If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
--Psalm 139:7-10 NIV
We can waste a whole lifetime believing that only one way of experiencing God is true. We can waste a whole lifetime ignoring the longings of our heart, because we’ve been taught that God doesn’t speak through those longings.
We can force ourselves into churches that make us uncomfortable for the sake of “discipleship.” We can make ourselves be more “expressive” in worship, or struggle to learn to meditate and be still, because someone important told us once that it was The Way to Know God. Then when we don’t feel safe, or whole, or connected to God through those practices, we assume it’s our fault. We think we’re doing it wrong.
We doubt our own souls before we doubt the religious gatekeepers telling us that their voice is the same as the voice of God.
You must not be trying hard enough, they’ll say. Being a Christian means being discipled, and discipleship isn’t comfortable. Church isn’t supposed to feel easy! Being a Christian isn’t supposed to be fun! What feels good can’t be trusted. What you want is probably bad.
Learn our language, religious leaders says, no matter how uncomfortable, no matter how ill-fitting.
Like a child forced to draw with their non-dominant hand, who grows up assuming drawing is painful and they are bad at it, we are forced into spiritual practices that feel uncomfortable, then naturally assume God is distant, unpleasant, and unsafe. That discomfort in sacred spaces or with spiritual practices can signal that we’ve been doing religion with our non-dominant hand for too long.
But God doesn’t demand we learn a new soul language before God will speak to us. God comes to us in ways we understand.
God is longing to sing us home in our native language.
Epiphany, the story of the Magi, is about a God who sings us all home, in the language we speak, as the people we are.
Epiphany is not a story of the Magi coming to God. Epiphany is a story of God coming to the Magi, speaking to them in a spiritual language they understood, before they took one step towards God. Epiphany, like all the best stories, is a story about Grace.
This Feast of the Epiphany is Thursday, January 6th, the last day after the 12 Days of Christmas. In the Western Christian Church, Epiphany is the celebration of the Incarnation for the Gentiles – it is the first time the Gospel went out to the non-Jewish world, represented by the Gentile “three kings” of the East coming to worship Jesus (Mt 2:1-12).
The word magos (Magi) is sometimes translated “wise men” and sometimes “kings.” These are theologically safe translations, but not entirely accurate (and the number three only comes from the three gifts they brought – Scripturally, we have no record of how many showed up). While we can’t be entirely sure of the Magi’s story, the most common use of the Greek word magos in the New Testament and in later non-Biblical Greek sources is simply magicians.
Oh dear. This makes us uncomfortable. We’d prefer the Magi to be “wise men,” gentlemen scholars engrossed in scholarly pursuits. Gentiles, yes, but safe, tidied up Gentiles. We like the poetry of “God coming for the outsiders” but only for less messy outsiders. And if they must be so heretical to be magicians (or, as Acts 13:6 translates the word, “sorcerers”), at least let’s see a repentance scene when they come to worship Jesus!
Surprisingly, though, the magicians see the star, are “overjoyed,” bring Jesus gifts, worship Him – then return home. They come as they are - weird witchy astrologers - and leave as they are, weird witchy astrologers. There can be exegetical knots tied over whether the Magi are a good example or not, but Matthew is straightforward in his telling – the Magi follow the star, worship Jesus, and when warned about Herod’s intentions in a dream, dutifully go home a different way. For Matthew, these Magi saw God. For Matthew, God came and found these Magi exactly as they were.
If we dig deep enough into what we love, we will always find God waiting for us, like the funky astrologers buried in their star charts while God planted a star in the sky.
If we earnestly and truthfully follow what makes our soul sing, there is God, singing in harmony all along.
It can be hard to believe the things we love can bring us to God, or that we don’t have to sacrifice our deepest self in order to be found by God. The church has certainly spent a lot of time and energy telling us to distrust ourselves for the sake of “sanctification.”
This is not to say that we aren’t in the process growth and development, or that our religious practice can stretch us into new shapes in a healthy way! We are always growing, and sometimes that’s a bit uncomfortable as we learn new skills or practice the fruits of the Spirit we’re a bit weaker in. There is a time, especially, to sacrifice a bit of what makes us comfy to honor the native language of our neighbor. We can sacrifice our preferences for the sake of our neighbor, as act of worship. These are all ways God sings us home.
The process, though, is like pruning a bush, branch by branch – it grows stronger and better and more resourcefully, but the bush doesn’t change into a rabbit. Its essence is the same bush. We’re growing into our best self, not growing into another self entirely. Our extraneous fluff is being trimmed, but we aren’t shaped into a new self altogether.
And when you finally let yourself hear God sing to you in your heart’s first language, it is such a beautiful gift. Coming home to ourselves and finding God there waiting is delightful, like being permitted to be a kid again in the presence of the Divine, opening Christmas presents given to you by someone who really knows you, playing without being worried about being watched. It is so holy to speak the language we spoke before we knew anyone was listening, when we were “naked and unashamed,” and to believe that God not only talks that language back to us, but that it gives Her joy to do so.
Epiphany, at its core, is a story about the primacy of Grace – God coming to us, however God can, wherever God can, in any language God can use, just to make sure we hear Her clearly. We never make a single step on the journey towards God before God has taken so many steps towards us first.
This is the Gospel, beginning to end.
Blessings on your Epiphany. May you hear Grace singing you home to yourself, and to God.