But there is also another element to this story that often gets lost in the shuffle when we think of the magi, and that’s the note of fear and opposition that Jesus’ birth brings right from the start.
Message by Rev. Jenny Carter, January 7, 2018
(Based on Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12)
There are two ways to tell the story of the three-kings, one shaped for the ears, hearts, and minds of our children, and one better suited to adults. Given how infrequently Epiphany falls on a Sunday, it’s probably wise to share at least a little bit of each this week.
Truth be told, we’re all more comfortable with the message for the kids, as it’s the one we all grew up hearing. This is the story of three kings who came from afar bearing gifts for the newborn king. There’s a wonder and magic about this story of wondering magi led to Jesus from the distant East by a star. It testifies to the far-reaching – indeed, global and cosmic! – implications of Jesus’ birth. Even more, it witnesses to God’s commitment to reach all the world with news of God’s redeeming love. It is a story that shows God’s embrace is bigger than just us – it involves all people, in all times, and in all places.
We love this story – which adults needs to hear again as well – in part because of the mystery these three distant and somewhat exotic guests introduce into the story, and in part because of the “exactly right gifts” of gold, frankincense and myrrh – two gifts traditionally given as gifts to a newly crowned king, and one gift used for burial – so they were especially appropriate for Jesus – considering how his story was going to play out.
These kings, and the gifts they gave, is why we exchange gifts at Christmas. It has also led to the wonderful Christmas carol “We Three Kings” and “spin-off” carols and stories like that of “The Little Drummer Boy” (which isn’t a bad take, when you think about it, as it draws attention to the fact that we all have something to give.)
And so a sermon on this week’s gospel story could easily focus our attention on the gifts of the kings and invite us to think about what gifts we might offer as well. What talents, interests, or passions might we see as gifts from God that we now can offer to Jesus by giving them to those all around us and especially to those in need? We all have something to give – and when we give from a place of thankfulness, faith and passion for life, whatever it is we give, it is always the perfect gift. And our giving of them is what makes life – our life, the life of others, and the life of the world – better.
This truth of giving is something that both our youth and our adults need to hear. But there is also another element to this story that often gets lost in the shuffle when we think of the magi, and that’s the note of fear and opposition that Jesus’ birth brings right from the start. Herod, after all, does not greet the news of a newborn king with joy, nor does he search for the perfect gift to present to the messiah. He never burdens himself with thinking about what his God given gifts and talents are, and how that might make the world better. Rather, he is afraid. And not just Herod, but “all Jerusalem with him” is afraid.
Why? Perhaps it is because the one thing the powerful seek more than anything else is to remain in power. Gone from Herod and his court is any notion of the kind of servant leadership prescribed and required by Israel’s prophets. Gone is the memory that God placed them in their positions to serve rather than be served. Herod seeks his own ends and so is immediately threatened by even the mere mention of another – and therefore rival – king.
But perhaps it’s also simply that the presence of these three magi and their quest for God’s messiah announce that the world is changing, that God is approaching, and that nothing can remain the same in the presence of God’s messiah. The arrival of these wondering astrologers signals that the reach of God’s embrace is broadening considerably, that there is no longer “insider” and “outsider,” but that all are included in God’s plan for salvation.
This isn’t a new theme in Judaism, as from the very beginning of the story God promises to bless Abraham that he may, in turn, be a blessing for the world. But now it is happening – all distinctions between people of different ethnicities and religions is dissolving. All are becoming one in Christ, and who knows what may change next.
Whatever its’ various causes, fear is a powerful thing. In response to their fear, Herod, along with the chief priests and scribes, conspire to find the Messiah and kill him while he is still a child. They will not succeed this time, but much later in the story there will again be an unholy alliance between the political and religious leaders of the day who will not only conspire against Jesus but this time capture and crucify him.
And what about us? Personally speaking, as individuals, what does fear do to us? Do we install more security systems in our homes and cars? Do we build more walls? Do we save even more for retirement, pulling back from charitable contributions to make sure we have enough? Do we close our hearts – and minds – to those who are different? Do we keep words of forgiveness or love unspoken, so that we don’t risk being thought foolish? Truth is, we all are afraid of something – and fear is a powerful thing and will rule our hearts and lives if we give in to it.
To be clear, fear can be helpful. If you’re walking in the woods and you meet a bear, fear will save your life. But so much of what we are fearful about is not examined, or even named. We just have this uncomfortable feeling and we react out of that generalized feeling of fear. That is what holds us captive. That is what diminishes our life. So, we need to examine our fears. What we may find is that many of our fears are unfounded – and so we can let them go. For the ones that remain, facing them head on with the help of those around us – a gospel way of living by the way – can do a lot to diminish our fears. Sharing and seeking support from family and friends – including our church family – makes us more resilient to the shadows fear casts in our lives, and more able to embrace the wide vision of new life that the Messiah’s birth has gifted us with.
As important as a personal examination of fear is to a life of faith, the story of the Magi is not a personal story, it is a collective story. It is meant for communities – for the gathering of people of faith as they exist in an imperfect, often harsh world, and where they worry and are fearful about their collective lives, and wonder where God is in all of the mess.
Over the last decade, I have seen this particular fear alive and well in all circles of the church. Not just the United Church, but all churches. As communities of faith, we are afraid. We are afraid of further decline. We are afraid that our churches will close. We are afraid to rock the boat, thinking it best to hold on tight to what we have, in an attempt to not lose anything more. I get this fear. I understand it because it is a fear I have had to battle for those same ten years. So, what to do? How do we move beyond this fear?
The star and the magi have already lead us to a place where we might begin to find an answer. Our gospel story tells us, that the presence of these three magi and their quest for God’s messiah announce that the world is changing, that God is approaching, and that nothing can remain the same in the presence of God’s messiah. That with the birth of Jesus, God is simply continuing the ever widening circles of grace and love, extended beyond a particular time, a particular culture, and a particular religion. Further, this story reminds us that this is good news!
There is no doubt that we live in interesting times as a church. What was once “a for sure” has become a question mark. Yet we need to remember that the birth of Jesus began a process of change and ever widening circles of love and grace that we simply have inherited. We are being called into the world, and into the lives of individuals, in a new way. Or should I say, “a new, very old way.” We don’t have to be afraid of the time in which we are living, we can embrace it, explore it, and see how we might join God in the work of love and grace that is all around us – even, and perhaps most especially in the times in which we are living.
The message of the magi is simply this: God’s embrace is wider than we can imagine. God embraces our fears, our joys, our missteps, our generosity, our miserly times, and our times of courage – as individuals and as a community. God is already at work in the world, furthering a process of ever widening concern for justice, love, and peace. We can let our fears hold us back, or we can run headlong into the unfolding of God’s grace in the world. I, personally, opt for the running headlong.