The Great Camel Mystery – and More

A sermon preached by Christopher L.  Webber at St.  Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut, on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2013.

I want you to look carefully at the front of the Bulletin today. It’s the same cover we had at Christmas and the only difference is that today it’s appropriate. I haven’t always seen the cover in advance but I will from now on because they ought to be appropriate and camels on Christmas are like Easter bunnies on Ash Wednesday: it’s getting ahead of the story.  The kings were not there when Jesus was born. The kings came as much as two years later and they weren’t kings, they were magi, and they found him in a house, not a manger.  So we shouldn’t have had this Bulletin at Christmas.

But I made a special request that we have the same bulletin cover this week not only because this time it’s appropriate but also because the left-hand camel seems to have five legs and the middle one seems to have three. I didn’t notice it myself but I was asked about it and it seemed worth asking about.  Maybe you can explain it. We can talk about it downstairs afterwards. But I didn’t ask for this cover only for the joke – though I thought you might enjoy it – but because I want to talk about mystery and a five-legged camel is a simple way of getting into the subject.

A camel with five legs or three is a mystery, as I said, that we can discuss at the coffee hour but first I want to focus on some other mysteries about these visitors to Bethlehem: who were they, what were they up to, why do they matter, and maybe even were they real?  Is this a true story?

Let’s ask the last question first: is this a true story? I know there are lots of sceptics out there and some of them teach in our seminaries and therefore some of them preach in our churches. They’ll tell you that Matthew or a friend of his made this story up. They’ll suggest that it doesn’t seem likely that people of wealth and intelligence would follow a star for hundreds of miles and offer valuable gifts to an unprepossessing baby. They’ll point out that there are prophecies in the Old Testament that talk about a star and about kings coming to worship so probably Matthew made it up to show that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies.

Well, that’s one opinion and worth looking into. So I got out my commentaries; I have several books about Matthew’s gospel written fairly recently and by some of the most respected scholars. They aren’t fundamentalists.  They ask the hard questions.  And I want to ask hard questions too.  I want to know the truth whatever it is and I want to be able to tell you the truth. So I checked with the experts and they admit there are questions you could ask and aspects of the story that are puzzling but they also say it’s not at all impossible. Astrology was a very big thing at the time and astrologers were always looking for the next big thing. We know from the historical records that astrologers showed up in Rome in 66 a.d. to see whether Nero might be a divine figure, a god come to earth.  I suspect they took their gold and incense home with them.

But the point is that these things happened. So it’s not impossible. And if it’s possible and it’s in the Bible, I think that counts for a lot.  It’s also interesting that Matthew calls them “Magi” or “astrologers” – not kings. The Old Testament prophecies talk about kings, not magi, so if Matthew was making it up, why didn’t he make it fit better?  So let’s think about these people on their camels.  (By the way, Matthew never says they came on camels – five-legged or four-legged. The artists put them in later because the Old Testament talks about camels in one of the standard prophecies. Matthew didn’t pick up on that either. If he was out to create a story that fit the prophecies, he didn’t do a very good job of it.)

So it seems likely that magis came, astrologers came, people of wisdom and science came.  In terms of the times, they were people who wanted to know, who thought the stars might have answers. As I said a minute ago, I want to know also.  I want answers.  I want to understand.  So I have something in common with these strangers.  I want to know some things – but not everything.  I had the chance once to see what riding a camel is like for $5 and turned it down.  But usually anyway, I want to know.  I want answers I can trust.  So the first point I want to make after all this round-about lead in is just that: the gospel today holds up an example for us of students and scholars, you might even say of scientific investigators. It suggests that God has given us a reasonable gospel, a Bible that has reasonable answers to our questions, that we’re happy to have scientists checking out our claims.

Now, I grew up in the Episcopal Church so I’ve never known another kind of Christianity first hand.  Maybe I’ve missed something. Certainly there are other kinds of Christianity: kinds that rely on authority, for example; churches that say, “Don’t ask questions; just accept the answers.” And there are some at the opposite side that rely on emotions: that say, “Don’t bother to use your mind, just wave your arms and feel good.”  But neither of those is us.  We tend to stay calm and think about things. “There are other kinds of Christianity,” an Episcopal priest I knew years ago once said, “but this is the only one I understand.”

So I’m glad we have these magi at the beginning of the story. They came looking for answers, to see if their research was right. They didn’t know about black holes and spiral nebulae but they did the best they could with the means they had.  That’s all any of us can do: ask the best questions we can, get the best answers we can and then offer the best we have in worship.

Reason first, and then worship.  We also have a Prayer Book and a pattern of worship that enables us to offer God our whole selves.  That’s the great thing about our church.  Again, I’ve never experienced the other kinds first hand and I know they sometimes produce great saints and faithful witnesses, but I need to use my mind and I need to worship, I need to be able to respond not only with my mind but with my body. I need to stand to sing hymns and recite the Creed and I need to kneel at the altar.  I need to move, not just sit or even stand, but to act out my faith, to express it in a way that goes far beyond words or reasons. If I use only reason, I wind up with a dull faith that involves my head but not my heart; it’s incomplete. There are Christians like that, who are happy to go to church and hear a sermon and go home – They just want “something to think about”, especially in New England, and I try to provide it. But there are lots more who only get the heart part, who seem to leave their heads at the church door.  They don’t want something to think about so much as a place to stop thinking and worrying and just relax and feel good and go home feeling better about life. Nothing wrong with that either but it’s incomplete.

God gave us heads and hearts and we need to use them both. That’s what the story of the wise men says to me.  They give me a model of a faith that’s complete. They reasoned and worshiped: Not one or the other, but both. Reason can’t take you the whole way. There are always mysteries, and not just five-legged camels but the Trinity and the sacraments and the problem of evil.

The scientists can tell us amazing things about our universe but if they just put it all in a science journal and build another lab to investigate more questions they’ve missed something vital. You can look at the stars with the Hubble Telescope and see the beginnings of creation billions of years ago, you can build a Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider and study the primordial form of matter that existed in the universe shortly after the Big Bang, and that’s really interesting, but it seems to me that the more we know, the more we need to worship.

Reason, then, and worship: those two are what I think the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion are all about and those two are what I think the magi represent: the need to use our minds and the need to recognize that always when we really use our minds well we will come to the Mystery “that passes all understanding” and need to worship that Mystery we call God.

No human being ever used his mind better than St. Augustine but Augustine said: “If you understand, it is not God.”

G.K.Chesterton a hundred years ago said, “Reason itself is a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.”

J.B.S.Haldane, an evolutionary biologist and Marxist who died fifty years ago said,  “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose but queerer than we can suppose.”

Dag Hammaskjold, the Secretary General of the United Nations in its early days said,  “God does not die on the day we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.”

And Alan Jones, former Dean of the Cathedral in San Francisco, said, “Faith, in the end, isn’t an argument. It’s adoration.”

That’s what the coming of the magi, the celebration of the Epiphany, says to me. We, like the Magi, are here to wonder and to worship.

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