Horror novelist Stephen King in 1991 wrote a book entitled Needful Things. The story is set in a small fictional New England town, Castle Rock, Maine. In the town a new gift shop is opened by a seemingly kind older gentleman named Leland Gaunt. The allure of the shop is that for each of the townspeople the shop's inventory includes an item thought to be the thing most wanted in life. However, none of the people can afford to buy the item. The shop owner offers each of them a trade. A favor done for him will secure the most wanted item. Each is to play what appears to be a simple prank on another of the townspeople. Then the residents of Castle Rock begin to turn on one another until at last the whole town is in chaos. Leland Gaunt turns out to be none other than the devil himself. Traveling throughout the countries of the world, he has been selling junk to people who thought they were purchasing the item they most wanted. What the shoppers failed to notice were the words printed above the shop's entrance...Caveat Emptor... "Let the buyer beware."
In these opening days of the New Year, as we anticipate the unfolding of 2008, let us consider what it is you and I "buy into" as the most important thing in life...the principal thing, the chief, the main thing in life. A.J. Jacobs, in his book A Year of Living Biblically, confesses that he is a reverent agnostic. "Whether or not there is a God," he said, "I believe that there is something important about the idea of sacredness." What do you consider to be sacred in your life?
On this 6th day of January in the church calendar, we observe annually the day of Epiphany. Literally meaning "fantasy from the outside," we celebrate the belief that in the birth of Christ at Christmas, God has entered into our world and into our lives. Epiphany asks the question: Where do we see God to be present among and in us? What are the signs of the sacred among us? It is with that quest, that search, that discovery, that we concern ourselves today as we consider the main thing.
Using Matthew's story of the Wise Men as a guide, let's think together about this quest. The story tells us that the Wise Men came to Jerusalem in search of Him who had been born King of the Jews...because they wanted to worship Him. In other words, they, like us, were searching for the object of their worship...the most revered thing...the main thing.
First of all, according to the writer, the Wise Men's quest began with a star in the sky. The search for the main thing begins for them with an upward look, a glance toward the heavens. Less about astrology and more about attitude, their discovery started with what might be called a posture of prayer. Dr. Daniel S. Papp, President of Kennesaw State University, is an educator with an extensive knowledge of world affairs. Back in 2003, after the beginning of the war in Iraq, I had the privilege of sitting in a discussion group led by Dr. Papp. Fielding a variety of questions about global concerns, Dr. Papp mentioned the 87 billion dollars requested by President Bush to initially fund the war effort. My hand popped up. "Dr. Papp," I asked, "with the high cost of the war, why has the United States just launched yet another research rocket into outer space? Isn't there, at a time like this, a need to be a bit more restrained with taxpayers' dollars?" Dr. Papp replied, "No matter how much we've invested down here (on earth), with due regard to the cost of war, we always have a need to "launch out," as it were, beyond ourselves, to reach upward and outward, investing ourselves in going places we've never been before."
The discovery of the chief thing begins with a star. This search for the principal thing also involves a journey. Matthew states that the Wise Men started in the east and moved west. They left home, the most familiar of places, the status quo, and ventured out toward a yet unknown destination. It would be a journey not unlike that of Abraham and Sarah in the Old Testament, who at the call of God departed their native land and traveled toward a land of promise. Like any journey, this journey for the principal thing in life involves enduring some rough spots along the way, negotiating a curve or two, climbing some hills, and passing through and out of dark valleys. Some of you are familiar with the "Outward Bound Wilderness" (program) which offers women, men, boys, and girls supervised opportunities for exploring wilderness areas of our country while developing personal survival skills, courage, and self-confidence. Begun in the tumultuous waters of the North Sea during World War II, "Outward Bound" was a program designed to give experience and practical skills to sailors who would seek to endure battles yet to be fought. The name "Outward Bound" is actually a nautical term used when ships leave the certainty of the harbor. It is said that these journeys take people to places they've only dreamed of and leave them with things that last a lifetime. One might say they were outward bound to become inwardly free. The search for the principle thing begins with a star and also involves a journey.
And, lastly, the discovery of that which is most sacred frequently takes us through and comes out of some of the darkest times and events of our lives. Consider, for instance, the role of the tyrant King Herod in today's gospel story. As the account of the Wise Men's quest is reported, no fewer than five times is Herod spoken of in these twelve verses. His reign provides the context in which the Wise Men's quest and discovery takes place. It is Herod who is threatened by and resistant to the news of the birth of the new king. Herod consults with the religious authorities and then receives and deceptively advises the Wise Men concerning the birthplace of the Messiah. It is Herod about whom the Wise Men are warned in the dream. For sure, like so many of the hurtful powers in our own lives, this tyrant king plays a significant and yet secondary role. Herod may even claim the "Best Supporting Actor" prize in this drama, but his role remains secondary. As in any drama, supporting roles are never to upstage those lead players. No matter the stage, be it in the school auditorium or the one upon which the drama of our lives is lived out every day, the truth is the same. The darkness shall not overcome the light. As the Apostle Paul declares in the Roman letter, the redemptive power of God works all things together in a pattern for good in the lives of those who love God and who are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28). The discovery of the main thing frequently takes us through and comes out of some of the darkest, most dangerous, and deceptive times of life.
Matthew declares that the Wise Men arrive at the place above which the star was located. Their quest has brought them, their search has led them, to the discovery of life's main thing-the Christ. To say that the Wise Men obtained what they most wanted is gross understatement. The gospel declares that they "rejoiced with a great joy." Exaggerated language for sure-literary device used when mere words simply will not tell the story. Further, the Wise Men fell down before the object of their worship and before their Savior they opened and presented their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The needful things of this world and their value always pale in comparison when cast in the light of the main thing in life.
As the Director of Alumnae/i and Church Relations at Columbia Theological Seminary, I recently had the opportunity of talking with a woman who is seeking to discern God's call in her own life. She's been considering the possibility of enrolling as a seminary student in ministry preparation. "I struggle," she confessed, "with having several main things in my life. In this case, full-time school and being a spouse to my husband and the best mother to my sons." She paused for a moment and then continued, "I will continue to have to pray about this, too."
Good advice, Ellen-for you, me, and all the rest of us who seek to discern the main thing in life. And when by God's grace the discovery is made, we, like the Wise Men, will go home a new way. Thanks be to God!
Let us pray.
Eternal God, who art Emmanuel, God with us, we thank you for this time together with your Word. We pray that as we live out the days of this New Year, we shall consider afresh the main things of our lives. Help us to look beyond where we've been, and led by your Spirit, may we journey forth knowing that you are always with us. By your grace lead us, we pray, to that place of grand discovery that is ours through faith in Jesus Christ our Lord and our Savior. Amen.