January 3, 2010
The Rev. Natasha Brubaker Garrison
Jeremiah 31:7-14, Ps. 84, Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a, Matthew 2:1-12
Year C, Christmas 2
One of the more interesting things one can do while preparing a sermon is to look at what others have written on the same passage. All I can say is be glad that Martin Luther or St. Chrysostom are not your preacher today. They took this passage from Matthew and talked about it for at least an hour if not longer, traveling all through both testaments to make their points. I promise you I will be much briefer and not nearly so comprehensive! Aside from their rather lengthy eloquence, it was also very instructive to see where their emphasis lay. There was a lot of concern around the issue of astrology and sorcery, disproving it or showing how God worked through the Magi beyond that, and explaining the star and all that. There was a lot of concern with buttressing the story as the fulfillment of various prophecies or earlier Biblical stories other than the one reference made in the story itself. There was quite a bit of talk, particularly in Luther, focusing on the laws of Scripture and proper behavior. Only in passing do we hear of Herod’s fear of an insurrection and what God might be saying to us about our way of doing business and that of Jesus. Of course, that habit is not unique to Luther; we find it alive and well at all points in Christian history. But it’s rather odd given that the Wise Men came in order to pay homage, that is the reverence due a king and only a king, an earthly ruler, to Jesus, not to go and pray over him.
This story is read on the Feast of Epiphany, which is on the 6th of January, when we celebrate traditionally the baptism of Jesus and the discovery of seeing and realizing that what we have been looking for, searching for, has broken into this world and into our hearts. An epiphany! The wise men are looking, looking hard for God, for the holy. Unlike the shepherds they aren’t given the answer, but are invited to walk a road. They see something and believe it may reveal more than what is on the surface. So they collect themselves, gather precious gifts, and head off on a long journey into a foreign land. They are not mere tourists out on a spiritual holiday; they are searching for God. They are searching for the source, for what it is we are to look at, gaze at, so that we can enter into truth and life.
In those days of Roman rule the only person who could be called a Son of God was Caesar. It was on his coins. He was divine, end of discussion. The will of the gods was indistinguishable from earthly power. Herod was a crafty politico trying to maintain power in his petty kingdom and this depended on the continuing benevolence of Rome and the guarantee on his part of no political upheaval. Thus, when three foreigners walk in and announce that they have seen someone else’s star rising and that they want to go and recognize this person’s authority, rule and kingship, Herod is not pleased. Kings had one purpose and that was earthly rule in the model of earthly kings. In other words, Herod had a challenger to the throne, his throne, and this was not welcome news. Herod is not interested in his star waning. He has plans. Herod overlooks the treasonous claim of the wise men and at first consults the other leaders for background. There is the public conversation. Then, the backroom deals and secret talks begin as he calls the wise men to him in private and makes an arrangement. Go and find this child, read upstart, for me so that I too may worship him, read find out where he is and get rid of this threat. The wise men leave with their heads still attached to their shoulders, which is almost a miracle in and of itself, and continue their search.
The essential question, though, has been posed: what we look to for guidance and the way we are to live will call us to one road or another. Do we look to Herods and Romes, or do we look to God as revealed in Jesus? The heart of this story is about looking and gazing and being transformed by that gaze. Where we focus that gaze has the possibility of being a place of glorious change and transformation if it is searching for God. Do we look with the eyes of the Magi or do we look with the eyes of Herod?
The wise men in all their elegance and wealth continue to search, looking, looking for this true king, this divine king, the one to whom they are to give ultimate and full allegiance. And finally, their search ends at a humble house in Bethlehem. Jesus is not a newborn baby any longer; he is a child, probably out toddling around and exploring his world. What must he make of these strangers who come in such grandeur to see him. What must Mary make of these nobles coming to her modest home. In some sense she knows her child is destined to be a special servant of God, perhaps as a temple priest or a teacher or prophet, but who are these strangers that treat her son as if he were the rightful ruler of the world? And the mystery grows as they greet them all with joy; in fact, they are overwhelmed with joy–speechless and gazing with pure adoration at a child, an innocent, a powerless and growing one. This is not the reaction of people to rulers generally or of the power of the world. Herod’s reaction and that of all Jerusalem is the norm: fear, awe, compliance, but not joy, not a sense that something wonderful has come to us.
The power of the gaze and of recognition is at the heart of the Magis’ encounter with Jesus. It is a transforming event. Their eyes have seen something of the will of God and it is an invitation to another road, another way of being. In the face of such a recognition there are two reactions: fear or joy. We see both in this story, but it is the reaction of the wise men that we are to listen to most closely and to imitate, for they are worshipping the right thing. In him they have found themselves in the presence of the God of Psalm 84, a place of springs, a safe haven for the sparrow not just the eagle, a nest for the youngest and most vulnerable not just a castle for the wealthy and powerful. They see a new world opening up through this gaze of men and child that is enfolded by God. Where are they looking, these wise men from afar? And thus, where are we looking? And what happens as we allow that gaze to linger, to lengthen, to penetrate us to our core? What happens when our gaze no longer focuses on the world defined by the powers that be, but instead gazes on the world around us with intent, with a deep understanding of God’s action in the everyday and the face of Jesus revealed in all?
James Allison, a brilliant Roman Catholic theologian and one whose piercing gaze has caused the powers of the Roman Church to marginalize him, writes this about our passage and the wise men:
“…at the center of this feast is a mystery of looking. Who looks at whom? As adults we tend to focus on adult looks. Matthew, with his picturesque details, trains our gaze on the strangeness of the kings, the determination and persistence of their journey, their exotic dress, their laden beasts, their rich and symbolic gifts. What might this One be who is the desire of the nations?
We are taught by the Magi to value the One who lies in the manger. He acquires worth and splendor through their eyes. That is part of what the feast gives us: models for our desire, for our adoration. With each gift we are offered a way to shift the weight of our heart in an unaccustomed direction. When the Magi offer him gold, which indicates a king, we are invited to lessen the tribute we offer to the power structures to which we belong and on which we depend; when they offer him frankincense, which indicates a priest, we are invited to tiptoe out from under the delusions of our sacred canopies, to be drawn into the jagged-edged sacrifice of presence that this Priest will carry out; and when they offer him myrrh, which indicates a prophet’s death, the Magi invite our hearts to lighten as death loses its hold over our drives and desires.”
We, like the Magi, are invited to realize that if our gaze is shaped by Jesus and if our lens on all the world is shaped by Jesus, then we too must take another road, a different way. This discovery should be one that overwhelms us with joy, not fear. The old road and the old glasses don’t fit any more, not after they have adored the Christ. So, come, let us adore him…and let us follow the other road that invites us to shift our hearts in unaccustomed directions. Amen.