Sunday, January 6, 2013

sermon: Light Enough

Epiphany 1 Year A 010613

Matthew 2:1-12

Light Enough

By Rich Gamble


This is Epiphany. My computer’s dictionary defines epiphany as: “a sudden intuitive leap of understanding, especially through an ordinary but striking occurrence.” It is the time that we celebrate the Aha moment in the Christian story when the longed for savior is discovered to be that peasant prophet Jesus.


In some traditions Epiphany celebrates the baptism of Jesus. In others it celebrates the coming of the wise men. Depending on which gospel you are reading either of those times can be the big Aha moment. Today we are looking at the story of the wise men. The wise men only appear in Matthew’s gospel. Luke prefers shepherds as the official witnesses of the birth of Jesus. Mark and John are not really that interested in the story of Jesus’ birth.


Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus, is just that, a story. There are a great many people who want to read it as history and if that is important to you, understand that even if it were chronicling actual events, someone is choosing which events to write down and which not. Even if it did happen as told and if we had a video camera there to record the event, there is always a mind behind the camera choosing which events to focus on, which direction to point the camera. So whether you see this as theological story written to highlight a truth greater than the actual events or whether you see this as history faithfully recording the events, either way, it is a creative work.


In Matthew’s story, the wise men set out from the East. They had seen a star rising and believed that it signaled the birth of a king. So they went to Jerusalem, and to the palace of the King and asked to see the child recently born to be king.


Herod doesn’t have any children recently born. Herod is a pretender to the ancient throne of Israel, kept in place by the power of Rome. So Herod is more than a little concerned by the idea of a rival to the throne. Herod makes nice with the wise men and calls in his court theologians. The theologians say that if a king is to be born Bethlehem is the place. So Herod sends the wise men off to Bethlehem and he asks that when the wise men find the baby king that they come back by the palace and tell Herod just where that baby can be found so that he, Herod can go and pay homage to the baby as well.


We know what the wise men do not, that Herod is not interested in paying homage; he wants the baby dead. The wise men set out towards Bethlehem and the star is there and they follow it right to the house of Mary and Joseph (remember that in Matthew’s story Jesus is born at home in Bethlehem). The wise men offer gifts fit for a king and then, warned in a dream, go home on a different path, without reporting back to Herod.


So in terms of the story, why did the wise men go to Jerusalem to ask Herod where the baby was? Didn’t they have a star? The wise men followed the star west but at some point quit following the star and went to Herod instead. Maybe they gave up on star following because it is hard work. Stars give off little light. It is hard to see by them at night. If you are following one you are likely to trip over all kinds of obstacles. Stars don’t make paths. We make them by stumbling along in the dark. Stars don’t illuminate the best route. They give very general directions.


So maybe having followed the star in the dark for who knows how many hundreds of miles the wise men saw a nice level road to Jerusalem and took that road over the uncertain terrain of the star’s leading.


 And why not? Herod was the king, so if you are looking for the next king wouldn’t going to the current one be a wise thing to do? Instead of keeping their eyes on the guiding star the wise men turned to Herod. Once they leave Herod’s presence, then the star reappears in the story but by then it is too late. Herod has been warned, and when the story continues Mary and Joseph have to flee for their lives, becoming refugees in Egypt and Herod sends his troops to kill off every baby boy in Bethlehem.


The blood of the babies is on Herod’s hands but the blood wouldn’t have been spilled if the wise men had been more wise. If the wise men had followed the star and not their own ideas and expectations about what a king was and where to find one, then the babies of Bethlehem would have lived.


The story of the wise men points out to us our own tendencies to seek answers and solutions from the traditional places of power and influence, from people with power measured in money horded or in the potential to use violence.


All thoughts these days are on the doings in Washington and soon in our state Capitol as well. We have needs and fears and hopes as a nation and planet of people and we turn to the people with power to address our concerns. Of course we are generally disappointed; but perhaps the fault is less about the failures of the people in power then it is in our expectations that such people are going to be able to be the true answer to our needs.


The wise men had expectations as to where a king was to be found. Such persons would be found in the palace in the capital, not in a carpenter’s house in Bethlehem. A king in their minds looked more like Herod and nothing like Jesus. And as a proclamation of the Christian faith we say, that the Jewish world was waiting for a messiah and got just that in Jesus, even though Jesus was nothing like what they thought they needed and Jewish Christians became a splinter group of greater Judaism.


It is good and right that we get involved in politics as a matter of faith. That is one of the underlying truths of Matthew’s Gospel, our story of faith is wrapped up in politics, and economics and social structure. Jesus wasn’t born on a cloud but in a town occupied by Roman soldiers ruled by a murderous Roman lackey.


But even as we involve ourselves in the messy business of politics and economics and social systems, we are shown by this story and many others in our tradition, that answers to our longing for a world aligned with God’s vision of justice and peace, will not be found in systems of domination. The president and the new congress could do amazing things to make this world a better place but it is unlikely that people willing to make such fundamental changes to our structures of power and wealth would ever win the office and if they did it is unlikely that their reforms would last more than a few years. We cannot legislate the Realm of God. In the long run, we are called to keep our eyes fixed on something bigger and brighter than any one person or party or election. And if we lose sight of that, we turn into those people who justify all manner of evil: who kill to bring peace, who torture to establish the rule of law, who lie to establish their truth, who ignore the suffering of others to bring prosperity to all. Our hopes are tied not to kings of industry or politics but to babies born into danger. Our hopes will not be realized as a gift of the powerful but as a negation of that sort of power.


When America turned to President Reagan we aided in the slaughter of babies in Nicaragua. When we turned to President Clinton we aided in the starvation of children in Iraq. And not the war in Afghanistan continues to take the lives of innocents. Now we make heroes of torturers and take for granted that our president has a “kill list” of people to be murdered on his command. All of these leaders have called on us to pour our money into the tools of war and not into the projects of peace. Several years ago outgoing congressman Dennis Kucinich reported in a speech: that the Department of Defense has never passed an independent audit, that the Inspector General had notified Congress that the Pentagon could not properly account for $1.2 trillion in transactions, that in recent years the Dept. of Defense could not match $22 billion worth of expenditures to the items it purchased, wrote off, as lost, billions of dollars worth of in-transit inventory and stored nearly $30 billion worth of spare parts it did not need. Yet the defense budget grows with more money for weapons systems to fight a cold war which ended, weapon systems in search of new enemies to create new wars.


Sure, we try to get the best person possible into office; best not in terms of what they can do for us, but in terms of what they can do for peace and for the poor. But then the day after they are elected we are called to align ourselves with the guiding light of justice and if that means we stand in opposition to the politician of our choosing, so be it. The president is not our star. A party is not our star. The nation is not our star. Democracy is not our star. The majority can be and often is unjust.


The light we follow leads onto some uneven ground, for the light of God leads us to work for those who are vulnerable, those who are suffering. Such places are not easy to travel. Our story shows that the wise men were led to the crib of an infant who would one day not become a Herod but who would die at the hands of the Herods.


The star that we follow in the dark of our world leads down a challenging path. There will be times when we will stumble. The brightness of the star that we follow can be dimmed by the glare of our greed or fear. Over the centuries of the following of Jesus, many have lost their way. Many have taken the easy road to Herod by turning to patriotism or prosperity.


Our star leads us down another road. Our challenge as a community of faith is to know our star and follow it. The light of God shines forth from the plight of those with the least. It shines forth from the lost and alone; from the sick and sad, from ghettos and battlefields, nursing homes and homeless shelters.


Our star is the light love that is drawn not to the palaces of the powerful and prosperous but to the places of need. Our star is dream of a better way for humanity to travel than down the road that leads to Herod. Our star is a dream that cannot be killed, that rises again and again on the horizon of each generation. Our star is our true nature, our true power, our true destination, the self giving love that is God. That is our star. And it leads us still. Amen.