Message for January 4, 2009

Sermon – January 4, 2009

    You do know what would have happened if it had been three wise WOMEN instead of three wise men, don't you?  They would have asked for directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts!

    This morning we read a Christmas story from the gospel  according to Matthew – a story that differs greatly from Luke's. There are no shepherds in Matthew, but there are magi. Magi are not Kings. Magi refers to a priestly group in ancient  Persia and Babylon.  Their work combined elements of astrology, astronomy, and dreams.  “Wise Ones” is a more accurate synonym for Magi than Kings...and, if you remember the reading, there is no mention of the number of wise men...the 3 gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh allows us to speculate that there were 3 individuals....and the number 3 carries a type of sacred message in ancient writings...so 3 is the number of wise men according to our tradition.
    These magi were Gentiles...not Jewish...this is an important detail in Matthew's writings – he has incorporated in this one significant feature of the story the understanding that outsiders – gentiles – have come to seek the Messiah promised by God.  There are more features that ground this story in Matthew's primarily Jewish community:  for example, the threat from Herod echoes the story of Pharaoh and the child Moses...in both cases, a child is saved from a tyrant's intent to kill, and the child grows up to lead God's people.
    And, for me, the most significant feature of this story is the journey... “wise men from the East came to Jerusalem” the story says.  Journeys abound in the scriptures: Abraham and Sarah journey at the beckon of God from their homeland not knowing where they are going; Moses journeys away from Egypt – escaping the possibility of punishment – and then journeys back to fulfill God's purpose for the Israelites – freedom from slavery; the people journey through the wilderness with Moses for  40 years until they reach the promised land; Jesus journeys into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights while he sorts out who he is and what God's purpose is to HIM. 
    At the beginning of a new year, it is normal for us to look back at the past year...and to search for what has gone right, what has gone wrong, and what God's dream is for us in this coming year as well.  It would be nice to have God's voice in our ears, or a burning bush, or even a great bright star to guide us. But often, we simply stumble from day to day, month to month, primarily making it up as we go along.  There's really nothing wrong with this approach...but there is something we can easily add to our daily wanderings through our lives: we can actively search for God's presence each day.
    I once knew a man who told me, at the age of 82, that he woke up each morning thanking God for the night's rest and for the fact that he was alive to greet another day.  Then he prayed for guidance to use the day for God's work as best he could.  When he told me that, I was humbled.
    Our journeys through life take many paths....some of them smooth, others rough, mostly safe, but occasionally dangerous.  Like the road to Harbourville – the first time I travelled it with Carolina when I came for my interview, our paths can have amazingly dangerous and surprising ox-bows in the middle of the ride.
    You may know the story of the fourth magi by Henry Van Dyke – it is a parable drawn from this story in scripture.  The fourth magi, Artaban, is supposed to join the others in Babylon for the trip to Bethlehem, but he is delayed by the needs of a dying man that he finds by the side of the road. Artaban uses the first of three precious gems – a sapphire – to purchase his own caravan to try and catch up to the others. He arrives in Bethlehem after the others have moved on and the family of Jesus has fled to Egypt. He uses a ruby – his second precious gem intended as a gift for the child – to help a woman and her son flee from the wrath of Herod and the massacre of the infants in Bethlehem.  For 33 years, Artaban searched for the King of the Jews wherever the priests sent him – not among the rich and well-connected, but among the poor and the disposessed – people on the fringes of society.  Finally, he is in Jerusalem in the crowd following Jesus to Golgotha – the site of the crucifixion. Yet again he is delayed to help a woman who is being threatened by the Roman soldiers. He uses his last gem – a pearl – to bribe them and gain her freedom and safety.
He never gets to see the face of Jesus himself, but he realizes that he has met Christ all along his journey.  He learns that he has lived the reality of Matthew's parable – Lord, when did I feed and clothe you, when did I visit you in prison? “Whenever you did these things for others, you did them for me.”
The story of Artaban is also the story of the tension we feel in the Church...where we want to be in the presence of Jesus the Christ, to worship and praise God while at the same time, we are called to be outside these walls working side by side – in compassion and empathy with those who need us...the homeless, the sick, those caught up in poverty or addictions...there we find Jesus the Christ walking on our journey with us.
    This Sunday of the Epiphany – which means divine appearance – is the day to celebrate and take into our hearts the meaning of the story of Jesus' appearance to those who found him in the humble manger, or on the shores of the sea of Galilee or in the synagogues or on the dusty roads of Nazareth. The parable invites us to find Jesus the Christ in our neighbours – in the people of our own communities – and to see in them the vulnerable child needing our compassion and strength...to see within them the possibilities of future greatness of their souls.  In this time of journey into the unknown, we bring with us the teachings of someone who was not a wealthy, prestigious man nor a royal person who had control of the world around him.  He was a man of great integrity, a man who was open to the promptings of the Spirit, a person of simple compassion, connected with the people he met who needed his openness and acceptance.  Search for him in yourselves, find him there and in the people around you.  In that way, we can keep Ephiphany as a reality for the whole of our existence in this world and beyond.
    Here is a poem by Ann Weems :  God So Loved the World

 Due to copyright regulations, I am unable to print this poem, but it can be found in: Kneeling in Bethlehem, Ann Weems Philadelphia, Pennsylvania:The Westminster Press  1980  p 76.