Sunday, January 6, 2019
Epiphany Year C
Consumed by the Fire of a Star
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?
by Kate Matthews
It happened, of course, not in a good and happy time, but in 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!
Looking for a baby
Where is the child? But first, who are these strangers seeking him, these "wise men" who are much more, of course, than mere decoration (however inaccurate that may be) 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 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, and the vision they embody reaches far beyond Israel to embrace the entire known world of ancient times. Who are these wise men, these strangers, these Magi? Pilch says that, back home, they would have been "very high ranking political-religious advisors to the rulers" of empires in areas that today we know as Iran and Iraq.
Visitors from "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, and about Ur of the Chaldees, the home of the great ancestor, Abraham.
These Magi, Swanson says, are 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 after the Exile ended; perhaps, having been tutored in sensing the goodness of the One True God, these Magi have "been trained to raise their eyes to the horizon of God's activity in the world, trained by their association with the Babylonian Jewish community."
(We might 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. Beautiful!)
A pause at the beginning of a new year
Thus, Pilch and Swanson and the biblical story itself give us pause at the beginning of a new year, as we ponder the meaning of visitors from one of 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--these strangers, so different from us--break many 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.
Wise men without all the answers
How have these strangers found their way, or at least gotten this close, 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 naive, they seem to anticipate no difficulty in inquiring of Herod the king about the birth of a rival king." So they "naively" set out, guided by God, looking to nature for signs and guidance.
Indeed, these wise men, as learned as they were, have the sense to know that they do not have all the answers, which is perhaps its own kind of wisdom. They know that they need help on their long and hope-filled quest. They've dropped everything, left their country and the comforts of home, to set out for a distant land. Their guide, that spectacular natural phenomenon, is a bright star that has led them almost, but not quite all the way, to the newborn king.
Kings are usually in palaces
Now, where should one expect to find a newborn king? Well, in addition to that bright star in the sky, the Magi also have 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?
And here sits Herod, who already senses that heís 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 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.
A counter-intuitive answer
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," Dr. Brueggemann says, the wise men have miscalculated by only nine miles, but what a long nine miles it is from the halls of power and glory...from the powers-that-be...or should we say, the powers-that-have-been, to what God is doing, out there on the margins (His beautiful sermon, "Missing by Nine Miles," is in Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann; I recommend it for personal devotions and study).
An insecure king seized with fear
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 an "innocent" 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, theyíre warned by a dream to return home by another road.
Two different holy places
Now, if I understand Brueggemann correctly, 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, generosityÖ[and] not learning war anymore." How far that sounds from the halls of power and might! Even if it's only nine miles, then its the longest nine miles we will ever travel, the longest nine miles this world, including the church, will ever travel.
How do we find our way to God?
It's a good thing that, 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 need a community in which to interpret these things. 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 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.
A world full of signs
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 the Bible helps us to "recognize these holy moments for what they are...to see God's face clearly in them." Without Scripture, we would be like the Magi, 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 (the experts!) miss the meaning of the text, and Herod turns to Scripture to use it for his own panicked and diabolical 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.
Bringing the wealth of the nations
What we call 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.
The words we read this Sunday from the prophet Isaiah 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.
Turning things right side up
Broken-down Jerusalem receives a vision of everything turned upside down (that is, 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).
Walter Brueggemann suggests that the wise men, being ancient scholars themselves (he calls them "Eastern intellectuals"), have read these words from Isaiah and assumed that Jerusalem was the place to find the new king. To Jerusalem, then, they carry 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. That may explain why, when they get there, they so innocently, so naively, turn to Herod the lesser king, an evil one at that, for directions to the real king promised by God.
Why, where, how, and why?
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 are driven by their sense of an event so important and so powerful, something that has drawn 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, Joni S. 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 reach their destination, they are "overwhelmed by joy," and then, what drew them far from home sends them back again.
And what about Matthew?
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 (outsiders!) 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.)
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."
Again, Matthew writes his Gospel in light of those Jewish texts familiar to his audience, when he recalls the prophet Isaiah describing "the wealth of the nations" (read, Gentiles) coming to "you," bringing "gold and frankincense," and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.
Small things matter
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, the season of light, 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?
What about your search?
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? When has Scripture, read in community and with study, provided guidance to you in your spiritual search, especially when other means have fallen short?
How do you think people seek God today? What are the paths and things and methods that help people "find" their way to God? If the star in the Matthew reading represents nature as it "points" to God, how might we encounter God in other ways, through natural phenomena?
The best and the worst
When the Magi find the star alone insufficient as a guide and turn to Herod's court for guidance, 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 Joni Sancken, this little story shows how "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?
Matthew and the vision of a new king
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?
Not just a nice little story
This beautiful story. the entire Nativity narrative, includes these 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 adorns our Christmas celebration, along with twinkling lights, carols 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 this sorrow encompasses, too, "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?
A vision of light and glory
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, and 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, 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 them home.
Reading the larger story
When Matthew told the story of the Magi, 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 Godís marvelous work in their own time and situation. 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 want to feel ourselves, strangers from a distant land and far-off time, kneeling 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."
So, who are the foreigners, nations, strangers, who are left out of our vision of the great homecoming? Do we recognize ourselves in their midst, or have we always experienced ourselves as insiders? In all the celebrations of Christmas and the season of Epiphany, a time of the manifestation of God's glory in a little child, have you been "overwhelmed with joy," by "unbridled joy" at any time?
How do we observe these seasons every year, year after year, and still find that place within us that is capable of being overwhelmed by 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 commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
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."
Brandt Legg, The Last Librarian, 21st century
"I am not running, I am seeking. I am not hiding, I am finding."
Albert Einstein, 20th century
"I never made one of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking."
V.S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River, 20th century
"Small things start us in new ways of thinking."
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, 21st century
"Grace has a grand laughter in it."
Constantine E. Scaros, 21st century
"Without the quest, there can be no epiphany."
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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