May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight Oh Lord our strength and our Redeemer. Amen
One of the reasons that I continue to subscribe to the Richmond Times-Dispatch in this day of digital news is that I like to start my day reading the funnies. I grew up learning how to read with comic books. Every day the newspaper brought a fresh story.
I cut my teeth on Dick Tracy and Mary Worth. I continue to follow Mark Trail and Rex Morgan, M.D. I save “Pearls Before Swine” till the last bite of raison bran. There is always a guaranteed laugh to start the day….
In addition to the funnies, I must admit that I also check my daily Horoscope. (I’m not sure that clergy are supposed to admit to reading their forecasts.) Nevertheless, skeptic that I am, I check it out. Who knows what the subliminal effect may be for a good mood or perhaps one of caution. New Year’s Day the reading for Sagittarius said: “You will be in love with life and will embrace challenges and change wholeheartedly. The more exciting the offer, the more enthusiastic you will become. Setting your course will bring you satisfaction, Love is in the stars!”
WOW! What a way to begin the new year!!
Okay, maybe a little bit of a stretch a healthy dose of skepticism still a hopeful way to start the year… It is the same sense of skepticism that came to me as I began to think about this sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany. Matthew’s story of the three Wise Men….alright, it is a good story. Mary and Joseph go down to Bethlehem to be counted so that they could pay their taxes. There are so many people following the same path that they end up sleeping in a stable. As luck would have it, while they are there the baby arrives and is surrounded by the animals of the farm yard, sheep, cows. Then, company comes!
First, shepherds out in the field report hearing angels singing and come to find what this is all about. Then three Kings show up bringing gifts. It’s a nice warm story and the Christmas pageant with a cast of thousands brings Christmas to our homes and hearts….
But, how realistic could this story be? Okay, the tax thing works, seems like that taxes are always with us, even down to the fiscal cliff. Getting stuck on I 95 in traffic is something we could understand, even having to hold up in a Motel 6 when everything else was filled. The shepherds could happen, they had to come in from the field some time, they would bring their sheep to the stable, they would find joy in discovering a new born child in their midst.
But, three kings? That seems to be a stretch. So I dug down into the research to try and understand what Matthew is doing by including this story.
Matthew was a tax collector. Evidently, he was independently wealthy, a self made man, who benefited from his business sense. He was also an orthodox Israelite. He was schooled in the writings of the prophets, the stories of our Old Testament. He knew that people had a growing hope, an expectation that Messiah was coming, that the forecasts of the future were about to be fulfilled.
He had found in Jesus the answer to those hopes. He writes his story, his record of history, to help other orthodox come to his understanding of the good news of Jesus life, death and resurrection. The Messiah had come as had been foretold by prophets of old. In that context, Matthew makes his case. The Messiah was to follow in the linage of David, the great King. Bethlehem was David’s city. This was where people were looking for the next great king to show up…
The prophet Micah had forecast the expectation, “thou Bethlehem…little among the thousands of Judah, out of you shall he come forth unto me the one that is to be the ruler of Israel.” Matthew is making his case…
Jesus comes out of the linage of David. Joseph and Mary are forced to make the trip to register for taxes from their home of origin, the city of David… That the town would be filled would make sense, that a stable could be the only place available, a baby arriving at the least convenient time, not out of the reach of possibility including a visit from local shepherds. But three kings, I don’t know…
The more you dig into this the more plausible it seems. Turns out they probably weren’t kings, they were magi, three wise men, interpreters of the signs, signs like the stars. These men were from Persia, Iran. They came from a class of people who had once been kings, but in defeat had turned to providing wisdom to those in power. They looked for signs, meaning in the ways the stars aliened. Astrologists!
There is an Iranian myth about a star, a story about the prediction of a coming leader, the manifestation of a divine figure born in fire and light. There is another story reported in the period in which Matthew writes about Magi who come to visit and honor Nero, the Emperor of Rome, a story not unlike Matthew’s report of this visit in Bethlehem. There is even history of cosmic disturbance that would have put these men on a search – Halley’s Comet, a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn – that would have set these Magi in search of radical change, something coming that would have significant consequences.
The writer Matthew is the only writer of the Gospels who mentions this story and with it brings an underlying message: the Magi who come to Jesus in Matthew’s rendition of the story of Jesus’ entry into the world are men outside the orthodox tradition.
For Matthew, from the beginning, from the start of the story of Jesus and his life, there is a theme of Jesus’ appeal to the lowest of society’s totem pole, shepherds in a stable, and to the highest in power, the recognition of kingship that comes from people outside the faith. Jesus fulfills all the tradition at the same time breaking all tradition. He satisfies the letter of the law, he breaks through the restraints of the law. Shepherds and Magi. Son of David….Savior of the world.
For Matthew, there had been an Epiphany. He moved from collecting taxes, to reconciling the tradition with his experience of Messiah. Epiphanies were hard to come by in Matthew’s day. They are not easy to experience in our day. We look for the facts, for truth, while we hope for magic that the spirit of Christmas might actually invade our world and invite us to peace among all people.
Finally this: In early December, the New York Times Sunday paper ran an interview with Bill Murray connecting Murray’s life with the story of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the new movie, “Hyde Park on Hudson. “ In the interview, Murray talks about a time when he was seven years old. His family took him to Wrigley Field to see a ball game. He was a big fan, watched all the games on TV. The TV was black and white when he was growing up. As they come into the stadium, Bill’s brother Brian cover’s Bill’s eyes with his hands and walked him up the stairs.
Murray says: “he took his hands away and there was Wrigley Field, in green. This beautiful grass and ivy, I had only seen it in black and white. It was like I was a blind man made to see. It was something.”
That’s an Epiphany, moving from black and white to explosive color. That’s what I think Matthew wants for us. He writes his Gospel to tell the story of Jesus in a way that will take us from the law to the Good News. The one long expected has come, acknowledged by shepherds and kings, “a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
As our collect for today invites us:
“Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face.”
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen