We don’t often change our minds. When Christ was born, God changed a lot of people’s minds about just what he was doing in the world. It took an epiphany. Maybe we need one too.
Epiphany of Our Lord (transferred) – Sunday, January 3, 2016 – Matthew 2:1-12
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
Surprise! – Pastor Evan Davis
When was the last time you were really, truly surprised about something? A time when your expectations, your assumptions, or even your prejudices, were proved wrong? When was the last time a surprise changed your mind about something important?
NPR has a wonderful program called This American Life and they did a fantastic story earlier this year about the rare occasions when someone does change his or her mind about a core belief or conviction.1 It’s an unbelievably rare thing, actually. Most of the time we tend to instinctively surround ourselves with people and media voices who reinforce what we already believe. We live in echo chambers with our strongly-held convictions bouncing off the walls, in our ears and then out of our mouths. When we are forced to encounter someone, either in person or through media, who disagrees with us, what we almost always do is double down on our beliefs and just believe them more strongly in the face of evidence or strong arguments to the contrary.
I’m a Washington Redskins fan. Despite the fact that our team name and logo is obviously, blatantly racist, it’s taken me about fifteen years to come to believe it must be changed. The weight of history and tradition and my own love for the team blinded me to that reality. But eventually, especially when thinking about how the name and logo affect not just Native Americans but anyone who is profiled due to their race, and especially when I heard Native Americans talk about their feelings on the issue, I realized how unacceptable it was. My mind was changed.
That being said, it’s very rare that I have totally changed my mind on a major religious, political, or social issue. Like all of you, I have core convictions. When I hear people expressing the opposite opinion, I try to listen but usually I don’t find what they’re saying very persuasive. Politicians and their campaign staffers know this too. Did you know that pretty much every campaign ad, email, sign, button, and soundbyte is directed at people who already agree with their candidate? It’s all designed to confirm a previously held belief and make you angry or hopeful or fearful enough to be sure you get out and vote. Most campaigns never even try to talk to voters with whom they disagree. There’s so little chance of actually changing someone’s mind, it’s not worth the time or money.
An “epiphany” is a sudden appearance, a revealing of something that was hidden, a surprise. It was even the word people used when a ruler or superior suddenly showed up for a surprise inspection!2 Christians have called this day Epiphany, the day when we remember this story of the three magi, or wise men from the East, visiting Jesus because Jesus was revealed to them as the King of the Jews. Now it was not unusual for foreign dignitaries to come visit a royal baby. It was a regular diplomatic occasion. But certainly when they saw who it was, who his parents were, and where the baby was, it was a surprise!
Naturally, first they go to Herod’s palace to look for the royal baby. Where else would you go? But surprise, he’s not there.
When three magi, that is, something like a combination of astronomers, mathematicians, and priests, from a foreign power come to visit his palace looking for a royal baby, Herod’s pretty surprised too. It’s as if a bunch of important people knock on your door with invitations in hand, ready for a party you didn’t know was happening. And so Herod asks his religious experts where the scriptures said the Messiah was to be born, and sure enough, they provide the regular quotation from the prophet Micah: “and you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” Was it really happening now? Herod knows the child will be a threat to him and his family since they aren’t even true-blooded Jews, just client kings, puppets of the Romans. So he launches his scheme to get the wise men to reveal the child’s location so he can put an end to him, however surprisingly to Herod but unsurprisingly to us, the wise men outsmart him with the help of a dream that could only be from God.
I wonder at the surprise of the magi when the star they followed stopped over the humble house where Jesus lay, if it even was what we would call a house. What a place for this child to be – they couldn’t have believed it without the celestial confirmation shining over them. What a surprise to find a teenage peasant couple, his parents. What a surprise for Mary and Joseph that three magi from the Eastern courts of Persia, most likely, had come hundreds of miles to see them, to pay homage and present fabulously expensive gifts to their child. It’s as if Queen Elizabeth walked into your house to see you and your baby with a diamond-encrusted tiara in her gift bag. I guess it was par for the course after the Angel Gabriel, shepherds and all that.
Surprise after surprise tell us one thing for sure…God is up to something new. God is not just sending another prophet. Who could this be? There would be more surprises to come…each one unveiling more of the mystery which up to now had been hidden in the God who created all things. Without this encounter, this meeting, this epiphany of God experienced by the magi, by Mary and Joseph, could any of them have believed what God was really doing? Would their minds have been changed? Would they have been convinced that this child was the key to God’s ancient plan for the Creation?
What was interesting about the NPR story was that it was only personal encounter that changed peoples’ minds about the most important things they believed. It was the epiphany that comes in the midst of a conversation, a moment of connection between you and a human being who is different from you, who has a different perspective. What these researchers and activists in the story did was go to people’s homes, knock on their doors, get into a personal conversation, and in the midst of that conversation reveal that he or she was personally impacted by that issue in a way that led to them having opposite viewpoints. There were very controversial issues they were talking about, like gay marriage. They did change many peoples’ minds through that moment of empathy, of epiphany. Here’s what it says for me…
When does God surprise us? When does God really, truly knock our socks off with an epiphany that challenges our convictions and changes our minds? I believe it usually comes with a personal encounter – an experience with someone whom in retrospect, you can see was sent to you by God. How is Christ revealing himself to you again and again? For me, at times it’s been someone I served at a soup kitchen. At times it’s been one of you…when Christ has used you to tell me he’s right here, maybe up to something I didn’t realize, or just to remind me that God has chosen to be present right here, right now, to love us through our sins, to show us a better way, to not let anything come between us and his salvation.
God will keep surprising you, even changing your mind about where he is and what he’s doing, about how much he loves you….so much that you can be who you are without fear. And God will use you to bring the surprising good news of his unconquerable love. I pray you experience the surprise of realizing how God has used you. Amen.
1Ira Glass, “Episode 555: The Incredible Rarity of Changing Your Mind,” This American Life episode, originally aired 4/24/15, transcript here: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/555/transcript (accessed January 2, 2015). All future references to the show are from this source. NOTE: One of the studies referenced in this story has been retracted due to falsified data, however other elements of the story, including the canvassing by the LGBT rights group I mention in this sermon, did happen. The major difference is that the story can no longer claim scientific data about minds “staying changed” over long periods of time but the anecdotal evidence from the actual conversations still holds.
2Eliseo Perez-Alvarez, Commentary on Matthew 12:1-12, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2736 (accessed January 2, 2015).