Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Matthew 2:1-12:
Today represents the last vestiges of Christmas. Kids
go back to school tomorrow, and adults who have been off for the holidays
return to work. People have taken down their trees and the ornaments and
decorations have been packed up and returned to storage, or maybe like me
everything has been piled in one location waiting to be packed up. The
surprises and the excitement of the season are gone, along with the songs and
the decorations, and yet today we celebrate epiphany, which represents the
official end of the Christmas season, this is another one of those times in
which the church is out of sync with culture.
Some of you have heard me say this before, as much as Fox
News might like to talk about a war on Christmas, I have to be in agreement
with Diana Butler Bass that it’s not a war on Christmas, it’s a war on Advent,
because Christmas doesn’t end on December 25, Christmas begins in December 25,
and it officially ends tomorrow with Epiphany. Epiphany, means appearance
or manifestation, and it commemorates the arrival of the wisemen as the
manifestation of Jesus to the gentiles. In many cultures, especially in
Latin countries, Epiphany is more important of a Holiday than is Christmas and
is celebrated through gift-giving and parties. In the Orthodox church, it
is the third most important day of the year following only Easter and
Pentecost, and for many years the Orthodox church celebrated Christmas not on
December 25, but instead on January 6 and there are still some churches which
follow that tradition.
But before we get into the meaning of today’s passage, there
are some things we must clear up. First, even though all of our
nativity sets say differently, the wise men and the shepherds are never in the
manger together. In fact, Matthew does not have a manger scene, and
it is impossible to harmonize the birth stories of Luke and Matthew. To
even try is to do violence to the text and to miss what each writer is trying
to accomplish in the telling of his story. Matthew’s birth story is
particularly sparse, in which we are only told that Jesus was and then we move
into today’s readings. So let’s start by wiping our minds clean off
all images of a babe lying in a manger surrounded by shepherds and angelic farm
Second, let’s also remove most of the ideas that we have
been taught, seen or read about the wise men and who they are. As an
extra credit question on her final exam each year, my worship professor at Boston
University would always ask what the traditional names are for the wise men.
Without failure each year she would get Huey, Dewey and Louie as well as Manny,
Mo and Jack. While traditionally the names are given as Balthasar, Melchior and
Gaspar, the simple fact is we have no idea what their names are. The
names do not come to us until a document, usually attributed to the Venerable
Bede, which dates to the mid 8th century.
This document is also the one that describes one as being
Asian, one as African, and one as Arab. If you look at your nativity set,
they will probably have these characteristics. It is also where we have
an interpretation of meaning behind the gifts, with gold as being
representative of a king, frankincense as something which was burned in the
temple as part of the sacrifice, and myrrh as something used in embalming,
therefore the gifts seemed to have symbolic representation for what was to
come. But, not only where these things probably unknown to Matthew but
they were unknown to the church for the first 750 years as well.
Next, even though we sang “We Three Kings” we don’t know how
many there are. Three has been the tradition in the western church
because of three gifts, but in the Eastern church the tradition has been 10 or
12, because the text doesn’t say. The wisemen were also not kings.
This probably comes from imagery found in the 72nd Psalm and/or Isaiah
60. There are only two kings in this story, Herod and Jesus, and there
can only be two because that is the dichotomy that plays out, the conflict and
power struggle between the kingdom of Rome, represented by Herod and later
Herod’s son and Pontius Pilate, and the Kingdom of God, of course represented
by Christ. To add any other rulers to this scenario, even if they are
giving alliance to Jesus, diminishes what Matthew is setting up, and it the
tension between worship and hostility to Jesus which is also being emphasized.
Finally, there is lots of debate and information about the
star. If you do a Google search for Star of Bethlehem you’ll get about
1.4 million hits. There was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BCE,
Jupiter, Saturn and Mars in 6 BCE and Jupiter and Venus in 3 BCE, among others
which are given as possibilities for the star. But it my opinion this is
all ridiculous speculation that totally misses what is going on in this story.
This star does not and cannot correspond to just any normal astrological event.
Again, paying attention to what the scripture actually says
shows us something radically different. Even though this seemed to be a
significant event for the wisemen, at least enough to bring them hundreds if
not thousands of miles, it was not noticed in Israel, as Herod has to ask them
when it occurred, and then the star appears to them again after they have left,
although apparently only they can see it since Herod and his people don’t
follow it, and then it leads them to Bethlehem and then stops over the house
where Jesus lives. Now I’ve spent some time looking at stars, but I’ve
never been able to tell what house someone might live in based on a star, it
would have to be sitting right over the house and so this is unlike any star I
have ever witnessed and so speculation about natural events misses the
importance of the star and of God’s guiding purpose, which leads me to the
point of this message.
In his poem “For the Time Being”, which talks about the time
just after Christmas, W.H. Auden says “once again, as in previous years we have
seen the actual vision and failed to do more than entertain it as an agreeable
possibility, once again we have sent him away, begging though to remain his
disobedient servant.” For more than a month we have been hearing the story
again and making our way to the manger, and so we look again to the star and
There is a star out there for each of us guiding us not only
to the Christ child but also to the cross. The problem, just like with
Herod, is not only in seeing the star but also in following the star.
What makes this story important, and the only reason we know about it, is
because the wisemen where willing and able not only to follow the star but more
importantly to move their worship from their head to their heart, to make it a
part of who they were. In this they are like the only other people we
know who came to see Jesus, and that is the shepherds. Earlier in Advent
I asked how many other people who the message from the angels, but didn’t
respond, didn’t do anything? How many other people saw the star, and
didn’t do anything? That is the piece
with which we struggle.
Katherine Mitchell is a Methodist minister in Rhode Island.
Before coming to seminary Katherine had worked as an emergency mental health
counselor, and so she is very good at always being able to be in control of
situations, telling you exactly what she is thinking and what is going on
because in many cases her life depended on that ability. If you are in a
group and wonder who is going to be in charge, you can bet that Katherine will
be one of the first to step up and take a leadership role.
Recently she was asked to participate in a program similar
to dancing with the stars to help support one of the community groups in the
town where she serves. At the time she agreed to it, she assumed she
would just have to show up on the day of the event do some dancing and then
everyone would vote on who was best. But shortly after saying yes, she
received a call from Arthur Murray dance studio asking when she wanted to come
in and start her dance lessons. She put if off for as long as she could,
came up with as many reasons as she could, in other words struggling with the
commitment, before she finally had to give in and go.
Katherine is about fifty, stands maybe 5’5” and as I said,
fully in control of her life. When she showed up for her first lesson,
she was assigned to a dance instructor who was 23, although she side he looked
like he was 15, and he was shorter than she is. They danced for their
hour appointment, and when it was over he said to her, “you have the skills and
the ability to be a good dancer, but in order for this to work you are going to
have to let go and let me lead.” And Katherine’s response? She said
“now look here little man, do you have any idea who I am. I am Pastor
Katherine, and I’m the one in control.” To which her dance instructor said,
“You’re a minister, aren’t you used to following God’s lead, this should be
easy for you.”
As you might imagine, this floored her and she had to look
deeply at what she was doing and how she was living her life, and what she
found was that she was not so good at following and so she made a conscious
effort to let go. This decision has not only radically changed her
relationship with her family, her relationship with her congregation, but most
importantly it has changed her relationship with God. Since that day she
has had some life altering experiences that she knows God has led her to, that
she would never have had before, because she would never have to let go of what
she wanted to do long enough to allow them to happen. For the first time
in her life she now feels as if she is truly being guided by God, everyday of
her life from the time she gets up to the time she goes to bed, and sometimes
even in her dreams, because she was willing to let go and let God lead the
dance of her life.
How are we doing? Are we able to let God lead, or are
we fighting and trying to be the one who controls where, when and perhaps even
what dance is being done? I would have to say that I am not very good at
this myself. I have trouble giving up and giving over to God. Even
though some of the most profound experiences in my life have occurred when I
have turned myself over to God to be led, but that is always the
struggle. But giving ourselves over to God is not about giving up, or
being passive. Being a dancing partner requires both parties to be
involved and participating. Dancing is a give and take
relationship. If one person does nothing but let the other person do all
the work, then they are like a rag doll and that does not make a beautiful
dance. Instead, both partners need to be in relationship with each other,
working with each other, but one person has to be in control, and if that
person is us then the dance is not as beautiful as it could be.
Where are you being called? “What is your star?
What is it that has you questioning meaning or your purpose? What has
seized your attention and made you start wondering what is going on?” The
star still shines for each of us, and all of us are called to respond, but to
do that we have to be willing to step out of our comfort zone and to follow God
and be willing to allow God to lead and guide us, and that’s where the
difficulty begins. The wise men acted in
response to God’s initiative to guide them to the child. God’s grace
always precedes our actions, so where is God’s grace reaching out to you?
Where is God guiding you, and are you willing to respond? Let us give
thanks to God sisters and brothers for the guiding star in our lives.