Happy New Year! News coverage over the past week has been filled with moments of looking backwards at the year gone by, celebrations, and glitzy lights. Day after day of newsreels flashed highlights of 2018: The most watched YouTube videos, the top 10 songs of the year, the hashtags that were trending, and Breaking News highlights – mainly from events we wished hadn’t occurred. In the spirit of looking back, I am going to ask you to wander back even further with me, into a time when, as we heard from Isaiah a “darkness cover[ed] the earth, and thick darkness the peoples.” Come back also to a time when a promise was revealed in an unexpected place.
I ask you to come back with me, to a time when a rising star communicated unimaginable hope. To a time with sky watchers, magicians, magi, in a place so very far away from us in time and space. Come, turn back to the power of God’s love embodied in the birth of a child.
Come, let us find the birth of a story that flips over the concepts of power and economics now… and then… as people live into what they assumed was “normal.” In our own time that might the New Jim Crow laws of incarceration that overwhelmingly impact people of color, or the economics of militarism, or that of our consumer culture. I invite you to come back to Bethlehem, to a time when a great, radical God event was unfolding on earth.
Come back to a time, when – in the midst of all of our sky gazing and wandering – we too have stepped into a place of uncertainty. A time when… in our current “now”… we wonder where God is leading. Come into that time which Matt Skinner describes as “the dangerousness of Christmas.” (1)
Our state of precariousness this morning begins with Isaiah’s great darkness, the despair which arose from a people who had been in exile for 60 years. Under the Babylonians, the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. Where was this God who was to always be with God’s people? Protect God’s people? In this time of great sorrow and wandering, the words from Lamentations ring out from the first chapter (verses 1 through 3) as the people mourned the Jerusalem that used to be:
“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks…Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting-place…”
A time of wandering, weeping, wondering where God might be leading… but finding only darkness and tears. But now, in the reading from Isaiah today, the Babylonian empire has fallen to the Persians. The new emperor, Cyrus, has allowed those that had been in exile in Babylon to return to Jerusalem. They were going back to their homeland. Surely life will be better now! Right?
Yet of course life was not all glitter and gold when the exiles returned to Israel. Conflicts arose. There were suddenly two groups of people in one land. There were those that had been left behind in Israel at the time of the exile, and those “others” that now returned from Babylon. Just who was an “insider” and privileged to God’s blessing, and who was an “outsider”?
Let the questions and finger-pointing begin! Just who is to receive God’s blessing today? If we were to pause and read the the Psalm assigned for today, Psalm 72 (1-4, NRSV), we would hear with great confidence that our God is a God of justice for the poor. God is a God who shows up to help the needy. God is a God who actively crushes the oppressor.
And in all that confusion, Isaiah calls out, “arise, shine: for your light has come.” This is good news! Look around!
The people must have thought that Isaiah was crazy! A light? Good news? Here, in the uncertainty, the violence, the rollercoaster of mistrust, there is a blessing? Where in the world is hope being born? Too often it seems like our communities are too full of political mayhem and religious conflict for any good to burst forth. There is just too much division. We struggle from one bad situation to another. Nothing changes. Political debates rage on. War after civil war tragically destroys countries. Super storms, super droughts, super wild fires rip through our lives. Our communities are shattered by gunfire. Our children go to school hungry. Our sick seek healing, but cannot afford the price of healthcare. Racial disparities destroy the dignity of people of color in our country.
In the darkness, who can bare to lift up their eyes and look around?
Another time. Another place. In the hopelessness, dusty, oddly dressed outsiders show up.
“Arise, shine: for your light has come.”
The passage from Matthew is one of my favorite stories of the Christmas/Epiphany season. These people, the magi, are from another place. They are “others.” Spiritual seekers studying the stars. They recognize and respond to the presence of God’s Holy Imagination in creation. These magi show up and unexpectedly flip over our idea of what a king, a political leader, and in Herod’s case a religious leader, should look like. Suddenly, before us is a radical new idea, a creative reimagining of how the world could be… should be.
But in this moment of great revelation fear also runs rampant. Empires – political empires, religious empires, economic empires – respond with fear to threats to their control. And to this we are witnesses today. For here Herod responds with secrecy. Plotting. Lies. This is the dangerousness of Christmas, of birthing God’s vision into our midst.
In the upcoming verses, Herod’s schemes quickly become full blown paranoia. When the magi do not return to update Herod, Herod panics and decrees that “all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under” (Matt. 2:16) are to be killed. Power threatened. Power panics. Innocent people die. This is the dangerousness of Christmas.
But then there is also this—Great Hope. A retelling of the story. A revelation of God’s narrative. This is how theologian and history Diana Bulter Bass sees the blessing that is revealed in the turning over of what we expect to be “normal” in the world around us. For this wasn’t how we thought the story was would go:
“… the wise men wore regal robes and carried exotic gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—to an infant born to peasants in a barn… There was no way that Jesus and his family could ever repay the debt of gratitude owed by receiving these presents. Nothing would—nothing could—be given in return…
What must Mary and Joseph have thought? What insanity was this? They, good Jews, subjects of Roman oppression, did not receive gifts from kings. Indeed, kings took from them—their freedom, hope, dignity, livelihood, land, and taxes. Maybe the whole business of gifts from the Magi made them a little afraid…
(Think about it.) The story of the three kings is not only a pretty tale; it is a pretty radical one. It inverts how we think of gifts. Typically, peasants offered a gift to a king to demonstrate loyalty or request a favor. But when kings bring gifts to peasants, it turns what we think of gifts on its head…
This gifting of gifts reverses the normal order of things, showing not the power of kings, but the undoing of the benefactors’ status and entitlement. What wonder! What surprise!”(2)
There, in that house that day, the magi, these regal outsiders, knelt before a child. They responded to God’s Holy Imagine of God Here, God Now, with proclamations of great joy. They responded by giving gifts to the potential this child brought to a conflicted world. Here they recognized that God was doing something new. God was being born fully into the world, not just for some, but especially to those on the “outside;” the star gazers, the dream seekers, the wanderers. The poor. The forgotten. The tossed aside. Here God’s creative light pours out from above, encircling the earth, shining brightly at the edges of our human suffering.
“…arise, shine: for your light has come.”
Look up. Look around. Where is this “dangerousness of Christmas” today? Just who might just be the “outsider” that is showing up to teach us something new? Where, in our own dark world, might we have missed the Holy Imagination of God shining forth? Where have we missed seeing the star?
Look up. Look around. Do you see it? God revealing something new? In a time when our city lights dim the night skies above, in the dangerousness of Christmas, the magi take the risk to come to us once again—reversing the normal order of things.
May we continue to hear the story anew. And may our own faith journeys of God’s love, hope and mystery respond to the Great Gift among us: God radically revealed to all. THIS is a blessing indeed.
Reflection on Isaiah 60:1-6 and Matthew 2:1-12 offered on January 6, 2019
1 Skinner, Matt. “Sermon Brainwave #642.” Working Preacher. December 29, 2018. Accessed January 09, 2019. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx.
2 Bass, Diana Butler. Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks. HarperCollins Publishers, 2018. 14-15.