These words from an Australian Christmas song have been running through my head for the last few weeks. The Christmas story feels particularly relevant this year and somehow contemporary. As we hear stories of the plight of refugees and see pictures of children being carried away from violence; I see Jesus and his parents having to flee from place to place seeking out safety. As power games are played out in our national government and on a global scale, I notice that the cruelty and jealousy of King Herod and the fear that he could create in his people is all too familiar.
Yet here at the end of the Christmas story comes a tale of the outsider showing the way and speaking the truth. Strangers who show us the way to the light.
There is so much implied about these “men from the East” or Magi, and a great tale and tradition has build up around these Wise Men. We don’t know that there were three of them or that they were kings but we do know that they were outsiders in this story who came following a light. These men were Gentiles but they came seeking a child king who had his own star that was guiding them to him. These wise men came to worship the King of the Jews – even though he was not their king. Here we have echoes of the Isaiah passage we heard read this morning. A light has come in the darkness, God’s glory has appeared and nations and kings are drawn to the brightness. They come proclaiming praise to the Lord.
It feels so soon after Christmas to switch to the wise men coming and celebrating Epiphany – some say that this story happens years after Jesus’ birth when he was a few years old– but here we are on the first day of the year, still rubbing sleep from our eyes from a late night ringing in the new year and we are looking to this celebration of the light coming and of gifts being given. Most of us are a bit over the gifts by now – it took us a while to buy them all, wrap them all and now they are a week old and not as shiny and new.
On Epiphany Sunday we celebrate the coming of the light. Sometimes to recognize the light we need to look into our own darkness. For many people Christmas is not just the warm fuzzies of the Hallmark cards, Christmas lights and happy families. Christmas includes things like family dramas, financial stress, mental health struggles and loneliness – there is not some kind of Christmas miracle where these things go away and everyone gets along. Its not the Facebook curated beautiful family having the best time together – we are still us, life is still hard, we are still looking for meaning, hope and happiness in a world that may seem cold and dark.
My newsfeed is depressing either in how plain my life feels compared to all the smiling faces I see or sad and shocking because of all the injustice and pain in the world that we hear of and yet feel helpless to do anything about – these systems and situations feel so broken and so big. What can I – one small person – do?
The time of Jesus birth wasn’t that easy either. They were occupied by Rome. Jesus’ parents were on the road, finding shelter. Matthews telling of todays story is sandwiched between the linage of Jesus – showing us just who Jesus is and why that is important and the story of King Herod massacring children and infants to satisfy his own insecurity. They were surrounded by their own darkness and struggle. And in the midst of this, these wise men go on their way, unwavering in their purpose.
Lets compare the men in this story and their reactions to Jesus. King Herod was not a pleasant character. He was jealous and cruel and his obsession with keeping power went as far as to kill off members of his own family who he thought might threaten him. These men from the East ask where they can find the King of the Jews. But the Wise Men were not looking to get some kind of insider scoop or portion of the power from this young king Jesus. They wanted to pay him homage – wanted to worship him and honor him with precious gifts.
These wise men are not being pulled, seduced or blinded by power. Their response contrasts that of Herod – the wise men as outsiders accept and want to honor this child, and Herod, the powerful insider violently opposes Jesus.
What a surprise King Herod must have had when men from the East enter his courts asking for directions and inadvertently letting him know that the prophesies about a Messiah were coming true. “It is interesting too that the (wise men) finally hear about Bethlehem through Herod. Strangely enough, it is the fearful king who points the (wise men) along the last part of their journey to Jesus.” And he helps them on their way. (http://www.taize.fr/en_article167.html?date=2012-01-01 )
A friend of mine commented last week that in past US presidencies the job of a preacher became easy because there was something each week that gave fodder for comment in a sermon, points that happened in politics that we needed to address in our faith – are we in one of those times again? Part of the Bible seems so real to me in a new ways these last few months. When I read of a fearful king who feels threatened, even by a baby, and of the people under his reign who are pulled into that fear – I feel the shiver of something familiar.
Power and wealth are dancing on main stage right now in the USA. It feels like so many are drawn into the seductive orbit of this power, trying to get close enough to gain favor and thus some of the power and possibly wealth. And it doesn’t even seem more subtle than this, it is not being hidden in back rooms or away from our eyes but instead paraded before us like a carnival show.
King Herod in this story and our leaders today seem so far from the king of the psalms passage who is judged by how he shows righteousness and justice to the poor:
“For he delivers the needy when they call,the poor and those who have no helper.He has pity on the weak and the needy,and saves the lives of the needy.From oppression and violence he redeems their life”What does the light look like in this story and for us. This is our first glimpse, here, early in the Gospel of Matthew, that all are welcome in the Kingdom of God. Jesus did not come for the powerful insider alone – not just for those “in the know” or on our side of the wall or border. God’s creation is guiding the wise men to Jesus to worship and praise him even before he is old enough to act in any way to merit that praise.
Epiphany – the light manifest or appearing – a time when we celebrate the coming of this light, this Jesus. We celebrate the coming of the wise men because they bring diversity that will enrich. Their gifts remind us that the gift of Jesus was not just given to us but to all people. These men who were strangers in the land take the good news of Jesus out into the world with them – these strangers make Christ known.
“God seems to do whatever it takes to reach out to and embrace all people. God announces the birth of the Messiah to shepherds through angels on Christmas, to (the wise men) via a star on Epiphany, and to the political and religious authorities of God’s own people in through visitors from the East.
The alternative, of course, is to join Herod in not seeing God’s ever-expanding embrace, or feeling threatened by it, and giving way to fear: Herod jealously reaches out, just far enough to violently protect his place and preserve his power.” – Craig A Satterlee (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1525)
What impresses me about these wise men is that they did exactly what they set out to do. They followed the star, found the child and went on their way. They came following a light, gave a message to the powerful, and accepted the help they were offered. They went and did what they came to do, set aside their power and knelt before a toddler who they recognized as significant and worthy of seeking out and worshiping. They listened to their dreams and went another way.
What is the message we carry with us into 2017? How will we stay on course remembering our purpose? We are carriers of the light, of the the good news. Will we be wise with what we have been given? Will we stand against the powers of the land and go the other way if we are called to? Not making a big deal about it but just doing what we came to do and then listening for the next calling.
In 2017 can we see strangers not as dangerous to our way of life but as guides to something holy. Outsiders not as something to be feared but as insightful friends who can tell us about who we really are when we are missing the point.
Part of this invitation into this light comes through communion where we see how close God comes to us. This baby who came in fleshy realness didn’t stay far off but became body and blood. This God who draws people to the light uses signs like stars and symbols like bread and juice as reminders to a forgetful people. And this table is not just for us, this welcome is for all people, insiders and holy outsiders. We all come to this table seeking the hope that we can be included and loved. We don’t have to be from the right family, race or class – we come, and Jesus offers wholeness to all.
This table is not a pull to power. Here we give what we have out of worship not to get anything in exchange for our giving. Will we stay true to our calling even when the power in the land is looming and ominous?
The second set of words that has been rattling around my head in these past weeks comes from an Aussie poet. Hear his interpretation on this Christmas story.
Love is bornWith a dark and troubled faceWhen hope is deadAnd in the most unlikely placeLove is bornLove is always, always born(Leunig)This New Year I invite you to look deeply into the dark and troubled face of a stranger. May we not see something there to be feared, look into their face and see love, the love of God for God’s beloved people.
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