A circle of friends on pilgrimage for the love of God

Epiphany

Rev. Doug Floyd

Epiphany
Rev. Doug Floyd
Matthew 2:1-12

For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”[1]

In today’s Gospel, wise men come from the East. They saw his star. They came to worship. Since that time millions of Gentiles follow in their steps. In some sense we are worshipping today in their steps. Today we celebrate this movement. They saw. They came. The worshipped.

Though properly speaking, many of our churches are primarily made up of Gentiles, we might think of people in churches in two groups. One group is born into the covenant family. In one way or another, these folks have participated in the family of believers since birth. Conversions in this group may not always seem dramatic. Though some may leave the faith and then have a dramatic return. In many ways, this first group is similar to the Jews in that they are inheriting a faith that has been passed down.

There is another group of people who are not raised in a covenant community. Some crisis or incident provokes the people in this second group to turn from the world they know to the life of faith. This movement from unbelief to faith is akin to the movement of the wise men. They were afar. They were in another country. Another culture. They behold a star and begin a journey to that will take them to Bethlehem.

The moment they behold the star, the moment they begin the journey, they have been grasped by the divine hand of love. It is fine to try and determine what star they followed, but I would suggest our Lord and Creator is free to use anything in His vast creation to prompt the movement from unbelief to faith.

John Newton has been a sailor all his life. Though he had been exposed to faith through his mother, he lived outside the faith for most of his life. Then in the middle of storm on ocean on March 10, 1748. He cried out to God as he steered the near-foundering ship through the troubled waters. He would mark this date for the rest of his life as the date of his conversion. We might call it the beginning of his conversion. He continued as a slave trader and would captain three more voyages before he quit due to poor health.

He would go on to become a priest and to write over 280 hymns including the beloved “Amazing Grace.” And yet, he was still being converted or conformed to Christ. Eventually, he would play a key role in the abolitionist movement and even counsel William Wordsworth not to pursue to a a religious life but to remain a politician. He worked with Wilberforce to start the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. One of the ways he fought slavery was to write a pamphlet confessing his own sin in the slave trade and even testifying in Parliament. He died nine months after the Parliament abolished slave trade in the British Empire.[2]

Today we celebrate the grace of God in bringing those who are far off, near. Our story does not tell us if the wise men consulted ancient texts or prophecies. We may assume so. What we know is that they saw the star. When they saw it, they were provoked to go to Jerusalem. Once they are in Jerusalem, they meet with King Herod. This is a distraction at best. The journey from unbelief to faith is not always a straight line.

At this point, we know that Herod’s counselors did search the ancient texts and did determine that a ruler was to be born in Bethlehem. He told the wise men that he also wanted to worship the child, but death and destruction were in his heart. After they left Herod and headed to Bethlehem, they saw the star again. It came to rest in the place where the child was.

“When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”[3] They came before Mary and the child and fell down and worshiped him.[4]

This a story of doxology, of worship. Worship of the true God and true king is a cause for great joy. They offered gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.[5] These might seem like great and valuable treasures, but they are no greater than an of our gifts. All our gifts are as mere dust until our Lord transforms them into things of glory.

He takes our bread and wine and offers it back to us as His body and blood.

As I thought of this doxological journey from unbelief to faith to worship, I thought of the mystery of conversion. For those who grow up in the church and for those who come from outside the church, there is an awakening of faith that can only be understood as the grace of God.

The journey of the wise men might be likened to those who come from outside the church. Like the wise men, Holly Ordway was from a far off place. No she didn’t live in the far east, but she was an atheist and had been since childhood.[6] She studied English in graduate school, and her atheism hardened into an active resistance against Christianity. Her exposure to the faith had been through Christians witnessing and handing out tracts on the campus. She was convinced the Christianity was anti-intellectual.

When Holly finished her doctorate, she was burned out on English and decided to take a job in another field for a while. Eventually, she returned to English and began teaching literature at a small college in California. She started reading poetry again.

Many of these poets were Christians, and their words softened her heart. For example, she speaks of John Keats poem, Ode to a Grecian Urn where he concludes,

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”[7]

Or John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14,

Batter my heart, three person’d God; for you
As yet but knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.[8]

Holly writes, Break, blow, burn, and make me new: Those words rang my heart like a bell. I did not believe as Donne believed; yet I felt moved in a way that I had never been moved before. I, except you enthrall me, never shall be free … The words, once alien to me apart from my appreciation of their technical precision, now felt alive and powerful.[9]

She turned to Gerard Manley Hopkins whose words pierce the heart with unrelenting intensity.

He is free to speak us through His creation, through other people and of course, through His Holy Scriptures. She writes, Hopkins blazed with intensity, illuminating a dimension to the world that I had not believed existed. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.”[10]

In spite of being deeply moved by these poets, Holly still did not believe. God would draw her into the faith through a completely different path. Holly was a fencer. She played the sport intensely. When she moved to California, she found a coach who could match her intensity. He was a devout Christian and so was his wife. Holly says that they cared for her and coached her without trying to win her over as a convert. They simply loved her.

She had a big tournament in Reno and had expected to do quite well. Instead, she did horribly. Her coach and his wife invited her out for dinner, and the three of them rehearsed her performance as well as mistakes. They talked deep into the night. Gradually conversation shifted from fencing to life. They began to discuss issues faith. Holly trusted this couple and was willing to be vulnerable and ask difficult questions.

They were still talking at 2:00 am in the morning, when Holly suddenly blurted out, “You believe in God. I don’t. When I die, what do you think is going to happen to me?”[11]

Josh, her coach, said that he’d prefer not to answer that question. But she pressed him. Finally, he said, “I believe that we will come before God in judgment, and He will give each person either perfect justice, or perfect mercy.”[12]

Those words haunted her. They hung in her mind as she flew home the next day. They took root in her and eventually became the first steps toward faith in God.

Now let me stop her a moment and consider her story through the lens of the wise men. She was in an alien land far from the shores of faith. The wise men saw a star and followed. Instead of a star, God used Holly’s interests to speak to her: literature and fencing. He was calling, drawing her to himself. Like the wise men, He was leading her to the place of worship.

There is one more part of her story that I might connect to the wise men. The wise men brought gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They offered the gifts and fell down and worshipped the Lord. Holly told her priest that she wanted to fence for the glory of God. He anointed her and prayed her, dedicating this hobby to the Lord.

She went and fenced at a tournament. She didn’t win and yet felt more satisfied with this tournament than any she had ever done. This was a gift she gave back to God. He takes or poor gifts and makes them into something holy and precious.

If you are interested in reading more of Holly’s faith journey, you can read, Not God’s Type: A Rational Academic Finds a Radical Faith by Holly Ordway.

I wanted a story to go alongside our story of the wise men today to think about how God draws us to himself. He is free to use all of creation. He is free to use our hobbies, our interests, and even our dreams. He is free to use you in someone else’s life. We don’t all hand out tracts. Sometimes it means loving people and keeping our hearts open to God’s work in the lives of others.

As we think about our own journey of faith, I would like us each to think about offering our gifts to the Lord. We worship Him in tithes and offerings, but we can also offer the gift of our lives, our hobbies, our hopes, and even our failures. We offer ourselves to Him in worship, knowing that He can transform our gifts into a thing of glory.


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 2:2.

[2] https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Newton

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 2:10.

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 2:11.

[5] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 2:11.

[6] The story of Holly Ordway’s conversion has been taken from her book. Ordway, Holly. Not God’s Type: A Rational Academic Finds a Radical Faith. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2010.

[7] Keats, John, Ode to a Grecian Urn <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44477/ode-on-a-grecian-urn>

[8] Holly Ordway, Not God’s Type: A Rational Academic Finds a Radical Faith (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2010).

[9] Holly Ordway, Not God’s Type: A Rational Academic Finds a Radical Faith (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2010).

[10] Holly Ordway, Not God’s Type: A Rational Academic Finds a Radical Faith (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2010).

[11] Holly Ordway, Not God’s Type: A Rational Academic Finds a Radical Faith (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2010).

[12] Holly Ordway, Not God’s Type: A Rational Academic Finds a Radical Faith (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2010).

0 Comments

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.