A Meditation on Matthew 2
Sunday, September 26, 2021
The Community Church of Durham
Just imagine the courage, the wonder, imagine the curiosity in the hearts of these wise elders, these magi, as they leave home (and all that is familiar) to seek out the Beloved. That’s what I want for you and me. That’s what I want for the church. That kind of courage. That kind of wonder.
It’s not just a Christmas carol, this old tale; it’s not just a comforting tableau in December. It’s a celebration of spiritual courage and curiosity, I think; and an invitation for us, an invitation for you and me. Will we embrace our own journeys into unknown lands, on unmarked trails? Will we wander off the map and into the wide, wide, wide expanse of God’s grace? I want us to hear that question: Will we wander off the map and into the wide expanse of God’s grace? Courage and curiosity.
It seems to me this is where the church is at in 2021. Where the whole mainline Protestant community is at in 2021. Maybe the religious enterprise as a whole. The old maps have done us a lot of good. The old maps have charted important terrain and marked significant channels and served us and the world well, well—some of the time. Around some of the issues. But we might have to wander out of old worlds now, and into new ones, in order to see God’s face and taste God’s spirit and serve the Baby Christ in the manger. We might have to risk discomfort and uncertainty. And after all, this is what faith is. This is what faith does.
So these wise elders, they leave their settled lives behind, with no guarantees, their settled lives and their predictable positions of privilege and their comfortable theological notions and systems too. No guarantees. They seem to sense, to wonder, to believe even: that the God of Creation, the God of all the Universe, the God of Love is doing a wildly wonderful and surprisingly new thing in the world. Does that make sense to you? The God of Love is doing a wildly wonderful and surprisingly new thing in the world.
That’s the spirit of Early Advent. That’s where the energy comes from in an Advent people! And that’s why you leave your homes in the East, your beautiful gardens in the desert, your festive temples in spiritual communities you love—that’s why you look to the stars in the night sky for guidance and seek out a baby from a completely foreign culture, from a wholly other tradition, from some place you’ve never seen or imagined. Because you believe—somehow you believe (maybe even in spite of the evidence)—that the God you love is doing a wildly wonderful and surprisingly new thing in the world. These elders, they are extraordinary pilgrims. And we need them now. We need their courage, their curiosity, their wonder now.
And here, in the first pages of Matthew’s story, they remind you and me of the wisdom and wonder available to us—on our own journeys of discovery and discipleship. We’re not bereft, we’re not impoverished, we are remarkably blessed. There are sacred stories to inspire us, and there are sweet streams to nourish us, and there are stars in the night sky to coax us along, to show us the way. Yes, we’ll wander off the old maps, and yes, we’ll miss the old landmarks and some of the old, comforting certainties: but there’s a Light shining on you, and a Light shining on me, and by that Light we’ll find our way. It may get pretty dark sometimes, but the Light’s going to find us. And by that Light, we’ll find our way.
And when the Light slows, and lingers, and dances over Bethlehem, these wise elders, these magi, are overwhelmed with joy. This is right out of the text. When was the last time you were “overwhelmed with joy”? Before you leave this morning, after we sing that closing hymn, I want you to find somebody and tell them about a time you were overwhelmed with joy. We should tell those stories in a place like this. We should talk about our joy in a place like this. We should risk being overwhelmed by joy in a place like this. Watching my daughters dance, I am overwhelmed by joy. Eating the perfect falafel, I am overwhelmed by joy.
Just as importantly, I am overwhelmed by joy so often among you here: partnering with an Open & Affirming Church, resisting bigotry and prejudice, growing with gay and lesbian friends, building a beloved community, praising God for the earth, finding God in forgiveness—I am truly and wonderfully overwhelmed by joy. I think you know what I mean. When Kristin tells me about a teenager who’s found at church the space to come out and be proud, or the strength to stand up for a cause, or the tenderness to be a good friend—I am truly and wonderfully overwhelmed by joy. When I see an elder weeping through one of Catherine’s stunning musical offerings—I am truly and wonderfully overwhelmed by joy. We should name these experiences, call out these visions in a place like this. It’s okay to be overwhelmed by joy.
There’s so much to love about this morning’s story—and it’s revealing to read it in September every once in a while. But I love this idea that Jesus is a sign of God’s intent in the universe and God’s intention for the universe. Not just for some, but for all. Not just for humans, but for the universe. Not just for one tradition, or one religion, but for every tradition and for every religion. When the Light lingers and dances over Bethlehem, the joy of life finds pilgrims from the east just as easily as it finds believers in the west. When the Light lingers and dances over Bethlehem, the love of Christ draws into its orbit of delight peoples of all nations, tongues and races. When the Light lingers and dances over Bethlehem, God breaks down every dividing wall and dismantles every barrier and invites us to create a bright, beautiful and beloved community where all are one and all are well together.
And I think that’s why the elders kneel down and worship him. That’s why they open their treasure-chests and empty out their treasure chests and give Jesus everything they have, and all the hope in their hearts, and all the wonder and love they’ve gathered up on their extraordinary journey. Because the God of Love breaks down every dividing wall, and dismantles every barrier to communion, and invites us to create communities of love and wellness together.
Now the last thing to say about this particular story is that there’s a very real presence of danger in this story. Odd, but so true. When we truly and fully worship God in Christ—to the point these wonderfully wise elders do—Herod is threatened. The empires of the world are threatened. The keepers of the status quo are threatened. You heard this too. Herod lies left and right. Herod’s not interested in worshipping the child. Herod’s concern is empire, the consolidation of his power and Rome’s might. And that puts Jesus—and the little beloved community he’ll form around his teaching—in a dangerous spot.
You see, right from the start, out of the gate, in the little manger itself, Jesus challenges tired notions of brute power, entitled patriarchy and shame. It doesn’t have to be this way. God intends for communion and celebration and blessing on the face of the earth. God creates human communities—like this one—to imagine and enact such blessing, and such justice, and such communion on the face of the earth.
And Herod knows that this undermines his project, and dangerously so. Herod knows that Jesus’ life, that Jesus’ teaching will contradict his kingdom and Rome’s empire at every turn. So I just want to set that out there. Because along the way, we’ll have to come to terms with the risks of our faith: the challenges we face in speaking truth to power, and freeing the captives from their prisons and their ankle bracelets, and embracing forgiveness as the one true path to healing and reconciliation.
But maybe that’s a topic for another day. Today, the Word of God is wonder and joy. Today, the Word of God is a tiny child in a makeshift cradle in an out-of-the-way manger. And today, we worship that child, we linger in wonder and joy, and then we set out to follow him. Off the map, on into the wide expanse of God’s grace. Because that’s where the Light is, that’s where the Light goes, and that’s where we know that all will be well.
Amen and Ashe