First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
January 6, 2019
“Let Christmas Begin”
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
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.
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.
Sally Jones was expecting a baby. Now, keep in mind this was back in the days when the doctor came to the house to deliver babies. None of this “going to the hospital with birthing suites and gourmet menus.” Ohhh, no. Everything happened at home. Well, when it came time for Sally to deliver, soon-to-be-dad was beside himself and, as you might guess, was more of a hindrance than a help. But this wasn’t old Doc Brown’s first rodeo and he knew just what to do. He handed Mr. Jones a lantern and told him to hold it so the Doc could see what was going on. Well, it didn’t take long before Sally delivered a fine baby girl. But, there was a surprise…. Twins! Yep, sure enough there was another baby on the way so Doc had Mr. Jones hold the lantern up again. A fine baby boy. After a few minutes, Doc exclaimed, “Well, we’re not through yet. It looks like you’re going to have triplets.” At this point, Mr. Jones started backing out of the room. “Hold it!” Doc called. “Come back here with the lamp!” “Oh, no.” said Mr. Jones. “It’s the light… It’s the light that’s attracting them!”
It was the light… the light of the star that drew the wise men from their homes in search of a newborn king.
We really don’t know exactly where those wise men who were attracted to that light were from. Some say Persia. Some say they each came from different places. The point is, they weren’t Roman. Nor were they Jewish. They were foreigners of a different culture and religion on a pilgrimage, seeking the divine. But, that’s about it. We really don’t know where they came from. Or at least we didn’t until now. I think I’ve figured it out. I know where the wise men were from.
See if you can figure it out:
They were looking for this new king and they were bound and determined to do it their way.
They thought nothing of traveling hundreds of miles just to deliver some gifts.
And… they fought long and hard to keep the government out of it, even if it meant taking the long way home.
Does any of this give you any clue at all?
They’re from Montana!
Unfortunately, their desire to do it their way, got them a bit lost. “Hmmm, where to find a newborn king of the Jews? The logical place would be in a palace. And where would one find a palace that had something to do with Israel? In Jerusalem!” It makes sense. Kings represent power and prosperity and rule and sovereignty. And where do you go to find all of that? A palace. Upon arriving at said palace, they had to shed a bit of their self-sufficiency and ask a question… “Where?” It took looking back into the ancient texts to find the answer. Yes, even smart people need to read the instructions every once in a while. The answer to the question of “where,” it turns out was not where you would expect. Not in Jerusalem and at a palace but in Bethlehem…. Nine miles away.
Yep, it turns out they were of by just nine miles. Nine miles… That’s the distance between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. It’s like the distance between here and halfway to Belt. When you come to think of it, if they traveled from Montana to Jerusalem, following nothing but a star, being off by nine miles isn’t bad. But the distance between what they found in Jerusalem and what they would find in Bethlehem could be measured in more than miles. It was a world of difference. Jerusalem was not the place where angels would sing “alleluia” and shepherds would kneel in worship. You’ve got to go another nine miles to find that.
Once they got their directions straight and took that extra nine-mile trek they found what they were looking for. But it wasn’t quite what they expected. Oh, they found the baby all right. But it was in the midst of poverty, clothed in innocence, and reeking of vulnerability. What they found was the place where the holy one abided in the depths of humanity… not on a throne or in a palace but in a humble home surrounded by stories of a birth that took place in a stable attended to by angels and shepherds. What a difference nine miles makes. Upon arriving in Bethlehem, they realized they had packed too much self-sufficiency and expectations. The journey ahead would require that they leave some of that behind.
It’s what happens when you go on a pilgrimage in search of the divine. You find that the destination you seek is often not what you thought it would be. You find that the divine is revealed in ways you might not expect. You find you have to leave some things behind because they’re not doing you any good. And, you find that you end up returning to life, no matter where you’re from, a different way.
These wise ones, wherever they were from, are just part of the story of Christmas and the birth of Christ. Yet, they are an important part for they connect the birth with foreigners who defy conventional wisdom for the sake of holy revelation. These wise ones reveal that the journey to the manger is but a pilgrimage, led by the light of God, into the unexpected.
As we hear the familiar story again today, let us hear it, not as the end of the Christmas story but a beginning… a beginning of our own pilgrimage into this year. A pilgrimage from the parts of our lives we can leave behind. A pilgrimage of seeking and listening to wise ones. A pilgrimage through challenges and uncertainties. A pilgrimage that should start with questions to point us down the right road into a journey of faith in the new year.
Where are we to find the Christ?
How will we as a church seek God in our life together?
What is it about the light of Christ that attracts you?
How will you seek God in your life over the coming months? Will it only be at times of need or suffering. Will it be just an intellectual search, or will it come from a deep, personal hunger for meaning?
How will you find your way?
Will you look in unexpected places and seek wisdom from unlikely sources?
Will you rely on your own self-sufficiency? Or will you trust in the wisdom of others?
Will you be diligent or will you give up if it appears that you get something wrong or if things get too hard?
Will you bring your own questions and listen to the answers that come through wise ones and the innocent alike?
Next week, when we return for worship, all the trappings of Christmas will be gone… put away for another year. It might appear as if Christmas never happened…. Or will it? It’s up to us, collectively and individually to keep the message of Christmas in the world.
As Howard Thurman put it:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.
So, Arise, shine, for your light has come. May the glory of the Lord lead you into and through this year. Thanks be to God.