I’m beginning this New Year with a bible quiz. Reebee and Matthew can’t answer. They’ve been biblically trained.
How many birth stories are there? In which gospels?
Which one do we read on Christmas Eve?
Which one do we read on Epiphany?
Where was Jesus born in Luke? in Matthew?
How many wise men were there?
How many camels?
We have two very different stories here. Put together they make for a very nice Christmas pageant, but we miss the meanings that the authors were trying to convey. So listen carefully to Matthew’s story and see how it differs from how you remember it.
Matthew 2: 1-12:
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.
“Emmanuel: God with Us”
I don’t know about you, but for me, the weeks leading up to Christmas were jam-packed, non-stop activity. Don’t get me wrong. It was all good, but it left me needing a little time to slow my pace and reflect on the true meaning of Christmas. I returned home after our delightful family service and our beautiful candlelight service, needing to sit down, light the Christ Candle on my Advent wreath, light up the tree and look for some more beautiful music.
Instead of music, I happened upon my favorite Christmas movie: It’s a Wonderful Life. How many of you have seen it? Then you’ll remember that George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) was an unhappy, sometimes angry guy - feeling trapped in his little home town of Bedford Falls, NY - dealing with mounting monetary problems in the family business - envious of his brother who had escaped small town life for love and success abroad.
In the throes of despair, George’s suicide attempt is interrupted by an unusual guardian angel, who opens his eyes to the value of his life, and its impact on his family and the community around him, both then and for generations to come. George comes to understand just how wonderful life is right there in that place he was trying to escape from.
God was there, all along, in the love and generosity of his family and friends and community. He didn’t have to travel to some strange place to find it. He just needed a little divine intervention to open his eyes - and heart, to what was there all along.
Where are you looking for and finding God? It’s an Epiphany question. The word ‘epiphany’ means ‘showing forth’ or ‘the revealing of something’ that previously had not been seen. You might think of it as those “AH-HA” moments when the light bulb goes off in your head and you finally understand. You finally get it. The truth comes a little more into focus. That’s what happened to George Bailey. I think of It’s a Wonderful Life as a wonderful parable. Remember the part about the bells and the angel getting its wings.
I think of our scripture this morning as a parable too. And it has many layers. The wise men in our story today didn’t know where they needed to go to find the Messiah, the child who had been born king of the Jews. They were following his star, but hadn’t a clue where it was leading them. So they came to Jerusalem, the seat of power. Isn’t that where you would expect a king to be born?
From there they were sent to Bethlehem where they were greeted with the ultimate AH-HA! experience. Not in a seat of power, but in a humble abode, they paid homage to the Christ child, and opened their treasure chests of gifts, just as the residents of Bedford Falls recognized the goodness of their friend George and opened their wallets to bail him out of his financial woes. We’re told the wise men returned home by a different route - (thanks to an angel’s intervention) changed forever, I would imagine, eyes wide open, with a new take on the meaning of life.
Years before the writer of Matthew penned his version of the birth of Christ, Isaiah wrote in Chapter 12:6: “Let all the people of Jerusalem shout God’s praise with joy. For great is the Holy One of Israel who lives among you.” Key words here: “Among you.” Not in some distant land, but among you.
We have journeyed to Bethlehem this past month where we too were searching for the Christ child, for a glimpse of God’s presence in our lives, for an “AH-HA” experience. We’ve been searching for the hope and peace and joy and love Jesus would bring into our lives. We’ve been looking for that star to follow. The birth stories in Luke and Matthew are beautiful - whether you take them literally or as metaphor. They are filled with symbolism that goes much deeper than what lies on the surface.
If we treat them just as stories of something that happened over 2,000 years ago, we miss an important message they contain. Ann Weems, whose beautiful poetry I’ve been using this Christmas season, speaks to it in a poem for Epiphany:
What concerns me,
what lies on my heart,
That we in the church
papered and programmed
articulate and agenda-ed
are telling the faith story
are telling it as though it happened two thousand
or is going to happen
as soon as the church budget is raised.
We seem to forget that Christ’s name is Emmanuel,
God with Us,
Not just when he sat among us
when we cannot feel the nail prints in his hands.
The holidays are a hectic season for most of us. We try to cram a year of gift giving and entertaining into four weeks. Was is possible to find time to look for the Christ child amid all this hurry and bustle? Did you even try?
Instead of beginning this new year with resolutions and a new “to do” list, I thought this first Sunday would be a good time to pause and reflect, to explore where we have found God during this holy season, and where we are going to look for God in this new year. So we’re going to do a brief guided meditation this morning. Those of you who have been rushing from one activity to the next may find it refreshing and centering to take a few minutes of quiet time with God.
- Quiet yourself. Remember that in prayer you are entering into a relationship with God. Sit comfortably, close your eyes. Using whatever method you find most helpful, take a few moments to let go of whatever may distract you or intrude on your quiet. You may concentrate on your breath, or a simple word to clear your mind. Gently find the still point within your being.
- Invite God to be present with you in this time of prayer.
- Think back over this season of Advent and Christmas. What stands out for you? What occupied your time? Who did you spend time with? Did you travel? entertain guests? shop? worship? meditate?
- What are you noticing that you have taken for granted during this time? What feelings and thoughts are emerging as you look back?
- Now reflect on the way in which God has been present in your life during this sacred season. Where do you see God at work in your life? In joys, fears, suffering, work? In an act of service? In your reading? In an event, person, sound, nature, music, action?
- Did you have an AH-HA moment during this holy time of the year? Was something revealed or made clear to you that you had previously not seen or known? Do any of these insights need to be followed by actions?
- When in the midst of this holy season did you feel you were cooperating most fully with God’s action in your life?
- Do you have a sense of gratitude for one or two particular ways that God was present in your life during this sacred season? Allow yourself to experience this sense of gratitude deeply. Then express it silently to God.
You may open your eyes and gently bring your focus back to this sanctuary. Like the wise men in Matthew’s story, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey, only the beginning. We pass through Bethlehem each year, hoping to be transformed in some little or big way by what we find there. But then we must return home to continue God’s work.
I once read that Christmas is the nativity of consciousness; the birth of Christ consciousness within us. But we have to quiet ourselves long enough to recognize it.
We are entering a new year, a time to begin again. God never tires of offering us an opportunity to begin again. This year at Eliot will have lots of new beginnings. So it’s time to follow the light Christ has brought into our darkened world - a light that leads us into a deeper understanding of the world within us and a deeper engagement with the world around us. Like the wise men, we don’t know where it will lead. Are you willing to step out and follow - to take that leap of faith?