United Church of Christ

Sermon Seeds January 5 2020

Second Sunday after Christmas Year A
Epiphany

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Worship resources for the Second Sunday after Christmas Year A and Epiphany are at Worship Ways

Lectionary citations:
Jeremiah 31:7-14 or Sirach 24:1-12
Psalm 147:12-20 or Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:(1-9), 10-18

Or the readings for Epiphany may be used:
Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12


Sermon Seeds

Focus Scriptures:
Matthew 2:1-12
John 1:(1-9), 10-18

Focus Theme:
Choose Hope

Reflection on Matthew 2:1-12:
by Kathryn 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

Who are these strangers seeking the king, 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.

A vision for the whole world

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 ("back East"), 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 (The Cultural World of Jesus Year A).

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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.

Sensing God's goodness

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" (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew).

(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" (Texts for Preaching Year C).

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 a different 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 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, the "tidings of great joy" are actually 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 today's impressive (and beautiful) 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.

They turn to the prophet Micah, and then the second book of Samuel to reveal that 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 ("Missing by Nine Miles," Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann).

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.

A dangerous knowledge

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.

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.

Another story, another setting

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 its the longest nine miles we will ever travel, the longest nine miles this world, including the church, will ever travel (Inscribing the Text).

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 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" (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).

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 (New Proclamation Year C 2013).

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.

A vision to sustain us

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" (New Proclamation Year C 2013).

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.)

Can grace reach 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" (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).

Again, Matthew writes his Gospel in light of the 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" (New Proclamation Year C 2013).

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.

A story with anguish, too

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 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 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.

What makes you restless?

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" (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1).

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?

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The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

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."

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."

Rumi, 13th century
"When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy."

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."

Reflection on John 1:(1-9), 10-18:
by Kathryn Matthews

Our reading from the Gospel of John is one of the most familiar and yet most transcendently beautiful passages in the Bible. Still, we're challenged by John's lofty theology and language in our attempt even to approach the profound meaning they convey.

Perhaps the thoughts expressed in John's Prologue are too immense for preaching, although they lay out the very themes John will develop in his Gospel; scholars often refer to this passage as an "overture" to the rest of the Gospel.

A God beyond words

"No one has ever seen God," John writes, and indeed has anyone ever been able to speak words that do justice to such a passage? And yet, that may be the point of the reading: that the transcendent, beyond-words God took on flesh, came to us, found us, sought us out, took on our own existence, with its pains, its sorrows, its vulnerability and its joys.

Or, as Stephen Bauman puts it, "God is embedded with us in the human predicament" (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1). When has God seemed far away and beyond your reach? When has God felt near at hand, as One who understands what you are struggling with, what your church may be struggling with, understands even the things you cannot put into words?

The fullness of God's grace

Jesus Christ shows us who God is, and we have received from his fullness, "grace upon grace." Once again, this phrase sets a tone for a new year, especially when we are struggling with divisions and resentments, controversies and disquiet. Immersed in endless election cycles that further split us into factions and inspire a nagging dread, many of us still struggle on our way out of deep economic troubles, unemployed or under-employed, with so many still caught in the web of poverty.

It may be secular heresy to see plenty right now, to see abundance, to see fullness even in a time like this. However, if we can claim that there is more than enough of everything we need most – forgiveness and reconciliation, grace, life, truth, joy, generosity, healing, justice – perhaps we can also believe that there is more than enough of what our bodies need to live on: food, water, land, clothing, and shelter. Enough that we might share, and share generously.

Abundance for all, not some

Perhaps our greatest challenge is to understand this abundance as something meant not just for us, or for those strong (or lucky) enough to have it already, but something that God intended to be shared, from the very beginning of creation, with all of God's children. Might this even be a first step on the path to peace, if we truly believe there is more than enough for all?

What dreams of peace might a new year, a new beginning, bring, if we could share this abundance personally, communally, and even globally, with all of the people of the earth?

Grace brings us home

What does it mean to you, that "from his fullness, we have all received, grace upon grace"? What, then, is grace? God's grace has brought us light, has brought us truth, has brought us home. Coming home is a profound human experience, loaded with feeling. However, it's possible for a person to live at home, but feel as if they are in exile.

There are members of our communities who may feel that they are in exile, right in our midst, and it can make a tremendous difference to them that God took on human flesh and shared in our own experiences of suffering and death.

God calls us today to seek out the lost, the alienated, the excluded, the exiles in our own time and place. How can the church be a home for them? How are you and your congregation reaching out and bringing home the alienated, the excluded and the exiles in your neighborhood, and in the world?

Walking in the light

Sooner or later, all of us have the experience of walking "in the darkness." What is the "darkness" in which you walk, at times? How has the light of God's love and compassion, God's understanding and wisdom, delivered you from this kind of darkness?

This week's reading from Jeremiah (31:7-14) describes Israel's joyful return from exile, being led by the hand of God, providing a tender picture of the way God continues to reach out to save the people. In one way or another, this joyful return is the story of our own lives, too, in a very different time and place.

In what ways have you experienced "exile"? What has homesickness felt like to you, as an individual? Is it possible to find words to describe the joy of homecoming?

The Parent's Heart

An ancient hymn of the church, "Of the Parent's Heart Begotten" (#118 in The New Century Hymnal) reminds us of the close relationship in this passage between the first and second Persons of the Trinity. However, Henry Wansbrough expands our understanding of the translation in the NRSV: "'with God' (v.1) is really 'towards God,' and 'close to the Father's heart' (v. 18) is really 'into the bosom/embrace of the Father'" (The New Proclamation Commentary on the Gospels).

Barbara Brown Taylor reflects on this word, "bosom": "Jesus apparently knows where to lay his head….[and] how to listen to the heartbeat of his Father" (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1).

Repentance and preparation

Hearing the story of John the Baptist's emergence from the wilderness to preach a gospel of repentance and preparation, we might wonder today how our churches would be transformed if all of our members thought of themselves, as John did, as witnesses who testify to the Light, and then we might dream of how the world around us would be transformed as well.

In what ways do you understand that God is calling you today, to let your light shine, individually and as a community of faith?

Both exile and coming home

God's incredible gift of Jesus is one we can never repay, but there is a response we can give: the praise and thanks that we lift in prayer and song, especially in community. For example, as you pray our psalm reading for this week, Psalm 147, is it just words on a page, or do the words come alive when you think of the joys of homecoming, of God's mighty and tender deeds, of the Light that has come into the world, the world in which you have known both exile and coming home?

"God grants peace within your borders," the psalmist sings, "God fills you with the finest of wheat" (v. 14). There is that fullness, that plenty, that abundance, again. What do these words feel like to you?

Still the Christmas season

Despite what the world around us may say, Christmas is not over. In the church, we celebrate Christmas after a four-week observance of Advent that ends on Christmas Eve. In the world around us, we've been gathering with family and friends, exchanging gifts, holding pageants, and sending cards for several weeks.

One of the most moving and memorable ways we celebrate Christmas, however, is singing Christmas carols. Our musical memory lasts through the years, from our childhood into our old age, the melodies familiar and comforting, the words hauntingly beautiful and instructive at the same time.

The power of music

Sometimes, when a person has suffered a stroke or memory loss, they can still sing, and hymns have a particular power, as if they are imprinted on their hearts and minds. When my mother was recovering from a stroke at the age of ninety-three, I gave her a Christmas CD with an exquisite version of the ancient and familiar hymn, "Panis Angelicus." As we listened together, neither one of us needed to speak, as it carried us both back to our childhood faith, the faith she passed on to me so long ago.

The readings for this week are like hymns, too, and their lyrical celebration of God at work in the world, saving, vindicating, calling, and comforting, links us to our ancestors in faith who shared our common hope and longing. We sing together, with one another and with them, in a great chorus in our own day. And we feel close to the heart of God.

Relating to a baby

John speaks of "the Word" that was present at creation, a mighty God, above our imaginings or description, and yet this Word came into the world as a baby, small and vulnerable and sweet. It is, obviously, hard to relate to a transcendent God, but we can relate more easily to a baby, a mother, and, strangely enough, the shepherds who came to give homage (even though few of us have been shepherds).

Perhaps this paradox explains why singing Christmas carols, and really all hymns, but especially the beloved ones, helps us in our humble attempts to express the inexpressible – we cannot put into words the incredible mystery of God-made-flesh, and yet we have known it in our bones.

We have felt God with us even when we could never explain how that could be. Just as we may not understand all of John's lofty language, still, we find inexpressible beauty and meaning in it, and we want to know more of this Light, and to walk in its Love.

God's thoughts

Richard Burridge finds lovely meaning in this reading as it "affirms the world's goodness and the Word's involvement in creation" and "inspires the great Christian involvement in both the arts and the sciences." He observes that "[s]cientific inquiry is possible if the world is not some malicious fantasy but the result of a creator's love--to study the laws of physics is to search out the mind of God," and "rather than trying to escape the material body, our humanity can be explored in sculpture and paint, poetry and prose, dance and drama, music and song - because 'in him was life' (1:4)" (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).

Burridge's observation reminds me of a quote from Albert Einstein: "I want to know God's thoughts – the rest are mere details."

A world in need of good news

What good news are you waiting to hear today, in your life, and in the life of the world? What good news, what promises, are you longing to see fulfilled? Many of us are waiting for a messenger who will tell us that the tide has turned, that the day of vindication and hope has arrived, that God is still with us.

Alas, some of us have secretly, privately, in the deepest places of our hearts, given up hope. Or, worse, we may assume that it's all up to us, or that we can somehow make everything right, all by our own efforts, without a God who has chosen to be right here, right in the midst of everything that we face.

Energized and renewed

However, this season of Christmas does more than remind us of what God has already done; rather, it proclaims that God is active in the world today, in this setting of history. We might feel tired and relieved that Christmas is over, but it would be better to feel energized and renewed by the good news of the gift of Jesus Christ every day, not just on one morning each year.

What is the new thing that God is doing in the life of your congregation, in your own life, in the life of the United Church of Christ?

Barbara Brown Taylor develops the theme of bringing a word to life, a word that each one of us "has a gift for bringing to life," whether that word is compassion, justice, generosity, patience, or love. "Until someone acts upon these words," she observes, "they remain abstract concepts--very good ideas that few people have ever seen. The moment someone acts on them, the words become flesh. They live among us, so we can see their glory." Taylor makes the same observation about congregations, who "embody words as well" (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1).

A new day, a new year

In this new day, in this brand new year, God is revealing God's own self in the life of your community. Hearing such good news, how is your church, then, "anointed with the oil of gladness"? How will we continue to sing the joy of Christmas, to proclaim in the days ahead the good news of "grace upon grace," of our coming home and of God making a home in our midst? Is this the way we frame, the way we speak, of the mission of our church?

Perhaps Christmas morning is unlike all other mornings, but indeed it is like every other morning of our lives, too, because Jesus Christ is alive and God is at work in our lives, here and now. Richard Ascough recalls an image from Henri Nouwen's diary from Genesee Abbey, when he describes the Nativity set under the altar there, with small, humble figures that a light projects larger than life onto the wall nearby, and all the difference the light makes in this scene (New Proclamation Year C 2000-2001).

What difference has the light shining on your life made in the life of the world?

For further reflection:

Jonathan Edwards, 18th century
"Grace is but glory begun, and glory is but grace perfected."

Mother Teresa, 20th century
"Words which do not give the light of Christ increase the darkness."

Helen Keller, 20th century
"Faith is the strength by which a shattered world shall emerge into the light."

John Philip Newell, 21st century
"[W]e need to find ways of sharing our intimate experiences of the Mystery, for we are one. It is through one another that we will know more of the Life that flows within us all. It is through sharing our fragments of insight that we will come to a fuller picture of the One who is at the heart of each life.”

Madeleine L'Engle, 20th century
"We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it."

Anne Lamott, 21st century
"Sometimes grace works like waterwings when you feel you are sinking."

John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire, 21st century
"The Logos, or Word, means God's inaugural vision for the world at the dawn of creation. It is not as if God came up with a new idea or a new program at the time of Christ. The divine vision of freedom and justice, of nonviolence and peace, and of an earth in which all have a fair and equitable share was there from creation itself."

Thomas Merton, 20th century, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander in The Book of Hours, Kathleen Deignan, ed.
"I have the immense joy of being a member of a race in which God became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are....There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. It was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God's eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed."

Leonard Cohen, 20th century
"There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."


Lectionary texts

Jeremiah 31: 7-14

For thus says the Lord: Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, "Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel." See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here. With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.

Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, "He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock." For the Lord has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again. Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty, says the Lord.

or

Sirach 24:1-12

Wisdom praises herself,
     and tells of her glory in the midst of her people.
In the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth,
     and in the presence of his hosts she tells of her glory:
"I came forth from the mouth of the Most High,
     and covered the earth like a mist.
I dwelt in the highest heavens,
     and my throne was in a pillar of cloud.
Alone I compassed the vault of heaven
     and traversed the depths of the abyss.
Over waves of the sea, over all the earth,
     and over every people and nation I have held sway.
Among all these I sought a resting-place;
     in whose territory should I abide?

"Then the Creator of all things gave me a command,
     and my Creator chose the place for my tent.
He said, 'Make your dwelling in Jacob,
     and in Israel receive your inheritance.'
Before the ages, in the beginning, he created me,
     and for all the ages I shall not cease to be.
In the holy tent I ministered before him,
     and so I was established in Zion.
Thus in the beloved city he gave me a resting-place,
     and in Jerusalem was my domain
I took root in an honored people,
     in the portion of the Lord, his heritage."

and

Psalm 147:12-20

Praise the Lord,
   O Jerusalem!
Praise your God,
   O Zion!
For God strengthens the bars
   of your gates;
God blesses your children
   within you.
God grants peace
   within your borders; 
God fills you
   with the finest of wheat.
God sends out a command
   to the earth;
God's word runs swiftly. 
God gives snow
   like wool; 
God scatters frost
   like ashes.
God hurls down hail
   like crumbs—
who can stand
   before God's cold?
God sends out a word,
   and melts them;
God makes a wind blow,
   and the waters flow. 
God declares the word
   to Jacob,
and declares God's statutes
   and ordinances to Israel.
God has not dealt thus
   with any other nation;
they do not know God's ordinances.
   Praise be to God!

or

Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21

A holy people and blameless race
    wisdom delivered from a nation of oppressors.
She entered the soul of a servant of the Lord,
    and withstood dread kings with wonders and signs.
She gave to holy people the reward of their labors;
    she guided them along a marvelous way,
    and became a shelter to them by day,
    and a starry flame through the night.
She brought them over the Red Sea,
    and led them through deep waters;
but she drowned their enemies,
    and cast them up from the depths of the sea.
Therefore the righteous plundered the ungodly;
    they sang hymns, O Lord, to your holy name,
and praised with one accord your defending hand;
    for wisdom opened the mouths of those who were mute,
and made the tongues of infants speak clearly.

Ephesians 1:3-14

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory.

John 1:(1-9), 10-18

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.

(John testified to him and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'") From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.

or

Isaiah 60:1-6 

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
    and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
   and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
   and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
   and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes and look around;
   they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
   and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses' arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
   your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
   the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
   the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
   all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
   and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord. 

Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14

Give the ruler your justice,
   O God,
and your righteousness
   to a ruler's heir.
May the ruler judge your people
   with righteousness,
and your poor
   with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity
   for the people,
and the hills,
   in righteousness.
May the ruler defend the cause
   of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
   and crush the oppressor.
May the ruler live
   while the sun endures,
and as long as the moon,
   throughout all generations.
May the ruler be like rain
   that falls on the mown grass,
like showers that water the earth. 
In the ruler's days
   may righteousness flourish
and peace abound,
   until the moon is no more.
May the monarchs of Tarshish
   and of the isles  
render the ruler tribute,
may the monarchs  of Sheba and Seba
   bring gifts.
May all monarchs fall down
   before the ruler,
all nations give the ruler service.
For the ruler delivers the needy
when they call,
   the poor and those who have no helper.
The ruler has pity on the weak
   and the needy,
and saves the lives
   of the needy.
From oppression and violence
   the ruler redeems their life;
and precious is their blood
   in the ruler's sight.

Ephesians 3:1-12

This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— for surely you have already heard of the commission of God's grace that was given to me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God's grace that was given to me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him. 

Matthew 2:1-12

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.


Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:blains@ucc.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.

Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday" — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."

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