January 2, 2011
Matthew 2: 1-12
We are so used to the ‘birth stories’ of Jesus, that their shock doesn’t really register on us very much any more. But this story is really a strange one and it has a tragic ending that we don’t usually hear as part of the Christmas cycle.
Who are these guys? And why, why does Matthew go out of his way to tell us the tale of these strangers from another country coming to worship and thereby expose to danger this baby boy who we have learned is God’s son. These astronomers were not of Jesus’ religious tradition – if Jesus was to save ‘his people’ from their sins, how would that affect these priests from a different tradition? And their gifts? We have come to think of them as symbolizing the roles of Jesus as King, priest and Savior. Is that how Matthew and his community understood it?
As in so many of the ‘birth stories’ of Jesus, we find that the stories are almost complete Gospels in themselves. Jesus comes; those for whom he is to be the redeemer don’t recognize him; those who are not the ‘in crowd’ worship and believe that he is special and of God. The baby ends up being rejected and put in danger, but God overcomes every threat and brings him to safety against all odds.
And so with today’s story, these men from a far country recognize the cosmic revealing of Jesus’ birth, come to worship, alert the King to a threat to his throne, pay homage to the child and go in a different direction toward home. Meanwhile, the child escapes to Egypt. The angel who had informed Joseph that the baby was the Son of God appears again to warn him that the child and his family is in danger from the King. As Mary and Joseph are escaping, other people’s babies are brutally murdered to preserve the throne of the King against this usurper.
It’s enough to make you weep. A great king threatened by a baby so much that he must murder innocents to preserve his dynasty. And Jesus? Jesus goes from being homeless to being a refugee. The vulnerability of this baby is more than that of being an infant, it is also the vulnerability of being an outsider and an outlander.
I don’t know if any of you have had the experience of being a stranger in a foreign country, without language and without your own home. It is lonely and scary. It made me understand why God calls welcoming the stranger one of the marks of God’s people.
As we sit here contemplating the year ahead, we have so much for which to be thankful. Even in the most straightened circumstances, we have resources available to us. We don’t usually hear the Gospel as a challenge to see beyond our comfort, nor do we usually see the sweet Christmas stories calling us to look beyond their familiarity. We rarely see that the people who should have seen who Mary and Joseph were did not. Nor did the religious people of the day come to worship, the outsiders came. The outsiders were the ones who were invited to visit the homeless baby. My fear as I think about these ‘sweet stories’ I know so well is that I have made them comfortable for myself instead of seeing their challenge. Is Jesus still coming to us in the form of the outsider – homeless, refugee? Are we missing his appearing because we are not out there where he is – among the marginalized who really need him to be with them, instead of here among us who are so self-sufficient?
In this season of Epiphany, I would like to wrestle a little with these questions: Where is Jesus now, in our congregation, in our town, in our world? What would it take for us to recognize his presence? What is our part in being Jesus in our congregation, in our community, in our world? Do we have a ministry that is our gift, a gift to the Savior which is uniquely ours? How will we know? What should we look for? A star, a vision, an angel to announce to us what God sees in our future? The Holy Spirit at work in our hearts and church?
The Wise Men were warned by an angel that they should not return to Herod, but should go home by another road. These are men who would travel far at the urging of a star, of all things. Surely they would trust a different sign as well. But perhaps they were changed by what they found in Bethlehem. Perhaps they also went home another way: with their hearts awakened to a new path. That is my prayer for us as we approach the end of the renovation chapter of our life together. I pray that we will enter into conversation about our mission and ministry in our new sanctuary. That we will consider with deep thought about the tithe from the Whiting Estate as gift to our community and what it could support. That we will draw closer to each other as we approach God to ask for blessings in being God’s people here in Prineville. As we hear this, the last of the Christmas stories, may we be shocked and amazed again at God’s audacity to come among us, and to ask us, US of all people, to be his messengers of hope.
Now may the peace which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.