"A Different Way"
The after-Christmas sales have been going on since December 26, and a lot of people in the wider society have moved past the celebrations of Christmas. However, the church is on a different calendar. There are twelve days of Christmas. So today we’re celebrating the Epiphany, which actually falls this year on January 6. In Latin America and parts of the Caribbean, Three Kings Day is the big celebration of Jesus’ birth. And in the Eastern part of the Church, Epiphany is the important festival and celebrates the baptism of Jesus.
In Matthew’s gospel, the Christmas birth narrative is told in the first chapter. By the first verse of the second chapter, the shepherds are a distant memory. When the mysterious seers from the East bring their gifts and worship, Jesus is almost two years old. The holy family is settled in Bethlehem, raising their toddler.
On the road to Bethlehem are a group of magi-- Zoroastrian priests, who—despite what the song says-- weren’t kings. Matthew doesn’t tell us how many there were. Maybe they were known as wise men- because of their skills in interpreting dreams and understanding astrology. They were searching the darkness of the sky... following a star... hoping to find the Christ child. They left the comfort and security of their homes to travel through the desert on their quest.
When they saw that the star had stopped-- they were overwhelmed with joy! They found the child Jesus... and they knelt down and worshiped him. Then they offered him their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.
In his story about the Magi, Matthew tells how some people responded to the birth of the Christ with joy and devotion. But woven into the story of the Magi's devotion is the story of Herod's reaction to the birth of the King of the Jews. “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” I think we can read between the lines to understand that when Herod was unhappy, the people in the region had reason to be concerned about what he might do.
Herod knew that his kingdom would be threatened by a new king. The possibility of not being in charge of the kingdom didn't bring him joy. He was confused and afraid… “and all Jerusalem with him.” If this child was really the Messiah-- it would change everything.
In Matthew’s telling of the Nativity story, we hear a note of fear and opposition to the Messiah’s birth. The news of the birth of a new “king of the Jews” threatens Herod’s power and the status quo.
Perhaps the fear and agitation were also about how the world might be changing, that God is doing something new, and that nothing can stay the same.
The arrival of these three astrologers is a sign that the reach of God’s embrace is broadening…that there is no longer “insider” and “outsider,” but that all are included in God’s mercy and salvation. This isn’t a new theme in Judaism. But now it is happening in ways that wise ones can see it. Who knows what could happen next?
Do you hear the given-ness of that event—the gift? Do you hear the inclusive and universal nature of it? What God did in and through Israel in Jesus is not only for Israel-- but for the whole world, for all people.
If we were listening carefully on Christmas Eve, we heard the angel say this to the shepherds: this good news is for all people.
Some of us hear this as good news. But for others, this more inclusive understanding of God’s salvation plan is troubling. For those who are more privileged or powerful, the idea of change can cause a fearful response. Herod had instructed the magi to come back and tell him where they’d found the Christ child. But they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they traveled back to their own country by a different way. An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and warned him the Herod would be searching for them and sent them to Egypt, so the Holy Family became refugees.
Herod was so terrified of the promise that God would, in this child, restore peace and justice that he was willing to slaughter the infants of a whole region. When he realized the magi hadn’t come back to tell him where the Christ child was, he ordered that all the children two years and under in and around Bethlehem be killed. This reminded people of what had been written by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children, she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
As David Lose suggests, such a grim account of wholesale massacre and desperate flights to safety would seem far-fetched were it not for similar atrocities and tragedies happening right now. How many Syrian refugee families have left everything behind in a desperate flight for safety? How many children are starving to death around the world or dying of preventable illnesses? How many families have fled the danger in their central American homes, desperately seeking asylum? How many families are contending with their own sorrows and hardships?
The light shines in the darkness, but there is still so much darkness in the world. But Matthew wants us to know that in Jesus—Emmanuel—God has drawn near to us and came to live among us, full of grace and truth.
When life is beautiful and filled with goodness and grace, God is part of that, blessing us and celebrating with us. When life is hard and painful and scary, God is part of that too, holding on to us, comforting us, blessing us with the promise that God will stay with us through the good and the bad, drawing us more and more deeply into God’s loving embrace…and promising that nothing—not even death—can separate us from God’s love.
Our scripture lessons for Epiphany are good news! We hear the prophet Isaiah saying, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.” No matter how dark things look to you now, look around. You shall see and be radiant. Your heart shall thrill and rejoice.”
The Gentiles from the East, these outsiders kneeling to worship the Christ child, remind us that to worship the Christ with them is to see humanity differently, as one family of God, and that the mission of the church is to nurture, promote, work for, and celebrate the oneness of the human family—not to divide it
Here too we can learn from the Magi and how they responded to Christ’s birth. The magi had to take another road home. Not the most direct route, or the most convenient or comfortable.
Now that we have traveled to Bethlehem, things can be different for us.
I love the way Peter Gomes puts it: “For we have come from an encounter with the world of the possible in the midst of the impossible. We have seen God…and survived to tell the tale, moving about not knowing that our faces shine with the encounter, bearing the mark of the encounter forever, and marveling in the darkest night of the soul at that wondrous star-filled night.”
The world will change because we are changed. We have seen God—not high and lifted up—but lowly and vulnerable. God with us!
We have seen the reality and power of love to conquer hate and violence. We have wondered at the mystery of life and love. We have seen the Christ child, and nothing will ever be the same.
We are changed. And because we are changed, the world will change, gradually, as we live out our call to carry Christ’s light out into the world... to let the light of the gospel shine through our lives.
Let the light in, live in it, and let your light shine… That is the heart of the Christian life.
Which brings us to this Table. For here Christ, the Light of the World, offers himself to us in the gifts of bread and wine. This table is open to all who have been claimed by Christ in baptism, all who come to be fed, all who desire to know the truth and power of Jesus.
So, come. Taste and see…and feast in the radiant reality of Christ our Light. May the Light of the World not only shine on your life, but live in and be reflected in you.
Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
January 6, 2019