a prayer for the new year
Creator God, the year turns, and we find ourselves uncertain which way to look…
Back, at the blessings you have bestowed upon us—
friends and family,
wonderful summer weather,
beautiful music and theatre,
times for fun and laughter,
new things learned and old habits put away,
the gift of your presence,
celebrations of life and love.
We give thanks for all that has been.
Or perhaps we look back in another direction, at all we have lost—
friends we have said goodbye to,
illness or pain that stole our joy,
news that hit too close to home,
worries about livelihoods and about children and about church and about the world.
We pray for healing of our brokenness,
for the comfort of your care to smooth the rough places
and for your light to shine through the cracks.
Or should we look forward, God?
Behold, you are doing a new thing…
we anticipate with wonder that the best is yet to be.
As the old year gives way to the new,
we long for the peace and justice of your kingdom.
We pray that children of every place may grow up with enough food and water and love,
that violence may at last come to an end,
that our leaders might seek the good of all,
that this might be the year when light outshines shadows.
Give us courage to trust you,
to put our hand in yours and walk forward into the unknown with hope.
As we stand at the gate of the year,
looking backward and forward,
remind us also to look inward and outward,
to seek your kingdom first of all.
Remind us that we can see your image in every face,
that you have made us your family, together,
that this world belongs to you and we are its caretakers,
and that there is a still more excellent way—the way of love, faith, and hope.
May this be the year, O God, that all people see your glory together.
We pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
—Rev. Teri Peterson, St. John’s Church of Scotland, Gourock
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.
Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.
When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
SERMON: ‘A TALE OF THREE EPIPHANIES’
I know there may be some concerns about my mental acuity, owing to my recent concussion. And I appreciate those concerns, but let me state this clearly: my traumatic brain injury is in no way related to the fact that I’m about to give a three-point sermon. I know it might seem like some kind of regression, or lapse, or a sign of theological instability. I know that I’ve renounced three-point sermons, many times, over many years. I know that this is like Croghan coding on a Gateway. I know that this is like Ali baking with margarine. Or like Doug mixing tiki drinks with Captain Morgan and Coca-Cola. But I’m okay, really.
I thought a lot about this, spent about one day deliberating, worried about the fallout of a three-point sermon. What might happen on social media? What if there are informants from Emergent Village? What if I get kidnapped by the United Methodist Church?
But I must press on.
If it helps, you can consider this three-point sermon to be ironic, or irenic, or an inverse commentary on the current state of homiletics.
Oh, also, as long as I’m being unconventionally conventional:
This sermon also has a title: A tale of three epiphanies.
- Epiphany #1. The powers-that-be can be corrupt.
I know, this may come as a surprise to many of you. Or perhaps not. You’re smart, worldly folks. You didn’t just fall off the turnip truck.
But you know who missed this? Ironically, the Wise Men. They are wise— it’s right in their name! But they seem to have missed this fundamental point. They were too gullible.
So, to review: Just because someone is in charge, doesn’t mean they are good.
Just because someone is on the side of the law doesn’t make them correct.
Just because something is legal doesn’t make it right, or fair.
Politics can be dirty. Things are not always as they seem.
Herod is the legal ruler of Jerusalem. He is half-Jew, half Idumean. He is a convert to the religion of the Jews. He is a great builder of infrastructure and a shrewd diplomat with the Romans as well as the Jews.
…He is walking this tricky line like a boss. But one way he accomplishes this is through the oppressive taxes and conscripted labor he puts on the Jews.
His work takes a personal toll on him though— he’s paranoid about others trying to grab his political power. So paranoid that he infamously has some of his sons and wives killed, fearing a takeover.
This story in Matthew 2 highlights some of these kinds of conniving, scheming.
It’s perhaps 1 or even 2 years since the birth of Jesus, and the text tells us that Jesus and his family are now living in a house.
(Sorry about your inflatable nativity sitting in the front yard, but it’s anachronistic. The Wise Guys didn’t visit the stable or barn or wherever Jesus was born. Furthermore, they go to meet a Jesus who is perhaps talking or walking. )
Herod hears from these travelers from the East that there is a newborn King of the Jews. This is news to Herod, and he is frightened. Though he hides his ignorance, and his fears.
Apparently, he sends the Wise Men to the Red Roof Inn, then tries to save face…
2:4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
2:5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
2:6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”
With this information in hand, Herod secretly summons the travelers from the East, because the variable that Herod is missing is *time*. When was this baby born?
Once he gets the timeframe, the real deception begins…
v. 8 contains a bald-faced lie.
2:8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
If Herod really was a convert to Judaism, he too would want to honor this special child. But things are not what they seem.
If we peek ahead we can see that Herod will eventually order the killing of all Bethlehem boys 2 years old and younger. This forces Jesus and his family to be refugees, escaping to Egypt for several years. They don’t return until Herod is dead.
So. Yeah… Epiphany #1. The powers-that-be can be corrupt.
I was talking to a CTer the other day, and they were sharing their struggle at finding a religious community to attend. The situation is complicated because certain denominations have become aligned with certain questionable foreign governments.
Their apologetic comment was: “I know we should have a wall between church and state, but it’s complicated…”
My comment: “We shouldn’t mix politics and religion, but sometimes they come pre-mixed.” …and that combination can be toxic.
So beware. We shouldn’t be paranoid, but we shouldn’t be naive either. The powers-that-be can be dangerous. Politicians usually deal in power, not justice. So be careful.
As Son Lux sings, “I’m a believer, but I’m not a fool”.
As a grown-up Jesus later taught, “Be innocent as doves, and savvy as serpents.”
2. Epiphany #2. God works in surprising ways.
Again, it might not be surprising to all of you sophisticated folks, you worldly people who always expect the unexpected. But there is a deeply subversive aspect to this text that we might miss in our over-familiarity with it.
(Sort of like the way we commonly refer to generous people “Good Samaritans,” a phrase that would have originally been an oxymoron— a contradiction in terms. To the original audience, ‘Samaritan’ was an insult. Samaritans are not good! )
The Magi seem like the heroes, and they are. But their heroism would be a bitter pill to swallow for the original audience of this story. Because they are the ‘wrong kind of people’. Not holy, not proper, not in the club, not there for the right reasons. They are interlopers, foreigners, Johnny-come-latelies.
Here’s the truth that’s hard to take:
God reveals Godself to irreligious people… or perhaps more accurately and offensively, God reveals Godself to improperly religious people.
Let’s look again at these travelers. They are Wise Men. Also known as Magi, which is to say that they are interested in some of the dark arts.
Astrology, numerology, paganism.
And they are from far away, places that burn in the memory, nations that have made war against Israel, and enslaved Israelites, and burned their cities to the ground. You couldn’t say ‘Persia’ or ‘Babylonia’ without your blood going cold.
To put it mildly, these are not the right kind of people.
And yet, and yet, in this story we see illumination and revelation for unexpected persons. Which is a kind of epiphany for the religious people at that time.
God reveals Godself to people of pagan religions, and in fact THROUGH pagan religious practices. That’s not in the Religious Persons Playbook. Nope.
One of our Xmas gifts came late via UPS, and I was talking to the kids about where it came from. Some country abbreviated ‘ZEN’.
One of the younger kids suggested, ‘Xenophobia’? A word she no doubt learned at CT.
Xenophobia is a real thing, not a place. But yeah, you might say that the Magi came from the land of Xenophobia.
We’re hopefully not so close-minded, but we can surprise ourselves. We might unwittingly have adopted the notion that we need political leaders of a certain ethnicity, or background, or sexual orientation. We say to ourselves, “Once [x persons] are in power, then our problems will be solved!” Meanwhile, some rich, white old corporatist senator from some backward, evil state actually does justice and promotes mercy… though we have a hard time seeing it, and if we do notice we have a hard time giving them credit.
The Wise Men can look pretty misguided, but the joke is on the reader.
Because they are the conduit of God’s revelation in spite of their background
…or maybe because of it!
There are several wonderful reversals in this story:
>> the most powerful person in the story is in fact weak… shamefully weak.
…and petty, vindictive, spiteful, jealous, and scared.
>> the one born in obscurity and poverty is, in fact, a King.
>> the one born illegitimately is in fact legitimate… and the political powers are not legitimate.
God works in surprising ways. God does it all the time.
When you see it happen, be careful to not be on the wrong side of the lesson! When you see it happen, do your best to be pleasantly surprised, not shocked or bothered. Celebrate it.
It’s one of those times in life when you feel like God is chuckling as he gets to the punchline.
Epiphany #2. God works in surprising ways.
3. Epiphany #3. Sometimes you need to go home by another way.
These men are wise, but even as Herod is playing them, and manipulating them, they don’t see it. In fact, it takes a bit of Deus ex Machina to open their eyes.
2:12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
They’ve been anything but wise… they’ve been caught up in the middle of a conspiracy to kill a bunch of babies, and they’ve been completely unaware.
We might rightly call them, simple. Unaware. Naive.
And it’s really interesting how they redeem themselves.
In the end, they see what’s happened (granted, with a little outside help), and they see how they’ve contributed to this massive problem.
And what they don’t do is go back to yell at Herod, or take some huge stand, or call a press conference, or start a protest, or call in an airstrike from Persia or Babylonia, or trade their Myrrh for a mace and kick some butt.
What do they do?
They realize that bad stuff is afoot… they have their Epiphany, and in the end they simply sidestep and go home by another way. They just leave.
Epiphany #3. Sometimes you need to go home by another way.
Discussion: What ‘other road’ will you take in 2019?
(I have my own misgivings about ‘resolutions’, so feel free to share something else. And if you’d rather not share, we have some art supplies for you to express your new pathways for the new year.)
the future is bright
and dangers lie ahead
but your fears will kill you
so be innocent as doves, and savvy as serpents
be a believer, but not a fool
Go with God.