Following the Star

  Matthew 2:1–23 January 3, 2021    

Years ago, I was struck by the warning to those of us who were preparing to spend time with our Presbyterian partners in Guatemala.  We were cautioned NOT to travel with our hands full of gifts.  When visitors from any well-resourced community visit a poorly resourced community anywhere, it is always tempting to bring gifts.  Gifts of food, money, tools, computer equipment, ink cartridges and on and on.  Arriving with our hands full creates problems right away.  

First, when our hands are full, we really have no way to reach out and receive the warm greeting of a handshake or a hug from our hosts.  We miss out on developing a mutual relationship between brothers and sisters in Christ when we are too focused on sharing our material gifts of superior quality and quantity.

Second, when our hands are full, we can embarrass our hosts who can not reciprocate.

Third, when our hands are full, we create a relationship of dependence and encourage the expectation that we will be a continual fount of supplies.  No, we were told, it is much wiser and much healthier to travel with empty hands, to be able to joyfully greet and hug your hosts (pre or post COVID, of course), to walk hand in hand with your hosts so they can show off their community, and to freely build or strengthen your relationship with one another.

The wise men (and women, perhaps) who came to Bethlehem in search of the king were studiers of the sky.  They were Gentiles, non-Jews, outsiders.  Today we might call their type pagan astrologers.  They knew the star they saw was inviting them to come and meet the king of all kings.  Neither the distance nor the difficulty of the trip deterred them.  Cost was no object.  They packed up the kinds of valuable treasures available to them—gold, frankincense, and myrrh– and followed the star to the place where Jesus was.  Their hands were full but take note of their actions upon arrival.  BEFORE they offered their treasures, they knelt and paid him homage.  They worshiped him.  They recognized this king for who he was and went to their knees in awe, gratitude, and praise.  Only then did they open their treasures and offer the gifts they had brought as symbols of their devotion and awe.

You see, worship had been their whole purpose in coming to Bethlehem.  Something about this king drew them from afar to worship the new king of the Jews, and they knew it was not Herod of Jerusalem.  They told Herod that they had seen the star of the king of the Jews at its rising, and that their purpose was to come and pay him homage.  We have already been reminded this Christmas season how the presence of this child was divinely revealed through angels to shepherds.  Now a star has revealed to outsiders the presence of this child.  Herod felt threatened.  Of course he does not want anyone else to receive homage other than himself.  He wants no other contenders for the seat of power.  And it is Herod, Herod himself, who identifies this divinely revealed child as the Messiah the Jews had been waiting for.  It is this Messiah who will be a ruler, one to shepherd God’s people.  It is usually unnerving to a person in power to find out that their control and authority is eroding due to the arrival of a new leader.  We have been watching that unfold in our news in the last weeks, haven’t we?  Herod makes it appear like he also wants to pay homage to this new king, but anyone in earshot would have known he was lying through his teeth.  As soon as he finds out when the star first appeared, Herod is already devising a wicked, bloody plan to kill any children under two in all of Bethlehem just because they might be his potential replacement some day. 

It becomes abundantly clear that no one in this story is indifferent to the arrival of this child.  Every player is changed in some way due to his arrival.  The people of Jerusalem show just how in step they are with the Roman government as they express fear at the birth announcement because Herod expresses fear.  The chief priests and the scribes, Herod’s own “wise men”, know that the prophet Micah has spoken about a ruler coming out of Bethlehem, a ruler who would shepherd God’s people Israel.  Could they have been just a little bit excited to hear that God’s long-awaited promise found in the prophet’s words might actually be fulfilled? Herod’s response to this child is to crush and destroy due to his fear and his fragile ego.  The angel’s response is to protect and guide Joseph to lead his growing family away from danger into Egypt until they can safely return home.  Joseph’s response is to listen and obey the instructions of the angel.  Remember that he had a dream before Jesus was born as well, and he followed through on that one, creating a family with Mary even though she was already with child.  And the wise men’s response is to be overwhelmed with joy and to worship the king. 

The wise men were warned in a dream to go home by another route, avoiding Herod completely.  Could it be that once they are exposed to this king, to the Christ himself, once they have praised him with their whole selves, kneeling and giving thanks to God, that there is no way to cover the same road again?  From this point on the road will be fresh and new, life will now be seen with different eyes and experienced with different hearts.   

These pagan astrologers have had a conversion experience.  We can only imagine the story they would tell when they did reach their homes!  They found the treasure they were seeking, and that treasure was a child.  Not just any child, but a divinely revealed child worthy of worship and praise.  They had followed a star and now there was a new light of joy in their hearts and understanding in their minds.

I am sure you have seen the Christmas cards or the yard signs that say “Wise men still seek him”.  First of all, I really wish they would say “Wise people still seek him”.  The message I take away from that statement is that those who seek to be in relationship with Jesus are the wise ones, and I am sure that those who use the statement are including themselves among the wise.  This way of thinking limits those who are included as followers of Jesus, and pretty much leaves the rest of the world out in the cold.  It seems to me that the presence of this child is not an exclusive invitation, but a broad invitation to all of us, whether or not we know what or who we are seeking.  Instead of looking for the wise ones, I believe that Jesus is looking for the ones who have minds, hearts and hands open, ready to be in relationship, ready to connect, ready to worship and give thanks. 

As we begin a new year, one that simply HAS to be better than the one just ended, can we come to God with empty hands?  Can we come to God with empty hands, ready to move the boulders of discrimination or prejudice?  Can we come to God with empty hands so we ca reach for the hand of Christ as we make our way around the barricades of troubles or grief which we encounter on the path of life?  Can we come to God with empty hands, ready for an embrace from One who loves without hesitation, no matter who we are or what we have done?  Can we come to God with empty hands, ready to take a piece of bread and a sip of wine as we remember this child who grew up to be a Savior for all the world?  I believe we can.  2021, here we come!

Reflecting the Light: Peace

Dec. 20  Luke 1 : 46-55 

This morning we hone in on the line from Howard Thurman’s Christmas poem: “I will light candles of peace for tempest-tossed days.”  Candles of peace for days that are stormy or filled with upheaval, for days that are chaotic and unsettling, for days that are fear inducing or stressful.  I hope you have been making use of a candle or candles in your home this Advent.  Just lighting a candle changes the atmosphere of the space where you live, work, eat, and relate to others. At our house we often light the purple Advent candles at dinner, this year claiming them as candles of joy, of hope, of courage and of peace. 

Candles of peace.  Could be the literal candles lit at a peace vigil after the killing of one of our neighbors in Baltimore.  Could be the attempts at peacemaking between gangs here at home or between warring factions in Cameroon.  We could very easily turn our attention to peace in our community, peace between nations, peace between neighbors, even peace in your own family.  God knows we need some shalom, or well-being, in many of those areas!

But this morning I invite you to consider peace within instead of peace around us.  I mean peace of mind, peace of heart, peace of spirit.  Peace between you and God as we draw closer to Christmas.  Listen to the words from one of Howard Thurman’s meditations in Meditations of the Heart—  Thurman says: 

“I seek the enlargement of my heart that there may be room for peace.  Already there is enough room for chaos.  But the need of my heart is for room for Peace:  Peace of mind that inspires singleness of purpose; Peace of heart that quiets all fears and uproots all panic; Peace of spirit that filters through all confusions and robs them of their power. These I see NOW.  I know that here in this quietness my life can be infused with Peace.  Therefore, before God, I seek the enlargement of my heart at this moment, that there may be room for Peace.” 

Making room for peace in our hearts during tempest-tossed days is an ongoing challenge for any of us. Peace within could include falling into a restful sleep at night, enjoying quiet times of prayer and reflection during the day, sharing a laugh with a friend or loved one, recognizing that your Christmas celebrations must be adapted but still being committed to celebrating Christmas well, as Scrooge finally did at the end of A Christmas Carol.  Celebrating Christmas well is giving thanks for the birth of our Savior.

I want to lift up Mary as an example of a serious disciple who has found an inner peace even though the circumstances of her motherhood surely raised eyebrows among the nosy neighbors in her village, even in the face of the upheaval her child will bring to the world, reversing the fortunes of the rich and powerful and lifting up the lowly and the hungry, leveling the playing field for all of God’s children.

.  Mary seems to understand her newfound vocation in life, the Christ bearer, or as some will call her, “the mother of God”.  Last week we read earlier in Luke’s gospel that the angel Gabriel informed her (twice) that she was favored by God, not because of anything she had done, but because God chose her for a divine task. In her song she now responds with first praising God and then acknowledging for herself that God has indeed favored her, a young woman of low estate, very likely one of those Thurman refers to as the disinherited.  She is committed to following through on her response to God, allowing God to work through her in an amazing way.  We could say that this is one of the marks of a true disciple—one who is willing to allow God to work through him in ways that he could not do on his own. 

Mary proclaims the profound societal changes that will come about when this child is born, changes that tip the scales toward justice.  And she claims the work of God in the world as if it has already been accomplished, using the past tense all the way through—God has scattered the proud, God has brought down the powerful, God has lifted up the lowly, God has filled the hungry and sent the rich away empty, God has helped Israel, the nation who historically offended God’s holiness and compassion again and again, who violated God’s love and justice with their actions–  Mary signals a reversal of Israel’s fortunes, for God is now showing mercy toward them through the arrival of God’s Son in the flesh.

I wonder if Mary’s pregnancy felt like standing on the edge of a volcano of change that is about to erupt.  Of all people in this birth narrative, Mary knew for sure that this was no ordinary child.  The words of her song echo the words of Hannah, who was barren and prayed to God to open her womb.  Hannah’s story is found in the first chapters of 1 Samuel in the Old Testament—it is a God thing that our group reading through the Bible is reading 1 Samuel right now!  God listened to Hannah’s prayer, opened her womb, and she bore a son, Samuel, who she dedicated to serve the Lord, and who became a key figure in the story of the people of Israel.  Samuel was the prophet-judge who anointed their first human king, Saul.  Hannah’s song also describes the great societal and political reversals in the past tense, affirming yes, they are as good as done:  the bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength; the Lord raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. She begins her song with these words of confidence and trust in God: “There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. “  Mary has the same quiet confidence and trust in God who is guiding this pregnancy and the impact this child will have on the world.  She does not appear to be afraid, but sure.  She appears to have found a peace within her heart, within her spirit, within her mind even though there will be tempest tossed days ahead, even though this birth is going to turn the world upside down. 

In addition to echoing the words of Hannah, Mary’s song also foreshadows the reading that almost gets Jesus thrown off a cliff by his neighbors in Nazareth.  It was his first sermon in his home church.  He reads from the prophet Isaiah the passage about the Lord’s spirit which had anointed him to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.  He could have added a phrase, to provide an inheritance for the disinherited.  Then he tells his listeners: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” His ministry upends things, like the lava from the volcano of change flowing into the community around him, blanketing it with the kingdom of God which he is ushering in. 

In his book, Howard Thurman describes the way people who are disinherited must respond to the ever-present fear of living in a world of violence, threats and control by the privileged and powerful.   He says the way to survive is to cling to the foundational truth that each of us is a child of God.  No one can take that away.  When that status is claimed and celebrated, the tempest-tossed days have no real power.  There is a peace of spirit that filters through all the confusions and robs them of their power.  Each of us is a child of God.  Thurman’s point is that absorbing that truth brings peace within, pushing aside the fears and the tempests of life that surround those who are oppressed, vulnerable, living with constantly scarce resources, disinherited. 

Can we sit with that for a moment?  You are a child of God.  (pause)  Can we learn from Mary about making room in our hearts for peace?  Can we learn from Jesus about living as confident children of God?  Can we find a way to center ourselves in God even on tempest-tossed days?  Let us light the candle of peace, peace for ourselves, peace that comes from trusting that we are indeed beloved children of God, the peace that Christ gives, not the peace that the world gives.  May you enlarge your hearts to make room for that peace.  Peace be with you all.  Amen.