Camels! Spices! Treasure! An Evil King! The mysterious east!
What an incredible narrative! Matthew’s account of the sages from the East who visited Jesus after he was born is one of the most intriguing and exciting stories in the Bible. It captures the imagination and keeps working on us.
It is such a rich and accurate telling of the world into which Jesus Christ was born. It is a world filled with mind boggling contrasts and contradictions:
On the one hand there is the splendor of the star - a brilliant light, visible to the whole world, though noticed by few. One of the central features of the story literally shines, moving through the heavens with divine ease. On the other hand, there is a very ordinary, even humble human family. They live in a tiny town, outside the capital city of an outlying country in a backwater of the Roman Empire. A mother, father, baby. Struggling with ordinary life. That’s one set of contrasts.
Another is the extreme courage and fear that Matthew tells us people have in reaction to this baby’s birth: The wise men bravely set out on a journey to an unknown destination. They face the rigors of a trip (by camel, tradition tells us. The tradition probably arose very early in the church, because of the Psalm we read. And because camels are so darned cute.) The wisemen’s courage makes even more appalling the fear that grips Herod and his powerful political machine when they are questioned about the new born king. They are agitated. They sense a threat to their normal way of doing things. The coming of the Messiah is something they fear, rather than welcome.
There is also in this story the extreme possibilities of the human spirit - beauty and generosity on one hand, brutal cruelty on the other: The wise men are “overcome with joy” when they find the place where Jesus is. They fall down on their knees and worship this child, for they recognize Divinity in the form of a baby boy. They open up their treasure chests, and offer him beautiful, valuable, meaningful gifts. This is the best that human beings are capable of. And, having been warned about Herod, they protect the child by sneaking past the palace, going home by another way.
Herod, on the other hand, shows the other side of human nature: He is, at his core, sneaky, completely focussed on his own well being, and sees the child as an enemy to be eliminated. He promises what he knows is good - to go and worship himself - but instead he attempts to use the good intentions of the wise men to the most cruel and brutal ends. And when he does not succeed, Herod does not hesitate to slaughter all the babies and toddlers in Bethlehem. Slaughter of innocents is evil at its worst. See, terrorism and “collateral damage” are nothing new. Jesus entered our world, in all its glory and brutality.
Joy and sorrow are part of Jesus’ story from the very beginning.
And he became, for our sakes, a participant in it all - the great joy of the wisemen and the heart rending grief of the families whose children were murdered by the evil king. When we read this story, we are reminded that Jesus has only temporarily escaped. He, too, will be a victim of vicious, treacherous human hearts.
This is the world into which Christ came. And this is the world in which we live. It is a world of beauty and awe and splendor. And a world of cruelty and horror we wish we could block out. It is a world in which God moves for our good, and evil pushes back in ugly ways. It is a world both mysterious and precious - not only to us - but precious to God. Loved by God.
What do we do to respond to the contrasts and contradictions, the hopes and heartaches of this God beloved world?
And the Wisemen offered the unmistakable perfect response - they wondered, they rejoiced, they worshipped, they gave and they let God change their plans. They went a new way. They traveled a different road.
That’s what an encounter with the Christ makes us want to do, too. Especially coupled with the beginning of a new year - a new decade this time - there is the desire to change our path and make a new plan.
I wrote in the newsletter that I’d like to encourage you to make one new year’s resolution that would represent a change for the better in your spiritual life. To resolve to pray more. It would be good for each of us as individuals, and I am confident that it would strengthen this congregation.
But you can’t make other people’s resolutions for them. So I just want to ask you to consider it. And next week, if you choose, there will be an opportunity for you to record IF you resolve to grow your prayer life in the year to come.
For right now, I’d just like to invite you to come to this table as the wisemen came to Jesus’ cradle in Bethlehem.
To find in this humble place, the splendor that lights up the world.
To be strengthened by encountering Christ to live with courage instead of from fear.
To respond with generosity rather than cruelty.
And to know that both your highest joy and your deepest grief are shared by our crucified and risen Lord.
This is his table. Let us gather our hearts around it as we sing “Love Divine”