“No Longer at Ease” / Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12 / 1 January 2017
“We observed this star at its rising,” the so-called wise men say. “We observed this star at its rising, and we’ve come to pay him homage.” It kind of makes you wonder why they’re called “wise” men, if they’d up and follow a star. It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, what was going on in the lives of these “wise” men that they’d so willingly pack up their telescopes, and their charts, and their compasses to go chasing after some unknown star? Dissatisfaction! Maybe it was that old dissatisfaction, tugging at their sleeves, begging them to venture out into something new, calling them to follow! Yes, while contentment is a beautiful thing in its place, a wonderful thing indeed, there is also this holy dissatisfaction that occasionally calls us to take a new risk, try a new thing, rise up from our darkness and follow after the light.
Oh, you’ve felt it stirring in your soul. You have! And so have I. Whatever it was that churned in the restless spirits of those ancient Magi, don’t you think maybe it was the same thing that would call to Leif Erikson, a mere thousand years later, from across the chilly waters of the North Atlantic? Beneath the Northern Lights of a frigid Scandinavian sky, when he loaded up his dragon shaped galley and headed west to see if there was anything out there, don’t you think it was the same sense of wonder and dissatisfaction that was driving him? Instead of drifting off the edge of the flat earth and disappearing into oblivion, he landed at last in more cold, treeless countries like the ones he’d left: Greenland, Newfoundland. But he’d followed that deep longing of the soul, that primal call. He’d followed. And in years to come, as old age drew on, surely he sat by the fire and dreamed of the seas, their mystery and depth, their coldness, their wonder. I tell you—or perhaps you know—once the Star of Bethlehem has shined its holy, dissatisfied light into your life, you can never go back to the thing you were before. You have to up and follow. And the following becomes a quest, a lifelong yearning, a drive, a desire, a way of life. Is the Star of Bethlehem shining its rays into your life at the start of this New Year? We must follow. All we can do is follow…and resign ourselves to the lives of wanderers and wonderers.
And what called our forebears to cross the wide ocean, to seek a new life here in a strange and hostile wilderness—a place of poison ivy and wolves? What called our Scottish and German ancestors out here to a place of ruthless French soldiers and justifiably hostile Native Americans? What inner dissatisfaction with life as they knew it bid them risk it all, life and limb, family and all familiarity, all comforts and safety in order to make simple frontier farms where they could grow their rye and distill their whiskey in peace? I tell you, I’m not sure I’d ask my family to live in a place without a Barnes and Noble, much less a place without 911 service. What faith in the hardy, ironclad Presbyterian Providence of old strengthened their resolve? What deep desire for independence drove them forward? Dissatisfaction! What old, old drive to escape the reach of those bishops and kings who ruled the Old World and spread their reach even to the American coast? Ah, but when the Star of Bethlehem sheds its rays upon you, you’ve got a choice to make. You can risk everything and follow, or you can spend the rest of your wistful life wondering how different things might have been for you if you had. You can up and follow when the light is upon you, or you can pass the remainder of your restless days with the tyrant’s heel upon your neck—whatever or whoever that tyrant may be, the unloved job, the unhappy relationship, the irredeemable tedium of a directionless life, the addiction, the solitude, all the rankings of class and clan, race and station, all the bishops and kings that the Old World forces upon us, all that we long to escape.
Ah, but that new light, that sacred star! Maybe just once in a lifetime, maybe at most on two or three occasions in the course of a normal human life, its beams of splendor will pierce the shadows of our minds and souls. “Arise, your light has come,” it will wordlessly declare. It will beckon us to a journey of discovery, a trek fueled by the passions of desire and longing. And once we’ve given our lives to following the star, nothing is ever quite as easy as it was before, but despite the discomfort of the journey, most things are better because of it. The star’s light comes as opportunity; it comes as a forward call. It comes as a holy kind of dissatisfaction, an inner disquiet, and it always bids us take a risk. Take a risk and follow. When have you, like the wise men of old, gone chasing after the star?
That’s a real question: When? Look back over your days. Cast a retrospective glance across your years. What’s the New Year for if not retrospection and anticipation—those seemingly opposite but really quite complimentary feelings of charting the forward course, all the while casting an eye back over the annals of your private history, reminding you of who you are and where you’ve been? Think for a moment: When did you hitch your wagon to an uncertain but promising star? When did something new and enlightening break into the darkness of the night skies above your life and bid you change, risk alienation, leave all you know and follow? And you, like a resistless Magus of old—for “Magus” is the singular form of “Magi”—you could do nothing other than to follow. You could preach the sermon today if you were to stand at the microphone and tell the story of that one time you heeded the deep rumblings of dissatisfaction in your soul, and so you collected up your treasure and followed. Perhaps you took a risk on a relationship that you have never since regretted. Maybe you made a move to some far-off place to seek your fortune—and found it. It could be that you cast caution to the wind and did something with your life that the voice of reason laughed to scorn. Oh, but this is the call of Christ, is it not? Interesting that Christ was calling people to take risks, to follow after him, long before he showed up on the beaches of Galilee and bid those simple fishers, “Follow me. Leave behind your boats and nets. Let the dead bury their dead. Lay down the tools of your trade, the detritus of an old and passing world. As for you, follow me.” For the journey on which Christ and his star call us is not only a journey of self-discovery—though it is that—but it is most surely a journey of greater enlightenment, new insights, new beginnings not only for ourselves but for us to put to use out there in a big, dark, sometimes gloomy old world. For when we give in to our holy dissatisfaction with the darkness inside ourselves, when we chase after the holy light that makes us uneasy with all we now see, then we come home to our old worlds by way of another road, and we bear that new light with us. When have you followed? Oh, you’ll know when it was, for though it came at the cost of some risk and fear, it has made you more whole. And you in turn have made the world more whole as a result. There is a holy dissatisfaction with life as we live it, and sometimes it bids us change!
What sacred longing, what holy dissatisfaction brings you here today? Some of you guys want me to believe that you only come because your wife makes you. But we all of us come to church because we know in our hearts that religion, at its best, calls us forward out of the inky night of selfishness and fear, that even when faith speaks with an archaic drawl, it has a wisdom at its heart that can make our world better, and heal our souls in the process. We come because religion holds in its sometimes frightening treasure chests not gifts of frankincense and gold but the lovely twin truths that we are but dust…and that we are the beloved: humility and purpose.
But what’s this about holy dissatisfaction? Isn’t discontent just an unhappy fact of the human condition? It would be a peaceful-albeit-boring world if people could just be contented with what they have. There’s something to be said for contentment; the dissatisfactions of the soul can be silly and wrong. Maybe the grass is greener over there because someone bothers to care for it in a way we don’t care for our own. Maybe if we arrived over there, the grass would go as brown as it is here—because we never learned to love what we have. And what if you get over there to the other side only to realize that it was all just so much Astroturf, and you had the real thing all along? Maybe it’s just fertilized with a load of horse manure. It’s surely true that if there are “holy” dissatisfactions leading us into better ways, then there are also “unholy” desires leading us into worse ways. There are covetous, grasping, avaricious hankerings for things that look right but are not good for us, for certain kinds of power, and sorts of love, and amounts of money, and renown that we’d be better off without. This is the paradox of desire, isn’t it? Nothing good would ever be if we didn’t first long for something more than what we had. But there’s such happiness in being contented with what we’ve got. How do we know the holy dissatisfaction from the unholy kind? Or…maybe the discontent is always good, for it calls for something better; it’s just that we sometimes respond to the good longings in all the worst ways. Instead of following their light, we retreat even further into the dark, seeking new territory and kings in the shadows of what we already know: the riskless paths of greed, and protectionism, and possession, and power. Maybe the inner discontent with our lot is always good, for it calls us to something bigger than ourselves, mystery, the unknown. But we abuse the forward call by pursuing it with attempts at self-aggrandizement and control. Thus our pursuit of wholeness becomes like trying to slake a deep thirst with gin instead of water. It only makes us thirstier.
Have you ever seen a person becoming the thing they hate because the thing they hate is what they forever dwell upon? Have you ever seen a group of people or a nation going down that dark path? It happens. It’s the proverbial “bad trip,” when the journey that ought to be a joyful expedition into the light becomes more about escaping the bad than seeking the good. It’s the mother who wants so badly to make her daughters into freethinking, liberal, emancipated human beings that she drives them with a tyrannical open-mindedness straight into the arms of the Young Republicans. It’s the father who wants so badly to instill his deep faith in his children that he browbeats them with it in a most un-Christian way, leaving them inoculated against faith for the rest of their lives. In fact, Paul Theroux, that great American travel writer of the 80s and 90s, who also dabbled in fiction, wrote a remarkable short story about just such a thing. Most of Theroux’s fiction deals with white people coming to bad ends in Third World places. I used to read it back in Africa because it rang an echo of truth in my mind. But Theroux’s a misanthrope; like Mark Twain; he doesn’t love humanity. In his short story, “Our Raccoon Year,” he writes about a father who battles a band of raccoons who have set up a colony beneath his pool deck. He starts off simply trying to trap them and relocate them to other places. But things escalate, as the nocturnal raccoons chew shingles off the shed and kill wild turkeys in the yard. The father, too, resorts to excessive measures. He drowns them in cages and does the most horrible things. He begins slinking around at might, avoiding the light, muttering in clicks and hisses. He begins avoiding people and eating just whatever he can find, sleeping all day, staying up all night to track the activities of the raccoons. By the end of the story, he’s nocturnal, and mean, and gratuitously destructive, scheming, with dark sunken eyes…just like a raccoon.
And so, how do we know the good journey from the bad one? How do we avoid ending up like a graze of raccoons—for I looked it up, and that’s what a group of raccoons is called? Knowing that not all journeys will lead us into the light, but some will lead us further into the dark, how do we differentiate the holy dissatisfactions from the unholy? Or, if all dissatisfaction is holy, if it’s all God’s way of calling us to improve our relationships, our circumstances and those of the world, then how do we make sure that our journey is into the light? For it is surely true that whoever you are and whatever your age, there is always, always a new journey opening up before you, a new possibility. There is a forward call on your life at all times, the sacred dissatisfaction of the future beckoning you toward better things—and that longing may even come feeling like the mere restlessness of boredom and ingratitude. How do we know which way to travel when we know we’ve got to pack up and go?
Well, let’s think about those wise men of yore, with their epiphany. Consider the ancient ray that shed its light over an Oriental observatory, tugging at the imaginations of those long-ago Magi, whoever they were. That unknown and long-forgotten “star,” a phenomenon of the heavens, cast its unexpected light from a quarter of the sky that had always been dark. A new light called those old Magi soothsayers away from themselves, away from their divinations and their magic, away from their pagan rites, their zodiacs, their astrology, and astronomy, and aromatherapy, and reflexology, their secret arts. It beckoned them out away from all that gave them power, out past the edges or their towns, out to the places where they were unknown, out to the places where their language wasn’t spoken, calling them yet to follow. Something outside of them was calling them, and it was the tug that they had been waiting for all their lives. And it cost them dearly! Instead of enhancing their sense of security in the world, they gave up a lot of the things that gave them power and safety, and all for the sake of the forward call.
The Star of Bethlehem will always call you to a journey that costs you something—something precious, something dear. If you would journey into the light, then you must make sacrifices that you probably do not want to make, for the dark is easier than the light. It requires less of us. If you would follow the dissatisfactions of the heart into the light, then you must leave many things behind, the safe-seeming, comfortable things of the dark: your claims to control, and power, and safety. The journey into the light is one of sacrifice and risk.
In his well-known poem, The Journey of the Magi, T.S. Eliot depicts the wise men as agitated, anxious, uncomfortable during their long trek to Bethlehem, but even more so upon their arrival back home. They’ve come back to the old places they knew so well, but all they’d seen and heard out there in the Big World had changed them. Having seen Jesus, it had made them strange. It saddled them with a new urgency, a new responsibility, a new vision for how life ought to be. “All this was a long time ago, I remember. I would do it all again,” one Magus says, looking back on his life. But what did we see out there, he asks—birth or death? For our old ways of life had to die so that the new one could be born. And no we are “no longer at ease” in the life we’ve returned to. And that is the good journey, isn’t it? The one that costs you! The one that changes you! The one that strips you of your old pretenses to safety and power! There is a holy dissatisfaction that sometimes calls to us. But be careful if you heed its call. Its goal is not just self-fulfillment and joy; it is also sacrifice; it is also travail; it is also pain. For that is the cost of new birth. That is the cost of new life. “Arise, your light is come.” Amen.