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Based on the Scripture readings:
Isaiah 60:1-6
Matthew 2:1-12

2010 January 3
Second Sunday after Christmas
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

Following the Magi

When we look deeply, it is true that the poetry and the narrative in the Bible offer as much drama, as much intrigue, as much wisdom, pathos, stimulation, love, and power as anything any other medium ever has -- from Hollywood to canvas or paperback. The stories in our scriptures are amazing, probably because even when they are parables -- and Jesus made up a lot of parables -- even then, they are true. And true stories, God's true stories, are life-giving to a world hungry for real life.

But over the centuries we've turned stories like Epiphany into liturgical footnotes or late scenes in a Christmas pageant. We don't plumb their depth. Which is not fair, because at least three of the dimensions of Epiphany can ignite our lives with horror, hope, and heaven.

So explore this story today. Ponder the story of Herod, the path of the Magi, and the power of divine dreams. Examine them to seek your new life.

First, we need some context and even a theological palate cleanser to move from Luke -- where we've been -- to Matthew. Here's a basic primer.

Through Advent and Christmas we read Luke, which is glorious. But in comparison to Luke, Matthew has no story of a journey to Bethlehem, no story of Jesus' birth or swaddling cloths, no story of angels singing nor any of a shepherd's visit. There is no story of Jesus' circumcision, nor any about meeting the prophets Simeon and Anna for their blessing. Bracket all of that. Here, instead of poor people sleeping in a manger, Jesus' family has a house in Bethlehem, and instead of Mary and the Holy Spirit getting most of the attention, Joseph and Herod star in this account. Leave Luke's Christmas pageant now to understand Matthew's premise.

For Matthew has a simple program to affirm two truths: Jesus is the Son of David, and Jesus is the new Moses. His narrative follows five dreams and five prophecies as a blunt, obvious comparison to Moses' story in the five scrolls of the Pentateuch. As at Moses' birth, an evil ruler is threatened, he seeks to kill all infants under a certain age, and yet the vulnerable, chosen child survives.* As at Moses' birth, Back to top something new is growing from something old.

That's the context.

Now, which character do you want to play? The three choices for today are horrible, hopeful, and heavenly: Herod, the Magi, and Joseph. Unlike Luke, there are no female leads. But when we peel open this story, we expose the light of Epiphany.

First, where can you find a character more disturbing than Herod? He killed members of his own family, wives and children, to maintain power. The Gospel says he was willing to kill all the male babies under the age of two all across town so there were no other threats to his throne. Yet, and what a yet, he was able to entertain the most brilliant intellectuals of his day and engage them in conversation, expressing hospitality and wonder at the promised world. He could employ the finest Biblical scholars and celebrate the role of his city, Jerusalem, in the history of promise and joy. He voiced his desire to worship God.

Fred Craddock writes that just after Christmas, Herod reveals the fundamental hostility toward Jesus and the Gospel from the political establishment. Herod shows the power of the sword of government against the innocent in order to preserve entrenched power. He shows the behavior of the city toward rural people. To whom can you compare him? Who in the modern world? Who in fiction? There is only one comparison, and that is Pharaoh. And that of Pharaoh yet alive.

When I read this story I don't compare myself to Herod or to Joseph. But I am like the Magi. And let me tell you why that is not a proud claim. I don't have the gold. I don't have the spices. There were not royalty originally -- not until the sixth century -- and neither am I. But I love to travel. I love cross-cultural travel, and I am pretty catholic, with a small "c," pretty universal in my sense of God's love. But the reason I identify with them is much more embarrassing.

The Magi, and a good translation is "sages," were intellectuals. They believed in the power of their graduate education. It is wrong to call them astrologers, although they did trust that star. They were followers of the scriptures, to be sure. And fundamentally they were folks who believed in the new creation, believed in the hope of all nations, believed in God, and studied and strived and followed and risked, and then they got it wrong. They got it wrong, as Walter Brueggemann says, by nine miles. After all their degrees, all their work, all their commitment and investment and pursuit, they ended up looking for a king in Jerusalem instead of Bethlehem. They missed by nine long miles. And why? For good reasons. Isaiah says that the glorious city of Jerusalem will be rebuilt after its ruin and will draw the wealth of nations and the respect of all. So they went there. But God chose, instead of the seat of power, history, religion, and praise, a small rural town to the south with nothing much to commend it except the shepherd king, long ago. So the Magi were wrong in their conclusions. It was as though they ended up somewhere between Norwood and Canton instead of Newton Highlands. All they had going for them Back to top didn't conclusively lead them to God. Very embarrassing.

So I speculate about their ride, camelback, from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. For us it is a well known part of the pageant. For them it was hours of entirely re-examining their fundamental assumptions and conclusions. Nine miles was a long distance then, and the difference between Jerusalem and Bethlehem was sublime versus ridiculous.

What was that ride like? Did they get how they hadn't previously gotten it? Do I? Did they go home by another road because they were afraid of Herod or themselves? Had they lost their sense of direction or finally found it? Even when they were certain, did God have something new to show them? Epiphany says so. And I identify with the Magi.

I'm going to have to save the third bit for next week. The third bit of Epiphany is how it is influenced by dreams. How the whole story keeps changing due to dreams. Five of them. Joseph's dream that it is good to stay with Mary, the Magi's dream to travel a new way, then Joseph is led to hide in Egypt, to return to Israel, and finally to move to Nazareth, all in a series of dreams. Which is part of Epiphany's light. I can't explain all that right now.

But I know this:

We live in a world where the powerful are often willing to do anything to keep power. We live in a world where the practice of government often represses the poor. Where the sword is close at hand. Even though its handlers entertain and engage us with hospitable conversation and study groups. And the best of us, the most well-versed and educated and committed, often miss in our analysis. When we're lucky, we get long rides to ponder and pray over what God might put in front of us. And if we're fortunate, we get to change our direction and even receive the depth of God's dream, instead of Pharaoh's. If we're fortunate we get to renew our course and renew our life.

Which is what a New Year offers. It's what Communion offers. It's what an epiphany offers: not magic, but strength for the journey, insight for the direction, and commitment and courage to try something new that is actually something old, given by God, and true enough to deliver new life. Back to top Which is why I'll talk about God's dreams next week. Amen.


*These ideas are developed very helpfully in the book, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus' Birth, by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. (HarperOne).

Copyright © 2010 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.
http://www.nhcc.net/sermons/Sermon20100103.htm

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