January 1, 2017 sermon
First Presbyterian Church Norman
Magi on the Way
A sermon on Matthew 2
Happy New Year! In the world (or much of it anyway) it is a new year today, and in the church it is the Sunday we celebrate the visitation of the Wise Men/Magi/sages from the east to see the toddler Jesus. Epiphany Sunday is one of my favorites (although I think I say that a lot) and often a strange Sunday in the life of the church- we have lived to abundance both the religious story of a child-God born in a manger, and the secular story of abundance of things, and food, and family. Both stories often leave us feeling worn out, overwhelmed, and unprepared to return to the ‘real world’ of our daily lives and even for the return to the daily life of the church. Which is why I give thanks every year for the story of the Wise Men.
These mysterious characters from the east enter the story and help us to dwell in some of that confusion- where is the child now? What place does he have now that he is here and no longer just a promise from God? What was his life like and how did the world know and treat him?
The Wise Men help us have glimpses of the answers to all of these questions, and also allow us to hold on to the story of Christmas for one more week, after all today is only the eighth day of Christmas.
However the story also truly challenges us to live into the new year of the World’s calendar in new ways. For there is a great honor and glory and joy in the story of the Wise Men and their visit to Jesus, but there is also the coming of prophecy that means fear and death and sadness for many.
The Wise Men come to visit Jesus in the beginning of chapter 2 of Matthew with the part of the story we are most familiar with. Eastern sages following a star come to meet the king of the Jews, and first they meet the living king, the one that the world recognizes, a man named Herod and he lives in Jerusalem. They go and visit him and they ask such a strange question ‘where is the newborn king of the Jews?’ This question makes perfect sense to the visitors, their work as eastern mystics and magi and kings (however we defined them) probably meant that they used astrology to figure out that this king was coming, and they knew what they had seen, something so important it brought them from far away.
But to Herod as a political figure put in place by the Roman empire to help keep the Jewish people under their thumb this news was a major threat. Even though he was a Jewish leader, the fulfilling of this prophecy was not a welcome event, it threatened his power, his position, and his understanding of who he was in the world. The coming of the king of the Jews meant far more to him than the joyful work of God in the world, it meant quite the opposite in fact. And so he schemes, and the Wise Men don't see it, so when Herod sends them off to meet Jesus after they hear the prophecy that the child is to be born in Bethlehem they don't know that he has ulterior motives when he asks for them to come back and tell him what they have seen.
So the Wise Men go on their way they had to Bethlehem and they meet the child with his mother and they offer him gifts gold, frankincense and myrrh. These gifts hold twofold importance and symbolism in the story. All three are gifts that one would give to a king indeed, gifts that were for powerful, rich, high class people; but they are all also in someway related to the knowledge that one will die for both frankincense and myrrh are tools used in the rituals around death in the cultures of the Middle East where the story took place. But it is no doubt that they were gifts of great honor, brought by strangers, who came to meet him because they saw him in a prophecy. But they came thinking that they were going to meet a king or probably more likely the child of the king, who already held power by the world’s understanding, even as a child. And in the end they find a child staying with family in the bethlehem countryside. Not at all what anyone expected.
Then, an angel shows up again, tells them of King Herod's intentions, and sends them home by another route. And most of the time when we tell the story in Christmas pageants and Christmas eve Worship that's where the story ends. But it's not actually the end of this part of Jesus’ life or story of his family.
The second chapter of Matthew is one story, or one whole piece of the story of Jesus beginnings, and we generally only like to read the first half. The rest is not friendly, fun, or easily told as a fun story to put in the Christmas pageant, so we often leave it out altogether because it is too hard to tell.
These magi show up with their convictions and their predictions and it turns out to be true- the prophecy that the Messiah will come, has come true in Bethlehem. While this is a great blessing to us in the story, and was a great blessing to the people back then, it is nothing but a threat to the powers-that-be at the time of Jesus.
So the next thing that happens after the Wise Men get their warning and go home by another way is that Joseph gets a warning too. The warning comes from an angel and tells Joseph to take the child and to escape to Egypt and to stay there until that he's told otherwise, because Herod will search for the child and try to kill him. Joseph and the family get up in the night and take the child and go to Egypt and stay there until the death of Herod. Probably about seven years.
Not long after they leave, Herod’s rage turns to murder. He send soldiers to kill all the children in Bethlehem and the surrounding country who were two years old and younger. The murder of the innocence was foretold in the prophet Jeremiah in words that express the grief and great tragedy of a community under the oppressive force of a king only out for his own good. The murder of the innocence is one of the most difficult stories we tell in the life of Jesus up to the resurrection. And in some ways possibly even more difficult than that story- Jesus was an adult, he had agency, he was God, and could make the choice to allow his life to end the way that it does, the many children of Bethlehem and their families did not have that choice. This mass murder is one of the most difficult parts of the Gospel and that’s probably why it is a story we often overlook.
The discomfort Jesus causes both Roman and the Jewish leadership throughout his life become very significant in his ministry. But here we hear a story about how that disruption begins long before he has the ability to engage with them or do anything or create this discomfort on purpose. Just being born does that. Even after Herod's death things are not safe for them in Bethlehem and so Joseph takes them back and they settle in Nazareth instead. Just being alive and present makes Jesus a problem long before he teaches in the temple, gathers followers, or disrupts the status quo of religious and secular life.
Things are never safe for Jesus and his own homeland, they were not safe for these Wise Men visitors- important men but from far away. No, the story of Jesus is the story of all people or left out, and not just left out but ostracized, and forcibly harmed for being who they are. When even the presence of God’s self in the world is met with murder, Fear, and exile- the story of the man and the God who would come in our midst becomes, and always was, the story of the God who loves those who are most vulnerable in our world.
In this new year, 2017, we have much to worry about- in particular a new president, new power shifts in our government- and many of our society’s most vulnerable people are feeling the greatest fear of being harmed by either our government or their fellow people that they have known in a lifetime. And in the face of their fear they have received by the broad voice of our society nothing but hushing, calls for silence, and eyes turned away from their needs. Many have also been told that their fear is unfounded, and that they should just calm down and wait and see what happens. This silencing one is a voice of our culture not actually caring about its members- those who fear should be listened to, offered solidarity and companionship in their struggles, and allowed to know, especially from those of us who follow the Way of one who was born an outcast, lived a refugee and a vulnerable child, that they are not alone or unvalued in the world. Making this the truth will be a big task in this year ahead, it will not be easy in this time, but it is our task, because Christ, the Messiah, came and lived its reality so that we might know it is our work too.
The folk and pop singer James Taylor has a song on one of his albums called Home By Another Way, about the Wise Men in which he tells us a bit about this too, and a pastor blogging in 2008 offers some context -
“‘Steer clear of royal welcomes
Avoid a big to-do
A king who would slaughter the innocents
Will not cut a deal for you
He really, really wants those presents
He’ll comb your camel’s fur
Until his boys announce they’ve found trace amounts
Of your frankincense, gold and myrrh’
And so, as we remember this Epiphany, we stand in the sandals of the Magi and are offered a choice. The choice whether to sell Jesus out for money and power and security or to sell ourselves to Jesus. The words of Joshua echo through the ages “Choose you this day who you will serve.
The words of Christ Himself remind us that we can give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but we must never give him what is God’s.
Every day of our lives, the Powers that Be demand our loyalties. Every day of our lives, Christ offers us a choice between kings.”
Knowing words from two men who live life like we do- with comfort, with enough, and most of us with large measures of security. We are warned again and again by the scriptures and by poets, prophets and mystics throughout time that God’s way is the right path, the right star to follow- the way of creation, justice, peace, joy and love, and it is not the way of worldly power, human ego, and frailty.
So as you begin this new year
what path is the star calling you to go down?
What Herods are you being asked to face, to know and to outwit?
What exile is God giving you as safety from harm?
What new home will you find at your journey’s end when you heed the warning of angels and return home by another way?
Christmas is not an easy story, the story of Jesus and God’s entrance into the world, and his life lived, and ended, and redeemed should and does always challenge us if we are paying attention, and this year is no different. We each walk our own paths, and meet our own King Herods along the way- but as a community of faith, a town, and a nation we will face many struggles this year, and for me, and I hope for us here in our life together at First Presbyterian, the way of the star, the way of exile, the way of God in Jesus Christ will lead us to true Justice that comes before Peace, Bravery in the knowledge that we are God’s, Humility in the knowledge that we cannot do any of it on our own, and strength in the knowledge that ours is a way of good and love.
Christmas is a scandal, the Wise Men knew it, and we should too, and we should be led out to do the work of Christmas in the times ahead for in the words of theologian, educator, and civil rights leader Howard Thurman:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.
So go into this year and heed the warning of angels, choose the path of the Wise Men, and live your life in the joy of the Christmas story and the presence of God in our world- and heed the call of Jesus and the poet- to feed, to heal, to release, to rebuild, to bring peace, and to make music. Today and all days. Amen.