The year was 1961. I was fourteen years old, about the age when you think you become too old for Church. I had just completed my freshman year as fullback on the freshman football team. My two church buddies, since Sunday school – Wally, Butch, and I – escaped weekly from junior high classes. We usually snuck around to the corner store to drink some soda and talk about how great we would be next year. Wally, who was a better point guard on the basketball team, played defensive back; but Butch was our big middle guard. He was so big that to get around him you practically had to run of the field.
The scene is a Sunday in November after our last football game. We were jubilant with victory. Around the corner came Mrs. Colyer. Mrs. Colyer had taught us in kindergarten, and she had been our teacher in many different Sunday School classes. Somehow she always knew where to find us. When we were little, we thought she was about the most beautiful woman we had ever seen.
“Boys,” she said, “I need your help.” We would have done anything for her; that is until she told what it was she wanted. We were to be the three kings in the Christmas pageant that year, which she was again directing, after several years leave of absence. And she was going about it with a new gusto. You can imagineour reactions. We came up with every excuse we could muster. She would have none of it. It got worst from there. We three, soon to be future NFL football players, had to dress up in weird costumes with turbans and the like. She had not told us the whole truth. Not only did we have to walk down the long aisle
in the parish hall and up on the stage dressed like idiots, she expected us to sing the song. That was it! We quit. She cried. We sang.
It was the Sunday evening before Christmas and there we were. First Wally who was the smallest, then me, then Butch. We all wondered if anybody would believe us because there was no camel ever born who could have carried Butch without breaking its back. Down we came singing like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Johnny Mathis. Now if you believe that, there is a bridge in Brooklyn I want to sell you. First, Wally made has way onto the stage followed by me and then by Butch, who was never very delicate on his feet. He tripped on the last stair and fell on top of me and I fell on top of Wally who fell onto the creche. Fortunately, they were using a doll and not a real baby. The wooden creche splintered. The little girl playing Mary (this was her first big role) burst into tears and screamed, “I hate you guys!” She never did like us. And the whole pageant ended in wonderful tumult saved by a very winsome minister who turned it all into something grand. But we never heard what he said because we had already scrambled out of the church, as fast as possible, back to the safety of the corner store. So you can see the wisemen have a very special place in my heart.
Epiphany is the celebration of Christ’s display to the world. It is actually a feast older than Christmas itself. And who can resist these exotic participants in the Christmas story with their camels, their confrontation with wily Herod, and their wonderful gifts? They cast the lowly domestic scene in Bethlehem onto a world stage; what was before their arrival a strictly Jewish affair, and a minor one at that, become an international event of great importance. A new king in a world which already has too many old kings is a luxury no old king can afford. Herod is the only person in the whole Christmas story who really understands the significance of the birth of Jesus. Herod did not watch the stars, nor did he chat with angels or talk to shepherds. He had his chat with these three strangers who tipped him off that the world he sought to control was about to be altered radically; so Herod slays the young children of Bethlehem hoping to catch the pretender in the slaughter.
From this point on, the birth of Jesus is no longer a private event or even an ecclesiastical event; it is a bundle of dangerous potential with which no earthly ruler can ever be at ease. Jesus entered the world to change lives. Your life and my life. He came not just to change Jewish lives, but the lives of people everywhere. The incarnation was God’s way of giving us a star, a sign, a symbol, a road, to put ourselves back together again. The story reads that, “when they came into the house, they saw the young child and Mary, his mother, and fell down and worshipped him. After they worshipped him, they gave him their gifts, but before they did that, they gave their most important gift, themselves; for that is what worship is, the giving of oneself to one who is worth that gift. It is the yielding not of what we have, but who we are to the one who makes us whole.
So often we tend to think that worship is getting something, a “blessing”, a “change”, a “good feeling”, “something to take home.” When a service is bad or we don’t like the hymns, we tend to say “I didn’t get much out of church today.” But true worship is giving not receiving. It is the giving of ourselves to the one who has given himself for us and loves us dearly enough to give himself for us. It is the giving that is the worship not the getting which is a very hard notion in modern day America to grasp.
It would be supreme naivete here on the threshold of a new millennia to believe that our world is any more ready now than it was two thousand years ago to receive the love of Christ into its bosom. To say yes to a savior who would make us change our selfish and foolish ways, who would cause us to surrender our autonomy, our egos, our liberty, to one who will allow us to be whole in every way God desires for us. The true Messiah was an offense to the world because instead of taking power, he empowered, and instead of judging us, he loved us by bringing love to life in every expectant heart.
Everybody gets it backwards. In all times and places, people like us have been perplexed, miserable, uncertain, hassled and yearning for answers to their problems, inside and out. The trouble with us is that too often we yearn not for answers, but for THE answer, the Big Fix answer. And we want it delivered in such a fashion as to remove all doubt. That is the essence of every popular messiah, old or new, save one, the Lord Jesus. For Jesus seems to say to us, “There is no answer and I am it. I who refuse to solve your problems, am the solution to your problems. And if you believe this you will be able to solve your own problems. And furthermore you will become the solution to the world’s problems.”
The wisemen travel from someplace in the East that has no name. They follow a star which holds a promise of a new life for them. Traveling the deserts of the Middle East is no easy journey. It is not like riding to New York on Route 95. It is hot in the day. Cold at night. It is filled with dangers. It is easy to get lost or robbed. It is easy to give up. But on they come, step by step, trusting their future. They don’t know they are going to Bethlehem, nor do they know what they will find there. They are willing and ready to trust themselves to God. They travel with an openness to the future. If they had preconceived notions about how things were to be, then they never would have made it to that tiny Judean town. It was faith that allowed them to see a king in a poor peasant baby and they were right.
Herod was already a king. Herod was a magnificent builder. He had fine royal palaces. He had power and control. He was careful to keep things under his thumb. He would not allow anything to go awry from his plans even if he had to kill babies to do it. His
ego was so big and he worried so much about how others would see him, especially the Romans, that he was willing to do anything to keep control.
I think we tell this part of the story after Christmas because both Herod and the wisemen live in us. We want to be like the wisemen willing to stay the journey, to bring the gifts we have and give them to God, to find peace in our hearts, to worship the Lord of life, and to give God our lives in return for God’s holy love. Herod also lives in us. We want things to be our way. We want to blame others when things go wrong. We want to find fault to make ourselves look good. We want to control our lives and keep them hassle free from God or anybody else. And so we live the illusion that the future is now.
In marriages that are in trouble, it is so very easy to blame the other for the pain and the hurt. In parents who are aging and no longer able to care for themselves, it is easy to shut them away and go about our business. When our children do things that embarrass us, how often we are more concerned about how we feel than how they feel. Expectations, shame, guilt are the tools of Herod. Openness, faith and love are the tools of the wisemen. Which character do you think you want to be?
A couple I once new were having a heated disagreement over how to raise their son. It seems he liked the color pink. And he wanted a pink Barbie car for Christmas that he had seen on TV. This drove the father nutty. Deep down inside he was afraid that his 3 year old was already becoming a homosexual. He told the boy that pink was a girl’s color. He shouldn’t like pink.
The little boy told this to his Mommy who told him pink was like yellow or any other color, and it was fine to like pink. This precipitated the argument that brought them to me. Of course, pink was not the root of the trouble. But that mother said this to her husband. “This is my son. I will love him no matter what. He will always be my son. If he’s gay, he will still be my son. If he is a cross dresser, he is still my son. If he is successful which I pray he will be, I will love him. If he is not successful, I will love him even more. It doesn’t matter what the future holds. I cannot control that now. But who I am now will be who I will be then, his mother, and he will always know I love him no matter what.”
It takes a lot of courage to be a wise man or a wise woman. You have to take some risks. You have to walk into the future, the unknown, trusting God and following a star. You have to trust yourself and the way God loves you. And most of all you have to be willing to give yourself first to whatever is good, and holy, and lovely without worrying about the cost.
None of us can control our futures. The only thing we have is inside ourselves. New Year’s is a time of resolutions to do better in the year ahead. Mostly they are failed resolutions, doomed the moment we make them. Instead of making a ton of false promises, open your insides up to the presence of God. Epiphany, after all, is a showing forth and what you and I have to give each other and the world comes from God through us. That is a wonderful gift to bring. But we cannot do it like Herod trying to hold on to selfishness and our egos. We can only do it if we trust in the presence of God to rule our hearts and our lives which is not a very sane thing to do, like trusting a baby in a manager really is a Messiah.
Beginnings are always fearful. That is why we fear death, not because death is the end of something we know and love, but rather because it is a start, the beginning of something about which we know nothing. The end of one year, a decade, a millennia, a life a world, must mean the beginning of something new. At the heart of Christian life is God. This is the belief that God is the heart of all things and in Jesus Christ we have one who will stay with us in every end and every new beginning. He bids us to follow him across fearful boundaries and into the day that follows the night. “I am the Way and the Truth and Life,” he says. Our confidence in Jesus comes only when we give ourselves to God to whom we belong. The one whom angels greet and wise men and women in all ages and all places seek. One who feeds the hungry and gives courage to those who are weak. One who loves you beyond your wildest imagination.
Let Us Pray:
O Lord, sometimes we are not very good travelers through life. We lose our way so easily. We also lose sight of the star, because we stop looking up or in and only look around us to a very confused world. But we do have gifts to bring for you…our own gold and frankincense and myrrh.
We do want to get to Bethlehem and most important, we don’t want to miss it because we fear the Herod’s of this world or the Herod’s inside us. Help us to stay on the course and to not give up on You or us this year. Find us when we are lost. Remind us to look for the star when we cannot find your way. Finally, let us know and feel your love for us that draws us home to you.
In all times and circumstances we would be on the road to you and for you whether that road is on West Franklin Street, or in our hearts. Thank you, Jesus for Christmas. For light that shines in the darkness, for hope and most of all for your loving presence in our lives, each and everyone. Amen.