What the Light Reveals

Posted by secondchurch on January - 30 - 2019

As you know, today is the twelfth day of Christmas – the day when one’s true love gave twelve drummers drumming. It already feels as if Christmas is long past, what with the  fiscal year end and the chore of putting away all the Christmas decorations. But in ancient Christian traditions, Christmas was celebrated after Christmas, not before. Epiphany, which actually means the manifestation of God, became the day when the Church celebrated the arrival of the magi from the east, which was a much bigger deal than we make of it today. A star guided the way for three scholar-astrologer-kings from the east, which meant Persia, which is now called Iran. Matthew was telling an even more ancient tale that came from the Zoroastrian tradition – a far eastern religion of Persia, that Matthew’s first readers would have known. In that story, kings brought gifts to new kings that were intended to ease the way of the new king through death to eternity. That’s why the gifts seem so strange – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – all gifts that are symbols of death. It would be like giving a beautiful casket and funeral shroud to a newborn.

It’s all pretty strange when you think about it. Matthew, who, you remember, wrote his version of the life of Jesus long after Jesus’ death, was trying to convince his fellow Jews that it was ok to believe that this person Jesus, for whom they were being tortured and killed, was really the Messiah. So, Matthew wove all kinds of ancient stories and Hebrew sayings into his gospel account. And he added little vignettes – like this visit from Iranian kings who were savvy about the Jewish king Herod’s jealousy; and that whole story of how Herod had every boy child under the age of two murdered so as to be sure to eliminate any competition Jesus might be – the slaughter of the innocents; and how Joseph took his family into Egypt and then out again, reminding his listeners of the story of their ancestors, the Israelites who went into Egypt but then were led out again in fulfillment of God’s promise “out of Egypt I have called my servant”.

Matthew illustrated the costly clash between God’s reign represented by Jesus’ birth, a humble reign of love ordained and sustained by God, and the kingdom of Herod, a reign of tyranny and terror. It is a story of darkness and light, playing against each other, in the way the stars in the heavens play with the darkness that can’t quite defeat them. And there was one bright star – so bright that it led the way to the manger. It is a great story – all the birth stories are great stories – Luke’s angels and shepherds, Matthew’s traveling astronomers and the jealous, temper-tantruming Herod, even John’s pre-existing Word, that real but ephemeral thing that became tangible in flesh and blood, a person who lived among us, full of grace and truth – they are great stories, powerful and rich with meaning. They teach us so much, as great stories do, about human nature and political corruption, and nationalism, and trust and genuine leadership and the best and worst of our human nature, and God. They teach us a lot about God.

We all have a little trouble understanding God, who God is, how God acts, what God wants of us. Many years ago, while leading a retreat about prayer, I asked the participants to name just one basic belief they held close to their hearts, one fundamental faith claim they knew to be true for them. It was my intent to help them build a prayer life using that one foundational faith-statement as a cornerstone. After some quiet, the participants were asked to tell the rest of us that one true thing. It was hard for many of them. It made them self-conscious, even embarrassed. They were part of an extremely progressive Christian church and it was the first time they had been asked to say, out loud, something they simply believed. One participant said, why don’t you just ask us to take our clothes off and spend the rest of the evening sitting on these cold, metal folding chairs in our underwear – that would be easier! But I’m patient when it comes to helping people face up to their faith and their doubts, so eventually, they each began to speak their tentative but hope-filled faith claims. When we had come around the circle, and I began to move on, one of the participants asked me to do what they had each just done – to confess one core, foundational belief of my own. OK, I said. It’s this: I believe God is accessible. I believed it then. I believe it even more now.

Howard Thurman said that Jesus Christ is the for instance of the mind of God. Or, to put it in a less poetic way – Jesus Christ has given us access to God. Not through magical methods of communication, audible voices or messages delivered through electrically charged impulses from the heavens. And not as an intermediary in that fortune-teller manner of a medium who communicates with the world of spirits. Jesus Christ does not give us access to God by making it possible to escape the anxieties of life, the struggles, trials, the long periods of mediocrity punctuated by moments of emotion, the hours, days, and years of labor which feel void of meaning or purpose. Jesus Christ does not relieve us of personal responsibility for our decisions, our actions, our mistakes, our accountability our responsibilities. By knowing the life we know, by having been born and dependent upon others, as babies are, by having learned to read and make decisions, by having been disappointed in the failures of companions and angered by the dishonesty of religious institutions, by having felt a breeze on his skin, the relief that comes with sleep, the refreshment of water, the sharp taste of wine and the nourishment of bread, by having been a human being, Jesus Christ has given us access to God. That’s what Howard Thurman meant when he said that Jesus Christ is the for instance of the mind of God. That’s what the star revealed. That’s what the astrologers from Iran found when they came to the house where Mary, Joseph and the baby were. They found God’s for instance. Amen.

Matthew 2:1-12
A sermon preached at The Second Church in Newton UCC January 6, 2019
Carla J. Bailey

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