Lectionary Texts: Matthew 2: 1-12
First United Methodist Church, Wharton
Sunday, January 1, 2017
- Back to Normal
Happy New Year! It’s almost over—this season of readying and wrapping, of decking the halls and visiting with friends and family, of over-running and over-eating and over-spending. If you’re like me, you love all there is about Advent and Christmas but when it’s time for it to be over, you’re ready. You’re ready to go back to normalcy, back to your usual schedule. You’re ready to go back to your life.
On Christmas Eve, I told you about the manger scene that sat on the entry table of our home during the Advent and Christmas season when I was growing up. I think that it was probably my favorite decoration. Putting it out meant that Christmas was here. And during the season, as I told you, my brother and I would continually move it around and change the story a bit. Sometimes the Mary and Joseph were in the stable and other times they were carefully but precariously placed on the roof. Sometimes the Shepherds were herding the camel and the Wisemen were traveling with a sheep or an angel. And sometimes the baby was in the manger and other times the character would show up in various other places throughout the house. But, always, at the end of the season, it was sad to me to put the manger scene away, to rewrap all the characters in their tissue paper that they wore for most of the year, put away the baby, and close the box. It was over. It was time to go back.
Now is the time. What now? What do we do after it all ends? The truth is, “after” is when it begins, “after” is when it becomes real, and “after” is the whole reason we do this at all.
- Where is the One?
The Gospel text that we read is the one that our lectionary designates for every Epiphany Sunday, regardless of what Lectionary year it is. It begins by setting us “in the time of King Herod”. And in it, we find that the last question of Advent comes not at Christmas but afterward and is asked not by an individual but by a group. They believe that the star (or, for some, an unusual conjunction of heavenly bodies that produces an especially bright light) marks the birth of a special child destined to be a king. And they ask, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?
And so Herod hears that a king had been born in Bethlehem. Well, the formula is simple—a king is born, but a king is already here; and in Herod’s mind and the minds of all those who follow him, there is room for only one king. The passage says that King Herod was frightened and all Jerusalem with him. They probably were pretty fearful. After all, there was a distinct possibility that their world was about to change. It seemed that the birth of this humble child might have the ability to shake the very foundations of the earth and announce the fall of the mighty. Things would never be the same again.
So Herod relies on these wisest ones in his court. The writer of Matthew’s Gospel says that they’re from the East. Some traditions hold that these wise ones were Magi, a Priestly caste of Persian origin that followed Zoroastrianism and practiced the interpretation of dreams and portents and astrology. Other traditions depict them with different ethnicities as the birth of this Messiah begins to move into the whole world. In fact, the early Western church gave them names that depict this. (No, these names are not in the Bible.) But according to tradition, Melchior was a Persian scholar, Caspar was a learned man from India, and Balthazar, a scholar with a Babylonian name. These three areas represented the known world at that point. The Messiah had come to every nook and cranny of the world.
But, regardless of who they were, somewhere along the way, they had heard of the birth of this king and came to the obvious place where he might be—in the royal household. So, sensing a rival, Herod sends these “wise ones” to find the new king so that he could “pay homage” to him. We of course know that this was deceitful. His intent was not to pay homage at all, but to destroy Jesus and stop what was about to happen to his empire. It was the only way that he could preserve what he had.
According to the passage, the wise men know that Christ was born; they needed God’s guidance, though, to find where Christ was. When they get to the place where the star has stopped, the passage tells us that they were “overwhelmed with joy”. They knelt down and paid the new king homage and offered him gifts fit for a king. Even though later interpreters have often tried to place specific meanings on these gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, it is possible that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew simply thought that these gifts, exotic and expensive as they were, were gifts that would be worthy of a great and mighty king. They were gifts of joy, gifts of gratitude, gifts of celebration.
And then the passage tells us that, heeding a warning in a dream, these wise and learned (and probably powerful and wealthy) members of the court of Herod, left and returned to their own country, a long and difficult journey through the Middle Eastern desert. But rather than returning to their comfortable lives and their secure and powerful places in the court of Herod, they left and went a different way. They knew they had to go back to life. But it didn’t have to be the same.
So they slip away. Herod is furious. He has been duped. So he issues an order that all the children two years old and younger in and around Bethlehem should be killed. The truth is that Jesus comes into the world as it actually is, not as we wish it to be. Evil and greed are real and the ways of the world can and do crush life.
III. The New Normal
It is not really any different for us. After all, what has changed? Has Christmas produced for us some sort of “new normal”? There are too many places in the world where wars and skirmishes still rage. There are children that went to bed hungry last night and people in our own city that slept outside wrapped in anything that they could find hoping to stay warm. There are persons in our community who still do not have liveable housing because of the flooding that occurred more than eight months ago and there are fears throughout the world due to perceived growing terrorist threats. So what has changed? Well, not much. Truth be told, everything seems to have pretty much returned to normal.
But, then, think about that first Christmas. This passage moves the story beyond the quiet safety of the manger. We realize that the manger is actually placed in the midst of real life, with sometimes dark and foreboding forces and those who sometimes get it wrong. The primary characters are, of course, God and these visitors, these foreign Gentiles who did not even worship in the ways of the Jewish faith. They were powerful, intelligent, wealthy, and were accustomed to using their intellect and their logic to understand things. You know, they were a lot like us. But they found that the presence of the Divine in one’s life is not understood in the way that we understand a math equation. It is understood by becoming it.
Maybe that’s the point about Christmas that we’ve missed. Maybe it’s not just about the nativity scene. Maybe it’s more about what comes after. We often profess that Jesus came to change the world. But that really didn’t happen. Does that mean that this whole Holy Birth was a failure, just some sort of pretty, romantic story in the midst of our sometimes chaotic life? Maybe Jesus didn’t intend to change the world at all; maybe Jesus, Emmanuel, God with Us, came into this world to change us. Maybe, then, there IS a new normal. It has to do with what we do after. It has to do with how we choose to go back to our lives. Do we just pick up where we left off? Or do we, like those wise visitors choose to go home by another way?
- What Do We Do After?
In the Orthodox Christian tradition, there is a much greater emphasis placed on Mary. But it is not the worship of a young, innocent girl that said “yes” to what God was asking her to do. Rather, it is a recognition of the theotokos, the Greek word for “God-bearer”. It is not merely a reverence for Mary, but for what we are all called to be. It is a way of continuing the Incarnation, continuing the notion of God with Us.
Many of us bemoan what seems to be a take-over of our Christmas by the culture and the society. We hear time and time again a calling to “put Christ back in Christmas”. Well, I don’t think that’s the problem. God in Christ has never left. We are not called to put Christ back in Christmas; we are called to put ourselves there and then take the story into what comes after. The story tells us that. The young Mary didn’t just come on the scene for a starlit evening. She was there, there years later, there at the cross. Her whole life became immersed in this child that she brought into the world. The shepherds stopped what they were doing, leaving their sheep on a hillside outside of Bethlehem with no protection from bandits or wild animals and thereby risking everything they knew, everything that would preserve their life the way it was.
And those Wisemen? Well, in spite of the way we read the story, they did not show up twelve days later. The truth is, we’re not sure when they came. It was at least months later. It was probably a few years after Jesus’ birth (which is why Herod would have issued the order to dispose of any children less than two years.) After all, communications were not quite as efficient as they are now. They probably came onto the scene much after the birth, when fears and Roman occupation has escalated. The truth is, they came WAY after the manger scene. But they never went back. They chose to go home by another way. What they did after was change their lives.
And what about us? We are called to place ourselves in the story. We all have to go back. We all have to return to our lives. But that manger so long ago is not that far removed from us. In fact, it’s really sort of in the middle of our lives. God did not just visit our little earth so long ago and then return to wherever God lives. God came as Emmanuel, God with Us, and that has never changed. The birth of Jesus means that God was born in a specific person in a specific place. The Christmas story affirms to us that God is here, that the Messiah for whom we had waited has come, that we are in God’s hands. But the Epiphany story moves it beyond the manger. And all of a sudden we are part of the story. We are part of the Incarnation of God, the manifestation of God’s Presence here on our little earth. The God in whose hands we rest danced into our very lives and is now all over our hands. It is our move. God was not just born into the child Jesus; God is born into us, into humanity. And the world really hasn’t changed. But we have. And we are called to change the world.
So, the baby cannot just be put away in the manger scene box. The Incarnation of God happens over and over and over again. Christmas day happens each and every time that we see God in each other, that we see the sacred in this world, and that we see that we have the Divine all over us. We cannot go back to life as it was. It doesn’t exist. There is indeed a new normal that comes after all of the celebrations and after all of the birthing. So, in these days after Christmas as you put the decorations away for another year, look around at your new normal. Look around at what comes after. What are you called to do? How have you changed? What other way will you travel home? It might be scary to go a new way, perhaps even to travel where others are not going. Early 20th century British poet M.L. Haskins once wrote “I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, ‘Give me a light that I might go safely out into the darkness.’ And he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be more to you than a light, and safer than a known way.’”
I thought of doing something different this year. Rather than putting all the ornaments back in the box, leave one out. Put it where you can see it. Provide for yourself a tangible reminder that a change has indeed occurred—maybe not in the world, but definitely in you. Let it serve as a reminder to you that Christmas is not just about what we do on December 25th; Christmas is about what we do AFTER the birth.
God’s coming does not end with the calendar. God’s coming is a beginning and a sending for us. Howard Thurman, who was once the Dean of the Chapel at Boston University wrote these words that have become pretty well known:
When the song of the angel is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers and sisters,
To make music in the heart.
We have come to the end of the season. So, where is the child who has been born King of the Jews? Here, here with us, even after the end of the season. So what will you do after it is all over? I pray that you will not return to what you know. You have been given a light to take out into the world. YOU are what comes after. Happy New Year! Now what are you called to do with your hereafter?