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Herod, the Magi and the Importance of Staying Connected to Our Souls

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 8:50 pm on Sunday, January 7, 2018

A sermon preached on January 6, 2018 – Epiphany Sunday – based upon Matthew 2:1-12.

Although the word doesn’t occur in this very familiar story that so captures our imagination its theme is the mystery we call the “soul.”  The soul is the capacity that is deep within each of us to truly love and experience joy — the place where we are connected to God.  In this sense, our souls are all alike, and yet in another sense each soul is unique, because each of us is gifted in ways that distinguish us regarding how we express love, and each of us has a different destiny that calls to us from our souls — our own path to follow.  Our souls are our truest self – the self God made us to be.

Apart from the baby Jesus, there are two basic characters in this story, one representing life lived out of a connection to the soul, and the other expressing life altogether cut off from soul.

Let’s first consider the second character: Herod.  To reference the saying of the grown up Jesus, Herod has “gained the whole world” in the sense that he has come to be the most politically powerful man in his region, but he has lost his soul.  He carries the title of “king of Judea”, but he is a fraudulent king, a puppet put in power by the emperor in Rome.  He does not have the soul of a king and so his life is about play acting.

His is a joyless existence.  In spite of his great worldly power, he is filled with insecurity, requiring others to defer to him – to tell him how great he is – to prop up his false sense of self.   Since he is not rooted in his soul, the arrival of the Magi with news of the birth of a child destined to be king fills Herod with fear, throwing him into a tail spin.

This world that Herod is so attached to and which can be so seductive to us doesn’t encourage “soulful” living.

Spending a few days home recently with a cold, I’ve watched more television than usual, and there is this reocuring commercial that has really irritated me.  Perhaps you’ve seen it.  Two next door neighbors – clearly affluent women – encounter one another as one woman is unloading newly purchased containers from her car.  To mark the New Year she is excited about her resolve to bring order and beauty to her home.  The other woman condescendingly gestures to her new possession to mark the New Year – a $50,000 car – completely deflating the first woman.  In a world where a person’s value arises from the status projected by her luxury possessions, how can the other woman ever measure up?  The commercial tempts me to throw something at the television.

The alternative example in the story is that of the Magi.  They are not taking their cues from the world, from the approval of others.  To their neighbors back in Persia, their notion of setting off on a long, arduous journey following some otherwise overlooked star made absolutely no sense.  But they are confident in the truth that has arisen from their soul.

On the surface, they have far more reason to be afraid than Herod, leaving the familiar for unknown territory.  But they aren’t fearful because they know the path they have taken has been given to them by God.

The journey leads them to a profound experience of joy:    “When they saw the star the rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.”

For the first time in 36 years of preaching a detail in the story caught my attention.  Herod specifically asks the Magi for the specific time of the mysterious star’s rising, but there is no indication Herod or for that matter anybody else ever saw the star.  This is peculiar given the fact that a star capable of leading people to a specific house would certainly be one that would capture the attention of plenty of people.

The suggestion here is that the star is not a physical reality.  It is specifically the star given to the Magi to guide them towards their particular destiny — some sort of vision, arising from their souls.

In this sense there is a unique star to follow for each of us.

Soulful living doesn’t mean a pain-free life, but it brings a clarity that is otherwise missing in our lives — a sense of being fully present to the gift of our lives.

Rachel Naomi Remen is one of my favorite writers.  She is a medical doctor now in her eighties who in the course of her early life dealt with life threatening illnesses.  Midway through her life she shifted the focus of her work to the spiritual dimensions of healing often overlooked by the medical profession.

In one essay by Remen she takes note of the curious fact that many people in the midst of what would seem like extremely stressful life circumstances – for instance dealing with a life-threatening illness – often report feeling less stress and more joy because the crisis provides the opportunity to reconnect to their souls.  She writes:

In the midst of her treatment, a woman with breast cancer told me how surprised she was to notice this change in her stress level:

For the first time I am sailing my boat by my own star.  My God, have I sailed it by everything else!  And allowed everyone else to take a turn at the tiller.  All of my life I’ve headed against myself, against my own direction.  But now I have a deep sense of my way, and I am loyal to it.  This is my boat and it was made to sail in this direction, by this star.  You ask why I seem so much more peaceful now?  Well, I am living all in one piece.

Each one of us has such a star.  It is called the soul.  Unfortunately it is often easier to see it and follow it after it has grown dark.

The Magi received guidance in following their path by paying attention to their dreams, which speaks to the truth that our souls often express themselves through our dreams if we are willing to pay attention.  Remen describes a woman who received similar guidance in connecting to her soul in the midst of chemotherapy for breast cancer:

A self-made woman of considerable means, one night in the middle of her rigorous chemotherapy she dreamed that she was watching a woman build a mountain.  Sweating and straining, the woman put rock on top of rock, climbing as she went, working night and day, until she had constructed a magnificent snow-capped peak and stood on its very top.

“A remarkable image,” I commented.

“Yes,” she replied, “and familiar.  It was my life, my old life.  Working, always working, building my beautiful homes, my corporation, my increasingly powerful role in the international business community.  Watching her standing there at the top, I felt such a familiar thrill of pride.  How competent she was!  How disciplined and determined!  How powerful!

“Then, to my horror, I saw a great crack began to open in the mountain close to the base.  From where I was standing, I could see it begin to collapse in on itself.  Terrified, I tried to call out a warning, but I had no voice and could only watch.  Finally the top of the mountain itself began to give way.  The woman stood frozen, paralyzed.  And then, at the very last second, just as the whole thing crumbled beneath her, she found that she knew how to fly.”

To fly is to live out of one’s soul, rather than from the dictates of this world.  Sometimes in “losing the whole world” a person can rediscover their soul.

The story of the Magi and Herod invites us as we begin a new year to reflect on the question, “Am I living out of my soul?  Am I on the path God has for me?  Am I following my own star?”

In some cases the answer may be a clear no with the recognition that certain significant changes need to be made in one’s life that involves risks similar to the risk embraced by the Magi.  Negative, abusive relationships may need to be brought to an end if they can’t be transformed.  A job that is “soul-killing” may need to be left.

But sometimes reflection on these questions may lead to the conclusion, “Yes, for the most part I am following my star.  I really am where I am intended to be.” In this sense the heroic journey far from home of the Magi can be misleading.  Sometimes living more fully from our souls simply means more fully embracing the life we are presently leading.

Remen describes a mystical experience of a neighbor she called “a down to earth and practical person” that awoke the woman to the reality of her soul in midst of the most mundane of activities:

She had been cleaning her house, mopping and waxing a floor and thinking of nothing in particular, when suddenly it was as if her life were passing rapidly in front of her and she became aware of something she had not recognized before, that there was a coherence and direction that ran through it like a thread.  The choices and events of her past, which at the time had seemed quite random, fit together seamlessly in an entirely new and purposeful way.  Though she had never experienced this direction before, it was familiar to her.  It was as if she had been following something unseen for many years and she had not known.

The woman went onto to describe her sense that there was a similar but vastly larger direction guiding all of life:

Suddenly she knew that, despite external appearances, life could be trusted, and she began to weep with joy.

“You know,” she said, “I tried to share this with several people, but it was very hard to talk about.  Funny, when it’s so real for me.”

“Is it still real for you?” I asked.  “Oh yes,” she replied instantly.  “It’s not as strong, but it’s still there…  It seems to me that I have own star to follow – you know, like the old sailors.  Perhaps we all do.”  She smiled at me.  “Makes no sense, does it?  But I feel less stressed and alone.”

Sometimes the reality of the soul is witnessed indirectly by the quality of life lived out of contact with our souls.  At such times life seems purposeless, lacking in joy and full an overwhelming feeling of stress.  Life seems superficial and shallow.  We feel irritable because taking our cues from the external world we become frustrated because we don’t find the approval we have come to rely on.

When you become aware of yourself living in such a state of mind, try and turn your attention inward.  Listen for the whisper of God’s voice.  Wait for the rising of your distinct star that shines in the darkness, and move towards the light.

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