Sermon 2015-12-27

December 27, 2015

Matthew 2:1-18 (note change)

Border Crossings–God’s decision in Advent to cross every kind of border to come to us—to be known by us—to abide with us—our Lord, Emmanuel…  So, turn with me to our text, this morning…

The story of the Wise Men (or the Magi, as we sometimes call them) has had poets and artists curious for centuries–everybody from William Butler Yeats to William Carlos Williams (even to William Steven Healy, for that matter!)–everybody curious about it–setting this story to verse–my favorite being the African American poet Frank Horne—the poem he called Kid Stuff:

The wise guys tell me Christmas is kid stuff…  Maybe they’ve got something there.  Two thousand years ago three wise guys chased a star across a continent to bring frankincense and myrrh to a Kid born in a manger with an idea in his head.  And as the bombs crash all over the world today, the real wise guys know that we’ve all got to go chasing stars again, in the hope that we can get back some of that Kid Stuff born two thousand years ago…

I love that one!  The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow even gave the Wise Men names—Mel-chior, Gas-par, Bal-thasar…  (I don’t know why he had to make them impossible to pronounce!)  Artists too many to count have taken a whirl at painting the scene or writing songs about it…  On and on it goes, this story having proven to be so fascinating!

But it’s a story about which a whole lot has been made from a whole little, really–the Bible just doesn’t give us much to go on.  Whoever decided there were three Magi made that part up, because we’re never told their number–don’t even know if they were kings (in fact, pretty unlikely that they were…).  More likely they were simply educated—you know, philosophersscientists maybe–people of wisdom–interpreters of dreams…  Here were men who studied the stars (which was common in their day)—they believed a person’s destiny was influenced or determined by the star under which they were born, so that if some spectacular thing showed up in the heavens, why, it would impress them that God must be breaking into the world, somehow—breaking in in some supernatural way–announcing some cosmic event.  And when we put that kind of thinking together with the general expectation of the day among God’s people—the expectation of an imminent messianic announcement, the idea that God was about to break into the world and raise somebody up who would deliver humankind from bondage and limitation—when we put that astrological assumption and that messianic expectation together, well, we can see how these Magi became convinced that an act of God was taking place–one where the entrance of a great king was being heralded in the heavens.

So, their journey began–one that led them to Herod, King of Judah…  Here was a man come to be known as “Herod the Great” (better yet, “Herod the Terrible”–“Herod the Super Nasty”).  He was a major league jerk, Herod was—ruled his people for 40 years, and with an iron fist…  He was a great builder–including the building of the temple in Jerusalem; a great manager, even supplied from his own resources to help the Jewish people through a famine.  But he was also somebody plagued by great suspicion, which was his downfall (and that’s a sad, sad thing, isn’t it—to become a prisoner of your suspicions—your jealousy–it’s toxic, jealousy is…). In his latter years, Herod became known as a “murderous old man”–murdered his wife–murdered his mother–he killed his three sons…  In fact, somebody once said it was safer to be Herod’s pig (the Greek word is “hus”) than it was to be his “huios”).  (the word for “son”).  When he at long last approached death, tradition holds that Herod had a group of upstanding citizens in Jerusalem arrested—thrown in jail–with orders that they were to be killed the moment he breathed his last, so that at least some tears would be shed when he died!

I’m telling you–this guy was whack!–a petty, threatened ruler who understood–maybe not real clearly—maybe not all that sensibly–but he understood–that in this child, born in a manger in Bethlehem, lay the potential for revolution—understood that if people started running around thinking the Messiah had come, why, Herod’s whole kingdom, the one he’d spent the last 40 years protecting, would come crashing down.  And out of that fear insanity was born, an insanity that would come to be known as the “slaughter of the innocents,” as Herod put to death human babies in an attempt to extinguish the threat he believed Jesus presented.  And that’s the world–the evil world—into which the Magi landed when they chose to follow this star they’d seen–when they chose to inquire about God’s Messiah, born in Bethlehem of Judea…

Now, I’ve thought a good deal about what the journey of the wise men represents—what it says about them–what it suggests to us.  See, there’s willingness embodied in their story–that’s the word that comes to mind for me–a willingness, first of all, to open themselves up to the possibility of the miraculous, even to seek it out—the miraculous news that God had become a human being.  See, we need to understand–these are people accustomed to living with and accepting only what their considerable intellects could comprehend.  You know anybody like that?  They scored high on their ACTs—were in the top three percent of their class–went to the best colleges–graduated summa-cum-big-deal-laude.  These are people who were expected to cast a suspicious eye on anything anybody claimed to be miraculous, which makes their journey to Bethlehem all the more remarkable.

I love how the writer Max Lucado put it—he says:

…that in just a moment of time, a spectacular thing happened.  Heaven opened herself up and placed her most precious one in a human womb.  He who was larger than the universe became an embryo.  The one who sustains the world with a word chose to be dependent upon the nourishment of a young girl.  God as fetus.  Holiness sleeping in a womb.  The creator of life being created.  God given eyebrows and elbows, two kidneys and a spleen…  He stretched against the walls and floated in the amniotic fluids of his mother.  The hands that first held him were unmanicured, calloused.  No silk, no ivory, no hype, no baby shower.  Were it not for the shepherds there would have been no reception.  Were it not for a group of stargazers there would have been no gifts.  Angels watched as Mary changed God’s diaper, the universe watched with wonder as the Almighty learned to walk.

          And I don’t know about you, but to think of Jesus in that light–well, it almost seems irreverent, doesn’t it?–not something we feel comfortable thinking about–so much easier to keep the humanity out of the incarnation, clean the manure from around the manger, pretend he never spit up or blew his nose or hit his thumb with a hammer.  It’s easier to stomach that way, isn’t it?  There’s something about keeping him divine that keeps him distant, packaged, predictable.  But don’t do it.  For heavens’ sake, do not do it.  Let him be as human as he intended to be.  Let him into the mire and muck of our world, for only if we let him in can he pull us out.[1]

See, that was the willingness of the Magi—to suspend what they could only comprehend in their finiteness and humannessto allow God in God’s divinity to be revealed in that humanness.  That was their willingness, and it amazes me…  See, I grew up in an academic household—my parents both educators—learned that knowledge is power—and so I know stuff—can explain stuff.  But God came into this world to show us something greater than anything we can know or explain on our own—came to show us himself—came to show us Jesus—came to save people who are unable to save themselves—people like me, people like you…

Well, not only were these Magi willing to consider and pursue the miraculous, they were also willing to listen for the voice of God and obey it.  In verse twelve of our text, Matthew tells us God spoke to them in a dream—warned them of the danger to be found if they complied with Herod’s command, and so they chose to obey God rather than an earthly king, and crossed a border, and went home by another way.  To which we say, “Really?  Is it ever that simple?”  We who would make obedience such a complicated thing—we who’ve got a hundred exceptions to every rule–could it ever be as simple as just hearing God’s voice and doing what we’re told?  Well, according to Matthew’s gospel, yes.  Like the disciples who hear the call of Jesus and immediately leave their fishing nets to follow him–sometimes, perhaps more often than we care to admit, it really is just that simple, to obey God…  The Magi listened, and they heard, and they obeyed.

So, one more poem, this morning—one that’s always moved me, this by the poet Ann Weems, one she calls, The World Still Knows (words I find so fitting in a world like ours—a world with places like Syria, like North Korea—a world where ISIS and other forms of radicalism exist–where terror and suffering happen…)  The poet writes:

The night is still dark, and a procession of Herods still terrorize the earth,

killing the children to stay in power.  The world still knows its Herods, but it also knows men and women who pack their dreams safely in their hearts and set off toward Bethlehem, faithful against all odds, undeterred by fatigue or rejection, to kneel to a child…

          And the world still knows those people still wise enough to follow a star,

those who do not consider themselves too intelligent, too powerful, too wealthy, to kneel to a child…

And the world still knows those hearts so humble that they’re ready to hear the word of a song and to leave what they have, to go, to kneel to a child…

The night is still dark, but by the light of the star, even today we can see, to kneel to a child.

I don’t know what stars you or I are gonna be called upon to follow in the next stretch of our lives—in the next week, the next month, or in 2016–but I do believe that God’s promise to us in that calling is sure—that it’s not a promise of being kept from trouble; rather, a promise that says,  “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.”  And the question really is simple: Are we willing to stand on that promise and follow?

[1] From, It Began In a Manger, by Max Lucado, pp. 4-5.