Fearless Strangers

SERMON: Epiphany, January 6, 2019

Matthew 2:1-12

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.”  When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel.’”

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” When they had heard the king, they went their way; and lo, the star, which they had seen in the East, went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

THE WORD OF THE LORD

Every Christmas Eve the church I served in Grand Haven, Michigan held an impromptu Christmas pageant. That is actually what it was called, “An Impromptu Christmas Pageant.”

There was a script of sorts, and the grownup couple with the newest baby played the parts of Mary and Joseph. The baby, of course, played Jesus, whether it was a girl baby or a boy baby.

The rest of the pageant was entirely, well…impromptu. All children were invited to participate, and were offered costumes from the church stash, but the kids were also encouraged to arrive in costume, if that was what they preferred. We often had angels that looked more like princesses or fairies, and the number and ages of the wise men varied greatly. But I will never forget the Christmas pageant when we had a giraffe in the manger.

The giraffe was about six years-old, and in costume or out, this little girl was a force of nature. She played her part well, doing what she assumed a giraffe in the manger would do: make giraffe-ish noises and munch on fake greenery.

Once I got over seeing a giraffe next to baby Jesus, I realized she had something to teach us. It was a lesson in fearlessness. Our little giraffe was not afraid to do something new – and a bit strange, just as God did the “new thing” foretold by the prophets. And like the Magi in Matthew’s gospel, she came before Jesus not with what was expected, but with what was most important to her.

In her sermon about Epiphany entitled, “Home By Another Way,” Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “So much has been made of this story about which we know so little…It is not that the facts don’t matter. It is just that they don’t matter as much as the stories do, and stories can be true whether they happen or not.”

Some see the Magi as wealthy and learned… but they did not seek out Jesus for academic study. The Magi were probably Gentiles from the east who practiced astrology, then considered a scientific endeavor. Some accounts say they were philosophers, the counselors of rulers, learned scholars of the ancient near East. Perhaps they were Persians, or from Yemen, although many believe the Magi were from Babylon, or Syria, as we know it today.

Whoever they truly were, the Magi came to worship a king they knew nothing about, at the expense of their safety and comfort. The Wise Men did not make the journey to Bethlehem in order to look impressive or powerful in the eyes of the world. They sought a miracle among those foreign to them, poor people who worshiped differently. This is not a scholar’s formula for success, yet, when they found Jesus, they “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”

What a reminder that Jesus is not only King of the Jews; he is King of all nations and peoples! Rather than privilege their ethnicity or nation over others, these strangers from the East show us God welcomes the worship and gifts of all people, everywhere. The light that dawned with the birth of Jesus is a light that shines for everyone.

Like many of our leaders today, King Herod is only concerned with what he thinks, and how much power he has. Herod is cruel. He colludes brutally with the forces of empire, and is quick to use violence to promote his own interests. So when the Wise Men show up at his doorstep asking: “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him,” Herod is afraid.

When all that matters is power and privilege, it is easy to become very frightened indeed. He is suspicious and insecure, a bad combination in a ruler. A new king? Where? Does this king have designs on Herod’s empire?

Matthew writes, “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” We can imagine that “all Jerusalem” was not “troubled” on behalf of King Herod. They were afraid of what he might do. Historically, when Herod is frightened, people die. They lived under fear of the empire, with Herod as its paranoid representative. Herod is volatile and unpredictable, and his appetite for power leaves him vulnerable in his leadership. And sure enough, when the Magi leave, he erupts in a furious rage and tries to protect himself by ordering the slaughter of innocent children.

Perhaps Matthew gives us such a bleak picture of the world because God’s promises shine brighter to people who have gotten used to living in darkness. In our day and age, we have many examples of those who have so succumbed to fear they are able to do the unthinkable to one another and the environment, and continue to threaten the lives of innocent children. Could it be that the best gift we can bring to the manger is to stand up to fear and refuse to be manipulated by its ugliness? Can we instead show the world God’s grace and hope?

We all know the story about the Magi’s gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold to represent Christ’s majesty, frankincense to worship his divinity, and myrrh that will foreshadow his preparation for burial. Like our little giraffe, the magi fearlessly brought what was most important to them.

In reality, the Wise Men knew very little about that baby. All they had was a prophecy about a star and a coming messiah. What they found was an economically challenged toddler, living in a modest home with his teenaged mother. Yet, by God’s grace, the Wise Men knew they had found a savior. They knelt down and paid Jesus homage. Please note the order in which the Magi approach Jesus. First, they worship baby Jesus, it is only after they give the gift of themselves that the Wise Men present the Holy Family with material gifts.

With the help of a dream, the three kings knew better than to trust Herod’s lies. They avoided the land of Herod the Great – who was only great in his own mind, after all. Their encounter with Jesus convinced them to reject Herod’s lies and return home by another way and journey on a new path.

The word epiphany literally means revealing, like removing a veil that covers something. Epiphany fulfills Advent’s promise that, “All flesh shall see the salvation of God,” and that “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.” If you think about it, everything in our faith celebrates Epiphany. No matter what goes on around us, Jesus is the light in any kind of darkness the world throws at us.

Christ tells us to look for his face among the poor and the outcast, the powerless and the forgotten. Christ shames the arrogant and serves the down and out, and calls us to do the same.  We might be fresh out of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but we can still bring others the gift of God’s love and grace.

Not everyone can hear the story of Jesus in the same way. Some need it told in unexpected ways. The important thing to remember is that, like our little giraffe, the best and truest thing we bring to the manger is the gift of ourselves, just as we are.

Amen.