Have you ever asked, “Where’s Waldo?”
It’s a fun children’s puzzle game in which you try to find the Waldo figure somewhere in the middle of a picture. What makes finding Waldo a challenge? He’s usually buried in a “busy” puzzle with lots of characters. It can be hard to distinguish Waldo from all the other figures.
Epiphany’s gospel reading – magi are looking for Jesus. They’ve studied Scriptures, and they followed the star. Now, they arrive in Bethlehem and worship Jesus, and they give him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Isaiah’s words in first reading are now fulfilled in Jesus:
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD. (60.1,3,6)
Israel was supposed to be that light. God chose Abraham and Sarah, and God blessed them to be a blessing so that the entire world might be blessed. (Gen 12.2-3) In time, though, that large, inclusive worldview narrowed considerably. In time, the OT teachings and stories that we supposed to set Israel apart as different than others, and thereby help them point to the God who had rescued them from slavery in Egypt, instead became used to distinguish insiders (Israelites) from outsiders (everyone else) and to reserve God’s blessings for the insiders, God’s chosen ones, Israel.
Epiphany loosens that exclusive hold on God’s blessings and restores God’s inclusive perspective toward the world. God’s love is for everyone, Jews and Gentiles alike. This was Paul’s radical word in our reading from Ephesians:
the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (3.6)
And this is what Jesus lived out in his encounters with people during his entire ministry. This openness attracted so many people to him as he made his way through both Jewish and Gentile portions of Palestine.
Irony in the Search for Jesus
There’s a great irony in this, though. The very people who should have been looking for him – Herod and the Jewish religious leaders – weren’t. They were too distracted by their lives and clouded by their prejudices to see what was right in front of them. On the other hand, the very people one wouldn’t expect to be looking – the Gentile magi who didn’t have faith in God – were. Their eyes and their hearts were opened.
Another irony: Herod and the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem were only 6 miles away from Jesus’ birthplace. Had they been interested, they could have walked there in less than three hours. On the other hand, the magi traveled for months following the star, until they finally arrived in Bethlehem.
For What are We Looking?
May imagine that more are asking, “Where’s Waldo?” nowadays than “Where’s Jesus?” According to the latest census date from 2010 (www.city-data.com), Madera County boasts 31% of its population participates in some faith community. Fresno County: 47% participation, and the national US Average: 50.2 %. But maybe that’s not fair. Many are asking about Jesus; however, they may not be involved in a church as they do it.
This was the story of my mother, who had a falling out with the Episcopal Church when she was in her 20s. Although she left the church, she spent most of her life exploring other faith traditions and new age philosophies trying to fill the “God sized hole” in her life.
Challenge for us: when people come here looking for Jesus, what do they find? Do we reflect Jesus’ inclusive, welcoming stance? Or do our traditions and styles and culture here unintentionally put up barriers for newcomers? It’s a question with which every congregation, every leadership team needs to struggle. Honestly and openly.
Attracted by the Light
John and Mary, a poor Irish couple living by the Irish Sea. They only had a one-room hovel with only a dirt floor under their feet. Both worked hard all day, every day to scratch out their simple life. They didn’t have much, but they had each other. Now Mary was pregnant. One day, John came home bone weary from the fields. Made a little supper, and they fell into bed, exhausted; asleep almost immediately.
Soon, Mary nudged John and said, “Wake up and turn on the light, I think the baby’s coming!” What exciting news! In a flash John was up out of bed and turned on the light, and sure enough, the baby had come. So he went around the house until he found a small piece of cloth and wrapped the baby in it; placed it between him and Mary and got back into bed. As he drifted back to sleep, he thought, “We don’t have much, but I’ve got a family now; that’s enough.”
Little while later, Mary nudged John awake and said, “John, get up, turn on the light, I think there’s a baby coming!!” Oh my, how can it be twins?!” John thought. But he got up, turned on the light and sure enough, it was another baby! John looked through the house until he found another piece of cloth, wrapped the baby up, placed it between them on the bed and fell into bed himself. How he was a little nervous – they didn’t have much, and now there were four of them in their one room shack. How would they survive??? With these anxious thoughts running through his mind, he fell into a restless sleep.
Little while later, Mary nudged John awake and said, “John, get up and turn on the light; I think there’s a baby coming!” Oh, no!! Triplets. How can this be? But John got up and turned on the light and sure enough, there was a third child. So he searched the house; couldn’t find any cloth, so used some newspaper to wrap the child in; laid it between them on the bed and crawled in himself.
Now, John was scared! Triplets AND a wife AND himself in this one room dirt floor hovel? With fear gnawing at his heart and now three children squirming between them, he lay there wide awake, staring at the ceiling.
Little while later, Mary nudged John and said, “John, get up and turn on the light; I think there’s a baby coming.” This time, John rolled over and told Mary, “I’m sorry, honey, but I canna do that. You see, it’s the light that attracts them.”
How can we be an attractive light, shining Jesus’ love into the neighborhood and greater community? Jesus is our model here: Faithful teaching coupled with compassionate engagement with the community.
Religious leaders in Jesus’ day had the right theology, but they applied it in such a way as to create divisions between insiders and outsiders. Jesus’ ministry undid that. He maintained faithful teaching, but included with that teaching a care for others that drew people to him like flies to honey. Together, this good spiritual food and compassionate care transformed people’s lives and their relationship with God.
As we do this, we will live out our mission as servants of God: learning, living and sharing God’s great love! in a way that I believe will be attractive to folks like my mother who are asking “Where’s Jesus?”