Gifts From Creation

A sermon based on Matthew 2:1-12
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio, on January 6, 2019
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Yesterday was the 12th Day of Christmas when wassailing for some still takes place. Wassailing traditionally involved walking the last night of the Christmas season, the 12th Night, in gratitude to where livestock are visited, cider and spices are poured at the base of trees and crumbs spread for critters while offering thanks to creation for the blessings God provides in and through them.

Today is Epiphany marking the shift from the season of Christmas to the season of Epiphany. Generally speaking Epiphany is about the appearance of the Divine, but today specifically celebrates and focuses on, as my theological dictionary puts it, “the revelation of Jesus Christ to the entire world as represented by the coming of the Magi to worship the Christ Child.” So even though our culture has long merged the Magi’s story into the Christmas season, we have it before us again today.

This year, in this church, today is also our 4th Peace Sunday, as we continue each month through May to lift up a peace theme. Today’s particular theme is “Peace with creation.” Pastor Anna is leading the Adult Forum and noon peace sessions on this theme. I have been charged with lifting it up in worship.

When I started writing this back in Advent I was thinking it might be a bit of a stretch to use the Lectionary lesson to find “peace with creation” oriented ideas beyond the general sense of peace on earth being good for all creation. Not that that was a bad idea, but Anna and I discussed Sacred connections between creation and humans as a focus, what I consider a sort of cross between wassailing and Epiphany.

In my prayer practice I have long noticed that if I stop and prayerfully sit with a piece of scripture, I can better perceive God “speaking” in it especially in new ways. In Adult Forum in the past and in the Peace Sundays we’ve lifted up a form of that practice called Lectio Divina, Latin for “divine reading.” The idea is to promote new experiences of God speaking in Bible verses. Anna and her wonderful husband David and I discussed how there can be an analogous promotion of experiences of God when we sit with creation and let God be seen or heard in it, a sort of creaturae divina, my Latin for “divine creation.” In my experience when we stop and look at even a small piece of creation, we can find God speaking in it. So I started thinking “What if I come to today’s lesson prayerfully listening to the words, but also creation in the story?”

It was very cool to do that. It worked. But I had to clear my mind of deeply rooted tradition. The progressive book, First Christmas, that we studied in Advent gives an idea of what was in the way. The authors, Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, note that Magi:

refers to a kind of religious figure; magi had wisdom being in touch with ANOTHER REALITY. Their wisdom was a “secret wisdom” a kind not known by ordinary people. No doubt some were astrologers in the sense that they paid attention to “signs in the heavens,” but to think of magi as primarily astrologers is misleading. Rather, magi were people with MORE THAN earthly wisdom. (p. 183).

I am not sure the authors intended it, but the phrases “Another reality” and “more than earthly wisdom” suggest God, is found beyond creation. I question the implied intent because in another book, Speaking Christian, Dr. Borg argues rather strenuously that God is “the reality in whom we and everything exist.” (p 70) And a point he goes on to make is that we cannot deny reality . . . so if God is reality, all theological arguments end up being about the nature of reality. As Dr. Borg puts it: “Reality, ‘is-ness,’ ‘what is’ is. The question is not whether ‘is-ness’ exists but what is it like.”

If that is true – and I think it is– then the Magi experiences explained in our Advent study book as “Another reality” and “more than earthly wisdom” cannot really be beyond creation. God in many respects may be beyond human understanding, but God is not, not here. What the Magi tap into through the immanent presence of God is the transcendent nature of God – both being part and parcel of reality.
That’s kinda dizzying theological speak. It helps me to think of it this way, creation sits like a sponge soaked in the sea of God.

Most of us think reality is the sponge part, that’s earthly wisdom, limited to seeing the sponge. Spiritual people, like the Magi, stop and give close attention to the sponge and the result is they see, taste and feel, the sea of God soaking the sponge. Simply put, for spiritual people creation includes the Creator, all of God the comprehensible in incomprehensible. To put it in New Testament wording, The Magi like all spiritual people discover the Truth Paul declares in the Book of Acts where he says: “ [God] is not far from each one of us. For ‘In [God] we live and move and have our being’ . . . ”

Using Lectio Divina I sat down with today’s verses, tried to set aside my notions, spent time with the words, and prayed with it in hand. I was amazed to see that human connections with creation, that “ peace with creation” was very much in the lesson. The Magi were famous for studying the cosmos in the night sky, spoken into existence by God. Magi looked up from earth and paid attention to how God was speaking to them in the magnificent splendor and awe of creation. Like my sponge analogy they looked and saw the reality of the physical presence of heavenly bodies that most can see, but they took time to sit with it and noticed it was soaked and surrounded by God who was still speaking.

Creation, not humans, led the Magi to Christ. Through creation they found God incarnate. That is not an exaggeration. We are told that they observed a star rising and moving and it alone led them to Christ. Before they found Christ, other humans the Magi encountered tried to corrupt the journey and destroy the part of God creation was leading them to. The star is a “star” character in the lesson as the Creator’s light moving the Magi to Christ the “star” human in the lesson.

Many people are led to Christ by way of the Creator’s presence in creation. The night sky still shows us the Sacred if we look for it. So too creation’s geography, flora and fauna, every atom and molecule– all contain the Creator We can see Christ in creation if we look and it can lead us to God incarnate! In my twenty years away from the church creation brought me to experience God, what I now call Christ – the incarnation of God– in creation. It still does. Every time I stop and focus on God in creation, from mountains to pebbles, oceans to raindrops, lightening to lightening bugs, God is there. Creation led me to Christ and leads me there still. Creation’s heavens connect the Magi and us with the Creator when we look for it in the words of the lesson. There is peace with creation in that alone.

But there is more. The Magi find Christ and present themselves – creatures– in homage, and they give three gifts –from creation– frankincense, myrrh and gold. Those were traditional gifts for kings back then. Matthew has them there to demonstrate Jesus is king to any wise person, Jewish or Gentile. But if we focus on those gifts as more than royal symbolism, we find that they are all derived from creation, and human handling them over the years intentionally or not, led to finding the Creator’s presence in the many blessings they offer. Frankincense and Myrrh come from a very simple thing, sap collected and crystalized in the air into resin. The sap of Boswellia tree makes frankincense, the sap of Commiphora trees, myrrh.

The Creator put into Frankincense many uses uncovered over the years by human focus. In the Bible it is used in holy ointments and as a fragrance in religious ceremonies. Humans have found uses beyond the nice aroma including health benefits providing anti-bacterial effects and relief from diabetes, stress, anxiety, pain and inflamation.

The Creator also put in Myrrh many uses uncovered by human focus. It was also used for religious purposes in oils and incense. But it has even more secular uses. It is used in perfumes. But it is also used medicinally for dental care, and relief from indigestion, ulcers, colds, cough, asthma, congestion, arthritis, cancer, kidney trouble, circulatory problems, bruises, aches, and sprains for humans and in veterinary practices.

Peace in the Bible means well being. Who knew simple bits of tree saps from creation offered so much well-being for humans? But to get to the blessings we need to spend time with each bit of creation. And to we also need to tend to the well being of the Boswellia and Commiphora trees so that amazing resource containing the Creator survives. That is true with all of creation. All of it can show us God, the Creator. We must make sure tend to its well being or risk losing portals to the Sacred and their known and unknown. We need to have reverence for all the world as a part of the Creator! Peace on earth is not just about human well being, it cannot be. Our well being depends upon the well being of the rest of the world.

Now I did not forget that I have only listed two of the three gifts, frankincense and myrrh. Gold is also brought by the Magi. Most of us think of gold as a rare and valuable metal used as currency and precious jewelry. But over time as humans have focused on Gold they have found more gifts left in gold by the Creator. It has a multitude of uses in art, glass making, electronics, computers, dentistry, medicine – and it is even used in aerospace industry as durable lubricant and dependant radiation shield. Gold has a myriad of uses for well being.

There is an aspect of gold I did not know about before researching this sermon. I am guessing the Magi did not know either. All the gold naturally on the surface of the earth is thought by modern science to have come from meteorites. Falling stars moving across the heavens lead to gold on earth. That makes a nice metaphor for the moving star in our lesson which leads the Magi to the gold of “the revelation of Jesus Christ to the entire world . . .”

Traditionally the revelation is recognition of Christianity beyond it’s Jewish origins to Gentiles. But we can understand it to also mean that Christ is revealed in the entire world. And we can hear Jesus’ core teaching fits that understanding. He taught us to love God and others. If God is what we live and move and have our being in, then to love God is to love creation which is very much a part of God. e must desire and tend to the well being of not just our human neighbors but our brother sun and sister moon as St Francis called them. Francis saw Christ in us and creation and considered it all family. We are related to and need to relate to air, water, land, flora and fauna with world-wide well being in mind. We must have peace with all the world. We must give peace to creation even as it gives it to us.