Sermon; 2nd Sunday after Christmas Day; Matthew 2:1-12
Merry Christmas, everyone.
Today is the 9th Day of Christmas, and the Second Sunday after Christmas Day. The lectionary gives us three options for gospel readings today: one from Matthew telling of the Holy Family's flight to Egypt, one from Luke telling of 12-year old Jesus in the temple, and another one from Matthew detailing the arrival of the wise men with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Because the Feast of the Epiphany almost always falls on a weekday, I opt for the third choice so that we can at least see the wise men arrive with their gifts. With that said, can I have a few people move the wise men from where they are now over to Mary and Jesus symbolizing their arrival? Thank you.
As I said and as you heard, today we hear of wise men from the East who saw the star at Jesus' birth and traveled to Jerusalem to pay him homage. We hear them being told that the new king will be born in Bethlehem, not Jerusalem. We hear of Herod, feigning interest and humbleness, but know that he is plotting to destroy the child. We hear of the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We hear of angelic warnings and secret getaways. And if we pair that with what follows, we would also hear of the Holy Family's midnight run to Egypt, of the slaughter of the innocents on the orders of an enraged Herod, and, eventually, of the family's return to Nazareth.
The story of the Nativity in Matthew is much less peaceful than in Luke. It reflects violent times and drastic measures. Maybe that's why, for me, Matthew's Nativity story is more fitting for our times.
No, we don't live under a tyrannical ruler like Herod, but we are familiar with them – people like Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, Pinochet, and so many others who would stop at nothing to maintain their power, including the killing of their own citizens. We can understand that the desire to hold onto power is greater than the willingness to step back for the sake of the common good. Or maybe I should say that the fear of losing power is greater than the willingness to do the right thing.
We are also familiar with people who feign humility and friendship but have evil intentions in mind. Serial killers and scammers are at the top of that list. Books and movies are filled with characters who originally appear good only to become the villain. I'm willing to bet that we've all been the victim of this behavior at one time or another. What is depicted in Matthew can seem all too familiar. From dealing with duplicitous behavior to watching the slaughter of our own innocent children in schools across the country to living in a world where refugees are running for their lives, Matthew's Nativity story hits a little too close to home.
In this story of betrayal, midnight escapes, and murder, wise men from the East suddenly appear. They were people actively looking for a sign from the heavens for the hoped-for ruler. They found that sign in a star. Whether that star was a comet, or a super nova, or an alignment of the planets doesn't much matter. What matters is that they were looking for a sign and saw it. It was this sign of the star that led the wise men to seek the new king, pay him homage, and offer their finest gifts.
As with most stories from Scripture there are any number of things which we can focus on. What I want to focus on today is the wise men recognizing the sign and their willingness to follow that sign.
The wise men were looking for a sign that pointed to the birth of a new king. What signs do we encounter that point us to Jesus and God? And no, I'm not talking about praying for, and finding, an empty spot in a crowded parking lot. Maybe it's hearing of a good deed, or a phone call at the right time, or hearing a baby's laugh. A priest on my Twitter time line posted up an encounter he had at a Starbucks with a Muslim barista. In short, she wished him a Merry Christmas, he wished her Happy Holidays, and neither of them resented the other. Maybe it's the ability to respect our differences. Maybe it's the ability to sit in silence, or maybe it's worshiping in a holy place. The signs of God are all around us if, like the wise men, we open our eyes and are willing to look for them.
Once we begin to look for the signs of God, we can begin to see them in unexpected places. The more we look, the more we find. We find signs of God in relationships. We find signs of God in community. We find signs of God in acts of compassion. These signs will hopefully lead us to finding God present in a world filled with betrayal, murder, and other acts of violence.
The wise men were looking for a sign from heaven and found it in the star. That sign led them to find the embodiment of God in the person of the infant Jesus. That sign led them to offer their finest gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh: gold representing our earthly treasure, frankincense representing our prayers and spiritual practices, and myrrh representing our bodies. While the embodiment of God was present in the person of the infant Jesus, these gifts weren't offered to him as he sat upon his throne in the temple of the new Jerusalem as it appeared coming down from heaven, nor were they offered to him at a time when all of civilization was peaceful and prosperous. These gifts of theirs were offed in a time of poverty, a time of political strife, and a time of violence.
This sounds a lot like today – poverty, political unrest, and violence are regular occurrences on the daily news. So if the wise men could offer their gifts to Christ in those uncertain times, what is to keep us from offering our own gifts to the Lord in our own uncertain times?
As we look for signs of love and compassion, can we not find ways to finance that kind of outreach? As we search for signs of God living among us, can we not make worship a priority and pray for God to be manifest in our lives? As we seek God in a troubled and broken world, can we not use our bodies to be physically present with others?
The story of the wise men reminds us that humanity is far from perfect. It's a story of lies, deceit, treachery, murder, and fear. But it's also the story of finding God in all of that. It's the story of people willing to find God in the chaos of human events. It's the story of people seeking and finding God in unexpected places.
The Nativity story from the Gospel of Luke is beautiful, no doubt about it. I mean, who doesn't love pageants with cute little sheep, adorable baby Jesus', choirs of angels from on high, and Linus closing it all out by saying, “And that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” But it's the story from Matthew – the story of a long search in the middle of chaos – that lets us place this ancient story within the midst of our own lives.
Now, like then, there are a myriad of problems in the world around us; but let us not despair. Instead, let us continue to seek and serve Christ in all aspects of our life, in good times and in bad. And hopefully our faithful living and our devotion to our Lord in the midst of this chaotic world will be a sign to others so that they, too, will come and lay their gifts before the King.