A Sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Christmas
Year A – 5 January 2014
John Edward Miller, Rector
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. – Matthew 2:1-12
O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Every Christmas Eve there are many compelling moments in the children’s service of lessons and carols, known to most young parents as “the pageant.” This service presents the story of the Nativity enacted by children. Perhaps that is why it is so moving – young people retelling the sacred narrative, singing the carols, and bringing the ancient scenes to life in miniature. We can see our tradition being passed to successive generations, each of which has fresh eyes and ears, thoughts and voices. And even though there are small glitches and nuances sprinkled into each year’s drama, we love every one, and savor the next edition.
Today’s gospel calls attention to one portion of the Nativity that features the adoration of the Christ child by the wise men. As we do in the pageant, we just sang the carol, “We three kings from Orient are.” When the carol is played, we see in our mind’s eye the three elaborately dressed, small magi processing one by one toward the manger. They bear gifts for the infant Jesus, and they lay them by his makeshift bed. This scene is powerful because it is a scene of recognition. The children get this message even though it is subtle and profound. The wise men know something about Jesus; they perceive a truth that has power to change the world. It is our challenge to receive it, and live it as adults.
Matthew’s story tells us that the wise men had traveled a great distance to search for the newborn king of the Jews. They had made their trek without the aid of maps or charts or a GPS. The eastern sages relied on another type of direction finder. They were used to looking to the night sky for astronomical portents, and they had found one – an unusually bright star that beckoned them westward towardJudea. Convinced that this was a beacon calling them toward the blessed event, they set out on their momentous journey.
The quest of the magi was to locate the Jewish messiah, a much-heralded leader sent by the God of the Jews to save their people. The wise men were fascinated by this concept, and even though they were Gentile foreigners, they desired to see for themselves what kind of king had been sent by the Jewish deity. Who knows what they expected to find? It was customary to offer gifts as tribute to a king – newborn or not. So these emissaries from another culture – perhaps ancientPersia– brought with them in treasure chests three things fit for a king: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These gifts were rarities; they were precious items suitable for a precious child – the long-awaited messianic king. Popular legend had it that he would be the second coming of the great King David, whose monarchy marked the Golden Age of the Jewish culture. He would be a charismatic leader who would rescue Judea from the Roman army of occupation and restore the fortunes of the nation.
However, the infant they encountered was no King David. His little life was strikingly ordinary, and his immediate circumstances, which composed the scene of his nativity, were even less impressive than those supporting most Jewish children. The wise men had walked into a startling place of birth for a king. Perhaps it was his modest mother and her working-class fiancé, or the unusual surroundings that tipped them off. The baby was ensconced in a stable, surrounded by bins of animal feed, and he himself was lying in a manger, which normally served as a feeding trough for the oxen and asses who were now his stable mates. The visitors sniffed the aromas, took in the sights and sounds of a stable, and watched where they stepped, and knelt, to pay homage to this unusual king, who was clearly not royal by any measure. Here was a child born with straw, but no silver spoon, in his mouth. His lack of social advantage and hierarchical prestige made his prospects seem dim.
It appeared to them that Herod had nothing to worry about. The wise men noticed the look of concern that disfigured Herod’s face when they announced their mission to find the new king. He was a puppet ruler, but he considered himself a king. Sitting on his throne in Jerusalem, paid well by the Romans to keep peace among the Jewish people while the empire made off with their resources and crushed their spirit, Herod enjoyed the status quo. He was not about to let any infant ruin his sweet deal. So he sent the magi to Bethlehem, David’s native town and where the prophets said the messiah would also be born, to do some reconnaissance and report the child’s whereabouts. The eastern sages were wise, not dummies. It is likely that they recognized Herod as the jealous phony that he was. However, at first glance, the baby Jesus appeared no threat to anyone, much less a stooge backed up by the Roman army.
In their scholarly way the wise men were sophisticated. They had done the research, and read the Jewish scriptures. They understood the idea of David being a deity’s choice as a king, and why the people would hope that their messiah would be like him – robust, shrewd, ambitious, and cultured. As they knelt and gazed at the baby Jesus, his peasant family, and the conditions of that stable, they could have decided that the whole situation was preposterous, or a joke, or a colossal mistake. And they could have excused themselves from that simple scene, packed up their treasures, and bolted back to Herod saying that the whole idea was ridiculous, or that their predictions were wrong. “Nope, false alarm; maybe another time” could have been their cynical report.
But, thank God, that is not what happened. Not only did they not dismiss the baby as hardly the kingly type, but they also did not go back to Herod. Instead, they left him in the dark as to the infant’s whereabouts, and they headed home incognito, pondering what they had seen, and recognized. Their response was full of grace and wisdom. But more than that, it was pivotal for those who embraced him inJudea, and for the Gentile world as well. What the magi chose to do, and what they chose not to do, were key ingredients of a triumph that could have easily been a catastrophe. So the question is, “What occurred to them in that Bethlehem stable?”
The visitors from the east must have perceived something momentous. It affected them in such a way that their internal compass was reset. It changed their perspective and transformed their lives. Matthew tells us that when they found the baby in Bethlehem they fell down on their knees and worshipped him. Why? Well, they were given eyes to see more in that infant messiah than meets the world’s expectations of a king. For them his face became light shining in the darkness of that musty stable. It enabled them to see kingship turned inside out. The baby was not an ordinary king. He exuded humility rather than the haughtiness of the high and mighty. He was powerless in the world’s sense of power, and yet powerful in another way – God’s way, which is strength revealed in weakness, compassion instead of compulsion, vulnerability in place of impassive imperviousness – all wrapped up in that bundle of joy. They saw Jesus, the Lord Emmanuel, the down-to-earthness of God.
With their wisdom they surveyed the scene, took a look at the infant, and grasped his uniqueness. And they realized that their gifts for him were just right. In the words of the carol, as sung by each of the wise men
Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain, gold I bring to crown him again, King forever ceasing never over us all to reign;
Frankincense to offer have I: Incense owns a Deity nigh; Prayer and praising all men raising, worship him God on High.
Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom; Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in a stone cold tomb.
In that little manger they saw him, who is King for us, God with us, and a messiah that combines both in the servant who suffers for us, even unto death. It is easy to appreciate the significance of the first two of the wise men’s offering, But myrrh is not much of a Christmas gift. It is an ointment used to anoint bodies for burial. To have given myrrh to the infant messiah recognizes that his life will be one of sacrificial love. Thus the gifts were symbols of Christ’s nature and Christ’s role. The wise men offered them in faith. And, as the scriptures record, “being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”
“By another road.” Indeed, the road they took home was not the familiar one; it was God-given. It can be said that the wise men, in Robert Frost’s poetic words, “took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” Their pathway home was the alternate way inspired by their encounter with pure goodness. The difference it made was not simply that it helped them understand and foil Herod’s evil intentions, but that for them the way of love would become the way of life. The transformation they received is the gift – the one that surpasses all others, including gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
All of us have the opportunity to become as wise as the visitors from the east who peered into the manger and were changed forever. Whenever we encounter acts of compassion, or experience the power of sheer goodness, untainted by self-interest or lust of possession, we are in Bethlehem, at that stable, where love was born among us. What we are called to do in those moments is to pay attention, and let it affect us. Love points beyond itself; it gives direction, encouraging us to go and do likewise. Love can convince us to pursue another road on our homeward way – a road less traveled because it is steeper, and more challenging. Nonetheless, it is the better way, God’s way that gives hope and life to the world.
I traveled that road on New Year’s Eve. My vehicle was a large van designed to transport patients in wheelchairs and on stretchers toward a rendezvous with medical care. It was dark – outside and in. My heart was heavy with sadness, and my vision was clouded with distress. The occasion was the transfer of my mother from a rehab and nursing center to health care at Westminster Canterbury. Recovering from recent brain surgery, and facing a grim prognosis, Mom needed special care and good help. Her first stop on the way from the hospital did not provide that support. So, by the grace of many who labored to make a place for her at Westminster Canterbury, we rode through the night by another road.
The driver was a young woman, an EMT who serves in the Army Reserve. She was friendly, open, and efficient as she directed us to northRichmond. As hard as the trip was, I felt safe, and I pray Mom did too. When we arrived at our destination, my mother’s new home away from home, we saw bright lights that guided us to the entrance. Two professionals from health care – Mom’s nurse and the unit social worker – were standing in the cold waiting for her to arrive. When we entered to building, the nurse knelt down in front of Mom’s wheelchair, and greeted her by name. It was a radiant moment of meeting. The light in the nurse’s eyes and the warmth of her voice aroused my mother from a semi-conscious state. She looked into the nurse’s face, smiled broadly, and said, “You are beautiful.” And she was, and is. Love is her truth, her way, her life. The homecoming was powerful; it transformed us all.
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, may we grasp those moments, and be grasped by them always. Amen.
 Robert Frost (1874-1963), “The Road not Taken,” Mountain Interval. 1920.