Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Second Sunday after Christmas – January 2, 2011
You may have heard this one before, but it’s worth repeating: If the wise men had been women, they would have stopped and asked for directions, gotten there on time, cleaned up the stable and put down fresh straw, brought practical gifts, and made a casserole!
On this Second Sunday after Christmas we hear Matthew’s version of the Nativity account—a very different kind of Christmas story. It lacks the romantic details of the story we hear on Christmas Eve and, instead, we are told of the mysterious star, an ancient prophecy, an evil villain, an intriguing plot, and a predictive dream. The twelve verses in the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel do not give great detail so why not imagine what would have happened had they been women?
Yes, we typically think of “Three Wise Men,” the “Three Kings” about which we sing in the familiar carol, yet Matthew never put a number into the story. There may have been two, four, or a hundred of them. Nor did the evangelist name them and it was left to the poet Longfellow to do so giving us Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar.
A wag once said that nothing packs up and gets out of town faster than the Christmas spirit—except the circus. Just think about how abruptly those Christmas carols on the radio and in the mall came to a halt on December 26. Similarly, the story of the visitation of the wise men represents an abrupt shift in the mood of Christmastide and ushers in an element of terror and danger for the newborn Messiah and his parents.
Christmas cards don’t portray the massacre of the innocents ordered by the wicked and depraved king Herod nor is much attention given to December 28, the day given over to their memory, but one of the things we learn from the earliest days in the life of Jesus is that suffering and atrocities were a part of them just as were the joyful aspects of shepherds in the fields and a chorus of singing angels.
In our day we have known the likes of people in power just like Herod who was responsible for the slaughter of every boy child under the age of two—completely in character for someone who also killed two brothers-in-law, his own wife, and two of his sons. Five days before his death he ordered the arrest of many citizens and decreed that they be executed on the day of his death to guarantee an atmosphere of mourning. The political climate at the time of the birth of Jesus mirrored that of Russia in the 1930’s or Hitler’s Third Reich.
What is important for us to recognize in all of this is that Jesus and his parents were refugees. They lived in a time of terror and he spent his infancy hidden away in various places that God’s angel assured would keep them all safe from the ravages of Herod and later his son. I wonder if we aren’t all—at least at some point in our lives—refugees; persons in exile trying to escape from what we perceive as something that can hurt us or, at least, scare us? Like Mary, Joseph, and their infant son, don’t we seek the providence of God to watch over us and bring us to a safe place—if not an actual location, a state of emotional, physical, and spiritual shelter?
It does not take us too long on our life journey to discover the truth about our human frailty and vulnerability, that “Herods” do, indeed, exist—inside us, as well as outside of us.
What the story of the wise men can teach us is just how radically outside the box our gracious God can operate. They are called magi—that is magicians- and were not only involved with watching stars but in making astrological predictions, reading omens, maybe even telling fortunes. Some think the gifts they brought were things they used in their incantations. They were well read and well bred but they were not Jews, had no affiliation with that religion, dealt in alchemy and magic, and may well have been agnostic.
Here we have a profound example of God’s God’s invitation, God’s welcome, God’s grace extended to the outsider—even the non-believer—to follow a star or a dream, to begin an adventure that might change their lives.
Who are we in this story? Are we the magi—seeking something that will take us on a strangely wonderful journey? Are we the king—fearful of loosing something if we dare risk giving up what we can control? Are we Joseph—dreaming our way to a safe place? Or are we like Jesus—innocently unaware of the danger in living but comforted by the caring and strength of those who watch out for us?
I suspect we’ve been cast in each one of these roles and will continue to be through the rest of our lives. Like all of these, and many more of our ancestors in the faith, we are blessed with what we might call a “holy rendezvous,”—the rhythm of God’s coming to us when we most need that visitation, coming to us at that sacred intersection—the path into Egypt and out of Egypt—that leads us, if we allow ourselves to trust, even to risk what we never thought we would risk, to follow the star given to guide us—that leads us smack into the presence of God when we least expect it.