Providence United Methodist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
1In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “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.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘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.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then 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.”
9When 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. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On 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. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Matthew 2:1-12 NRSV
I have a friend who says that evangelism means telling people about Jesus until they start to listen, telling them some more about Jesus until they get bored and come up with songs to sing, and then telling them still more about Jesus until they start giving you money to be quiet, and then you have a church. Joking aside, the real meat of being Christians is sharing and living Christ’s teaching, and that means telling the story of Christ quite a lot. That’s the natural thing to do after greeting the newborn King. Open your hymnals to about 200 and start flipping through: they talk about the coming of Christ. Then, at 217, Jesus is born. At 219 we figure out that “This, This is Christ the King,” all “Good Christian Friends Rejoice” at 224, the Faithful Come at 234, Heaven and Nature Sing at 246, and then at 251, when we can’t hold in the joy any longer, we go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born. Telling it on the mountain is what we do.
In Matthew’s version of the story, the very first people led to Christ are the wise men. They come from a long way away. In a gospel that takes great care to describe Jesus as the Jewish messiah, the first visitors are gentiles. They are astronomers, who use their training and skill to interpret a sign from God—a fantastic marriage of science and miracle—and they come to the house where Joseph and Mary and Jesus are living. And they meet God.
The tradition of Christmas gifts has a rocky start: they give Jesus, perhaps a couple of years old by now, several presents that would not qualify as nontoxic educational gifts of the sort we give two year olds these days. They paid the baby homage, which did him about as much good as the frankincense, but changed the lives of the wise men forever. They had met their Lord and King. We know what is supposed to happen next. We just looked through the hymnal. You hear about Jesus, you figure out he is the messiah, you come to his side, you sing with heaven above and nature below of the great joy you feel, and then you go tell it on the mountain. But the wise men… these people who you might even call the first Christians… they get it wrong. They go from Jesus’s side and crawl home around the outskirts of Jerusalem. They do not tell anyone.
Keeping the Story
If ever there were characters in the Bible with whom we could identify, it is the wise men. They are gentiles, like us. They are reasonably educated, like us. They are observant and aware of the world around them, like we try to be. The wise men didn’t necessarily know about the scriptural prophecies of the messiah, but they followed a star, and it led them to the light of our lives: Jesus Christ. The hopes and fears of all the years and all the nations are met in thee tonight. We read this scripture on Epiphany, as we consider the recognition of God in our world, because we learn through the magi that Jesus is part of God’s message to the whole world. But now we find ourselves back at the puzzle again. The magi didn’t spread the message any further.
Some of you are saying to yourselves, “I thought he had given up on that theme. Where can you go with this? They were warned in a dream to go home a different way. They weren’t bad evangelists: God told them not to tell anyone about what they had seen.” Maybe so, but isn’t that strange all on its own?
Let’s be a little less quaint. What happens in the Christmas story is that a new kingdom begins to break in to this world. The wise men get an icy reception in Jerusalem—not just from Herod but also from the people of the city—because there is one king of the Jews already and that situation is tenuous enough as it is. There is most certainly not room for a second king. The wise men asked for the child who was born as King, but they asked this question of Herod, who was barely born a Jew, much less a king. This puppet governor had to balance the demands of Rome with the demands of “his” people, who he clearly didn’t understand very well. He had to bring in mid-level managers to find out what Jewish scripture said. He was happy to claim to be a Jew for political purposes, but he didn’t have any time to actually read the Bible. Imagine such a hypocrite; using religion for political purposes like that.
Since Herod’s “I’m a Jew just like you all” gag had worked reasonably well on the people of Judea, he tries a similarly complex ploy on the wise men. “Why don’t you guys go find this kid and then come back and tell me where he is so that I can ki… er… worship him. Yeah, worship him. And give him presents. I got some things in the closet back there I’m anxious to regift. I’ll give him a great sweater and some slippers.” One is almost surprised the wise men needed a vision to know coming back by Herod’s place was a bad plan.
Following Wise Men
Let us—most of us people who have met Christ and who live in a world that, taken as a whole, doesn’t seem to really get the message—let us follow the wise men. They meet Christ and praise him, and as they leave the child, they see themselves as stewards of his story.
The wise men seem to be just a little foolish when it comes to Herod’s veneer of feigned interest in worshipping his new rival, so they might have reasonably thought that what made the most sense was to go back to Herod and tell him about Jesus so that he too could share their joy. Even if they sensed the danger, they might have figured that since it was so inspiring to be in the presence of Christ, Herod would change his violent mind and worship along with them. They could easily have fallen into the trap of thinking that if they could just get the civil king to share the faith, everything would be better.
But they don’t share the story, and sometimes, neither should we. We are stewards of Christ’s messsage, and while of course it is essential that we share the gospel, louder is not always better. “Any publicity is good publicity,” the marketing specialists tell us. It’s easy to think that the more exposure our faith gets, the better. And if we have to put it in the hands of people with mixed motives in order to get that exposure, well then, just think of what this could do for church attendance and forget the ethical problem! When we have to sacrifice the clarity and challenge of our message in order to get someone to ally with us—when the spreading of the gospel depends on someone with his own mixed motives—then we have role models. The wise men didn’t take the quickest opportunity to share the gospel. They went home and shared their experience among themselves.
O Christmas Tree
Recently there was a story about Christmas trees in the Seattle-Tacoma Airport. I’ve been to the Seattle airport, and I’m here to tell you that it looks roughly like every other commercial airport. There is one vaguely interesting common area with shops that sell things that seem like a good idea but which you will never use again for 200% of retail value, and three or four aiport versions of chain restaurants. It has nice windows for watching the planes, I remember, and a bunch of rocking chairs, which idea I allege they stole from Charlotte. Apparently someone put up fourteen Christmas trees in the central terminal just past the security gates, probably to remind people who were emptying their pockets and trying to explain why they had four ounces of shampoo and their toothpaste was not in a clear plastic bag that it was Christmas time and their travel to see family or friends was worth whatever hassle they encountered.
A perfectly reasonable Jewish rabbi asked them to put up menorahs along with the Christmas trees. This caused a predictable media focus on the airport, and when some overly zealous attorney—couldn’t you just tell there was going to be a lawyer in this story—was interviewed, he suggested that a lawsuit might force the airport to comply with the rabbi’s request. The airport, far too smart to get involved in a lawsuit about religion, just took down the Christmas trees. Why bother? It’s not like someone was going to walk through the airport and suddenly not be in a hurry or treat everyone nicely because they saw a Christmas tree anyway.
Nothing amazing about the story yet, but then Christians started writing in and calling the radio, raising quite a commotion because the Christmas trees were being taken down. They fussed about the secularization of the holiday and wanted those trees back up. If some of you are getting a little bored with me, I invite you to reach down and pick up the Bible in your pew shelf and raise your hand when you find a reference to a Christmas tree. Christmas trees have exactly nothing to do with the meaning of Christmas. We didn’t have them at all until relatively recently, and our faith does not live or die because of how many Chirstmas trees show up in December, but there we are, screaming because there aren’t any more Christmas trees in the airport. When we go to the airport authority or the courthouse or the shopping mall and ask them to help us spread our symbols and tell our story, we lose control of the story in little pieces that add up to disaster. Soon we’re not comfortable asking questions because we might accidentally look foolish in the midst of all the attention we’ve garnered for ourselves. Soon we’re willing not to talk about peace quite so much and concentrate on messages that have less to do with our faith but which sell better.
The world is just as ready to use our faith for other ends as Herod was ready to seek out the baby Jesus and increase his own power a little by killing the Christ. The wise men had an enviable position. As the first stewards, they got some clear guidance: it was not time for God’s message to be shared just yet. We, on the other hand, hear quite a lot that the point of being a Christian is better numbers, more people hearing the Word, as if the strength of God can be measured by how many people have fish symbols next to the flag sticker on the back of their cars.
Today we celebrate the epiphany of our Lord into our world. It is a strange story. No way around that. If what we really want is for everyone to listen—for this story to get a good hearing in the public square, and for the symbols that remind us of it to find their ways into airports and train stations and the White House—then we’re going to have to tone it down. My God is not interested in a toned-down faith. To do so is to betray the child we just found.
The Epiphany happens right here at this table. It is a strange story too, this table. But we come here, bringing the one gift those wise men were too foolish to offer—ourselves—and we meet our Lord. And then we go home.
The wise men don’t tell the story, and they disappear from the story we know, but surely not from God’s watchful eye. They didn’t trust the powers that ruled the world they knew with the new story they had learned, but that doesn’t mean they quit being interested in it themselves. You can imagine that their lives were never the same again, and that they yearned to talk about what they had seen and understand how God was working through this newborn child.
Thank God that we discover Jesus here, and not on our own. Thank God that as he sends himself into our world, he has sent us also a church in which to learn and share the story. Of course it is our job to share the gospel, but here in God’s house we learn to share the Gospel on God’s terms, and not merely in those ways we think will get us the best hearing. This story that shapes our faith and our lives, it is far too great and grand to need help from people seeking their own power or bouying their own standing. And yet the poem reminds us that the story does thrive when told through our greatest gifts:
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
It’s not always about going to tell it on the mountain. Sometimes it’s about doing something harder than telling. Sometimes it’s about living together. You can eat any old meal to give yourself the energy to go tell it on the mountain. To live together with each other and with this newborn King we’ve discovered—to be stewards of the story of Christ—we must eat at the table set by the king.
Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith and take this holy sacrament to your comfort…
And may your life never be the same again.