Sunday, January 6
Where is the child?
Radiant Morning Star, you are both guidance and mystery. Visit our rest with disturbing dreams, and our journeys with strange companions. Grace us with the hospitality to open our hearts and homes to visitors filled with unfamiliar wisdom bearing profound and unusual gifts. Amen.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
All readings for this week
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
1. When were times that you felt you were seeking God in your life, and why?
2 Who are the foreigners, nations, strangers, who are left out of our vision of the great homecoming?
3. Do we recognize ourselves in their midst, or have we always experienced ourselves as insiders?
4. When has fear shaped your response to something mysterious, unexpected, or new?
5. During the celebration of Christmas and Epiphany, have you been "overwhelmed with joy" at any time?
Reflection by Kate Huey
Where is the child? But first, who are these strangers seeking him, these "wise men" who are much more, of course, than mere decoration for our nativity scene? John Pilch draws our attention to the "plain history, real politics, and human effort" at "the heart" of this story. These strangers from the East represent long-standing resistance to Western (at that time, Roman) imperialism, Pilch says, and they've come a long way to "submit" to Jesus, the new king of the Judeans. In doing so, they're poking their finger in the eye of Rome and its puppets, and the vision they embody reaches far beyond Israel to embrace the entire known world of ancient times. Who were these wise men, these strangers, these Magi? They were "very high ranking political-religious advisors to the rulers" of empires in areas that today we know as Iran and Iraq.
Thus, Pilch and the biblical story give us pause at the beginning of a new year, as we ponder the meaning of visitors from the very places we seem to fear most in the world right now. Perhaps we would get a better sense of the reaction of Matthew's earliest audience to this text about "Magi" from the East if we imagined a visit to our local church by religious or political leaders from that same part of the world. On top of that, imagine that these visitors break many of the rules that we have, rules that help us define who we are as a community. These star-gazing "magicians," then, represent all sorts of problems for Matthew's audience.
Where do these strangers come from? They come from "the East"--the same direction from which most of Israel's conquerors approached, including Assyria, Babylon, and Persia. And there are more associations with the East, Richard Swanson says: "East of Judea is the Tigris and the Euphrates....the Garden of Eden....Ur of the Chaldees....Babylon, where Jews lived in Exile after the destruction of the first Temple. East of Judea is the Jewish community who stayed behind when Jews returned to rebuild the Temple and JerusalemÖ" These Magi, Swanson says, were among the Gentiles who might have been influenced by the Jews who remained beyond in Babylon after the rest of their community returned home to Israel; perhaps they had tutored these Magi in sensing the goodness of the One True God, and the foreigners, then, "had been trained to raise their eyes to the horizon of God's activity in the world." Read this last paragraph again, after reading this week's text from Isaiah, about lifting up our eyes and looking around, and about the wealth of the nations coming to Israel.
How did these strangers find their way to the new King of the Jews? They're "sincere and persistent" in their search, Charles Cousar says, and, actually, not entirely "wise," despite their experience and worldliness: "Almost naÔve, they seem to anticipate no difficulty in inquiring of Herod the king about the birth of a rival king." So they "naively" follow the star, guided by God, looking to nature for signs and guidance. God would also provide direction through a dream (just as Joseph was guided by a dream), but it's no accident and not insignificant that they're also helped by scripture, when they ask for directions from Herod and hear from the religious authorities who know just the right place to look for the answer.
There are many ways that we "find our way" to God, to the little baby born King of Kings: nature does indeed point to the glory of God, the care of God, the presence of God, but we need the Bible, too, and personal experience, and the community that helps us understand all those gifts. Then, like the Magi, we're drawn to worship the One we seek. Thomas Long says that "the world is full of 'stars in the East'--events in nature, personal experience, and history that point toward the mystery of God," but we the Bible helps us to "recognize these holy moments for what they areÖto see God's face clearly in them." Without scripture, we would be like the wise men, trying to figure out the deeper meaning of what they had experienced, and then what to do about it. Just being a biblical scholar isn't enough, either: the chief priests and the scribes missed the meaning of the text, and Herod turns to scripture to use it for his own panicked purposes. Long observes, "One can, like Herod, be in favor of studying the scripture and still be on the wrong side of God's will." Of course, Joni S. Sancken reminds us of the most important way that we experience God: in the person of Jesus Christ himself, who shows us who and how God is.
Who, where, how: we also ask "why" these strangers have made such a long and perilous journey (even their return trip started on a warning). They were driven by their sense of an event so important and so powerful, something that drew them far from their home and called forth their generosity and their humble worship. While we may find the roots of Christmas gift-giving in the story of St. Nicholas, Sancken suggests that they really lie here, in the story of three strangers bringing extravagant gifts to a little baby in a land far from their own, and in "Jesus himself, a gift from God." In that age, we'd expect anyone who could afford to bring gold, frankincense and myrrh to be wealthy enough not to be in the habit of bowing down to little children in modest homes, in foreign lands. Once they reached their destination, they were "overwhelmed by joy," and then, what drew them far from home sent them back again.
What is Matthew telling us?
We also have to ask why Matthew tells us this story: that "why" is just as important as the reason the Magi set out on their journey. Matthew wants his audience to hear about the Good News of God's universal and all-encompassing grace, even if they're offended or even appalled that such "objectionable" people are included in the story and, even more, are included in the circle of God's grace. (Matthew's audience includes us today, of course, and we have our own outsiders whose presence in the circle of God's grace might offend us. Or maybe we feel like outsiders ourselves, excluded by others in their understanding of God's grace.) Scott Hoezee agrees that this story is about the "reach of grace. Matthew is giving a Gospel sneak preview: the Christ child who attracted these odd Magi to his cradle will later have the same magnetic effect on Samaritan adulterers, immoral prostitutes, greasy tax collectors on the take, despised Roman soldiers, and ostracized lepers." Matthew writes his Gospel in light of the Jewish texts familiar to his audience, and he recalls that the prophet Isaiah described "the wealth of the nations" (read, Gentiles) coming to "you," bringing "gold and frankincense," and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.
So, what do we hear in this story? We hear that God has sent a gentle shepherd who will nevertheless upset the powers-that-have-been. We hear that the smallest things, like a newborn baby, can terrify the arrogant, and bring them down in the end. We learn that God's reach of grace goes far beyond every obstacle within or without, and pushes us beyond them, too. We learn that a great light has dawned, a light that draws all people and calls us to live our lives illuminated by its truth. That's what the Epiphany season is about: we hear the beautiful words, the promises in the text from Isaiah, about a light breaking forth for all of us who know what it feels like to "sit in darkness," and we hear the call to arise and become radiant with the light of God. Do we in the church shine with God's love for all?
"The best and the worst in human nature"
When were times that you felt you were seeking God in your life? Was it only at times of need or suffering, or was it an intellectual search, or did it come from a deep, personal hunger for meaning? How faithful were you, and diligent, in the search? How do you think people seek God today? What are the paths and things and methods that help people "find" their way to God? How might the star in the Matthew reading represent nature as it "points" to God? The wise men find the star alone insufficient as a guide, and they innocently turn to one king (a lesser, and evil one) for guidance to the real King. Fear is the response, not just from the powerful, threatened king, the "power-that-has-been," but from the religious establishment, and from the entire town ("all Jerusalem"). According to Sancken, this little story shows "the best and the worst of human nature spring forth in response to God's gift of revelation," and she reminds us that just as a new baby brings upheaval to a house, "the birth of God incarnate promises to turn the whole world upside down and forge a new reality." No wonder some people trembled in fear! Think of the times that fear dictated your first response to something new, even to something promising. What did you, and those around you, fear?
Scripture is the guide that is ultimately helpful to the seekers, even when provided by fearful and questionable religious authorities. When has scripture, read in community and with study, provided guidance to you in your spiritual search, especially when other means have fallen short?
Calling rulers to righteousness and peace
The reading from Matthew interacts with the reading from Psalm 72 and its prayer (its "vision") for the new king, and Herod comes out looking rather bad in the comparison as he contrasts sharply with this vision. In what ways does Jesus fulfill the vision of one who rules in righteousness and peace? What do these readings, especially the psalm, have to say to those in power in our public life today, especially as we struggle to gain an equilibrium of cooperation and common ground while seeking the best of the whole community? In what ways do our rulers live up to this vision, and in what ways and times do they respond in fear to the new and the promising?
The Isaiah 60 reading speaks of light and glory, and rising up from wherever we have been pressed or pushed down, rising up to behold the glory that comes to us. It is the light of God that breaks through the thick darkness, but it will appear over us. When have we failed to look up and see the glory of God over us? Broken-down Jerusalem sees everything turned upside down (right side up!), with the wealth of other nations brought to it for the glory of God, not for its own glory. But this procession includes not only the world beyond its borders but the very sons and daughters who were once in exile. Again, the theme of homecoming, but a homecoming that includes the presence, and the gifts, of the strangers, the foreigners, the nations. Whether Isaiah speaks of the exile or Matthew speaks of the wise men bringing gifts, we see and hear the great invitation that would go out, in the end, to "all nations," making them (and us) disciples, too, and bringing us home.
For further reflection
Mary Anne Radmacher, 21st century
"As we work to create light for others, we naturally light our own way."
Vernon McLellan, 20th century
"When it comes to giving, some people stop at nothing."
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, 21st century
"Grace has a grand laughter in it."
M. Scott Peck, 20th century
"The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers."
"Lemony Snicket" (Daniel Handler), 21st century
"There are times to stay put, and what you want will come to you, and there are times to go out into the world and find such a thing for yourself."
Christopher Moore, Lamb, 21st century
"We were seekers. You are that which is sought, Joshua. You are the source. The end is divinity, in the beginning is the word. You are the word."
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