Written by Steven Liechty
Sunday, January 5
Second Sunday after Christmas
Gracious God,You have redeemed us through Jesus Christ, the first-born of all creation, whose birth we celebrate as the child of Bethlehem. Bless us with every spiritual blessing, that we may live as your adopted children and witness to your glory with unending praise and thanksgiving. 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 Sunday
Jeremiah 31:7-14 or Sirach 24:1-12
Psalm 147:12-20 or Wisdom 10:15-21
John 1:[1-9], 10-18
1. When and how has nature pointed to God, in your own search?
2. When has fear slowed or blocked your response to the gift of newness in your life?
3. Who are the "strangers," the "others," who are left out of our vision of the great homecoming?
4. Do we know how it feels to be on the outside, or have we always experienced ourselves as insiders?
5. Have you ever been "overwhelmed by joy"?
Reflection by Kate Huey
It happened, of course, not in a good and happy time, but in King Herod's time, a time of great injustice, and great suffering. Brutal King Herod, after all, was that most dangerous kind of powerful person: an insecure and fearful one, eaten up with worry about maintaining his power and his place and his comfort, his advantage, if you will, his privilege. Protecting all of those things can demand a lot of energy from a person, especially since Herod wasn't a real king; he was just a puppet of the Empire, the hated and oppressive Roman Empire. Just imagine, then, how thrilled this pretend king must have been on that day when a little band of "wise men from the East" showed up at his palace, with their camels parked out front, loaded down with treasure…and they asked him—asked him, the king—for directions to the real King of the Jews?
Who are these strangers seeking that King, these "wise men" who are much more, of course, than mere decoration for our nativity scene? John Pilch provides helpful background information about these mysterious men from the East, who represent long-standing resistance to Western (at that time, Roman) imperialism, Pilch says, and have traveled a long way to pay homage to Jesus, the new king of the Judeans. In doing so, they're poking their finger in the eye of Rome itself, and all its puppets, which include Herod himself. Pilch says that the wise men were men of stature and importance back home, advisors to the rulers of ancient empires in the East. Richard Swanson also describes "the East" as calling to mind the many conquerors of Israel, like Assyria, Babylon, Persia: is it any wonder that visitors from that direction might provoke uneasiness in their hosts? But Swanson reminds us of more associations that echo other, older stories from the Bible: about the rivers Tigris and Euphrates and the Garden of Eden between them; Ur of the Chaldees, the home of the great ancestor, Abraham; and most powerfully, Babylon, the place of exile and the home to those Jews who did not return with the others and may even have taught the Magi to sense and worship the goodness of the One True God.
Thus, the biblical story gives 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 more than one of the rules that we have, rules that help us define who we are as a community. These "magicians," then, represent all sorts of problems for Matthew's audience.
When nature is not enough
The wise men, as learned as they were, did not have all the answers, and they needed help on their long and hope-filled quest. They had dropped everything, left their country and the comforts of home, to set out for a distant land. Their guide was a spectacular natural phenomenon, a bright star, but that star had led them almost—but not quite all the way—to this newborn king. Now where does one expect to find a newborn king? Well, in addition to the bright star in the sky (that is, nature), the wise men also had common sense to guide them. If you're looking for a king, common sense, after all, would lead you, once you hit town, to the palace. That's where kings live, right? However, along with nature and common sense, the Magi also have Scripture, and just like us, they need all of these in their search for God. And, like us, they also need a community in which to interpret these things.
What is called Scripture, in this context, would have been the Old Testament, which contains helpful passages like today's beautiful words from the prophet Isaiah, spoken to the people of Israel more than five hundred years before these wise men set out on their journey. Isaiah the poet-prophet consoled and encouraged the ancient Israelites, who had returned from exile, from captivity in the very land that the wise men presumably called home, what we today call Iraq. These are words of hope and promise to Israel, spoken right in the middle of the rubble and the rebuilding of their beloved city: Isaiah dreams a dream of Jerusalem the city at the center of it all, a prosperous and peaceful city, bright and shining with the radiance of God. Broken-down Jerusalem receives a vision of everything turned upside down (really, right side up), with the wealth of all the other nations brought to her for the glory of God, not for her own glory: "Arise," Isaiah sings, "shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you" (60:1).
The authorities are no help
Walter Brueggemann suggests that the wise men, being ancient scholars themselves (he calls them "Eastern intellectuals"), had read these words from Isaiah and assumed that Jerusalem was the place to find the new king. To Jerusalem, then, they carried their gifts of gold and frankincense (and myrrh, too), just as the dream of Isaiah had "the wealth of the nations" coming to the bright shining city. And when they got there, they innocently, and naively, turned to Herod the lesser king, an evil one at that, for directions to the real king promised by God.
Now here's Herod, who already senses that he's the "power-that-was" instead of the "powers-that-be," so of course he reacts in fear to the birth of a baby who brings good news for the world. For Herod, this good news is bad news, and he turns to the chief priests and scribes, the religious establishment, the power elite, to help him figure out where this dangerous little baby is. The scholars do a Bible study (under a lot of pressure: could there be a more important question?), but they don't come up with this impressive text from Isaiah. No, instead, they bring to Herod a surprising, counter-intuitive, and maybe even dangerous answer. Against all their scholarly assumptions and perhaps in spite of their deepest hopes (after all, who wouldn't want Jerusalem to be the center of it all?), they find the answer in two other books of the Old Testament, the prophet Micah, and the second book of Samuel: the one who is to rule, the gentle shepherd king, will come from the most unexpected of places, off the beaten path, out of the limelight, the little village of Bethlehem. Nine miles, Brueggemann says, the wise men miscalculated by only nine miles, but what a long nine miles it was from the halls of power and glory…the powers-that-be…or should we say, the powers-that-had-been, to what God was doing, out there on the margins (his beautiful sermon,"Missing by Nine Miles," can be found in Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann).
So near and yet so far
King Herod survives, and even thrives, on secrecy and deception, and he calls the wise men in for a hush-hush meeting behind closed doors, and pretends to be on the same page with them. He tells them that Bethlehem is where they'll find this new king, and then he makes a request. "Go and search diligently for the child," he says, "and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage" (v. 8). Sure, that could happen: a power-mad, insecure king might go to a little baby and pay him homage. What a swell guy this Herod is: all the right words come out of his mouth, but cruelty and murder live in his heart. We know this because we know what Herod will do with this knowledge. We've heard the story of the murder of the innocents, all the little boys in the town of Bethlehem under the age of two, the story that tells us so graphically just what fear and insecurity, arrogance and a greed for power can do. Fortunately, after the wise men reach Bethlehem, find the child, are overwhelmed with joy, offer their gifts—-fit for a real king—-and pay him homage, they're warned by a dream to return home by another road.
Now, if I understand Brueggemann correctly, he's saying that these texts draw a contrast between two ancient and holy places, one a great and prosperous city, and the other a humble little town, and the dreams we have about both of them. One text offers us a grand vision of what Brueggemann calls "self-sufficiency" and "normalcy." I think that, in these days of anxiety, we might also add the word security. We long for security, but we're tempted to seek it through power of one kind or another, the power of money, the power of possessions, the power of weapons. The other story, about an unpretentious little village, offers us the alternative that runs throughout the entire Bible, the dream of peace and a time when all the nations of the world will beat their swords into plowshares and live together in harmony, when the lion and the lamb will lie down together because nature itself will embody a whole new way of being, and there will be no more deaths of innocents, no violence or wretched injustice. (You have undoubtedly noticed that we are not yet living in that time.) Brueggemann reminds us that the way of Jesus, "echoing Micah, is vulnerability, neighborliness, generosity…[and] not learning war anymore." How far that sounds from the halls of power and might! Even if it's only nine miles, then it's the longest nine miles we will ever travel, the longest nine miles this world, including the church, will ever travel (Inscribing the Text).
What kind of search, and why?
So, what do we hear in these stories? 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.
When have you felt that you were seeking, and perhaps missing, 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? The wise men find the star on its own insufficient as a guide so they innocently turn to one king (a lesser, and evil one) for guidance to the true King. Fear is the response, not just from the insecure king, the "power-that-has-been," but from the religious establishment, and from the entire town ("all Jerusalem"). 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?
In every age, fear and anguish and hope
Scripture is the guide that is most helpful to those who seek, even when it's interpreted by less-than-perfect religious authorities. When has Scripture, read in community and with study, provided guidance to you in your search, especially when other means have fallen short? How does the reading from Matthew interact with the reading from Psalm 72 and its prayer (its "vision") for the new king? In what ways does Herod contrast sharply with this vision, and in what ways does Jesus fulfill it? How does it speak to those in power in our public life today? 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?
This beautiful story tells of seekers from the East so long ago, bearing extravagant gifts for a king and being overwhelmed with joy. However, it's not just a nice little story that decorates our Nativity sets and Christmas cards. This "little" story is part of a larger story that holds within it the suffering of the world, whether in sudden and spectacular devastation by natural disaster or by the slow motion violence of poverty. We find here the anguish of those engulfed by war and the quiet agony of those who live and breathe the poisoned air of hatred and neglect caused by human sinfulness. We also read of the pain of illness and injury as well as the private, personal sorrows of the human heart. And it encompasses, too, last week's story of "the death of the innocents," who suffer at the hands of the power-mad, the unjust and the greedy who use any means necessary, even violence, to maintain their power and place. How does this story respond to that suffering?
Homecoming and strangers
We may also read the Isaiah 60 text as speaking 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 dreams of everything turned upside down (right side up!), with the wealth of other nations brought to the newly radiant city for the glory of God, not for its own glory. But this procession includes not only the world beyond its borders but the v ry 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 disciples, too, and bringing them (us) home.
When Matthew told the story of the wise men, he placed it in this big picture, this tradition of hope, referring to what had gone before so that those who heard the story then were able to connect with the ancient story of God's marvelous work. The early Jewish Christians found and understood Jesus and themselves within the long, long story of God's work of saving and healing this world, the story of Israel and the promises of God which were, so the Bible tells us, for the nations, too, for all the people of the world. The whole story held together for them, it made sense, and they located themselves within it.
Finding ourselves in the story
Don't we want to find ourselves in the story, too, to hear what happened so long ago, and to connect our own lives with it? We strangers from a distant land and far-off time want to kneel with the wise ones from the East, in awe and joy for the gift before us. And we want to know how God is still at work in this world we live in now, how God is still speaking to us, today, as God spoke through the prophets, through dreams and angels and a bright, shining star, so long ago. It's deeply moving to hear of three foreigners traveling a long, hard way because they had an inkling—just an inkling—of something very important unfolding in a distant land. Something inside them must have been restless, or upset, or hungry for understanding; despite the reputation of "the East" as the place of wisdom and learning, there was something they still needed to find. And what did they find but "an economically limited toddler, in modest surroundings, lying in a teen mother's arms," writes Shelley D.B. Copeland. "To the intellectually perceptive, this scene was not a scholar's formula for future success. Yet, by grace, the magi had the faith to experience unbridled joy."
In all the celebrations of Christmas and the season of Epiphany, a time of the manifestation of God's glory in a little child, when have you been "overwhelmed with joy"? How is God still speaking to us, year after year, in every season, calling us to this joy, this remembering, this new vision?
A preaching version of this commentary can be found at http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/january-5-2014.html#Reflection.
For further reflection
Rumi, 13th century
"When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy."
Anne Frank, 20th century
"I don't think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains."
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 20th century
"Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God."
Constantine E. Scaros, Reflections on a Simple Twist of Fate: Literature, Art and Parkinson's Disease, 20th century
"Without the quest, there can be no epiphany."
Anne Lamott, 21st century
"What you're looking for is already inside you. You've heard this before, but the holy thing inside you really is that which causes you to seek it."
Marcel Proust, 20th century
"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes."
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Weekly Seeds is a resource of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.