Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | January 3, 2010

2010.01.03 “By the Light of The Star” – Epiphany Sunday

Central United Methodist Church

“By the Light of the Star”

Epiphany Sunday

Matthew 2: 1 – 12

January 3rd, 2010

“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. (Matthew 2: 1 – 12, NRSV)   

      Each year — like a bear lumbering forth from hibernation — we emerge from the holidays into the bright sunshine of a new year, to re-orient ourselves and decide what to do next.

      Although this year I have to say I felt more like a groundhog than a bear; wasn’t that bright sunshine on New Year’s Day a wonderful thing?  And, at night, for those who happened to be out and look up, how about that blue moon? Even though cold, that sunshine made a difference in how I look at the year:  optimistically or pessimistically. (Yep, sometimes it’s as simple as that.)

      The beginning of a New Year it is also an opportune time to turn to the Scriptures and see what we can guide us there. And what we find is one of our favorite stories: the story of wise men from the East, illuminated and guided on their way to the One who is born by the light of a star.

      Can we see ourselves, looking out over 2010, for a star – for light – on the horizon? Do we have the will and the courage to follow where it leads?  Let’s walk through this story and see what we can learn.

      Whoever these “magi” were – likely Persian priests, astrologers, and scholars – Matthew says that they came from the East: from the lands east of Israel (Persia (Iran), Arabia (Saudi Arabia), and Babylon (Iraq), seeking the child who was born, after noticing a star in the sky announcing his birth.

It’s timely, I think, that the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer calls all Christians to pray precisely for the region from which the Magi came, the region which continues to impact our history and security today, which is either hostile to or limiting to open expression of the Christian faith: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen, Iran, Iraq. As you know, the Christmas Day bomber trained in Yemen. 

Sadly, we should note that not all people from this region come to do us harm; many come seeking refuge.  Iraqi Christians have come not only because of the devastating war, but because the Christian community in Iraq has been and continues to be targeting in repeated bombings, and is now almost decimated.  With such people sitting in our pews, how will we pray with and for these people in ways that embody the spirit of these texts today?

Why would these Magi – strangers and outsiders to the faith – make such a long and perilous journey? Because they were driven by their sense of an event so important and so powerful, it drew them far from their home and called forth their generosity and worship. Makes the so-called “sacrifices” we make for truth and faith seem kind of petty, doesn’t it?

And why does Matthew tell their story?  Because right here at the beginning of the Gospel, Matthew wants us to hear about the Good News of God’s universal and all-encompassing grace, even if we’re appalled or offended that such “objectionable” people are invited. Remember, Matthew’s Gospel was written at the time when the biggest Church controversy was whether to include “gentiles” in what had previously been an all Jewish Church. Scott Hoezee puts it this way:

“What Matthew may be trying to convey . . . is 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. (Lectionary Commentary.)

No one is beyond the reach of God’s love and grace.

      In addition, as we look at the wise men, we see that though in most ways they were unlike us, in some ways they are similar. 

      The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, in an article in the Christian Century magazine eight years ago, points out in particular their exegetical and navigational shortcomings.

      As this morning’s text from Isaiah makes clear – Matthew is not the first to imagine three rich wise guys from the East coming to Jerusalem. His story line and plot come from Isaiah 60, a poem recited to Jews in Jerusalem about 580 B.C.E. These Jews had been in exile in Iraq for a couple of generations and had come back to the bombed-out city of Jerusalem. They were in despair. Who wants to live in a city of ruins, where the economy has failed, and nobody knows what to do about it? (Sound familiar?)

      In the middle of this, an amazing poet invites his depressed, discouraged contemporaries to look up, hope and expect things to change:  “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord, has risen upon you.”

The poet anticipates that Jerusalem will again become a beehive of productivity and prosperity, a center of international trade. “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn . . .”

As Brueggemann points out, the wise men – like Matthew – know Isaiah 60. They know they are to go to Jerusalem and to take rare spices, gold and frankincense and myrrh. Most importantly, they know that they will find the new king of all peace and prosperity.

But when they get there, the King they find (Herod) is not that king. And when they share their good news with him, turns out, he is less than thrilled. Why?  Because a new king and a new order is always a threat to the old king and the old order.

In his panic, Herod arranges a consultation with his leading Old Testament scholars, and says, “Tell me about Isaiah 60. What’s all this business about camels and gold and frankincense and myrrh?”

And the scholars tell him: You’ve got the wrong text. And the wise men outside your window are using the wrong text. Isaiah 60 will mislead you because it suggests that Jerusalem will prosper and have great urban wealth and be restored as the center of the global economy.

Herod says, “You got a better text?” They tell him that the right text is Micah 5:2-4: “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah . . . from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old . . .”

So, says Brueggemann, the truth is, even though the wise men may have been wise, they missed their goal by nine miles: Bethlehem is nine miles south of Jerusalem.  Say some wives, just shows what happens when you refuse to stop and ask for directions, even when – especially when – you think you’re a wise man.

Herod tells the Wise Men the truth, and the rest is history. They head for Bethlehem, a rural place, dusty, unnoticed and unpretentious. It is, however, an appropriate place for the birth of One who will offer an alternative to the pretentious learning of intellectuals and the arrogant power of rulers.

Says Brueggemann:

“The narrative of Epiphany is the story of these two human communities: Jerusalem, with its great pretensions, and Bethlehem, with its modest promises. We can choose a “return to normalcy” in a triumphalist mode, a life of self-sufficiency that contains within it its own seeds of destruction. Or we can choose an alternative that comes in innocence and a hope that confounds our usual pretensions. We can receive life given in vulnerability. It is amazing — the true accent of epiphany — that the wise men do not resist this alternative but go on to the village. Rather than hesitate or resist, they reorganize their wealth and learning, and reorient themselves and their lives around a baby with no credentials.” (“Off By Nine Miles,” by Walter Brueggemann, The Christian Century, December 19-26, 2001, p. 15.)

It seems to me that on this Epiphany Sunday, as we look back at the last decade and forward to a new year, we have the same choice. I found myself in agreement with an New Year’s Eve article by Steven Thomma in the McClatchy Newspapers, entitled, “At last we get to bid farewell to a perfectly awful decade.”  (I know some say the decade isn’t supposed to really end until next year, so the calendar police can come and arrest me, but I’m calling it.)

Yes, wonderful things happened. Some of us met the loves of our lives. Had children. Got jobs, and held on to them.  Retired from whatever job we had. Not least, we elected our first African-American to the White House, a big step forward for America.

On the other hand, most of us may look back on the decade and say, “Good riddance.”

        Farewell to a decade that began when the world didn’t end, as we thought it would, with Y2K.

Farewell to a decade that started in seeming peace and prosperity, then saw America attacked, and ended with the worst recession in more than 70 years.

Farewell to a decade that saw stagnant — even declining — wages. Zero job growth. The housing bubble burst. Soaring prices for health care. Lost or shrunken pensions. More people working past retirement. The auto industry in collapse.  Robber barons on Wall Street.  China rising.

Farewell to an American government unable at all levels to help its own citizens in an American city devastated by a hurricane.

Farewell to a decade that saw thousands of innocent Americans killed by terrorists, and thousands more dead fighting an enemy that hides in caves and waits to strike again.

Farewell to a decade that saw wars fought at the high cost of American lives and a trillion dollars in treasure, but still can’t prevent a terrorist from getting on an airplane with a bomb in his underwear.

Yes, we are still faced with a choice between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, between the Herods of the world, and the Christ who is born, between the old order of power and greed or a new order of peace and justice.

What have learned from this story? How God has sent a gentle shepherd who upsets the powers-that-be. That the smallest things, like a newborn baby, can terrify the mighty, and bring them down. That God’s reach of grace goes far beyond every obstacle within or without, and pushes us beyond them, too. That a great light has dawned that draws all people and calls us to live our lives illuminated by its truth. In the light of this truth, says James Howell: “You don’t take the old road any longer. You unfold a new map, and discover an alternate path.”


      In light of this truth, God calls us to stir from our own depression as the church, to live in the way of Jesus, and to be what he called us to be, the light of the world: to extend to all the care we show for each other; to exercise a commitment and action that renounces the evil forces of this world and resists injustice and oppression everywhere; to praise God even in the midst of suffering and uncertainty; and to witness through lives of goodness to the goodness of God; all of these are signs of God’s glory shining on and through us, if we will let it shine.

 

Poet Ann Weems, in her book Kneeling in Bethlehem, in a poem entitled, “It Is Not Over,” puts it this way:

It’s not over,

this birthing.

There are always newer skies

into which

God can throw stars.

When we begin to think

that we can predict the Advent of God,

that we can box the Christ

in a stable in Bethlehem,

that’s just the time

that God will be born

in a place we can’t Imagine and won’t believe.

Those who wait for God

watch with their hearts and not their eyes,

listening

always listening

for angel words.

Amen.

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