If we were to compile a list of the greatest comedy and entertainment teams of the past century, almost everyone would agree that George Burns and his wife Gracie Allen would be on that list. They had many classic routines together, in which Gracie played a scatter-brained wife who drove her poor husband to distraction. There was one time when Gracie was having trouble with an electric clock, so she called in an electrician to fix it. After checking it out, the electrician announced, “Lady, there’s nothing wrong with your clock. The reason it’s not working is simple: you didn’t have it plugged in.” “Oh,” said Gracie, “that’s because I don’t want to waste electricity, so I only plug it in when I want to know what time it is” (Fuller, Stories for All Seasons, p. 52).
That’s a unique way of looking at things–but, of course, not a successful one; all of us know that electrical devices won’t work without electricity. However, many people fail to apply this same lesson to other areas of life–especially faith. Some persons “plug into” religion only when they want something–so they shouldn’t be surprised when it doesn’t work for them. True faith isn’t an “every now and then” or an “if I feel like it” sort of thing, but an ongoing commitment–and this is the truth we must share with the world by our example.
The Gospel (Mt 2:1-12) on the Feast of the Epiphany centers around the magi and around King Herod, and these persons illustrate the two different approaches to religion. The first approach is to take faith seriously–and this is what the magi did. These astrologers from the east, traditionally known as the three wise men, were pagans, but nonetheless open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. When they observed the star, they realized it was something highly significant; just as importantly, they acted upon this knowledge, leaving their homelands and making a long, difficult journey, in hopes of presenting their valuable gifts to the newborn king of the Jews. As far as they were concerned, a great religious truth deserved a wholehearted response. The second approach to religion is illustrated by King Herod–known to history as “Herod the Great.” He was not Jewish himself, and he was certainly not a religious or god-fearing person–but as a very practical man, he realized that religion could be of some value in keeping the people in line and consolidating his kingdom. Herod cynically used religion to strengthen his hold on power; for instance, he rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem on a magnificent scale–not because of any devotion on his part, but because it would keep the people happy and make them less likely to revolt against his rule. When the magi came with their inquiry about a newborn king, Herod immediately felt threatened, so he once again attempted to use religion for his own purposes–summoning the chief priests and scribes to obtain the information he needed, and then pretending a desire to worship the child himself, when in fact he had a very different purpose in mind. Herod and the magi had radically opposite approaches to religion, and we know the story of what happened next. The magi succeeded in their purpose; they became the first foreigners to worship the newborn Savior of the world and are now remembered with fondness throughout the world–and in all likelihood, are now sharing eternal joy. King Herod failed in his effort to discover and destroy the Christ child; soon afterwards, hated by everyone, he died a horrible death, and almost certainly entered into eternal damnation. Those who honestly attempt to serve God draw forth a blessing upon themselves and others; those who only attempt to use God for their own evil or cynical purposes call down upon themselves a curse.
The word “epiphany” means a revelation or showing. What are we showing the world by our approach to religion? Is faith something we limit to Sundays, or even just to Christmas and Easter, or is it something we try to practice throughout the year? Do we pray to God all the time, or only when we’re in trouble, or when we need something? Is our relationship with God an ongoing priority, or do we try to turn it on and off at our convenience? Just as an unplugged electric clock isn’t of much use, a so-called faith that doesn’t involve some degree of sacrifice and commitment isn’t going to influence or convert anyone or make any difference in the world.
That’s part of the reason we’re here: to help those people living in darkness recognize the light of Christ, and to bear witness to the truth of the Gospel by everything we say and do. If we try to make our experience of religion nice and tame, safe and useful, and something we can keep under control, we’ll fail in our God-given mission and possibly even waste our chance for eternal happiness. If instead we follow the example of the magi by setting out on a lifelong journey of faith, we will bear witness to Christ during this life, and one day enter into the fullness of His eternal glory. Jesus came to be a light to all nations and peoples–and His greatest desire is that this light be reflected in each one of us.