yet grown up and American men who shoot American children are simply unstable loners.  That violent Christians are the anomaly while violent Muslims are the norm. The cacophony of stories around us tells us to cast off those who are different from us and cling tightly to our safety and our power.

But these stories will not save us. If they are the only stories we tell and believe they will destroy us. Our faith calls us to tell and believe and take part in a different story. A truer story that awakens us to a new hope. The story of a savior-hero, of a God who isn’t us, but who comes to be with us as Christ, who stands in solidarity with the other, and calls us to come and do the same.

We can feel it—that calling—like a flickering light in the corner of our vision, like a star blinking on the horizon, a sense that there is a better world, a more Godly way—urging us to leave behind our broken comfort and our fear-distorted narratives and journey to where Christ waits for us. Jesus calls us to come to him and to be transformed so that we can see the world through his eyes instead of our own. A world where, in truth, there is no “other,” there is only all of us and the God who loves us. Christmas offers us this new hero and a new story that begs for our ear—will we listen? Epiphany invites us to a journey of transformation and to the God who awaits us, will we trust? Will we go?

May it be so. Amen.


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