First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
January 5, 2020
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
Isaiah 60:1-6 (NRSV)
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. 2For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. 3Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. 4Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. 5Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. 6A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
Matthew 2:1-12 (NRSV)
In 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.
The story of the Magi visiting the newly born messiah of God is an intriguing, mysterious, exotic one. We don’t really know where they came from, other than somewhere far east of Judea. We don’t really know how many there were other than there was more than one. (It’s the song, not the biblical text itself that pins it down to three – to correspond with the three gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. In Eastern Christian traditions, there are 12.) We don’t know if they rode camels, donkeys or walked. We don’t know their names, even though a much later tradition dubs them Balthasar, Gaspar and Melchior. We don’t know what they wore, so we dress them as exotic, royal, stately and sagely. We’ve become obsessed with who they were, where they came from, what they wore and their mode of transportation. Are we obsessing over the thing we really should be when it comes to the Magi?
United Methodist Minister, Steve Garnaas-Holmes reflects on this story with poetry:
Magi captained by a star, lured by love,
consult Herod possessed by fear
to find a young woman courted by grace
who has given birth to a boy
compelled by Holy Spirit.
(Herod, obsessed by rage, will hunt for the boy
but only for himself,
and so die hungering.)
Magi reeled by love
seek no glittering else.
Attentive, undeterred, persistent,
the star no mere sign but a magnet,
they will find the way,
and find another way.
Oh, to be so haunted.
What strikes me about Rev. Garnaas-Holmes reflection is the emotion, the action within it. Instead of obsessing over names and how many and where they came from and the meaning of the gifts, he connects with the action that was going on, the heart-action. Listen to the verbs: lured by love; possessed by fear; courted by grace; compelled by the Holy Spirit; obsessed by rage; reeled by love; haunted. Listen to the adjectives: attentive, undeterred, persistent.
It’s hard to identify with the wise men when we leave them to be exotic foreigners presenting unusual gifts based on what they saw in the stars. They are exotic. They are mysterious. They carry a sense of power and influence. They are regal. Most of us would not put ourselves into all of those boxes. One or two, maybe but not all of them. So we obsess over the things we can identify with: where they are from, how they got there, what they wore, what gifts they would bring.
But their story is one of action and emotion. They are obsessed with what they were called to do. They were so obsessed with finding the child whose birth the stars foretold that they left home and family and travelled to places they did not know, seeking a child whose name was not known, birthed by royalty that had not be identified. They were obsessed by the promise. They were obsessed with finding the fulfillment. Finding this child and worshipping him consumed them. It haunted them into action… an action of seeking, finding, worshiping and preserving.
Most of us don’t have any experience with the things that we usually identify with the wise men from the East. But, most of do have experience with their actions, their emotions, even their obsession: the experience of be lured, possessed, courted, compelled, obsessed, reeled, and haunted. We know what it’s like to be attentive, and undeterred, and persistent. These are the things of life. These are the things of faith. These emotions, these actions, cut across ethnic, racial, gender, and age distinctions. There is no need to be obsessed simply with what their names were or how many of them went to Bethlehem or how they got there. We should be obsessed with other things about them, things that we can relate to.
This story seduces us into its action and emotion. In it we find that we are capable of being the wise ones of the story, not because of where we are from or what gifts we bring. We are invited to live into the story by being obsessed by the message the story tells. We are called to be obsessed by seeking and finding and worshiping the one whose love is spoken of by starlight. We are invited to be obsessed with wonder at the audacity of a God who would descend into chaos to reveal the divine passion for humanity and our peace. We are summoned to be obsessed with a passion that moves us beyond comfort zones and even into conflict to bring to light the nature of the Christ child who would grow to be one who proclaims blessed are the most unlikely … the poor, the mourning, the hungry, … because in God’s realm, everyone is loved and beloved, and therefore blessed and when the world says that anyone is not blessed because of their circumstances, divine wisdom says otherwise.
It’s a way worthy of obsessing over. It’s a way that is as exotic as the wise ones who obsessed over finding the one that would live it and teach it and die for it, and bring it to eternal life. It’s a way that is clothed in the fabric of love for all. It’s a way that can be found wherever justice prevails. It’s a way that must be protected from those who would do it harm, who would seek to destroy it, even though they will always ultimately fail for it’s the way of God, the eternal way of the creator of the stars that would eventually announce its incarnation.
Put away the wisemen with the tree and the Santa’s. But keep out the obsession they wore. Put it on as your own. Continue to always seek, find, worship and protect the one who gives peace.